How A Medically Induced Coma Led To Love, Marriage And The Oscar-Nominated 'Big Sick'

Feb 16, 2018
Originally published on February 20, 2018 8:56 am
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. "The Big Sick," a romantic comedy film about two young people involved in a fairly unusual type of love story, already has scored a couple of awards this season, including the American Film Institute award for movie of the year, and its up for an Academy award next month for best original screenplay.

The screenplay was written by today's guests, comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani, who stars in the film, and comedy writer Emily V. Gordon. The movie is based on their own relationship and a health crisis Emily Gordon went through. Kumail Nanjiani, who grew up in Pakistan, is perhaps best known for his role as Dinesh in the HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley." Emily V. Gordon was a practicing psychotherapist for about six years before becoming a comedy writer. She wrote for the sitcom "The Jerrod Carmichael Show." Terry spoke with them last year when "The Big Sick" was released.

In the film, which is set in Chicago, as he and Emily begin seeing each other and falling in love, Kumail's parents still expect that he will enter into a traditional arranged marriage. Rather than hurt his parents and risk being cut off from his family, he keeps his relationship with Emily a secret. Meanwhile, Emily is diagnosed with a life-threatening infection that requires her to be put in a medically induced coma. Emily's parents and Kumail spend time together at the hospital sizing each other up as they worry about Emily. The coma may sound like a fictional contrivance, but it really happened. Let's start with an early scene from "The Big Sick" in which Kumail and Emily first meet. He's just done a set at a small comedy club. He walks to the bar where he sees the woman who yelled out a woo-hoo during his set.

That woman is Emily, who in the film is played by Zoe Kazan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BIG SICK")

KUMAIL NANJIANI: (As Kumail) Hi.

ZOE KAZAN: (As Emily) Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Hello.

NANJIANI: (As Kumail) My name's Kumail.

KAZAN: (As Emily, laughter) Yeah, we know.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Yeah, we saw you perform.

NANJIANI: (As Kumail) Now that the niceties are out of the way, I have to tell you that when you yelled at me, it really threw me off. And you really shouldn't heckle comedians. It's so rude.

KAZAN: (As Emily) I didn't heckle you. I just woo-hooed (ph) you. It's supportive.

NANJIANI: (As Kumail) OK, that's a common misconception. But yelling anything at a comedian is considered heckling. Heckling doesn't have to be negative.

KAZAN: (As Emily) So if I yelled out, like, you're amazing in bed, that'd be a heckle?

NANJIANI: (As Kumail) Yeah, it would be an accurate heckle.

KAZAN: (As Emily) Cool.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Goodbye.

NANJIANI: (As Kumail) Oh. Now you can...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) I'm going. I'm going.

KAZAN: (As Emily) You scared my friend off now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the film. So you both write comedy, but your life isn't a comedy. So you've turned a difficult period of your life into comedy, the period when Emily was in a medically induced coma. So how did you go about trying to find the comedy there - you know, because you still manage to keep it as a comedy even during the rough periods like that period of the film.

EMILY V. GORDON: I think part of what helps is that because we had been through it, anything that we wrote that was kind of added, you know, fictionalized parts or added new scenes, we knew the emotional truth of what happened. And we knew that we didn't want to disrespect what actually happened and the seriousness of the kind of being in a medically induced coma.

So I think that helped us just as a mindset to go and not kind of writing anything that would have felt disrespectful or off-base or kind of off-color for the movie.

NANJIANI: Yeah. And I would say, you know, generally, comedy is a person in trouble. It's a person dealing with a situation that they're ill-equipped to handle. And we knew that the real-life event, no matter how traumatic, was basically us, me and her parents, dealing with an event that we weren't equipped to handle, which is the person we're all in love with being very, very ill.

So we knew that the general construction of it could be comedic. We just had to figure out specifically how could we make it a comedy without losing the reality level of a very young woman being very ill.

GROSS: Emily, would you explain why you were in a medically induced coma?

GORDON: Yes, absolutely. I had been sick for a little while and people kept telling me I had the flu, I had pneumonia, I was having panic attacks. None of that kind of seemed right to me.

NANJIANI: But you weren't having panic attacks. They thought you were.

GORDON: No, I certainly was not. That's what I'm saying. They kept - every time I went in, they were diagnosing me with something different. And all I knew is that I just felt quite awful, and I couldn't seem to catch my breath. So by the time I went to the doctor - and they decided to admit me to the hospital because my breathing was so unstable that they wanted to kind of check me out in a hospital.

And by the time I got there, my breathing was so unstable, as was my heart rate, that the only thing they could do to kind of keep me safe and kind of keep my vitals stabilized was to put me on a respirator. And you should not be on a respirator while you are conscious. So that was why they put me in a medically induced coma.

NANJIANI: Yeah, they had to take pressure off of Emily's body. So they would put some of the vital functions on machines so that her body wasn't taxed. I remember when I got to the hospital, Emily was in the E.R. And I went in, and I was talking to her. And the nurse came in. And the nurse - first thing she said to - she was holding reports and she said to me - or to Emily she said, oh, you're a very sick girl.

And I was like, what does that mean? She doesn't really look that sick.

GROSS: Kumail, did you talk to her while she was in coma?

NANJIANI: Yeah. The nurse actually really encouraged us to talk to her because they said that she could hear. So we would talk to her pretty often, her parents and I. We would sort of keep her updated and just tell her what was happening in the news and what was happening with, like, celebrity gossip and stuff so...

GROSS: (Laughter).

GORDON: I really appreciated that.

NANJIANI: Yeah. We would talk to her all the time. I think I ran some jokes by her.

GORDON: Did not get a good response.

NANJIANI: Not a good response.

GROSS: (Laughter) And, Emily, so people were assuming - like, your parents, Kumail, were assuming that maybe you could hear them, even though you were in a coma. So they would talk to you so that you would know that they were there and be comforted by that. Did you know that they were there? Could you hear them? Do you have any memory of hearing them?

GORDON: I absolutely do. I think - and, you know, I think it's partially because I was in a medically induced coma, so I don't know what it's like for other people. But I was very well aware that both Kumail and my parents were there in the room with me. I had no - I could kind of hear snatches of what they were saying.

I had constructed an elaborate backstory for my plight that involved Kumail being sick. I thought Kumail was in a hospital and that I was visiting him. So I clearly had some level of awareness of what was happening. But I...

NANJIANI: It was, like, this extended dream you were having.

GORDON: Yeah, which, to me, I thought it was only, like, a day or two long. I didn't really have a sense of time so much. But I was - my brain was trying to make sense of things. So I could definitely hear them. Not the entire time, but I could hear them.

NANJIANI: Once she was out, we were talking about it a few weeks later. And she was talking about the doctor - actually, no, she was still in the hospital. But she'd been awake, and she was pretty lucid by this point. And she was telling about - she was like, where's the doctor with the sticky candy hands? And that happened because, you know, she had all this tape on her and she was getting prodded with needles.

So even while she was in the coma, she could feel people sort of putting sticky tape on her. And so she, in her dream state, had this doctor who had, you know, sticky candy hands.

GORDON: Jolly Rancher - they were Jolly Rancher hands. I didn't think he was a real person. I wasn't asking if he was around. I - in my head, I just had - one of my doctors had Jolly Rancher hands in my head.

GROSS: You know what this is reminding me of? You know in "The Wizard of Oz" when Dorothy's in a - you know, basically a coma and she has this whole elaborate fantasy about Oz that she's dreaming until she gets out of the coma and the people in real life are the models for the characters and Oz?

GORDON: Yeah. And you were there, and you were there.

GROSS: Exactly (laughter). And sticky hands, you were there.

(LAUGHTER)

NANJIANI: Exactly right. That's exactly right.

GROSS: So you know, I've always wanted to ask this to someone. Emily, what's it like when you come out of coma? Like what - what's the first feeling that you have?

GORDON: I was pretty out of it for the first couple of days. And I remember being just incredibly confused. And not super proud to admit this - my confusion led to kind of frustration and anger. I was quite angry because it seemed like everyone around me was very, very happy. We actually - this ended up in the movie. Everyone around me was so excited, and I was, like, guys, something awful has happened to me. Why are you guys so excited? But they had been dealing with something much worse happening to me and were excited that I was now conscious, whereas I was just catching up to what had been happening. So I was, like, furious and kind of crying all the time. A lot of strangers were coming in the room to, like, tell me how excited they were that I was awake. And I just - I was not (laughter) - I did not greet them with the most - I was not the most gracious human being, I'll say, at the beginning.

And so it took me a little while to kind of get comfortable with what had happened to me. I just needed time to catch up. I also had very little short-term memory, so they basically had to tell me everyday for a couple of days that I had been in a coma, which I was unaware of every single time. So it was really pretty overwhelming. And traumatic is maybe a little too strong a word, but it was a little - it was a lot of catching up to do.

NANJIANI: I think describing a medically induced coma as traumatic isn't overstating it.

(LAUGHTER)

NANJIANI: I think that might be an appropriate term. Emily mentioned that people were coming in to say hi to her. That was because Emily was by far the youngest person in the ICU at that time. So all the family members of all the other patients were very aware of Emily. So they were all kind of rooting for her. And so they were very excited. They were very excited when she was up because they just wanted her to get out of the ICU.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guests are comedy writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. And Kumail is also, of course, an actor and stand-up comic and is on "Silicon Valley" in the role of Dinesh. But they co-wrote the new film "The Big Sick," which Kumail also stars in. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDENBOYS'S "KITTENS OF LUST")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. They're married, and they co-wrote the new romantic comedy "The Big Sick" that's based in part on their relationship. And one of the parts of the movie that is true is that after they started seeing each other, Emily had to be put in a medically induced coma because she had such a raging infection that they had to do that.

So, Kumail, in the film, your parents, who are from Pakistan, live nearby. You all live in Chicago. And they're always trying to set up an arranged marriage for you with a Pakistani woman. And every time you come over for dinner, it's like, surprise, look who's here. And it's always, like, a young, single Pakistani woman who just happened to stop by. And your parents are hoping that this will be the one that you will marry. Was this an issue for your family? Did they want you to have an arranged marriage like they had?

NANJIANI: Oh, yes, definitely. That was the narrative from the very beginning. I remember since I was a little kid my mom showing me jewelry and being like, this - I'll give this to the wife that I find for you. You know, it's - I feel like people here sort of think of arranged marriage as sort of this old-world thing. But it really is - it's just the way that everybody in my family did it. My parents obviously, but all my aunts, uncles and most of my cousins are arranged married. You know, and the...

GORDON: All very happy marriages.

NANJIANI: Yeah, yeah. And the method has evolved over time. I've seen it change in front of me. Like, I - when I was a kid - I know the story of how my parents got married. And I saw my older cousins getting married. And now I know how people get married now. And it's evolved a little bit. It's become more technological in some ways. But it's definitely still an arranged marriage.

GROSS: So did they know that you didn't want to do that?

NANJIANI: You know, it's interesting you ask because I sort of - I really led them on. I never said no to it. Sort of how in the movie I'm just sort of avoiding making these decisions and avoiding making decisions is what hurts the people around me, that's kind of what I was doing in real life. I just was saying no, not this one, not this one, not this girl, not her, not her. So they would send me emails, and they would call and be like, hey, remember that aunt whose house you went to when you were 12? Do you remember that little girl that was there? Anyway, now she's of a certain age (laughter). What do you think of her? And they would send me pictures.

And I actually recently found one of my mom's emails to me. And it was during the period that Emily and I were dating. And reading the email chain was kind of devastating because I saw how I was clearly leading them on and letting them think that I was going to do it. Honestly, at the time, I couldn't imagine a world where I did have an arranged marriage. And I couldn't imagine a world where I didn't have an arranged marriage.

GROSS: Kumail, how did you tell your parents about Emily?

NANJIANI: So I did while she was really sick. It had been - I forget, you know, what day it was or when it was. And I sort of remember where I was. My mom - my parents had been calling me just sort of to say hi to me all week. And I hadn't been answering the phone. And then one day when - you know, because being in the hospital was a rollercoaster.

Some days were good. Some days were bad. But actually, every day was good and bad because you'd meet with all these doctors and somebody would say something that would give you all this hope. And then someone would come and shatter all hope. So it was in one of those sort of troughs, one of those valleys, where my mom called me.

And I just sort of answered the phone. And I was just - I just needed...

GORDON: You wanted your mom.

NANJIANI: Yeah, I just needed my mom. So I just - that's when I told her, on the phone.

GROSS: And what was her reaction?

NANJIANI: In the moment, her reaction was is she - what's wrong with her? Is she going to be OK? Are you OK? And then she sort of checked up on Emily every day, called me every day. And then as soon as Emily was out of the coma, that's when she got really angry. She was like, how could you do this to me? But while Emily was sick, she just wanted to make sure Emily was OK. And then she got angry later.

GROSS: You know, the whole how could you do this to me thing, when it comes from a parent about your relationship, it puts people - it puts the child in such a bind. I mean, you have to live your life the way you've chosen to live it, but you don't want that choice to hurt your parents and to be perceived as something that you've done to hurt them.

And so it leaves you with this impossible choice. Do you not live your life the way you think it should be lived to avoid hurting your parents? Or do you do what you think is the right thing to do knowing it's going to hurt your parents? It's pain - it's, like, pain in either direction.

NANJIANI: And it's especially tough for immigrant families, I think, because, you know, a lot of immigrant families will come here and the parents sort of take the hit, right? They lose their job to start over, they get jobs that are much worse than the jobs they had to sort of sacrifice their own lives to give their children better lives. And then a lot of times, children - their children don't choose the life that the parents want for them.

So they're kind of getting it both ways. It's very tricky because I understand my parents - I understand why they wanted me to marry someone within the culture - right? - because they're here and they want to hold onto their identity and they want to hold onto their culture. And one of the most important ways to do it is to sort of pass it on to your kids.

And then having your kid choose someone outside the culture, I understand. You know, it's a very - it's a struggle. It's difficult to hold onto your identity in a land where your identity is not valued.

GROSS: So is everything OK now in the family?

GORDON: Oh, great. Yeah.

NANJIANI: Yeah, yeah. You know, I realized I had not given my parents enough credit. I just, you know, it's easy to think of your parents as being the people that they will always be and that they're sort of done, you know, that they're always going to be these people. But I had not given them - I had not thought that they would have the capacity to evolve and change in the way that they really have.

It's been, you know, I just did not give them enough credit.

GROSS: Emily, was it an issue in your family that you were marrying a Pakistani man, you know, an immigrant who was Muslim? I don't know what religion you are if any at all. But was that an issue?

GORDON: Oh, no, not at all. My - I think my parents...

(LAUGHTER)

NANJIANI: Well, that makes my parents sound bad.

GORDON: I know. That's why I don't want to make them sound bad. I think my parents, they just have, you know, I was, like, a fun kind of challenging kid. And I think they - as long as they found someone - as long as I was with someone who kind of loved me and respected me, I think they were quite happy with whoever. Not that what Kumail's parents did was not good parenting.

But my parents - I've always been a little bit more with them, like, I'm going to do what I'm going to do and you're going to have to be OK with it. And they're like, OK, that's fine.

NANJIANI: But here's the difference from - and this is a generalization. But there is sort of a rebellion narrative for kids here, you know? Like, you sort of find yourself, in some ways, by rebelling against your parents. And that's sort of built into the story of growing up. We don't really have that in Pakistan, or at least my family, my extended family, did not.

You know, we don't ever really - I mean, when the oldest son grows up, the parents move in with the oldest son. And then they live with their grandkids and their sons and, you know, they don't - those ties never get severed. So we don't have, like, this thing of you rebel against your parents.

A big part of our culture is, like, respecting the elders. And never, like, going against your parents is part of that.

GROSS: Kumail, your point about rebelling and not being part of the family narrative in Pakistan is a really interesting point because it's such a part of the narrative here. And there's been so many movies about it too. And I'm sure you saw a lot of them growing up in Pakistan. So you probably witnessed that kind of storyline from afar before you lived it yourself.

NANJIANI: Yeah. And I really thought that the people in the movies were doing the wrong thing, you know, this idea of going against your parents' wishes, which is sort of romanticized here, right? It's like, be who you want to be. And I think that sort of gets to, like, the - I think the focus on individuality versus focus on community. And again, I'm generalizing.

But here, it's definitely like, who are you? Who do you want to be? You know, do whatever you want. That's sort of the American dream, right? Whereas there, it really is about the family unit and the community. So when I would watch these movies, I wasn't - at least, I didn't think that I was swayed by them. I saw them as being morally inferior. I did.

GROSS: Can you give an example of a movie that you watched and thought that the rebellious kid should just kind of straighten up and get in line with their parents? Like, did you watch "Rebel Without A Cause" and think, James Dean, you're doing the wrong thing here?

(LAUGHTER)

GORDON: He had such cool hair.

GROSS: You should be more like your parents.

GORDON: Kumail's also quite - he was quite swayed by good hair. So I don't think that would have worked on you.

NANJIANI: Well, I will tell you, when I first saw "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," I was like, he's such a bad kid.

(LAUGHTER)

NANJIANI: This is a bad kid. He's a bad influence on everyone. I remember being like, I don't like this movie. I don't like what it has to say.

GORDON: Really?

NANJIANI: Yeah.

GORDON: I don't think I knew that.

NANJIANI: Yeah, definitely.

GORDON: That's amazing.

NANJIANI: I was like, this is wrong. This movie's wrong.

GORDON: Everyone loves Ferris Bueller.

NANJIANI: That's so funny because I remember not liking him at all.

GROSS: Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon speaking to Terry Gross last year. He's the star and they're the co-writers of the movie "The Big Sick," which is nominated for an Oscar as best original screenplay. We'll hear more of their conversation in the second half of the show. And we'll also remember Wesla Whitfield, the cabaret singer who died recently at age 70. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2017 interview with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. They're the co-writers of the movie "The Big Sick," which is nominated for an Oscar as best original screenplay. He also stars in the film, which is based on their real-life relationship and how they first met and became a couple. Kumail grew up in Pakistan, came to U.S. to attend college and stayed. When he and Emily were falling love, he knew his parents wanted him to have an arranged marriage with a woman who was Muslim and Pakistani.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Well, Kumail, I know another issue for you and your family was that you became - and you can correct me if I'm wrong here - more secular.

NANJIANI: Yeah. I don't want to talk about my own faith, personally. But, you know, it's been - what's been sort of interesting for me is trying to figure out how I fit into being a Pakistani-American and how I fit into my family, you know, and what parts of my identity - I guess, I don't know how to, like, voltron my identity together.

GROSS: You know, it's funny, but that is such a part of the American narrative. You know, like, figuring out who you are compared to your parents and to your own generation. And since everybody in America is ultimately descended from immigrants, with the exception of Native Americans, and since so many people are, you know, the grandchildren or children of immigrants or they're immigrants themselves, it's so much about trying to figure out, you know, the relationship between tradition and the present between, you know, the past, the origin culture and where you are now.

NANJIANI: Yeah. And, you know, I mean, again, this might be generalizing, but I come from a family where the kids generally do what their parents did, you know. So I have uncles who are doctors and then my cousins are doctors or uncles who are bankers and then my cousins are bankers. I mean, there's examples over and over of that.

I don't remember - again, I don't want to generalize. But in my experience, when I was a kid, they would be, like, so what kind of doctor do you want to be? It wasn't like...

(LAUGHTER)

NANJIANI: I'm not joking. It was like - it wasn't like, who do you want to be? And I remember this specifically. I was probably 13 or 14. And I was sort of hanging out with my cool older cousins, you know, who were already doctors and stuff.

GORDON: You know, cool kids.

NANJIANI: Yeah, the cool kids.

(LAUGHTER)

NANJIANI: Yeah, he was a real rebel. He became a podiatrist.

(LAUGHTER)

GORDON: Oh.

NANJIANI: No. He - I remember him asking what kind of doctor do you want to be? And I had no idea. So I remember this specifically. It was with a big group. We were at a wedding. And I said, heart doctor. And he was like heart doctor? You mean cardiologist? And I was like - I remember feeling such shame and being like, oh, my God, why did I say a heart doctor?

GORDON: Did you know cardiologist? Would you have known that term?

NANJIANI: Sure, I would have known that term. But, you know, I didn't think of it because I was just like, I don't know...

GORDON: Heart, heart doctor.

NANJIANI: What's an important thing in the body? Heart, that's pretty important. I'll do that.

GROSS: And, Emily, let me ask you. You started off as a psychotherapist. I think you practiced for about six years before becoming a comedy writer. What was the transition from psychotherapy to comedy?

GORDON: It's a slow one. It's hard to jump ship from one to the other. But I really, really loved being a therapist. And I worked with a lot of really, really intense populations because that's kind of where I loved and where my heart was. But it did also...

GROSS: What are intense populations?

GORDON: I worked with very, very troubled teenagers, who had been court-ordered into therapy. I worked with people with schizophrenia - very, like, severe persistent mental illness. And it kind of was definitely my favorite. I loved it so much. But I started burning out a little bit. And then after the events of this movie, after getting sick, I definitely just had a hard time kind of clicking back into how selfless you have to be to, you know, work with the populations I was working with.

So I very slowly started figuring out that I needed to have something else I could do. So I started freelance writing mental health essays at first for, like, women's websites and women's magazines, just using my therapy background to try and write advice columns, things like that. And at the same time, I started booking a stand-up show, first in New York and then in Los Angeles.

And - because stand-up is kind of a deep love of mine as well, even though I don't perform. And then slowly, my stand-up comedy friends started hiring me to kind of work on their shows or work on projects they were doing. And everything just kind of weirdly folded into itself. I think being a therapist gives you a really great background for being a writer, especially writing about, like, human emotions and writing about the relationships between people.

But, you know, at the time, it all felt very chaotic and like nothing was connecting. But when I look back, I can create a wonderful narrative for myself.

GROSS: Kumail, your parents wanted you to come to America I suppose to study and become a doctor.

NANJIANI: The plan was always that I would come to America and my brother would come to America. My parents were sort of trying to emigrate out of Pakistan I think for as long as I can remember. And actually when I was about I would say 15 or 16, before college - years before college, my dad got a job. He got a residency here, and then we were going to move. I'd said goodbye to all my friends, and we were moving to America. And then something happened with his visa.

And he'd worked for years and years and years to, you know, pass his medical equivalency test - I think that they're called USMLE - years and years studying really hard to pass. And then some visa snafu happened, and our whole, like, move got canceled. And I remember I said bye to all my friends, and then I showed up at school again on Monday. And they're like, what are you doing here? And I remember how devastated my dad was.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. They co-wrote the new romantic comedy "The Big Sick." Kumail stars in it. Kumail's also a stand-up comic. Emily's a comedy writer. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and I'm Terry Gross. If you're just joining us, my guests are Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. They co-wrote the new romantic comedy "The Big Sick," and Kumail stars in it. The movie is loosely based on how they met and decided to get married. And they met when Kumail was doing stand-up comedy, and things got more serious after Emily had to be put in a medically-induced coma.

So Kumail, were you already here on 9/11?

NANJIANI: Yes.

GROSS: How did that change your life as a Pakistani immigrant?

NANJIANI: I mean, you know, it wasn't like Muslims weren't demonized before that, you know? I mean going back to, you know - before the - you remember Ayatollah Khomeini in the '80s was, like, sort of the big bad guy in the West. So I knew from the very - since I was a kid. In fact, this is a weird thing. I used to love MAD Magazine when I was a kid. Like, it was my favorite thing. And we were Shia, so Ayatollah Khomeini was sort of, like, our religious leader, you know? He was, like, our highest - sort of our pope I guess. And I remember reading "Ghostbusters II" - the "Ghostbusters II" parody in MAD Magazine, and instead of Vigo's face, it was Ayatollah Khomeini's face. And I remember being so torn because I was like, these are two things I love. Why do they not like each other? I remember being like really - I don't know, like - it, like, shook me. I was like, I love MAD Magazine. Why would they do this horrible thing?

So I knew that Muslims were pretty demonized sort of in America. So 9/11, you know, it - I had racist stuff happen to me after that certainly, and some of that's in the movie. Some of the stuff that happens in the movie to me is pretty much taken from real life almost exactly. But it didn't really change the way I saw America because I felt like there was such an effort right after 9/11 - there was such an effort by the government to go out of their way and say Muslims are not the bad guys; they are part of America just as much as we are part of America. So that really, really was - that really was very helpful. And that I felt was very noble, that even though this awful attack had happened, the reaction was - in a way, the reaction was very compassionate.

GROSS: How has President Trump's anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric been affecting you and your family?

NANJIANI: I think in general it's become much more OK. Certain things that were considered racist comments have now somehow become part of valid political discourse. And I feel like people feel OK saying stuff that they would not have felt OK saying two years ago.

GROSS: Are you getting a lot of hate tweets directed at you personally?

NANJIANI: I've turned on the quality filter on Twitter, and I recommend that for everyone. I honestly stopped looking at my mentions too much because I decided that even when - because here's the thing. When someone is racist to you, you know the problem is theirs. You know they are the ones who need to fix themselves. You know you - there's nothing wrong with you, that you did nothing to deserve it.

However, when someone is racist to you, you still feel - I still feel this sense of embarrassment. I feel flattened. I feel sort of - you know, you - I think of myself as a completely rounded person with favorite things and dislikes. And then suddenly you become flattened into this mass of a stereotype or whatever it is. So it can be very - it's a very ugly feeling. And even though you know that it's not your fault, it still feels horrible. And then you get over it, and you're fine. So I just decided I didn't want that feeling.

GROSS: So it looks like "The Big Sick" is getting very kind of warm receptions from audiences who are also laughing a lot. This is your first - as far as I know, your first outing together co-writing something.

GORDON: That's correct...

GROSS: How did that go? I mean I think for a lot of people, it's hard to survive that (laughter).

GORDON: (Laughter).

GROSS: Like, working on a project with a spouse can be - it can be great, or it can be really hard. It's kind of like learning to drive from, like, a parent or, you know, a girlfriend or a boyfriend or spouse or something.

GORDON: That's true.

GROSS: That can be really helpful. It can be really horrible.

GORDON: I think what helped us partially is that we had worked together before on a couple of other projects. So we had a pretty good working relationship. I think the thing, especially for me, that I had to adjust to is that, you know, in my - in our personal lives, I expect my husband to kind of have my back no matter what, to always kind of support me and be lovely.

And then when you go into a business meeting with a spouse, I kind of went in with that same expectation of, oh, whatever I say, he should definitely agree with it and be like, what a great idea. And what's amazing is that my co-worker Kumail gets - has every right to kind of disagree and think that this idea is not great or we need to tweak it and vice versa. And I think that took a little bit of adjusting for both of us to remember that the person in the room when you're kind of working on something is not your spouse. They are your spouse of course, but kind of emotionally, they aren't. Their job is not to just support you unconditionally. But we mostly work really well together. We like making each other laugh.

NANJIANI: Yeah, I feel like it really brought us together closer partially because we were - what we were writing about was so personal to us but also because, you know, reading each other's - reading someone's writing can be a very intimate experience, and reading someone's rough drafts can be a very intimate experience.

And you know, I would sort of - I would see her typing away at something, and then I would get what - she would send me the file, and I would read it. And it was - it just was, like, a really special, intimate feeling to be like, oh, she was just sitting there writing it, and now I get to read it. Nobody else in the world has read it. I'm the first person in the entire world to read it. And she's such a remarkable, wonderful, empathetic writer. It really - I think it just made me fall in love with her more.

GORDON: Oh, my goodness (laughter).

GROSS: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. Thank you, and be well.

GORDON: Thank you.

NANJIANI: Thank you for having us. This was such a thrill. We were so excited to be here (laughter).

GORDON: Absolutely (laughter). Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon speaking to Terry Gross last year. They're the co-writers of movie "The Big Sick," which is up for best original screenplay at next month's Oscars and is based on their own true love story. Coming up, we remember Wesla Whitfield, the opera singer turned cabaret singer who died last week. Her celebrated performances included regular gigs at the Oak Room of New York's Algonquin hotel. Here she is with her husband Mike Greensill on piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M GLAD THERE IS YOU")

WESLA WHITFIELD: (Singing) In this world of ordinary people, extraordinary people, I'm glad there is you. In this world of overrated pleasures, of underrated treasures, I'm glad there is you. I live to love. I love to live with you beside me.

BIANCULLI: That's singer Wesla Whitfield. We'll hear Terry's 1988 interview with her after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.