Early on in The Big Sick, when movie Kumail is busting a move on movie Emily (played by Zoe Kazan), he picks up a napkin and scribbles on it.

"This," he says as he pushes it across the bar to her, "is your name written in Urdu."

She picks it up, looks at it, and bursts out laughing before shooting his big move down in flames.

It's no huge spoiler to reveal that despite this initial moment of awkward the couple do get together. If they hadn't then I wouldn't be talking to the real life couple of Emily V. Gordon and husband Kumail Nanjiani about The Big Sick, their autobiographical rom-com, which opens in cinemas today.

Advertisement

"We knew that if we didn't tell it nobody would because it's such a specific story," Nanjiani says.

"It would be super weird if someone else had come up with this story," agrees Gordon. "I don't think you can make this up."

They're not wrong. There's not many "getting together" stories that involve one half of the couple suddenly being stricken down with a serious illness and being put into a medically induced coma. And if there were, I seriously doubt that they also would have had any of the cross-cultural and religious family issues that Nanjiani and Gordon had to navigate as their romance bloomed.

It may sound heavy, but the film has a light touch. It's very funny, emotionally engaging and, most of all, sincere.

The pair are very funny to talk to. Nanjiani, a comedian most known from his role as software developer Dinesh in the sitcom Silicon Valley, has a dry humour that wrings maximum humour out of subtle emphasis whereas Gordon, an author and producer, is enthused with a quirky sensibility. When answering questions about the film they often refer to the other. Sometimes this elicits simple agreement, other times, well, this happens:

Kumail, was there really a Hugh Grant phase?
Nanjiani: Yes.

Gordon: There still is a Hugh Grant phase! [laughs]

Nanjiani: This is all a Hugh Grant phase. I just met him. Very nice.

Gordon: He's a cad.

Nanjiani: You can't say that!

Gordon: I think I can.

Nanjiani: No.

Gordon: Is it bad to call someone a cad? Is cad bad?

Nanjiani: Yee-ah.

Gordon: Am I being bad?

Kumail can be a cad
Nanjiani: I'll be the cad.

Gordon: [laughing]No, but he was like a ... like a ... he's just a sexy dude. I don't know what you want me to say.

Nanjiani: [splutters] Oh. My. God.

It's getting worse ...
Nanjiani: Yeah, it's getting worse. I think you should stop talking. I don't want you to end up in the back of his Audi.

They're both naturally funny people and their rapid-fire digressions tend to get the room - which is full of publicity types and a full film crew - laughing.

"Do you know what Robert Smith looks like in normal life?" Nanjiani interrupts to ask Gordon while we're talking about her teenage Goth phase.

"I think he still wears the makeup," she replies.

Nanjiani, simultaneously bemused and genuinely bewildered asks, "He has the hair and the makeup and stuff? Does he, like, go to the grocery store?"

"He's very reclusive," Gordon states authoritatively.

"People don't see him driving around in his Mercedes?" he asks with mock puzzlement.

Their dynamic works so well that it's easy to see why they attracted each other. It also lends a credibility to the witty rom-com conversations their characters have in the film. Because most couples tend to have wildly different versions of the events surrounding their getting together, I ask if they had to reconcile varying recollections.

"That happened a lot and we just used it," Gordon says. "We decided that any time the two characters had," she stops and corrects herself, "the two of us had different perspectives on things, we would fold that into the script and make sure that Emily and Kumail weren't necessarily on the same page or seeing an event the same way."

"Yeah, we put everybody's perspective into it," Nanjiani says. "It's weird, you think of certain stories from your life that are very important to you that end up being in the script and then they fall away."

He then recounts a scene from their life they had to cut from their movie. In real life when Emily got sick she drove herself to the hospital. But she couldn't find parking so she just dumped her car on a street. When Kumail arrived later she asked him to pick it up and drive it home. Problem was she had no idea where she'd parked.

"She was more concerned about her car then she was about this coma!" Nanjiani says in disbelief. "I didn't know where her car was so I had to walk around blocks for hours looking for her white Mazda."

The Big Sick's real life Kumail and Emily - writer/star Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon on set.
The Big Sick's real life Kumail and Emily - writer/star Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon on set.

They may be laughing now but the reality of that situation was highly traumatic. So, as it turns out, was reliving it.

"It was like, 'why are we doing this again?'" Nanjiani says.

"Because we shot in an actual hospital, and I'm not super comfortable in hospitals, when I walked onto set that first day I was like, 'Oh yeah, that's right - what have I done?'", Gordon says.

She pauses then smiles and says, "it helped me get better at being in hospitals again, which was lovely. Parts of it were difficult but we tried to use that to help make the movie better."

"The tricky thing was that I hadn't thought of all this stuff, but every little thing has to be specific and real ... " Nanjiani says. "The good thing we had was that because we lived through it we knew what it felt like."

"We could always gut check that," Gordon says.

Nanjiani nods and continues.

"We knew exactly ... this happens in the mornings so this should happen in the afternoons, so this should happen in the evenings so this should happen at night and now it's the next day .... All that stuff which I don't think about. Like, the time on the clocks is really important because any one of those things can pull you out."

He then gives an example:

"Some people say when we eat a pizza [in the film] it's not Chicago-style pizza, it's New York-style pizza and they're right. And it bugs me."

Gordon cheerily disagrees saying, "It doesn't bug me."

Although The Big Sick is autobiographical, it is not a documentary. As Nanjiani puts it, sometimes they "walked away from the truth". So, did writing Emily in Urdu on a napkin really happen?

"Yes," Nanjiani immediately replies, leaning back in his chair in an approximation of exaggerated cool.

"Okay, so here's the problem," Gordon says. "In reality, it totally won me over. I fell for it like a little weirdo. But in the movie I wanted Emily to play it off. But I thought it was super cool."

From beneath the cool of his arched brow Nanjiani smiles and says, "she fell for it hook, line and sinker."

LOWDOWN:
WHO: Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani
WHAT: The critically acclaimed rom-com The Big Sick
WHEN: In cinemas today

DID YOU KNOW...

Atomic Blonde is the directorial debut for David Leitch, who was assistant director on John Wick. To prepare for her role, Charlize Theron trained with Keanu Reeves, who was preparing for his return in the John Wick sequel.