Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani have a quarantine conversation about relationships and Marvel fights
The Lovebirds was never supposed to happen this way. The Issa Rae-Kumail Nanjiani romantic comedy was slated for an April 3 release date in theaters — before the COVID-19 crisis swept through, of course. But The Lovebirds is also one of the lucky ones. Unlike most of the late spring and summer releases, which have been pushed to 2021 or left in a theatrical limbo, the film was quickly snatched up by Netflix (it begins streaming May 22).
Rae and Nanjiani were gracious enough to fight their Zoom fatigue and talk to EW (and each other) from their respective isolation stations about the movie's second life, their friendship, and what it's like to release a project while confined to your living room.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First, we can't start any interviews during this time without asking how everyone is doing in quarantine...
ISSA RAE: It's not great — I just feel like we’re making terrible decisions, and we continue to.
KUMAIL NANJIANI: I feel like I’ve had the same, it’s been up and down. The hard thing is that there’s no way to process it because, as Issa’s saying, it’s so big and some terrible decisions are being made that have nothing to do with us. So the only way to get through it is to not think about it. The days where I can blissfully not think about it too much are okay, and then the days when I think about it a lot are a little grimmer. I woke up this morning and I couldn’t focus to write, so I was like, "I’ll watch a movie." And I decided to watch Alien and it turns out it’s not a good idea to watch a movie about an organism that we don’t understand that’s trying to kill us.
Are you able to be productive or feel creative?
RAE: I've been getting a lot done, I turned in two scripts and I’m working on the third one. But it’s like, you don’t even know if we’re going to be able to shoot these anytime soon. So now I’m like, am I working for nothing? I’ve reached that phase where it’s like, let me just be sad and wake up sad and not do anything. I’m trying to get back into my groove again.
NANJIANI: I’ve been generally pretty productive too, but then there are some days where I can’t do it. And to what Issa is saying, you’ll have these Zoom meetings and people will mention projects or deadlines and it’s like what are you talking about? None of this means anything. Sometimes when I’m writing it feels like I’m on a Fisher-Price computer, like ooh I’m writing a screenplay! It doesn’t feel like it’s connected to anything.
Can you explain The Lovebirds' journey from a theatrical release to Netflix?
NANJIANI: As corona was approaching, Issa and I had been talking the entire time. We were like, things might get a little weird here so we should start looking at alternate ways of getting this movie out. And as soon as it became clearer that we wouldn't be able to come out in theaters, we decided that Netflix would be the best option. So we pursued it immediately. Listen, obviously it would have been great for the movie to come out in theaters, I was very excited about that. I love this movie, I love going to theaters, but I feel like, given everything, us being on Netflix is absolutely fantastic.
RAE: We got lucky because it was everyone’s immediate strategy. We know we’re not the first ones to think about this and so the fact that they were excited to get the movie was a bright spot in a very dark time.
Is it weird to be promoting a movie remotely?
NANJIANI: [Press tours] are going to be a lot more convenient now!
RAE: Sure, convenient, but I get anxiety about it. Like I know my internet is s---ty, and I’m gonna be frozen on the screen in a stupid position. I feel like internet connections are gonna have to step up. I think people are going to try to get creative in terms of how they’re showcasing talent, and they already are — but I know as a viewer I’m not trying to watch a split-screen of Zoom that I also use on all my conference calls. That’s not appealing to me.
NANJIANI: I think we’re going to be doing a lot of these.
What was your relationship before you started working together — you knew of each other of course, but had you met?
NANJIANI: We’d met each other very briefly and I was a huge fan of hers and everything she’d done. I had read the script [of Lovebirds] a little bit earlier and thought it was fun and had a lot of potential but it didn’t become real until I got an email and they said, 'Issa Rae is interested in doing this movie, what do you think?" And I was just such a fan of hers and thought it would be a really interesting pairing, us together.
You play a couple — who also happen to be framed for murder — how did you get to know each other well enough to pull it off?
RAE: Well, outside of doing daily trust falls, the best part about this project was working together to re-imagine the characters and the couple. With both of us being writers, that process was us getting to know each other and talk about our own experiences — and that was the most intimate we could get. We were spending a lot of time together, getting to know what makes each other tick, and building our chemistry. I found that we were on the same page a lot and I really admire the way that Kumail thinks. He’s so smart and a great listener.
NANJIANI: I felt like we hit it off immediately, I don’t remember a moment where things were getting awkward. I don’t even remember us getting to know each other or anything. We just jumped into it. Since the movie’s about this relationship where the couple has been together for a long time and they’re not in a good place, we just started talking about our past relationships and what we’d done wrong. We got to know each other really quickly, really well, through that.
Did anything out of those relationship conversations make it into the movie's script?
RAE: There's a scene where we're sitting outside the drugstore, that is a point of view that I’ve had. It's watching other couples and thinking they were miserable until I got into a comfortable relationship and realized oh, just because they’re not talking doesn’t mean they’re not happy.
Can you talk about reworking parts of the story to fit the realities of an interracial couple?
RAE: We put ourselves in the casting. We talked about not beating people over the head with the fact that I’m black and he’s Pakistani, but it was something we were aware of while filming. There was one scene that we cut that would have addressed that a little bit further but it felt like, okay, that’s not necessarily the purpose of the movie. But we’re not ignoring it either.
NANJIANI: We didn’t want it to be a message movie. But the reality is, when a black person and a brown person are in a situation where they’re suspects, their reaction is very different than someone who’s white. Color is everything. I’ve always had this distrust of police — I’m scared of police in a way my wife is not and never has been. I think putting those sorts of things in there was important. We wanted it to feel like only we could play these characters.
There’s action here, too. How did you prepare for the fight scenes?
RAE: First of all, there was no problem on my side. I think that the most choreographed scene I had was the horse fight in the barn. There was no training required to make me terrible at fighting, especially in heels.
NANJIANI:[Laughs] That came naturally. I’ll say with the fighting, there were a lot of challenges, one of them is that we’re such a low budget movie that there was no training. I would do a take and think, "Oh wow I nailed that." And then they would give me these notes and I would say, "I thought I was great." Then I looked at the footage and I realized how awful I was. I think they did a good job editing around some of my stunt failings.
RAE: Sorry, I’m taking a question from you here. But did you feel like Lovebirds prepared you for the Marvel thing or was it a whole different ball game?
NANJIANI: What Lovebirds taught me for the Marvel thing was that I had to prepare a lot more than I had prepared. In Lovebirds, we’re bad at fighting — in the Marvel movies, I’m supposed to be this amazing fighter. I begged them to train me a lot more than I would have. Ultimately it did help me and I knew where my weaknesses were in that area because of Lovebirds.
How did you survive the night shoot aspect?
RAE: I’m still a little bit traumatized. I think I’m generally pretty easy-going, I don’t have drastic moods. But everything just feels more intense at night because your entire schedule is off. And I was at a hotel where I constantly heard the train or a boat, I still haven’t figured out what the f--- it was, but there would always be this excessive horn in the middle of my day while I was trying to sleep.
NANJIANI: It’s so hard. We didn’t shoot during Mardi Gras but the week leading up to it is also very intense. We’d be shooting something at 3:30 in the morning, and anybody can get a parade permit and just get a parade. But we’d be shooting something, do you remember…
RAE: That four-person parade!
NANJIANI: With like an 11-piece band! And we had to wait 40 minutes for them to slowly make their way across the street and it’s like four a.m. and you’re losing light and you've got this big scene to do. I moved out of the hotel and got a house in what I thought was a very quiet part of town, but I realized there’s really no such area as a quiet part of New Orleans...I would see people at the bar when I was going to work at 6 p.m. and when I was coming back at 6 a.m. I would see the same people at the bar.
As people use your movie for quarantine escapism, what pop culture are you turning to right now?
RAE: Yesterday in my depression I was like, "What can I watch right now?" And I was flipping and that made me sadder because I was like, "I don’t have anything that I turn to." I think Groundhog Day is my comfort movie. I think that’s gonna be my happy place — but it may feel too familiar. Like watching Alien. I don’t want to come out of this hating Groundhog Day so I also have to be precious with my s---.
NANJIANI: For me, I’ve been watching old Seinfeld episodes. And I know I was joking about Alien, but I’ve seen it so many times that it feels familiar and I just love it so much. I’m very glad that Issa’s show [Insecure] is back because I love that show, and I’ve also been watching a show on HBO called High Maintenance that I love.
RAE: High Maintenance is great. Is Seinfeld on Hulu? I’m gonna download Hulu. I’m just paying for it. F--- it.