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Emily Gordon: 'Everyone was so happy when I woke up ... I was so miserable and angry'

Emily V Gordon, co-writer of The Big Sick, tells Anne Marie Scanlon about turning her own serious illness into a laughing matter


Emily V Gordon

Emily V Gordon

Getty Images for CinemaCon

Kumail Nanjiani alongside Zoe Kazan portraying Emily in rom-com The Big Sick

Kumail Nanjiani alongside Zoe Kazan portraying Emily in rom-com The Big Sick

Emily V Gordon

The Jewish mother and the Irish mammy are well-known stereotypes - they're basically the same person, guilt-tripping and nagging their grown children.

Now, thanks to The Big Sick, they've become part of an unholy trinity along with the Muslim Pakistani mum (MPM). The MPM in The Big Sick is a version of star Kumail Nanjiani's own mother, as he also co-wrote the film with his wife, Emily V Gordon.

The plot is based on their own experiences and how early in their relationship Emily became seriously ill and spent over a week in a medically induced coma.

In real life, Gordon is a lot cooler than her on-screen version played by Zoe Kazan. "That's a lovely thing to say," she tells me. "I think Emily in the movie is pretty cool too." The real Emily is far more hipster than the on-screen one, with a short fringe and a vintage-style dress.

The Big Sick is set in Chicago, where the couple met at one of Nanjiani's stand-up gigs. Despite much of the plot being true to life, Gordon stresses that the characters we see on screen are exactly that, characters, and that the on-screen parents (both hers and Kumail's) bear little relationship to their real-life namesakes.

"My father never cheated on my mother," Emily laughs. "I'm contractually obliged to say that in every interview. What kind of monster would I be if (her father had been unfaithful) and I was like, 'Hey Dad, remember when you cheated?'.

When I say there are plenty of people who would have no compunction about doing that, she looks genuinely horrified.

Despite The Big Sick tackling racism, Islamophobia, serious illness and inter-racial relationships, all rather weighty topics, it is a very funny, feel-good rom-com.

In the movie, Kumail and Emily have broken up when she gets sick. He keeps vigil by her bed and advocates on her behalf. He also meets her parents, Beth, (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano at his awkward best). Hunter is brilliant as the mum who is grudgingly grateful to Kumail, but at the same time loathes him because he broke her daughter's heart.

The relationship that develops between Kumail and Emily's parents is both touching and funny, and culminates in my favourite scene in the movie, where Beth takes down a racist heckler at one of Kumail's stand-up gigs.

Even though their history has been fictionalised, I wonder how strange Gordon found watching her husband re-enacting their story with another woman.

"Maybe a little weird," she admits, "but actually it was surprisingly normal. We'd spent so long writing it that I kept drumming into my head, 'This isn't me, this is a character'." She goes on to say that she can't act, which is why she didn't play herself, as her husband has.

The only time Gordon felt odd was at the auditions for the part of Emily. "I was a little, 'What have I done? I've made a huge mistake', because there were gorgeous women flirting with my husband."

Gordon goes on to tell me that Nanjiani asked that she wasn't on set during the "make-out scenes". However, due to a schedule change, she was present for one of them. "I thought, 'That looks awful', it's awkward, it doesn't look sexy, it's kind of gross', and that really weirdly helped, because it does not look fun."

While the scenes of Kumail's family dinners, where his mother introduces him to a succession of Pakistani Muslim women who just 'happen to be passing' reminded me a lot of Woody Allen's films (in a good way), the fact that both men started out as stand-ups is where all similarity stops. Kumail is a handsome and confident man who has no problems with the opposite sex.

In the movie, he tells a lot of lies, and I tell Gordon that at times I thought on-screen Kumail was a total jerk. "It's interesting," she says, "some people think Emily is the jerk." When I say I hope that what we see isn't the real Kumail, she replies without a hint of acrimony: "It's shades of the real him, he was trying to avoid getting into trouble.

"He was one of those guys, his words weren't matching his actions. He would say, 'I don't want a relationship', and then (behave like) an amazing boyfriend. Most guys will tell you wonderful things and then treat you like s***. He was telling me s***** things then treating me like a wonderful boyfriend (would)." Gordon admits she was confused but, "I learned early just go with the actions".

While The Big Sick works as a rom-com, it actively subverts the usual cliches. When Emily awakens from her coma, she doesn't swoon into Kumail's arms, because as far as she is concerned he is still the man who broke her heart. It's a scene very much based in reality. "Everyone was so happy when I woke up," Gordon remembers. "I was so miserable, scared and angry. They couldn't get it. 'Why aren't you smiling?' I was catching up!"

In rom-coms, the climax often involves a character giving a heartfelt speech, spilling their emotional guts in a public setting, and The Big Sick is no different. At an important gig, instead of doing his usual material, Kumail talks about his ex-girlfriend being in a coma and the worry she might die. In a traditional rom-com, the heart of the booker from a prestigious comedy festival would melt. I won't spoil the reveal here.

Judd Apatow, the godfather of the modern rom-com commissioned and directed the film. He also made the couple do several rewrites. I wonder if working with her husband on such a project became problematic. "We weren't hovering over each other's laptops," Gordon laughs. "I probably would have murdered him if we'd done that."

Gordon also did some rewrites while on set. "I know a lot of writers aren't welcome on movie sets, so I'm grateful," she tells me before adding "I wasn't weighing in with, 'Well, that wasn't how my hair looked','' she says in a bratty voice. "I would never - people would have murdered me."

Three months after coming out of her coma, the real-life couple got married. Her in-laws, she tells me "are very much at peace" with having a non-Muslim, non-Pakistani daughter-in-law.

"It's been 10 years," she explains. "But they came around quite quickly because they love their son. We all realised that we were a family, so let's just dig in and be a family and we have and it's been really lovely."

  • The Big Sick is in cinemas province-wide

Belfast Telegraph