Welcome to Chippendales’ Kumail Nanjiani and Murray Bartlett on playing rivals in new stripper drama

A promo shot for Disney+ series Welcome to Chippendales shows actors Murray Bartlett and Kumail Nanjiani standing next to each other smiling with a blue neon sign behind them says: "Chippendales"

In a PinkNews exclusive, Kumail Nanjiani and Murray Bartlett discuss the joy in playing arch enemies in new true crime drama Welcome to Chippendales

Inspired by the book Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders, the new Disney Plus series follows the rise and fall of Somen ‘Steve’ Banerjee (Kumail Nanjiani), an Indian immigrant seeking the American Dream who becomes the unlikely founder of the first and biggest male strip joint in America – The Chippendales.

But as the dance troupe hits the big time, Banerjee’s conflict with choreographer and arch nemesis Nick de Noia (Murray Bartlett) kicks off a bloody (and semi-nude) fight for the title of America’s stripping kingpin.

Alongside the eye-popping mix of sex, drugs and stripping, Chippendales explores many weighty issues, from ruthless capitalism and the fragility of the American Dream to the tumultuous undercurrent of race relations in ’70s and ’80s America. A rare example of a crime drama that is undeniably sexy, the story also epitomises the proverbial saying that true life is indeed stranger than fiction.

Speaking exclusively to PinkNews, Nanjiani and Bartlett discuss their favourite moments during filming, creating chemistry on set, and why playing two characters that hate each other made the series so fun.

PinkNews: True crime is having a renaissance at the moment. But, with Welcome to Chippendales, if you add in male stripping, you got a pretty unique combination. What drew you to the series and what sold you on the script?

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Murray Bartlett: It’s a unique, fantastic combination. This fun, wild world of the Chippendales is set in the 70s and 80s, so it’s a fun world to be part of as actors, but there’s also this counterbalancing that is this very rich, dark backstory that a lot of people don’t know about.

Kumail Nanjiani: It was all that and the story itself. And while so much unbelievable stuff happens in it, for me, I haven’t gotten the opportunity to play a character that does bad things. So that seemed thrilling.

Kumail Nanjiani plays Indian immigrant Somen “Steve” Banerjee. (Hulu/Lara Solanki)

PN: You just touched on your characters – was there much pressure in knowing that they are based on real people? And how did you prepare for that?

MB: Our show is inspired by the real story, and the main source material was a book based on the real people. I found it really fantastic to have actual reference points of the real man that the character is based on, and couple that with the freedom to explore who this character might have been in the many spaces that we don’t know about, with a great team of writers fleshing that out.

I had video footage, and I could really dive into Unicorn Tales, which is this extraordinary children’s show that my character created.

KM: There’s not as much footage as Steve, he didn’t like being on camera. I don’t think he was very good at it. And so there was more freedom there. He’s not a character like Elvis that everyone knows; we know what he did, we know what people said about him. But beyond that, you kind of have to lean on invention, because there’s no way to really know what the real guy was like in this in this specific case.

PN: And what’s that artistic licence like to have?

KM: It was great, I approached him like any other character. You make sense of how he sees the world, how he sees himself, how he sees relationships; it was more complicated than a lot of the other characters I’ve played.

Uneasy partnership: Murray Bartlett plays “Steve’s” main rival Nick de Noia. (Hulu/Erin Simkin)

PN: What was it like playing two characters that, fairly famously, did not get on, when you two get along so well?

KM: That really allows you to go for it in the scenes… even when we have scenes when we were antagonistic towards each other, in between takes, we really haven’t had one disagreement or argument personally, at all. Not once, not even a moment of weakness. Not at all, except for now – thank you so much, our first moment of weirdness.

MB: We get to do great things in this story with these really dynamic, interesting characters with another actor that you have a good chemistry with. It’s the coming together of all those great things. It’s just why we’re actors, I think, the best-case scenario.

KM: That’s why I always was excited working in the scene with Murray, because I was like, let’s see how this thing is gonna turn out. It was always bigger than I thought it was going to be.

PN: Kumail, in 2017 you said that you didn’t necessarily want to play a bad guy, who was also an Indian immigrant in 2017. So what changed in between then, and you ending up taking the role?

KM: I was looking for excuses to not do it, because I was a little bit intimidated. I justified it by coming up with reasons, but my responsibility is to play interesting characters. Beyond that, I think it would be foolish not to take on interesting characters, just because they’ve done some bad things.

A still from US series Welcome to Chippendales shows five strippers performing in front of a crowd
Welcome to Chippendales gives us murder, drugs and a lot of men in thongs. (Hulu/Erin Simkin)

PN: Murray – everyone obviously knows about that White Lotus scene, and there’s no shortage of sex in Welcome to Chippendales. What do you make of the evolution of queer sex on screen, its representation and the sort of the openness surrounding it?

MB: What I’m pleased to see is the intimacy between queer characters and the evolution of that. What I’m always interested in, when I get to do any kind of sex scene, is the intimacy and how these people connect.

We are seeing a real evolution of that, in terms of those queer intimate scenes that there are actually intimate – not about the specifics of what they’re doing in that scene physically – we all crave intimacy and connection.

When we can find those sort of universal things that we all relate to we, we realise that we’re all connected and not that different, essentially. I think that’s a wonderful thing.

PN: One last question – what was your favourite memory of filming?

MB: There’s one scene where we’re selling this new idea that we’ve come up with for a show at the Chippendales, which was just total joy, and a lot of improvising with Juliette Lewis, who’s so wild and free; it’s just one of the most amazing things ever.

KM: Was this Hunkenstein?

MB: Hunkenstein – any of the scenes that we got to do together … because there’s such great tension and we had some really beautiful improvised moments.

KM: I love when characters are not saying what they’re thinking. You can see in that scene, we’re both on the surface trying to be nice to each other, but we’re completely trying to stab each other very, very subtly. So that was kind of a thrilling scene to play, because we’re all kind of just playing the opposite while both smiling. Eyes or daggers.

Welcome to Chippendales is available to stream on Disney Plus from 11 January.

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