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Since its debut last month, Apple TV+’s anthology series Little America—which dramatizes eight true stories of immigrants adjusting to life in the U.S.—has been hailed as the new streaming service’s “first great show.” Though each episode functions like a short movie, telling its own discrete story with its own writer and director, the series has a cohesive emotional tone that can be traced back, in part, to executive producers Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani.
Two years ago, Gordon and Nanjiani found breakout success with the autobiographical romantic comedy The Big Sick. That film recounted the couple’s first meeting and early courtship, which coincided with Gordon’s hospitalization for a life-threatening illness. After the critical and commercial success of the movie, Gordon recalls, “We were getting pitched a lot of ideas to attach ourselves to. We turned every single thing down except for Little America, because it was the only one that really stuck with us.”
You and Kumail co-wrote the episode, “The Rock,” which is about an Iranian man who dreams of building his family a house, and ends up buying this plot of land with a huge, immoveable rock in the middle of it. Why did you pick that episode to write?
It’s such a great metaphor. We all have our rock. We all have some insurmountable thing we can’t possibly ever get through. But the idea is, you wake up every morning and you’re like, Today’s the day. I’m gonna nail the rock, I’m gonna take it down. We’re all just a work in progress. None of us are ever done. Because, spoiler alert, at the end of the episode, the rock is still there! The rock is still there today, by the way, for the real gentleman.
The show features largely unknown actors. What was the casting process like?
It was intense. If a character was speaking a dialect in the show, we wanted that actor to be able to actually speak that dialect as much as possible. We had some actors that came in from Libya, from Syria, and it was a bit more work. But it’s a good thing to not just have the same five people in everything, and not just have a really lovely British actor pretending to be Nigerian. They can nail it, absolutely, but we got a lot out of having actors who were so close to the subjects they were portraying.
I read that one of the actors in the finale, “The Son,” wasn’t permitted to enter the U.S. to film that episode, so it had to be filmed in Canada.
Yeah. Adam Ali, who plays Zain, is from Libya, and he could not get a visa to film his episode, about a Syrian man who sought refugee status in America in the ’90s. We moved the entire production to Canada for that episode, because he’s an amazing actor and it was worth it. It’s a sad story that really highlights where we are now. An actor wasn’t able to get into the country, whereas [back then], this man’s life changed because he was able to come to Idaho of all places. It’s a sad irony, but that’s where we are.
In contrast to the immigrant stories we generally see on the news right now, every episode of Little America ends on a relatively hopeful note. How did you find that balance between honesty and hope?
We could have made a show that focused on all the hardships these immigrants go through, but we were very adamant that we didn’t focus on the actual immigration policies. We wanted to tell a full picture of these people’s lives, of all the things they got out of moving here: disappointment, fear, romance, cookies. We wanted the show to feel light rather than focusing on darkness. There’s a lot of amazing art that focuses on the suffering, and that’s important. A lot of these people have suffered, but they have also had joy.
The club scene in the finale was one of the times I got nervous, but it ends in such a beautiful place.
I know, right? [It’s] something I didn’t realize until I married an immigrant—in that scene, when he has his papers taken casually by the bouncer at the door, and he has such a reaction to it. I’ve been with Kumail when he’s gotten his passport taken from him. We were going through the process of getting his green card, and he got very upset. I was like “It’s fine! Don’t worry about it!” And he was like, “You don’t understand what it’s like to not have your passport, and have that mean something.” It clicked something in my brain. I love that we can create art that clicks that in other people’s brains. Fully acknowledging my own privilege here, it never occurred to me that not having your passport could be such an upsetting thing. It’s everything you’ve worked towards in that man’s hand, and he’s walking away from you.
Were there other moments in the show that resonated with you in that way?
Yeah, there were so many little moments that I wouldn’t have seen in the same way had I not been married to an immigrant for 12 years. In the cruise episode when the mother is pretending not to speak English, I’ve fully seen my mother-in-law do that! Or when Kumail and I would travel, whenever I would joke around with customs people, he would get so uncomfortable. I get it now.
The Big Sick was a huge breakout for both you and Kumail. What has the period since been like for you?
Really bonkers. We’ve both gotten opportunities that we never would have had before, one being this show. I would like to think the show would’ve been made without us being attached to it, but I do know that [our involvement] helped get it made. We saw the success of The Big Sick as, what can we do to put more good shit into the world? What can we do to usher in other people’s stories?
I’m doing a pilot with ABC now that’s about the experience of being young and chronically sick, with Sarah Hyland, who has publicly struggled with kidney issues. Before the movie came out, almost nobody in my life knew I was sick. I often felt embarrassed. Now I feel much more comfortable talking about it. That’s been a beautiful thing for me, personally, that I suddenly have the courage to go, “Hey, I have to get these infusions once a month.” I should have had the courage to do that all along, but it took our movie for me to be able to do that.
I have to ask what it’s been like for you since Kumail posted his—
It’s been very strange. I’ve never been with anyone who’s gone through a radical body change. I mean, he looks great, but I’ve never been a girl who desperately needed to date a guy with an amazing body. I married a standup comedian who was like, a little scrawny, and I loved him. He gets very focused and obsessed, which is something I appreciate about him, but on a day-to-day basis I’m like, “Can you please shut the fuck up about this stuff? I can’t—”
“I can’t talk about protein anymore.”
[Laughing] “Please stop it.” But it’s like anything else [Kumail] does where he’s like, “Yeah, I’m going to do it,” and then he absolutely does it. He’s often the comic relief in movies, and for Eternals, he was like, “If I’m going to be in a Marvel movie, I’m going to be as much of a superhero as the rest of them. I’m not just going to be comic relief.” That was very important to him, and I fully get that. And he is. You should see him in this movie. Oh my goodness.
He really stepped up to the task.
Yeah, and I don’t know what to do with it! I also don’t want to compliment him too much because I don’t want him to think I didn’t like how he looked before. But day-to-day it doesn’t mean much. He’s just warmer. Physically warmer.
Yeah, his body’s gotten warmer.
Is that…a thing that happens?
[Whispers] I don’t know! I guess so? And we had to buy new shirts because all his shirts got too small. I’ve kind of gotten used to [how he looks], but every time it gets brought up again I’m like, “Yeah, no, you’re right, this is actually crazy.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.