Los Angeles Times
Chippendales. The name conjures up either visions of finely crafted furniture or gyrating men in G-strings, depending on your point of reference. Hulu’s true-crime limited series “Welcome to Chippendales” focuses on the latter as it recounts the rise of America’s first successful all-male strip revue for women — and the downfall of the unlikely mastermind behind the show’s success, Somen “Steve” Banerjee.
Kumail Nanjiani plays the Mumbai native who emigrated in the 1970s to Los Angeles, where he bought a failing Westside bar on Overland Avenue. There the former gas station attendant launched a “Male Exotic Dance Night for Ladies Only.” He inexplicably named it Chippendales. The first of its kind, the hard-bodied strip spectacle blossomed into a national empire replete with hunk-of-the-month calendars and lucrative dance tours. But the fun ended when Banerjee was charged with orchestrating the 1987 murder of the strip show’s former choreographer, Nick De Noia (played by Murray Bartlett). Sentenced to 26 years in prison, Banerjee was found dead in his cell in 1994 of an apparent suicide.
Nominated for five Primetime Emmys, including for Nanjiani and Bartlett, “Welcome to Chippendales” chronicles Banerjee’s fish-out-of-water journey through campy 1980s L.A., with all its hedonism, glitz and rampant cocaine use. “It’s a fascinating way to look at the American dream and how it’s sold to people outside of America,” Nanjiani says. “I remember growing up in Pakistan in the ’80s, and the image we had in our head was that America had streets paved with gold and everyone is equal. If you work really hard you can make it, but obviously that’s not true. To have Banerjee negotiate the fantasy version of it with the reality was really interesting to me.”
Leg warmers, big hair and short shorts (on men) animate this gripping eight-part series from Robert Siegel (“Pam & Tommy”), capturing a time when anything goes — as long as it made money. Though it’s a period drama, Nanjiani argues that many of the series themes resonate today. “The version of success (Banerjee) had in his head was very white and very corporate: No company is ever the right size because the only right size is bigger than it was yesterday,” he says by phone just before the actors’ strike was launched.
“It’s the moment we’re in right now, where all these streamers need to keep growing, but eventually you run out of places to grow. Steve embodies that mind-set. It’s never enough for him. He is very successful, but he’s been completely corrupted by what he sees around him. Chippendales is huge. He created this thing out of nothing and it’s an international sensation, but it’s not enough.”
Calling attention to characters who might otherwise blend in with the wallpaper is Nanjiani’s superpower. His notable roles include tech nerd Dinesh in HBO’s comedy series “Silicon Valley” and the love-struck Uber driver in the film “The Big Sick.” The cosmic-powered Kingo in Marvel’s “The Eternals” is another story … . But here on Earth, the role of the brilliant, socially awkward Banerjee was perhaps his most challenging to date.
The lurid story behind the burlesque show captivated the actor when he read the script in 2017, but he grappled with how to portray the unremarkableness of his character amid the club’s screaming flamboyance. He found the answer while looking through old photos from the club’s heyday.
“It was from a photo shoot of all these Adonises and (choreographer) Nick, and then this guy who just looked very different from them,” Nanjiani says. “He was the boss of people who would otherwise never allow him to be part of their group. To play him, I wanted his physicality to be in opposition to everyone around him. Everyone is very fabulous and graceful and in touch with their bodies. I thought he should be the opposite. He’s completely cut off from everything below his neck.”
The series, which has also earned a nomination for its period costumes, plays up the outlandish wardrobe of the club’s dancers and the cringey 1980s styles of its patrons. Banerjee’s wardrobe is quiet in comparison, which spoke volumes to Nanjiani. “Honestly, when I did my first fitting in those suits, I felt like I really understood the character,” he says. “Everyone else in the show is so in touch with themselves, but he’s really stiff and really cut off from himself. He has all this emotion inside of him: anger, of course, but mostly his fear and sadness. Every molecule in his body is fighting to keep that from getting out. Because if he lets go for a second, all his molecules are going to blow apart.”
Soon enough, a dispute over touring rights of the massively successful show caused a rift between Banerjee and De Noia. Increasingly paranoid that he was going to lose his empire, Banerjee decided De Noia had to be removed and hired a hitman to take the choreographer out. De Noia was shot to death in his New York office in April 1987. Banerjee hid his crime well, but he wasn’t done. Believing he’d gotten away with murder, he then plotted to kill three former Chippendales performers who had joined a competing dance troupe. That poisoning scheme was foiled when the FBI got involved and arrested Banerjee in 1993.
“In the beginning, he’s very focused and ambitious, and that is why you want him to succeed,” Nanjiani says. “But it’s those very same qualities that lead him to do all this bad stuff. The ways in which he changes are not as significant as the ways in which he doesn’t change. That’s what leads him down the path of destruction. That’s the tragedy of the story.”
Nanjiani has stretched as an actor since his roots as a stand-up comedian in Chicago’s club circuit. He got his first big break in 2009 when a series he was writing for and starring in, “Michael & Michael Have Issues,” was picked up by Comedy Central. From there he appeared in “The Colbert Report” and other shows across multiple networks, including “Veep.” He landed “Silicon Valley” in 2014, which launched his career to new levels. Three years later Nanjiani starred in his own self-made romantic comedy “The Big Sick,” which he wrote with his wife, Emily V. Gordon. The film was nominated for an original screenplay Oscar. The couple later co-developed the charming AppleTV+ anthology series “Little America,” shining a light on the immigrant experience through the re-creation of true stories. It was 2021 when Nanjiani became part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Nanjiani counts himself lucky. “It’s very easy in this industry to get put into a box,” he says. “Obviously, if you’re not white, you get put into a box, but also it’s an industry that likes to classify [all] performers. This person can play a nerd. This person can play an action star. It’s allergic to taking risks and having true imagination and vision when it comes to casting. So it is challenging.
“My priority has been to do different types of things and stuff that is difficult for me because I find that more satisfying. I always want to take on a job that allows me to go at least 10% further than I’ve ever gone before. I want to read a script and say, ‘I don’t exactly know how I’m going to do this, but I want to figure it out.’ Figuring it out is the fun part.”