“I wear a lot of hats,” Emily V. Gordon says, laughing as she settles into what will be a very warm interview with BUST. It’s another hot day in Los Angeles and the air-conditioned seating inside has filled up. Also, she’s right. She does wear a lot of hats. From producing The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail, to writing for The Carmichael Show, to becoming a published author this past year with Super You, to podcasting about video games on The Indoor Kids, to working on her first feature The Big Sick, Emily’s career has been picking up faster than she thought it would over the last couple of years. “No, it’s good. A lot of my career feels very jumbled but it’s all weirdly made sense. Nothing has been too far out of reach, I’ve kind of tumbled into everything very naturally so it doesn’t feel weird to me, but it’s a lot of stuff.”
Before entertainment, Emily was a therapist, a career she pursued in college back in North Carolina. But after six years, Emily realized that her self-care and client-care were entirely off balance and something had to give. “I was super passionate about mental health and therapy. It wasn’t a mistake. But right out of the gate I was working these jobs that were very intense with very intense clients.” From teenage boys to suicidal clients to patients with schizophrenia, it didn’t take long for Emily to burn out. It wasn’t an easy decision, “A lot of my identity was wrapped up in being a therapist, I was always the Therapist Girl among my friends so I didn’t know how to introduce myself anymore. That was a big identity crisis for me.” But it was at this point that Emily began to look at writing as less of a hobby and more of a career, “I’d been writing for myself, and then once I realized that I wanted to move out of therapy and freelance write for awhile, I started submitting to a billion places.” If you can find it, Emily admitted that she got a one-handed read published in the Winter 2003 issue of BUST Magazine under a pseudonym.
Rookie, Lenny Letter, The Carmichael Show, Super You, and now The Big Sick — Emily’s done what a lot of writers have set out to do, find a way to write full time. “It’s all things I’m really interested in. I’d done enough stuff when I started writing and working with stand up. You just try it. There’s plenty of stuff I’ve failed at, hardcore, but you just don’t know about any of that because they don’t go anywhere,” Emily laughs, “as long as you keep making something you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing.” Which leads us to The Big Sick, Emily’s first film co-written with husband Kumail Nanjiani. “It’s based on Kumail and I, how we met and how we fell in love, which has a lot of twists and turns. Kumail and I were dating for less than a year and then I got very sick, was in the hospital for a full month, was in a coma...That’s basically the story of the movie,” Emily explains. For someone as willing to share her story with the world, it was Kumail, who’d pitched this small and personal story to Judd Apatow along with a few other ideas, and got the green light to pursue the project. As Kumail reflected on the script with Emily, asking for her opinion and take on their shared experience, he suggested she join the project:
"I’m a writer, not a stand-up comedian, and that’s kind of what Judd has always had his sights kind of trained for. It was incredibly helpful to have everybody be like, 'Yeah, absolutely. You’re absolutely a part of this.' And, dare I say, the drafts just kept getting better and better. I’m just kidding! We work really well together, Kumail and I, it turns out, we write very well together, which we were very happy to discover."
What started out as a personal experience, Emily and Kumail swapping scenes at home, quickly changed pace as more people got on board with the movie:
"Anytime you’re writing with other people, it’s always weird because everybody brings their own baggage. Kumail and I, once we got a director, Michael Showalter, we started working with him on a new version of the script. Then the producer, Barry Mendel, was attached. So there were four of us, very much Kumail and myself, that were actively working on the script every day. All the time. All the time. And it was amazing! But it was also just a very different experience. I’m used to sitting in a room by myself, churning something out and writing the movie was very much in the room, in the moment. It’s intense and it took me awhile to click into, 'Oh, I don’t have time to sit quietly in my office and listen to music.' That’s what my process had always been and that’s where ritual can fuck you a little bit."
It was this active, group process that Emily saw the transition of her story become a story, which is not as easy a task as saying it out loud.
"It’s obviously based in reality, but when Showalter is weighing in on, 'Well I don’t think Emily would do that,' and I would just be standing there. I had to work really hard to not to press him about how Emily was or how Kumail was or how Emily’s parents were, which by the way are not at all like my parents even a little bit. My parents are these lovely, Southern — my parents are too lovely to be in a movie! They’re just, they’re nice, they love Kumail, it was just not going to work out for them to be themselves in this movie. So stuff kept getting altered and we kept realizing that it’s a story, it’s not necessarily our story. It is and it isn’t and I just had to drill that into my head every damn day. Every damn day! Because it is weird."
Zoe Kazan, who plays Emily in the film, helped break apart this strangeness. “We had a weird mind melt,” Emily explains, “As odd of an experience as it is to watch someone make out with your husband on camera, it could have been a less, she made it as un-awkward as possible.” After watching dozens of auditions, all of which Emily assures were great, Zoe fit the part better than they could have expected:
"She did an amazing job and she was playing both her version of Emily as well as incorporating parts of me. Not to say that it wasn’t very odd and there were certainly parts where I was like, 'I wouldn’t do things that way.' But also it’s not you! It’s a version of you and she killed it. She knocked it out of the park. She’s an amazing actress and could not have been more comfortable in a situation that could have been incredibly weird and off and uncomfortable."
With Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, Holly Hunter, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, and more, The Big Sick has one remarkable cast that Emily describes as unbelievably incredible:
"The day Holly Hunter agreed to do the movie, we were just like, 'What the...Holy shit this movie has to be good now! I never thought the movie, and not in a pessimistic way, but I never thought the movie would get made. I thought it was just a hobby Kumail and I had. We sold it right after I got the job at The Carmichael Show. I thought it would be years down the line and then it just snowballed so quickly that we didn’t have time to process any of it because it was just happening so fast, which was good because if I had anyt ime to process it, I would have freaked out. But yeah, we assembled an amazing cast! The comedians are all amazing. We got David Alan Grier to play the part of a sleazy club owner. I could not be happier with the cast we have."
It’s not just official cast that Emily finds gratifying either, but also the auditions and the people who took the time to read the script. Dozens of comedians and friends who have performed at The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail went out and auditioned for the film, even Baron Vaughn who made an unplanned appearance during the interview. “Having them tell me they really like the script,” Emily elucidates, “ even if they didn’t get the part, having them see into a window of another thing that I do and another aspect of Kumail’s and my relationship I think was super gratifying. It felt like they were there with us [through the process].”
Though there’s no official release date announced, The Big Sick wrapped several weeks ago and is in post-production. A director’s cut has been made and the crew is currently discussing release options. In the meantime, you can find out more about Emily through her Twitter and Instagram.
Photos by Laura Taylor
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Samantha Ladwig is a writer, book reviewer, and the owner of Imprint Bookstore in Port Townsend, Washington. Her work has been published by New York Magazine, Bustle, Real Simple, Vice, Bust Magazine, and others. Find her at www.samanthaladwig.com.