It took a month of messages on social networking websites, Twitter and Facebook, but when Kunal Nayyar, who plays Raj Koothrapalli on the
The Big Bang Theory
, in Hollywood, came down to India for a vacation, he didn’t ‘shy away’ from an interview.
Unlike several US-born Indian-origin actors, Nayyar has lived his whole life in New Delhi and studied at St Columba’s School. He tells us how he made it in Hollywood.
Growing up in New Delhi, did you always have aspirations of making it in Hollywood?
Honestly, I wanted to do ‘something’ with my life but I didn’t know what it was. (Chuckles) I enjoyed acting but I really just wanted to be a rockstar. I would play the guitar so I could look cool in front of the girls, and wanted to be Aamir Khan when I grew up!
Were you as brainy as your character, Raj Koothrapalli, in school?
(Laughs) No, in school, I was busy playing badminton and chasing girls. I hated studying and only wanted to play sports. I was a normal Delhi boy in that sense. I am fortunately blessed with cool parents who only wanted me to work hard, no matter what I did. (Chuckles) But I did study in high school, because I wanted to pass and go to USA!
You studied business in USA. Did you go there to become an actor or did that happen by chance?
I didn’t really plan being an actor in USA. I did take acting classes and studied business so I had a degree to fall back on. But I did a play there that did very well, and we landed at a regional competition in Idaho.
I remember, the judges gave me a firing for being incompetent. I had thought I was good so I couldn’t believe it! I was lucky it happened early in my career, because I went back home, decided to work on what they had said and go back and win it.
So, did you win?
(Grins) Yeah, I went back to the competition after four years, and won the regional round, and then, the national round. That was a big confidence booster. At the time, I had already enrolled at the University of Philadelphia to study acting.
If you wanted to be Aamir Khan, why didn’t you come back to India after your training?
(Laughs) I guess I wanted to be the first one from India to make it there. Everyone told me, ‘
, there is no point in being an actor’. I didn’t want to prove anything to anyone. It was more of a challenge to myself. I thought if I was well trained, I had a good chance.
Since there are not many roles written for actors of Indian origin, didn’t it make landing a role more difficult?
No, those factors are out of my control. The roles may be few but all I care about is doing my best at my audition. If I get the role, I’ll then try to do my best as an actor, and if I don’t, I want to leave the room with the people saying, ‘Wow, where did he come from? If we can’t give him this, can we give him something else?’ You get stereotyped only if you want to.
In fact, they were looking for an Asian for the role of Raj. But I did a good audition, and they took me on.
Did they have a character in mind or did you help them shape Raj Koothrapalli?
When they originally conceived him, they didn’t expect him to be born in India. We collaborated on making him as real as possible, instead of a caricature. They wanted to call him Ramayan David Koothrapalli and (chuckles) I told them that’s not going to work! So I gave them the name Rajesh, a common name.
So what does it mean for an Indian to be on an A-list show on an A-list channel?
To be honest, it doesn’t feel any different than you’d otherwise. You just feel like the luckiest person on the planet. (Smiles) I do feel very blessed that I have achieved to an extent, what I set out to do from India. I don’t wear it on my shoulders, but in my heart I’m proud to be the first kid from India in Hollywood.
Talking of the show, there seems to be homosexual overtones to your friendship with Howard.
(Laughs) It’s a running joke. We have a big ‘bromance’ on the show and now that he has a girlfriend, my character does get mad a lot. But Howard and Raj can’t live without each other and that will continue to be explored.
The characters on the show are big nerds but at the same time, their sense of humour is really primal.
Predominantly, yeah. That’s the beauty of the characters – they don’t have malice towards anyone. They don’t lie, (chuckles) and when they do lie, they get caught. They don’t hurt anyone. Their love is very innocent. And you can’t have people who are insincere in real life portray them on screen. (Laughs) So, all the cast members are like that too!
Do you share Raj’s shyness when it comes to girls?
Not at all… I’ve never been shy around girls. (Chuckles) In fact, the girls who don’t know me can’t believe I’m such a different person in real life.
Has the character of Raj ever come in your way when you are trying to impress a girl?
(Laughs) No, when you are rich and famous, and on TV, you get attention from anyone, not just girls. Granted, that womanizers get more attention, but impressing a woman in Hollywood only has to do with your pockets!
So, unlike Raj, you are never single?
(Laughs) I’m always single!
What’s been your favourite Hollywood moment so far?
(Smiles) Ahh, I got to go to the Emmys and met Kelsey Grammar, of
fame. We challenged him to table-tennis match, for fun. And then we had some beers and got talking. That guy earns $ 1.8 million per week. He has more money than God, and yet, he is the sweetest and most humble man I’ve met.
And he said to me, ‘You are doing really well in life right now, so enjoy it. There’ll be a point when you may not do well, no matter how much money you have. So just enjoy your life, but don’t take it all for granted.’ And it’s true - the only way to go far in life is by being humble, the rest of it smoke and mirrors. In Hollywood, everyone’s predominantly humble.
How is the attention back in India?
I am actually able to relax when I’m back home.
is the No 1 comedy show in USA and is huge in Latin America and America. In Delhi, only a few people recognise me at a bar or a restaurant here, and they are generally polite. It’s a nice change because I hang out with my family in India. I don’t have aspirations of having a huge profile in India.
So, what are you a geek for?
I’m a geek for many things, including
Lord of the Rings
. I’m also a huge video game nerd. Being a geek isn’t a myth – everyone’s a geek about something.
Is there a movie in the pipeline?
When you are on a show on a network, you don’t have the time to do anything else. But I’m sure a movie will happen. (Pauses) Honestly, I don’t know where I’d be in five years. Hopefully, the show will get bigger and opportunities will present themselves. I’m being patient. I don’t only want to do acting, I want to teach, direct and produce. (Chuckles) Or I may just retire.