Inquirer Super

Talking to ‘The Lovebirds’ Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani

By: Pam Pastor

Paramount Pictures’ “The Lovebirds” made history as the first 2020 film that was pulled from theaters and sold to a streamer because of the coronavirus. The pandemic got in the way of its April 3 theatrical release and so the comedy, which stars Kumail Nanjiani (“The Big Sick,” “Silicon Valley”) and Issa Rae (“The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” “Insecure”), went straight to Netflix where it began streaming on May 22. 

“Obviously, we were disappointed but there are bigger problems in the world,” said Issa in a Zoom interview with journalists from the Philippines and Singapore. “We’re super excited that Netflix decided to release our movie, especially given the competition out there. There’s so many other movies that got lost from our festival South by Southwest and that are still looking for homes so it feels like a huge honor that we were able to get this released and people can enjoy the movie and laugh in the comfort of their own home.”

And people are laughing. As of this writing, it’s the No. 1 movie in the United States. 

In “The Lovebirds,” the funny, funny Issa and Kumail play Leilani and Jibran, a couple who, on a night out, find themselves entangled in a strange crime. They go on the run and realize that, to clear their name, they’re going to have to solve the murder-mystery themselves. 

“It was exciting to be able to work on a straight comedy with a comedic talent that I really really admire,” Issa said. “I think that was what drew me to it—this is supposed to be an outright funny movie with a relatable couple at the center.” 

Kumail said, “I like the idea of really exploring a couple that’s been stuck in a rut. Usually the movie ends when the couple gets together. This is what happens after the couple has been together for four years and now they’re fighting to stay together.”

Issa added, “It wasn’t until later that I realized, oh wait, this is an interracial couple that we don’t see often onscreen.”

“Obviously, race is a huge factor in everyone’s lives, especially in America,” said Kumail. “I’m not looking for any roles that completely ignore what I am, what I look like, what I sound like and where I’m from, you know . . . but there’s a spectrum. In this movie, we don’t ignore our race but I wouldn’t say the movie is about two people of color, living in America.”

Fantastic chemistry

Kumail and Issa have fantastic chemistry. “I feel like we connected right away. That dynamic developed very quickly. It helps that I was such a fan of hers and I felt like right from the beginning that we wanted to make the exact same kind of movie,” Kumail said.

While the movie has fun car chases and big slapstick moments, we found the most delight in the couple’s more grounded moments—whether they’re arguing or plotting to get themselves out of yet another sticky situation. We’d gladly to pay to watch Jibran and Leilani sit in that diner and talk all day.

Another joy is watching them interact with the strange characters they meet as their crazy night goes on (and we don’t even mean the members of that masked sex cult). Issa said, “I love Anna Camp (who plays Edie). I think she’s so so funny. Her and Kyle (Bornheimmer, who plays Brett)  were a great duo and were just super game. It was a lot of fun.”Kumail said, “Everybody’s so funny in it but Catherine Cohen, the hipster who finds the body and calls 911 is so funny. She’s really funny in the movie but there was a lot of other stuff she did that I just loved watching.”

Nail the comedy

Michael Showalter, who Kumail also worked with on “The Big Sick,” directed the the film. “Mike is someone who could really nail the comedy, but isn’t afraid of the emotional moments. It’s a pretty unique combination that you don’t get in a lot of filmmakers,” said Kumail.

The director encouraged improv, said Kumail. “We would try new things in every single scene and I would be surprised if there’s any scene that doesn’t have improv in it.”It was Issa who encouraged Kumail to grow a beard for his role as Jibran. We asked, did she do that just so she could use the line “look at your murderous beard” on Jibran? The two laughed. 

“That’s a long game,” Issa said.

Kumail replied, “It’s a good line, though, it’s a good line.”

“I definitely didn’t set him up for that. I love the beard and it pained me to not compliment it. Yeah, it suits him,” Issa said. A journalist asked Kumail: Which director would he want to work with so much that he’d willingly shave off his body hair including his eyebrows? Kumail laughed and said, “Well, listen, I would shave all my body hair off for a bunch of directors. David Fincher, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Greta Gerwig. I mean there’s a lot of directors that I would shave everything off for, I can’t think of a director I wouldn’t shave everything off for, honestly.”

Shooting in New Orleans

Issa enjoyed shooting in New Orleans. “Spending a month and a half in one of the best food cities in the world was an absolute treat and it’s a wonder that I didn’t gorge every single day. It was a beautiful city. It’s a festive city.”

Kumail added, “I love New Orleans. I was just missing it recently. I’ve been thinking about it a bunch because we’re talking about this movie. Hopefully we can go back soon.”Kumail and Issa are quarantined in their homes in Los Angeles. Kumail said, “Some days I find myself being able to write and some days I can’t. We’re working on season two of ‘Little America’ so I’ve been pretty productive with that.”Issa said, “I’ve had moments where I’ve just been like, ‘Yeah let me just sit in front of the computer and get it done.’ But then of course there are moments where it’s like, ‘Oh, the world is going to sh*t, what’s the point of it all, anyway?’”

Optimistic

But she’s been feeling more optimistic these days, she said, with the “Insecure” team being back in the writers room for the show’s fifth season. “We’re really all at home looking at the screen, but it’s social and we’re laughing for most of the day so it feels good. But our show is based on being out and about in LA so we’re also considering what that looks like.”The two have also been watching movies and shows—with Kumail having accidental thematic weeks (“Like the classics that I never got to see or a bunch of dumb horror movies . . . now I’m in the most highbrow arty movie phase.”) and Issa finding comfort in TV shows. “I want to be immersed in a world for a long period of time. I just want to be with characters for longer than usual,“ she said.Do they have tips for couples whose relationships are being tested by the quarantine? 

 Kumail said, “This has been true even before the pandemic—communication between a couple is the most important thing. When a relationship isn’t going right, I think that’s usually the problem. A relationship is never done, it’s always evolving because each person in the relationship is always growing and changing. The only way to do that is through communication. If you don’t, resentment can really grow.”

Issa said, “I think this is an actual test of relationships and you can come out of this stronger or you can decide ‘this wasn’t for me,’ and that’s okay.” 

“I think sometimes we see the end of a relationship as a failure. It’s not. Sometimes relationships should end,” Kumail added.

‘Amazing Race’

One of the things Leilani and Jibran argued about in the movie is if they could win “The Amazing Race” together. A journalist asked—do they think they could win the race with their significant other?

Kumail said, “I think my wife Emily (Gordon) and I would do well. We’re good at problem solving together. And I think the big key is we freak out at different times. When there’s a catastrophe, I freak out immediately and then I’m okay, and she’s okay in the moment and then she freaks out. 

Our freak-outs are coordinated, they’re not synchronized, so I think that’s why we will do okay.”

Issa said, “I think that I’m as a partner generally a big cheerleader, and I think that that’s valuable, but beyond that I’m pretty useless.”

Perhaps Kumail would do well in “The Amazing Race” or any other race, for that matter. He has been looking way more jacked lately—he was even on the cover of the March issue of Men’s Health magazine. Kumail, who plays Kingo Sunen in Marvel’s “The Eternals” which is currently in postproduction, worked really hard on getting those muscles. “I would say I’m about 30-percent less interesting now but it’s a fair trade,” he joked. “Honestly there has been a mental change and I wish this wasn’t true but I do feel a lot less anxious, I sleep better. I deal with stress a lot better . . . It’s just how I saw this character. I’m playing this first like Pakistani superhero in the Marvel movie and it was important to me that he looked like someone who could hang with Thor or Captain America or any of those other people who’ve gotten traditionally to be superheroes in big Hollywood movies. I just wanted to look like someone who could hang with those guys.”