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'Stuber' star Kumail Nanjiani doesn't want to be annoying

Joe Gross
Kumail Nanjiani attends the work-in-progress screening of "Stuber" during South by Southwest on March 13 at the Paramount Theatre . [Kyser Lough for Austin360]

An interesting thing happened when “Stuber” screened at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar the other day: The film stopped. There was an error with the playback and the film stopped. It happens, no biggie.

Except “Stuber” star Kumail Nanjiani, perhaps best known now as a tremendous stand-up comic and for his role in HBO's “Silicon Valley,” was there. The audience did not know this.

So when he stepped out to kill some time while the movie was fixed, it was quite the surprise.

“That must have been really weird for them,” Nanjiani says. We are sitting the Drafthouse's South Lamar offices with “Stuber” director Michael Dowse talking about their film. “Movie stops, gets dark, guy from the movie comes out and says, ‘Do you have any questions?’” (Reader: they loved it.)

The plot of “Stuber,” a work-in-progress cut of which debuted at South by Southwest, involves a part-time Uber driver name Stu (Nanjiani), who becomes involved with a police conspiracy when his car is hired by a detective named Vic Manning (Dave Bautista, aka Drax from “Guardians of the Galaxy”).

It is an action comedy in the grand 1980s tradition.

Nanjiani became attached to the project fairly early in its development, with Dowse reading the script, coming on board as director and doing a few drafts.

“I love the action-comedy genre,” Dowse says, “and I don’t think people are making them as tough or visceral as they used to be. I wanted to make something more like a ‘Lethal Weapon’ or a ‘48 Hours.’”

At some point, Nanjiani and Bautista did a chemistry read. “It was crystal clear right away that we had a great duo, you just know within a minute,” Dowse says.

So Nanjiani did a little research. “I watched ‘Lethal Weapon’ and ‘Midnight Run,’” he says.

The trick is to not be annoying, Nanjiani adds.

“What you are looking for is: How do you have a relationship between two people on screen who do not like each other and make it not annoying for the audience?”

He’s not kidding. “The trick is to make it so the audience is rooting for both of them,” Nanjiani says. “It can be very annoying in a comedy if you see two people arguing with each other, so you have to figure out what to have underneath it that puts you on both their teams equally. ‘Midnight Run’ is the best possible version of that.”

“Midnight Run” is an action comedy starring Robert De Niro (before his attempts at being funny), and Charles Grodin (always funny). It was directed by Martin Brest, is often brilliantly executed and should in no way be confused with “Midnight Express,” which is very different.

“You need tension in the relationship” between characters, Dowse says, “but it can’t be that it gets irritating or redundant.”

“Exactly,” Nanjiani says. “What I like about ‘Midnight Run’ is that they are not best buds at the end. They understand each other, they respect each other, but if they never see each other again, that is fine.”

There is also a moment in every good (or maybe just every) action comedy where the two protagonists fight each other. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Dowse tried to make it both work and not seem like a rip-off of anything else by setting a big fight between Stu and Vic in a sporting goods store. The results are rather awkward.

“A problem action comedies sometimes have is that one of the parties is just too good a fighter by the end,” Nanjiani says. “Stu is bad all the way through. He is never, ever good.”

“The key is to layer the stakes into the action,” Dowse says. “It’s not about making the action funny. It’s about making it surprising and having mistakes in it and making it a little sloppy.”

As for what is next, Dowse is in the middle of putting together a first cut of “Coffee and Cream,” a movie for Netflix starring Ed Helms, Taraji P. Hanson and Betty Gilpin.

Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, produced a show for Apple called “Little America,” and he has to finish shooting the final season of “Silicon Valley.”

But he also has the stand-up bug again. "Going out to talk to the crowd gave me the high that you can get from literally nothing but stand-up."