‘Welcome to Chippendales’ Cast and Producers Interview

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Clockwise from top left: Welcome to Chippendales executive producer Jenni Konner, stars Kumail Nanjiani and Annaleigh Ashford, and creator Robert Siegel.
Photo: JJ Geiger

When the cast members and executive producers from the new Hulu series Welcome to Chippendales showed up for a conversation at Vulture Fest, the goal was to make it the sexiest panel of the entire two-day event. This was, admittedly, a lofty objective, especially considering that Lee Pace, the sexiest man alive according to internet polling, would be receiving the Vulture Festival Honorary Degee the very next day. Yet as the completely unbiased moderator of this conversation with series creator Robert Siegel, executive producer Jenni Konner, and stars Kumail Nanjiani and Annaleigh Ashford, I think we kinda pulled it off?

I mean, we did discuss Chippendales choreography. The phrase “dick thrusting” was used. (There is plenty of that in the series, which focuses on the base doings behind the scenes of Chippendales’ — and its dancers’ — rise to prominence in the early ’80s.) Nanjiani and Ashford, who play nightclub-running romantic partners, talked about what attracts their characters to each other. (Whispers seductively: math.) There was even some chatter about what each person’s go-to stripping song might be. While I won’t spoil their answers, let’s just say that Nanjiani’s routine, should he ever perform it, will be a hot tribute to a ’90s sci-fi classic.

The story behind Chippendales has been told in different formats, and there have been attempts to make it into a movie that never fully came through. Rob and Jenni, what was it about this story that made you feel, I want to do this as a TV series?
Rob Siegel: Half of what you’ve seen in the limited-series space in past years were failed films, as this was for me. I tried writing one ten years ago, and that’s actually how I connected with Kumail. I originally approached him to star in my film version, which no one wanted to make. But there was a lot of interest in the limited version, which is actually a blessing because you can tell the story much more effectively.

Why didn’t the movie version go forward? 
RS: It had a dark antihero, and they don’t do that in film. TV has Walter White and Tony Soprano, but on the film side, likability is a big issue. For the most part, they don’t care about that in TV, which is why TV is kind of kicking film’s ass right now.

The Chippendales still do a show in Las Vegas. Did any of you go see it?
Kumail Nanjiani: I’ll say I never went, but now I’ve seen 500 performances of male stripping, so I get the appeal. I get why it was such a hit! It’s very exciting.

Jenni Konner: When we were shooting those dance scenes, the extras were not pretending to enjoy it. They went insane! I was like, This really works!

Annaleigh Ashford: I was not pretending to enjoy it. The first day, we had our big, the club is a success! Chippendales-rip-off-the pants! day. When we did our research, we always heard people talk about this palpable energy in the room. That day, you could cut the air with a knife. And then, in the magic of filming things, you have to do it “silently,” so all of us are watching the dancing like [mimes dancing], and every time the boys would rip off their pants, we couldn’t help it. We’d just go “OOOHHH!,” including Kumail and Murray. We couldn’t help it.

KN: There was one background extra who was scripted that she would rip off one of the guys’ pants. And every time, she turned into an animal! There was no acting! She would black out, and we’d yell “cut!” and she’s like “Wha? Let’s do the take!” We’re like, “You nailed it, ma’am!”

AA: It did feel very Method. We were in a place that was a reenactment of the whole scenario. We had the hair and clothes, and everything smelled like the ’70s.

What is the smell of the ’70s?
AA: Sweat and cocaine — there was no cocaine! There was just sweat. And also the distinct smell of sweat in vintage clothing, which is BO from the year the clothes were actually worn, mixed with your own BO and then some dry-cleaning fluid!

How did you cast the Chippendales?
RS: Two of our dancers are actors and the rest are dancers. So we had some actors who can dance, and some dancers who can act. Spencer Boldman and Quentin Plair were two of the actors, and they had big roles. The rest were all dancers who did some acting in the show and were phenomenal.

AA: We had a lot of Broadway folks on set. It was fun. Andrew Rannells and Robin de Jesús have Broadway backgrounds.

KN: And you!

AA: I sometimes “do Broadway.” But yeah, there was a family essence that shows up in the land of theater and also shows up in these limited series, where we’re coming together to make something special that lasts for a short time. But that was a special quality to the dancers: They come from that kind of background, but they’re also invested in character.

JK: And they’re ripped.

AA: That too.

KN: I wasn’t involved in picking the dancers. Did you guys get tapes and stuff?

RS: Yeah. We looked at the tapes and we scrutinized their bodies. It was weird! It felt … risky in 2022! We were classy about it. And the dancer bodies do evolve. Like, if you look at pictures of the Chippendales dancers in the ’70s versus the ’80s, the look changes. They get more chiseled.

KN: Right, because Arnold and Sylvester Stallone show up and change what an “in shape” man looks like.

RS: 1978 ripped is not 1986 ripped.

Did you learn any of the dances just for fun?
AA: Every once in a while, you could catch me doing weird turns in the back when nobody was watching. Also, there’s a really good mirror behind where the boys enter, and it was, like, Chorus Line heaven. All I wanted to do was the Cassie dance when nobody was looking!

RS: What’s the Cassie dance?

AA: It’s in Chorus Line, when she gets to do her dance for Zach. “Play me the music …”

RS: Can you do it?

AA: No, I need to stretch.

Kumail and Annaleigh, how much of Steve and Irene Banerjee’s story did you know before you started working on this?
KN: Rob and I met at the New York premiere of The Big Sick. I had no idea what the story was until Rob brought it to my attention. He said the guy who started Chippendales was an immigrant from India and the story was bananas.

AA: Most of the time when you work on a real-life story, you have a lot of information about the people you’re playing. In this instance, we didn’t have very much. We had to go from what was on the page to make them feel authentic and live up to the times they were in. It was really important for me to show a woman navigating in the business space in the late ’70s and early ’80s and being connected through her husband.

JK: They committed so hard to these parts. They have such good chemistry. They’re like Ross and Rachel — like a murder-y Ross and Rachel! I was astounded to see how many questions they had. They would spend all this time talking about the characters and thinking about the characters and fleshing them out in a way that we didn’t.

AA: When you’re making a story about real people, there’s always this moment where [you ask], Is it helpful for the story to talk to the person, or is it not? The most important thing is the story. In this instance, we didn’t need any more information.

KN: And also they were dead.

AA: Right, they were dead! Also, it’s funny that the only thing we could find was one picture of Irene, and it was on their wedding day. That’s it! That’s the only information.

RS: I’ve never even seen that. I know she’s from Buffalo, which we changed — I think that’s it! Of all the characters in the show, she was the most blank canvas.

AA: She was good at math.

Let’s take a look at a clip of Steve from the first episode.
JK: Look how different Kumail looks! That’s not the same guy.

KN: Yeah, it’s called acting.

AA: It’s really good hair! I have so many pictures of him with these little hair clips in between takes.

KN: The look I asked for was “a comb-over with a full head of hair.” I think they nailed it.

Kumail, can you talk about what motivates Steve? He’s clearly interested in Hugh Hefner; he doesn’t want to run a gas station anymore. Initially, he tries to open a club, but it’s focused on backgammon. For some reason, that doesn’t hit.
KN: No, he was way ahead of his time.

He likes to earn money, but he doesn’t seem like somebody interested in material things, necessarily. What motivates him to want to succeed?
KN: He wants material things to the point where he can convey a kind of success. He has a version of the American Dream in his head: Hugh Hefner, nice cars, nice clothes, fancy watches, women. And success isn’t as important to him as other people thinking he’s successful. And even though he gets that version of success, it’s not enough for him.

When we first meet Irene, she’s at a bachelorette party and looks absolutely miserable to be in Chippendales. Annaleigh, why does she want to work there if she didn’t like being there at first?
AA: My own bachelorette party was a party bus the cast of Kinky Boots got for me, and we drove around the city after our Sunday matinee. A male stripper showed up at some point, and I was the only person that was like, “Uhhh …” I was not into it. There’s always one out of 100 women in the club who feels a little uncomfortable, so Irene was that times a million. She was crawling out of her skin.

The reason she wanted to work there is because she loved the glamour and the magic of Hollywood. Many people move to this city and NYC because they want to be around the magic in some capacity — it doesn’t matter how that is. And for Irene, it was accounting. It was her way to be connected to something exciting, something she longed to be a part of. Also, there’s a really special, Shakespearean connection these two have. It’s sort of star-crossed and ends sadly, but there’s something lovely about watching two people connect in a room where they never thought they would. And their love language is numbers. That scene is so beautifully written, and there’s so much subtext under the math of it all.

Aside from the math, what do you think draws the two of them together? 
AA: There’s a fundamental spark. And what keeps them connected is they both feel uncomfortable in their skins, and when they’re with each other, they feel more comfortable. That’s what you want with the person you spend your life with.

KN: For Steve, he only likes himself when he sees himself through her eyes. And that was such a gift to get Annaleigh. By the way, she auditioned with that scene, and it was like, Yup, that’s gonna be Annaleigh, and now we have to cast all these other people. The first scene we did together, that’s when I really understood Steve’s arc through the whole season. What was going to work and what wasn’t going to work was all in relation to this relationship.

RS: I’d go into the green room and the two of them would be huddled up mapping. Meticulously, almost mathematically, mapping out, “Okay, in our last scene we were at an emotional this, and now we gotta get here, and in two scenes we gotta get here.”

AA: As an actor, you always say, “What’s my function in the play?” So my function as Irene is for the audience to be connected to him emotionally all the way through, even when he’s doing terrible things.

We just watched a clip from episode two, where Steve comes up with a really clever scheme to get some attention for the club. Then there’s a moment in a later episode, when he goes back to India, that seems to have a real impact on him. He is an outsider, and part of what’s attractive to him is succeeding in America as opposed to anywhere else. Is that a fair assessment?
KN: Yeah, that’s a fair assessment. The version of the American Dream sold here and sold to the rest of the world is very different than the reality of it. I grew up in Pakistan, and I had a version of America in my head, which is The streets are paved with gold, and the narrative about America that is told to Americans as Anybody can do anything, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, everyone has the same opportunities. And that’s obviously not true. It’s based on your background, what you look like, all that kind of stuff.

When he goes back home, there’s a moment where his mom says to him, “Some people aren’t meant to be rich.” That’s the worst thing anybody could say to him. And his mom is right. That happens in episode three, and in the next five episodes, Steve is desperately trying to prove that wrong. That’s the worm that grows inside him and ultimately leads him down the dark paths he walks. He never gets away from that statement.

There’s another cultural outsider in the form of Otis, the only Black dancer. From what I’ve watched so far, he’s always separate from the other dancers, who are all white. Most of the clientele is white. The idea of people who are marginalized being off-center in this show: Is that something that you were trying to address?
KN: The very thing is a big storyline in the show later on.

RS: Steve equated success with whiteness. If he could have, he would have been white, and that’s something he never could transcend. So there was this real fascinating dichotomy in the guy where he longed to be white, and he thought that’s what it meant to be Hugh Hefner, and he wouldn’t let Black people into the club. And then he got sued, but he felt he was being picked on, and he felt he was the victim of racism while in fact he was being racist. It gets crazy.

KN: That was one of the most interesting things to me when Rob first pitched me all eight episodes. We’ve explored racism from the perspective of white people, but we have not really explored racism in pop culture from nonwhite people. That’s a very real thing. It’s something I think about a lot that we don’t really talk about. I was like, This is something that might piss people off, but I thought it was worth really exploring.

And those were clues to me figuring out how to play him: The fact that he changes his name, that he sees success in a very white way, the way he didn’t want Black people in his club, and the way he treats the one Black dancer he did have — a lot of that was insight for me into how he sees the world.

Why do you think the Chippendales were so successful?
KN: It was a space where women could express a part of themselves publicly that they had not been able to express before. And I don’t think that was Steve’s reason for creating it. Later, he started saying he did it to further the feminist movement and stuff; I think that’s bullshit. He just stumbled on it and then that became part of the pitch of the show.

AA: Men have been watching women take off their clothes since the dawn of time, and it took until 1978 for it to be flipped the other way around! There’s also something special about the time in which it happened. That was a moment of sexual revolution, women’s revolution, people feeling liberated. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Unfortunately, it was just a bunch of men trying to make money at the top of it.

JK: And have a lot of sex. They were having a lot of sex and sometimes getting paid for it.

Photo: JJ Geiger

Do you have any idea how many pairs of tearaway pants you went through during production?
RS: Probably fewer than you think.

JK: They’re snaps, they go back.

RS: They’re very engineered and difficult to make. It takes a lot to get it right, so I’d say probably three.

AA: Three?

JK: That’s very wrong. Three per actor?

RS: Maybe per actor.

AA: I was more curious about the crafting of the thongs. My little boy, who’s 6, saw the preview, which I didn’t think much about before I showed it to him. And today we drove past one of the billboards and he said, “Mom, what’s up with those guys taking off their pants and showing their booty?” I forgot: It’s a lot of butt cheeks. A lot of butt cheeks. The thong was an important piece of the puzzle.

KB: And now he’s put together that all those times Mommy was working, she was surrounded by butt cheeks. That’s what she chose over raising me!

What was your answer when he asked that?
AA: I was like, “Yeah! That’s work!”

KN: “Do you like your action figures? You do? Okay, let Mommy have her butt cheeks.”

AA: But I was just like, “They’re dancing, bud! That’s how they’re expressing themselves, you know?”

RS: That kind of dancing requires an intimacy coordinator.

Did you have an intimacy coordinator for the dancing specifically?
All: Yeah.

Because there’s a lot of dick thrusting in people’s faces and things like that, so that makes sense.
RS: All coordinated.

Last question: If you had a signature song that you would dance to as a stripper, what would it be
AA: I don’t know why it just comes to mind, but Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer singing “No More Tears.” I just want to end with gyrating: “Enough is enough is enough!”

RS: What about “Liza With a Z”?

AA: That’s great, but that’s for a different kind of strip club.

JK: I think I would do a band from the ’70s that was pretty unattractive. If you play Beyoncé, then people are expecting to see Beyoncé. It’s why I never go as a super-gorgeous person for a Halloween costume. I just don’t want to be the me-version of Beyoncé.

AA: If there’s any songs about meat, that’s good for stripping.

KN: Isn’t there one in Sweeney Tood? Isn’t there a song about meat pies?

AA: My stripper song is “The Worst Pies in London.” That’s it.

KN: See? Told you!

AA: I’m gonna roll out that dough nice and slow!

Did you answer Kumail?
KN: X-Files theme song?

I like that! The truth is out there, or is it in here?
KN: Exactly! “Trust no one!”

RS: I’m going to think of something incredibly funny in 20 minutes and just say it to the empty chairs.

Kumail, how do you feel about people assuming when the show was first announced that you were playing a stripper?

JK: Still! Someone said it to me last night!

KN: I am so thankful I’m not. I keep my shirt on the entire time, and they have to watch me eat cheesecake. It was great. More of this!

RS: Did you enjoy it?

KN: The eating? I enjoyed it up to a point, but I got so unhealthy I gave myself sleep apnea. And then while shooting this I had to use a CPAP machine. At one point, I put it on and I looked in the mirror and I said, “Emily, I have no idea how you’ll ever be attracted to me again.” You have a huge thing on your face, and it’s a loud machine keeping you alive all night.

Did it make you feel like Bane in The Dark Knight Rises?
KN: No, it made me feel like me on a CPAP machine!



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