Ending The World With Sunita Mani And John Reynolds, Comedy’s Next Big Things

Sunita Mani and John Reynolds can’t quite recall when they first met. Probably sometime around 2014 when Mani’s claim to semi-fame was her three-person comedic dance troupe, Cocoon Central Dance Team. Reynolds had just moved to New York City from Chicago. A mutual friend recommended he attend the ensemble’s show, where they could have been performing a choreographed routine to Beyoncé’s “Love on Top,” Gloria Estefan’s “Turn the Beat Around” or Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love.” The details don’t matter. There, in some Brooklyn club, sat 23-year-old Reynolds, marveling at a three-person comedic dance troupe, unaware that one of its members would later be his co-star right as their careers were blossoming. The set was a doubleheader, and he loved it enough to stay for seconds.

During the next few years, Mani and Reynolds were fixtures in the New York comedy scene, which was enjoying the same millennial transfiguration that has exploded across popular culture. Now 29, Reynolds is a tall, gangly Wisconsin native with a thatch of wayward brown hair; part of his bag involves poking fun at male egotism. Mani, a 34-year-old multihyphenate from Tennessee, has a slight frame and large, earnest eyes. Her dancing background makes a bit more sense if you know that she’s the woman possessed by a violent urge to boogie in DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s popular “Turn Down for What” video. 

I met Mani and Reynolds a couple of weeks ago, on the first day of fall. We’d each emerged into the sunlight from our respective COVID-19 hibernations. A publicist arranged for us to convene at Westlight, an unpopulated cocktail bar atop the swanky William Vale hotel in Williamsburg. Sitting six feet apart opposite the Manhattan skyline, we discussed Mani and Renyolds’ pandemic-appropriate new movie, “Save Yourselves!” 

The comedy, available Oct. 6 through video-on-demand services, marks the first lead film role for both actors, who in the late 2010s became TV breakouts: Reynolds on “Search Party” and “Stranger Things,” and Mani on “GLOW,” “Mr. Robot,” “The Good Place” and Progressive commercials. In what is essentially a two-hander, they play Su (Mani) and Jack (Renyolds), a social media-addled Brooklyn couple who seek self-improvement by borrowing a friend’s cabin upstate and chucking their devices for one whole week. While Su and Jack tread through the analog getaway, furry alien critters descend upon Earth, unleashing a potential apocalypse that the two don’t find out about until it might be too late. 

John Reynolds and Sunita Mani, photographed by each other, at Westlight in Brooklyn.

John Reynolds and Sunita Mani, photographed by each other, at Westlight in Brooklyn.

“Save Yourselves!” is lean, wry and endearing — hardly your average disaster flick. Lo-fi creature effects and a homespun ethos make it more of a relationship romp than a cataclysm spectacle. It would be a merry double feature alongside “Palm Springs,” another sci-fi-lite farce that premiered at Sundance in January. The real charm in “Save Yourselves!” is the chemistry between Mani and Reynolds. Su and Jack’s shared sourdough-starting hipster tendencies have found them suddenly regretting their slavish devotion to work, technology and materialism. She is the let’s-talk-about-our-feelings pragmatist to his let’s-play-fast-and-loose goofball.

“I was a little nervous that Su isn’t as funny as Jack, honestly,” Mani said. “I was a little bit self-conscious about playing the more contrastingly grounded person in some ways. I think I thought it would be so much fun to play a stupid character with John.”

That sentiment has followed Mani and Reynolds as their careers have developed. Accustomed to being part of ensembles in an industry that requires sustainable personal brands, they are constantly wondering whether what they do stands out. In 2016, when Reynolds was preparing to shoot the pilot of “Search Party,” a murder-mystery comedy in which he plays Alia Shawkat’s “pitiable” boyfriend, he envied co-star John Early, who got the more ostentatious physical humor. Similarly, Mani is one of 14 women in the primary “GLOW” cast, each portraying an actor portraying a grandstanding wrestler on an ’80s TV show.

Reynolds auctioned to play Alison Brie’s love interest on “GLOW” — one of many auditions he attempted while trying to find the thing that would make him stand out. Others include “Silicon Valley” and CBS’s abandoned “How I Met Your Mother” prequel. He screen-tested for “Saturday Night Live,” earning what Reynolds calls a “pity laugh” from John Mulaney, who was a writer for the show. He thought he’d landed a lead role on “Man Seeking Woman,” but FX apparently nixed his hiring because he wasn’t famous enough. (His most illustrious screen credit at the time was Excited Man in an episode of “Master of None.” Reynolds said the gig paid $700 but he had to join the Screen Actors Guild, which cost more than his paycheck.) And then came back-to-back victories: TBS greenlighted “Search Party” and he booked a recurring part as an Indiana police officer on what would become the mega-sensation “Stranger Things.” 

A uniting principle of Reynolds’ comedy is his perception of himself as awkward. That’s easy to telegraph from such great heights. He has the stature of a Hollywood hunk, but his Midwestern cadence and fidgety gestures defy that convention. “I feel like a cartoon in real life,” he said. 

Often the butt of a joke, he’s the 30-ish-year-old comic who catalogs his sensibilities through a litany of references: “The Simpsons,” “Wet Hot American Summer,” Pee-wee Herman, “Chappelle’s Show,” Chris Gethard. He does guy comedy with a heart, tending to play “overcompensating betas.” At one point in “Save Yourselves!,” Jack tells Su, “I don’t know how to be a man,” alluding to Jack’s inability to chop wood or do rudimentary plumbing. It’s a line that Drew, his “Search Party” character, might say, too.

Mani and Reynolds in "Save Yourselves!"

Mani and Reynolds in “Save Yourselves!”

“I think in a lot of my own personal comedy, it’s exploring outdated masculine ideals and taking the piss out of them,” Reynolds said. “Obviously, overcompensating and being insecure is so funny. Also, a big, tall, white guy is the perfect guy to knock those ideals out, too. I know so many guys like that, and there are Jack traits that I also possess. I don’t know, it’s fun. This summer, I was chopping wood [like] Jack. My dad was chopping wood and he has arthritis. I was like, ‘Let me chop the wood!’ My girlfriend was watching and I was like, ‘This is so embarrassing.’ Like, ‘Ah! This ax wasn’t sharp enough!’”

Mani, meanwhile, is the type of performer who will shock you with boisterous expressions you never saw coming. The fact that she drove an ice cream truck for a lawless “all-female contingency” of Mister Softee upon first moving to New York explains Mani’s up-for-anything gumption. When she was cast as the hacker Trenton on “Mr. Robot” in 2015, she was still waitressing. Mani had auditioned for the gritty thriller thinking it was a comedy. The role was written for a teenage boy, but creator Sam Esmail reframed the character as an Iranian American woman. Suddenly Mani, who is Indian, was getting calls from the costume designers asking whether she owned harem pants. (Esmail did not respond to requests for comment.)

“I learned through costuming that my ethnicity played a huge part in why I booked it,” Mani recalled. “I played an Iranian American character in a hijab, and I was so completely confused. I show up for an audition that was meant for a 16-year-old boy and then get cast and get put in what felt like a costume. A hijab is not a costume. So I felt the weight of representation immediately, and with such a high-profile show. … Very little information trickled down to me. I was very protective of what I was doing, and I didn’t get the information from the top. So I went into my first Hollywood experience being like, ‘Is this Hollywood? I want fucking out. I want out. This is so intense.’”

Mani looks back at “Mr. Robot” fondly, but the gravity of it was no picnic. Trenton sometimes spoke in Arabic, and because it was her first big job, Mani was too nervous to admit she doesn’t know the language. Thankfully, Trenton flouted Middle Eastern stereotypes, setting the stage for the meta spirit of “GLOW,” where cultural pigeonholes transcend subtext. When Arthie Premkumar, the sincere medical student Mani portrays, needs cash, she takes a gig on the titular wrestling program. In the ring, she is assigned the alter ego Beirut the Mad Bomber, an avatar of offensive Muslim stereotypes that Arthie tries to protest. 

“It made me so happy to have it exposed, all the fears and the psychology and the pressure that I felt like I was experiencing on ‘Robot’ when I was green,” Mani said of “GLOW.” “I got to learn a lot, and then now it is commentary. We are exposing it and folding back layers and talking about it. I was really happy that I could be a part of that conversation. I remember reading the pilot thinking, ‘This is the best pilot I’ve ever read.’”

Clockwise from top left: "Search Party," "GLOW," "Stranger Things" and "Mr. Robot."

Clockwise from top left: “Search Party,” “GLOW,” “Stranger Things” and “Mr. Robot.”

“GLOW,” like “Search Party,” earned critical praise and a niche fan base that wasn’t quite what its writers (namely Jenji Kohan, who’d struck gold with “Orange Is the New Black” and “Weeds”) hoped for. Netflix reportedly almost canceled the show after the first season. But Mani’s career throttled forward nonetheless. She appeared in “Wine Country,” “Madeline’s Madeline,” “Can You Keep a Secret?,” the CBS All Access series “No Activity” and this month’s Amazon horror-anthology installment “Evil Eye,” one of the rare instances when her Indian identity will be central to a plot. She says she’d never seen herself as a lead actor, crediting “Save Yourselves!” as the turning point. 

Co-directors Eleanor Wilson and Alex Huston Fischer wrote the role of Su specifically for Mani, but they didn’t tell her that until after the shoot was over. Fischer had known Mani in college. 

“We think she’s one of the funniest, most talented people out there,” he told me by phone. The directors, who are married and used to live in Brooklyn, didn’t want to fall into the “King of Queens” trope — beautiful woman, schlubby dude — so they sought a “handsome” sweetheart to be Mani’s other half. Early on, a production company they were seeking finance from thought Renyolds and Mani weren’t well-known enough, instead suggesting Channing Tatum or Paul Dano for Jack. (Imagine Channing Tatum and his biceps saying the words “I don’t know how to be a man.”) Wilson and Fischer, who’d pinpointed Reynolds after seeing him on “Search Party,” said they held out until they could get financing for the cast they wanted. It was when Mani sent an email to the guests for her then-upcoming wedding that Wilson and Fischer realized she and Reynolds were already friends.

“When we knew they were both going to be doing it, we definitely thought harder about where we could pepper physical comedy into the script because they are both incredible physical actors,” Wilson said. “The way we wanted to shoot it came out of that, as well, actually wanting to see them flail around in a space, which was funny to us.”

The directors said Mani and Reynolds offered some perceptive feedback about the nature of Su and Jack’s romance. Many relationship comedies lead to some kind of blow-up that results in a conversation about whether the couple should stay together. Wilson and Fischer hadn’t gone that far, but they did incorporate tics that made Su and Jack seem more at odds. Mani and Reynolds suggested doing away with those, instead emphasizing that these two people actually like each other. That’s part of what makes “Save Yourselves!” refreshing. The reason for the central sojourn is not to hash out relationship foibles; it’s to pursue enlightenment by discarding the trappings of millennial ennui.

The general public is still learning Reynolds’ and Mani’s names, but I imagine that won’t be the case for long. They represent, in many ways, the best of what their generation is creating: material that is weird and smart and moody and unencumbered by the over-the-top-ness of their predecessors. It’s all about dance troupes and viral videos that resist the mold. But now that what they’re doing is paying off, literally and figuratively, they can quit hustling so much. Their families finally understand what they’ve been up to for the past decade.

“I feel like the first time I was able to buy my parents a meal, that’s when they were like, ‘This is really cool,’” Reynolds said.

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