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Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani on the Real Challenge of ‘The Lovebirds’

The actors say their new Netflix movie, which starts where most rom-coms end, needed to acknowledge their characters were people of color.

“The Lovebirds” begins as a romantic comedy, then steers a hard left into comic murder mystery territory. The movie’s road to release has taken a turn or two as well.

First, it lost its world-premiere screening at South by Southwest in Austin, Tex., when that festival was canceled because of coronavirus concerns. Next, the planned early-April theatrical release was scuttled when movie theaters closed. And then it changed distribution hands from Paramount to Netflix, where it is now streaming. What hasn’t changed is that the movie stars Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani and offers some comic relief at a time many could use it.

The two play a New Orleans couple whose on-the-rocks relationship becomes trickier once they inadvertently become embroiled in a killing. My original plan to travel to Austin in March and chat with the actors in person eventually morphed into a Zoom conversation one May afternoon. In that interview, they spoke about race and rom-coms, and what they’ve been doing during quarantine.

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What is your history with romantic comedies, and what are your favorites?

KUMAIL NANJIANI Initially, I became a fan of rom-coms back when I was in my teens and the idea of having a relationship with a girl seemed very unattainable but also very exciting. So, “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” the big ’90s rom-com boom.

ISSA RAE I think “Splash” and, in the ’90s, anything Julia Roberts was in, or Sandra Bullock. Those were some of my hero leads. Queen Latifah, even.

NANJIANI Most rom-coms stop when the couple gets together. That’s generally how the movie ends. But for us in “Lovebirds,” it was, what happens after that? That’s where the real challenges are.

Image“I do find myself hate-watching movies where it’s like, OK, we’re just going to ignore race entirely?” Rae said.
“I do find myself hate-watching movies where it’s like, OK, we’re just going to ignore race entirely?” Rae said.Credit...Rozette Rago for The New York Times

How was it to work together for the first time and what did you appreciate about each other?

RAE I’ve watched Kumail’s work and always thought that he was funny. Working with him, I was just drawn to how smart he is and how there’s such a worldly perspective he brings to the table. He’s a great listener and critical thinker. And he’s a master improv-er, constantly thinking about jokes but managing to maintain a wittiness. It forces you to keep up in a way that I took back on my other projects. You can’t work with him and not learn from him and want to be better.

NANJIANI Everything Issa said is very true.

[Laughs]

NANJIANI I was a fan of Issa’s because she’s a great performer, but she also has such a great understanding of relationships. I don’t just mean romantic ones. The friendly, platonic relationships on [her HBO series] “Insecure” are done so well. She brought so much of her understanding to this movie. And the actual shooting was really fun because it’s exciting working with someone where you know you can throw anything out there and the other person will go with it and give you back something that you could never expect.

I haven’t seen a lot of rom-com-turned-murder-mysteries with an African-American and a Pakistani-American in the lead roles. Did that rarity affect your approach to this movie?

RAE On my end, it was just acknowledging the fact that we were people of color. In reading the original script, it was clear that it was either for two white people or, just, “anybody.” But given the circumstances, it was important to acknowledge who we were and our points of view in the world without beating anyone over the head with it. Because I do find myself hate-watching movies where it’s like, OK, we’re just going to ignore race entirely?

NANJIANI I think I’m very aware of my race and how I’m coming across at all times. So we wanted this movie to reflect that it’s very different when it’s two white people being accused of murder and running from the cops as opposed to two people who are not white.

During this recent period of quarantine, what was at the forefront of your mind?

RAE I’ve gone through an emotional journey. I came into it thinking, productivity and optimism and we’ll be OK. That’s turned into, what is this all for? And everything’s terrible.

The administration’s handling of it has just been really frustrating. And there’s just a callousness to the treatment of people.

NANJIANI I agree with Issa. We quarantined ourselves for two months so that the powers that be could prepare for the country to reopen. And I feel like nothing changed. Nothing was done, nothing happened. And we’re reopening anyway. It’s just so frustrating.

So, back to funny things.

NANJIANI A solid segue.

Any comedies or anything you’re watching right now?

RAE I just got into being able to watch “Barry” for the first time. It’s so great. I was so thankful to watch that in its entirety. I also rewatched “Groundhog Day” for a podcast, and that was a delight.

Image
Nanjiani and his wife and writing partner, Emily V. Gordon, have been at work on a new script during quarantine.Credit...Magdalena Wosinska for The New York Times

NANJIANI My wife, Emily, and I are showing each other things we haven’t seen. So currently she’s going to be showing me some John Waters movies, which is a whole subgenre of movies I have not seen. First up is “Hairspray.”

Kumail, are you still working out?

NANJIANI Well, when this first started happening, working out made me feel so good. But then I kept working out harder and harder and it wasn’t having the same effect. So I really hit a wall and had a lot of body aches and pain. I’m taking this week off to recover.

Issa, what’s it like having a new season of “Insecure” running during this time?

It’s the best, but it’s the worst. I forgot how much people like to talk about the show, which is great. But they talk too much about it, and because it’s a week-to-week thing, I’m inundated with conversations, lots of nitpicking. I’ll read stuff but I also tune out.

Are you working on any projects now?

RAE A couple of shows and a movie. And we just started the writers room for Season 5.

NANJIANI Issa, has it been more or less efficient, working with writers on Zoom?

RAE It’s been way more efficient, unfortunately, it’s so sad. We just dive right into it now, everybody’s on time.

NANJIANI Emily and I had an idea for a movie last year that we didn’t have time to write, so we just wrote it in this period. And then we’re working on the next season of our Apple show, “Little America.” There are some days where I feel like I get too worried and I can’t write, but generally it’s not too bad.

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