Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon, Lee Eisenberg, and Alan Yang — the producing team behind the Apple TV+ series Little America spoke to Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki about exploring diverse immigrant experiences with authentic and empathetic stories.
When I spoke with Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon, Lee Eisenberg, and Alan Yang in early June, we were a week into nationwide protests following the horrific murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The mood was heavy and grief was palpable, but one guiding light that we all came back to was the importance of empathy. The importance of understanding the world that exists outside of our own inner-circles.
Little America, the anthology series that Nanjiani, Gordon, Eisenberg, Yang executive-produced for Apple TV+ aims to do just that—explore the nuances of America’s ever-evolving relationship to immigration. The show succeeds brilliantly— telling rich, complex, heartfelt stories in just 30 minutes. Little America is a delightful viewing experience. A necessary viewing experience.
Read our interview with Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon, Lee Eisenberg, and Alan Yang below:
Awards Daily: It feels strange to do an interview today of all days with everything going on in the world. But maybe it is a good time to talk about Little America because I think the show is so good at transporting you into a world that seems entirely different from your own and showing you that it’s not.
Kumail Nanjiani: I think the biggest challenge that we’ve been facing here is that people don’t understand what privilege they have, right? So what’s happened in the last week is we’ve been seeing videos and a lot of people who were not aware of police brutality as an issue now have noticed it, right? And the reason that they weren’t aware of it…
Emily V. Gordon: They didn’t need to be.
KN: Right. Different people have different relationships with the police. Emily, who is white, views the police fundamentally differently than I, who am not white, do.
I think what our show does is try to put you into the shoes of people who are different from you. And allows you, or at least attempts to allow you, to see the world with a different perspective, empathize with that, and realize that everyone has a completely different experience as an American. And America is very different to different people.
And it’s become unavoidable this week in a way that’s been appalling and shocking, but also I think, ultimately, will lead to some good.
EVG: I think what Kumail said is absolutely correct. It feels weird to be promoting a television show this week. It feels weird to be talking about it. But, I’ve been seeing tweets from people who have just found our show, and have said that it’s made them feel hopeful. That [Little America] has been something that has put a smile on their faces and that’s really necessary too.
AD: Emily, Kumail, and Lee, you were responsible for the writing. Why did you decide on the 30-minute format for each episode? And how were you able to establish such empathy and rich characters within that short time span?
Lee Eisenberg: Yeah, I think a lot of it had to do with the stories we chose that Epic Magazine originally collected. I think, initially, the first batch was 12 stories, it expanded to 50, and now there’s a book.
It was really important to us that each episode can stand on its own. The [stories] that jump out to us have those elements in their DNA. So, there’s comedy in there. It’s surprising. The story goes in a direction that you don’t expect it to go in. And more than anything, I think that there is heart and there is empathy. There’s no real judgment of the characters and there’s no judgment of the world. It’s just everyone trying to get by. And those were the stories that we most gravitated towards.
We wanted the characters to be from all over the world and we wanted them to have settled all over the United States. And showing that variety was something that was really important.
AD: As an Iranian-American, ‘The Rock’ [episode 7] was so important to me. And obviously, I can’t speak for all of the episodes, but ‘The Rock’ was so detailed and culturally specific. How did you guys make sure to have that authenticity for all of your episodes? Who were the people that you talked to and what were the steps that you took to really make sure that the worlds you created were so rich and accurate?
LE: From a writing perspective and from a producing perspective, it was incredibly important for us to be as authentic as possible. I think that when you have a show that doesn’t have crazy dramatic swings, you know, the president’s daughter wasn’t kidnapped. That’s not what this show is. This show really lives within those details.
So, for us, we did a lot of research. We had cultural consultants. We had dialect coaches on set with us. Many of the directors were from the countries of origin. Many of the co-writers were from the countries of origin. And that was really, really important to us.
And, you know, my father’s Israeli, and there are elements in the Iranian episode that I pulled from my dad’s life. When we started talking to the director, Nima [Nourizadeh], who is Persian, we found that there were so many similarities. I think one of the things that has come out of the show is that even though everyone’s experiencing things in different ways, there is so much overlap. I think having the opportunity to tell these stories and getting perspectives from people that don’t look like you —you find that there are more overlaps and similarities than you expected.
Alan Yang: Just to echo what Lee said, I think, it’s important to make those details a priority, right? It’s important to feel the authenticity and make sure that you’re getting as much right as you possibly can. And you can never be a hundred percent perfect with these things, but you can try your best.
I remember working on ‘The Grand Prize Expo Winners’ [Episode six]. I remember auditioning actors with Lee and Tze Chun, who co-wrote and directed that episode. And that episode is based on Tze’s mom’s story and his own story. So, we had that, but in addition, when you’re auditioning actors to play his mom, you have to find someone who can speak the language in the right way and have the right accent. We had a dialect coach on set because even though Tze and I are Asian, we’re not dialect coaches.
We actually came into a very ironic situation where we had a great dialect coach who happens to be white. But he was really good at explaining to the actors how to pronounce things with a certain accent in Mandarin in a way that Tze and I couldn’t. We could hear it with our ears, and we used our own personal experiences to guide the process as much as possible, but then it also helps to reach out to people who have those experiences that you don’t. Or have the knowledge and the tools to help you craft the show and make sure all the details are exactly right.
AD: All of you throughout your careers have drawn on your personal experiences.
Emily, I’ll start with you. It’s been such a pleasure to follow you and get to know you since The Big Sick came out [in 2017]. You’re so open about your own personal experiences, your own story, and what you’ve gone through. And I’ve learned so much from you, just by seeing your honesty in your tweets and listening to the podcast you guys have now [Staying in with Emily and Kumail].
How did you then apply that same approach to Little America?
EVG: Oh, well, thank you for saying that, that’s very kind of you. I was born and raised in North Carolina. My parents are not immigrants, but what I did do was marry an immigrant.
EVG: [Laughs] That’s the experience that I wanted to bring to Little America. There’s so much that I’ve gotten a tiny glance into in the 14 years that we’ve been together. It’s stuff that I think everybody should be aware of. And it’s all situations that I think people should have to look at and be like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s not the same for me as it is for other people.’
I wanted to bring in what would have been lovely for me to see —what would have been helpful and useful for me to see— if I were not married to Kumail. You know, his experiences with the immigration system, all that stuff that I came to it as an adult.
And I always try to bring empathy to everything I do. A sense that you’re not alone. That’s my baseline for everything I try to do, is to help people feel like they’re not alone. Everybody’s experiences are always completely unique, but you’re not alone in feeling that way either. Those were the two main things I wanted to bring to Little America.
KN: Emily’s online presence has really helped me through a great deal as well!
AD: [Laughs] It’s comforting! It’s really comforting. It’s very warm, and you just feel like, I don’t know, things are going to be okay.
EVG: Thank you! [Laughs]
KN: I think of her personality as being aggressively optimistic.
KN: For me, I am an immigrant. I came from Pakistan when I was 18-years-old. And what I learned is that my immigrant experience was different from everybody else’s immigrant experience. So, while I was told to bring my immigrant experience to it, I also understood that one of the thesis statements of the show is that no two immigrants have the same story.
I feel like there’s this narrative that if you’re an immigrant ‘These are the struggles you’ve had and this is what you fought for.’ And sometimes, It’s true. But most times it’s not because everybody’s stories are simply too different. That’s what we wanted to show people— that every immigrant experience is completely different.
LE: I think for me, being the son of an immigrant, growing up, I had a complicated relationship with it. I mean, I was very aware that my dad had an accent. I was self-conscious that my friend’s parents didn’t. That he was different. He would speak to me in Hebrew at the movie theater, and that would embarrass me. You know, it wasn’t until I was older that I was able to appreciate that I could speak another language and I could go to another country and seamlessly get by. Or that I had cousins that had a completely different experience than me and I learned so much from that.
I think, for me, telling those types of stories was always something that was exciting. And when we first started talking about the show, it was a real challenge. It was a challenge finding writers that could speak to those experiences. You know, there were not 55 Ugandan writers that we knew of to write the Ugandan episode [episode 5, ‘The Baker’].
We were pulling from all these different places. I mean, sitting on a set and debating what the food should be for the Syrian scene or what the wallpaper should look like in the Nigerian episode. [‘The Cowboy’, episode 3]. All that stuff just felt exciting.
I remember going to Thanksgiving as a kid, it was all Israelis, and we got chicken. And I was so angry that all these Israelis didn’t appreciate the difference between chicken and turkey.
LE: Young Lee, at 10-years-old, was very, very upset by that!
It’s exciting to be able to do a show where that could be part of a storyline. Most of the shows that I’ve worked on in the past, those are just not the moments you’re focusing on.
So many of the episodes are so focused on family— the conflicts of it, and the love. Those relationships are so important and that resonates with me.
AY: I think a lot of us have worked on a lot of shows and movies that are very personal in nature in the past —often about our own lives. And this show felt like an opportunity to blow that up and expand the scope. We worked on real stories about ourselves. And now these are real stories from all over the world, all over America. And that’s really extraordinary. This is an anthology show that allows you to show a huge variety of experiences.
And, you know, at the risk of sounding incredibly cheesy, going to these protests this week, one of the things that struck me was the variety of people that you saw. You looked around [and saw] diversity— in many senses of the word.
As Kumail said, the immigrant experience isn’t one thing. it’s not monolithic. Of course, it’s, it’s a million different stories. It’s tens of millions of different stories.
Little America, instead of being just about one family, or one workplace, or one romantic relationship, can be about so many different kinds of stories. I think that’s a real reason why we started making the show.
LE: One more thing to add, that was not the purpose of making the show, and was a happy result of it, is that in talking to the actors for the episodes of the Middle Eastern episodes — the Syrian episode and the Iranian episode, both of those actors have played terrorists. Like literally, if you look at their IMDb page, it’s like: ‘Terrorist number one,’ ‘terrorist number two.’ Sometimes they were playing the terrorist sidekick. Sometimes, they got to be the head terrorist. They had never played a role where they just walked into a room and had groceries to make a meal for their family. And other actors had never played roles where they got to use their actual accents. They had to do an American accent, every single time, to actually get roles.
Hearing the perspectives of people, both in front of the camera and behind the camera, it felt like we were giving people opportunities to expand what’s expected of them. And that was an exciting part.
AD: Little America is getting a second season on Apple TV+. Can any of you tease anything about what to expect?
LE: Uh…we are trying to limit crowd sizes so we can actually shoot the show within the next three years!
LE: You know, one thing that we talked a lot about with season two is community. I think a lot of the season one episodes were kind of ‘stranger in a strange land.’
In season two, we have an episode that actually takes place in Minneapolis —in the Somali community. We’re also talking doing about a Native American episode. The other thing we’ve talked about is: What now? You come to the United States and there’s this promise of ‘The American Dream’ —what if The American Dream isn’t exactly what you expected It would be?
If you liked season one, I think season two, in some ways, is even deeper — in terms of exploring some of the difficulties of being an immigrant here.
All eight episodes of Little America’s first season are available on Apple TV+. Little America is Emmy eligible in the Best Comedy Series category.