‘I still don’t know how Raj’s story ends’: Kunal Nayyar
As The Big Bang Theory winds up after 12 seasons, we talk to the fresh-faced, tousle-haired Nayyar, the actor with the winning smile and sharp sense of comedyUpdated: Apr 27, 2019 19:25 IST
Kunal Nayyar plays the Indian astrophysicist, Rajesh Koothrapalli, one of the nerdy scientists on the long-running American sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Nayyar was born in England, grew up in Delhi and moved to the US for higher studies. He decided to become an actor and hit paydirt with this show. For much of its duration, the socially awkward Raj tries to date a variety of girls, but flubs pretty much all his relationships. At the moment he’s seeing the confident, no-nonsense Anu. Will it work out this time?
The show has had its share of critics, who complain that it stereotypes its characters, but The Big Bang Theory has had a staggeringly successful run. As it winds up after 12 seasons, we talk to the fresh-faced, tousle-haired Nayyar, the actor with the winning smile and sharp sense of comedy.
The Big Bang Theory is finally coming to an end next month. What’s going through your mind right now?
I’m trying to stay present and allow myself to experience this in real time. I’m not thinking about the future nor about the past; really enjoying these last few months with this wonderful cast and crew that I call family.
When you started doing the show, did you ever think it was going to be such a big success?
I was so young at the time, I was just happy to have a job. I was not self-aware enough to realise the gravitas of the situation. It really began to hit me in Season 3 and Season 4. Season 4 was huge for us because we went into syndication, and were playing on three or four channels five times a day! That’s when I truly got my first taste of fame.
How close are you to your character Raj Koothrapalli? Are there any parts of him you identify with? He’s so sweet and bright but when he tells his best friend Howard Wolowitz that he’s tired of being taken for granted and of being laughed at, there’s some truth to that, isn’t there?
It seems you’ve answered the question already, ha! I think actors always bring a part of themselves to a character. So in that regard yes, there are many qualities that I share with Raj. When I first left home [Delhi] I was 18, I was quite naive, and I had this wonderful purity to me. I tried to channel those qualities when I auditioned for the part.
The Big Bang Theory is a comedy, and comedy is hard to do. But Raj can really make you laugh with his one-liners, expressions and body language. What did you learn about comedy while working on the show?
The biggest lesson I learnt was from our creator, Chuck Lorre. He encouraged me to trust my instincts and not force a joke. The tricky thing about comedy is we often feel like we have to be funny, when in reality comedy works when a character is being truthful. If you get out of your own way, listen to the actor you’re in a scene with and trust the language, it helps pave the way to having a truly funny and genuine moment.
Raj’s three friends are all married now. Will Raj finally have his happy ending in Season 12? Also, which of Raj’s girlfriends did you like the most?
You’re trying to start World War 3 or what? I’m not going to answer which one of Raj’s girlfriends I liked the most. Haha! As I’m writing this, I have not read the last two episodes, so I am not sure how Raj’s story will end.
- The show revolves around four awkward, geeky scientist friends who like to spend their evenings playing Dungeons & Dragons or planning synchronised outfits for the next Comic Con.
- Sheldon Cooper, the main character and easily the most infuriating, made Jim Parsons both a household name and one of the most highly paid actors in television. He plays, brilliantly, a theoretical physicist who is asocial, narcissistic, condescending and monumentally selfish.
- Leonard Hofstadter, Sheldon’s long-suffering roommate, is the most ‘normal’ of the four. He’s an experimental physicist with low confidence, lactose intolerance, and mommy issues. The role made Jimmy Galecki the second most highly paid TV actor in 2018, after Parsons.
- Howard Wolowitz, played by Simon Helberg, is a stereotypically Jewish mamma’s boy, and an MIT engineer. The high point of his life is when he is picked by NASA to go to the International Space Station. He and Kunal Nayyar tied in third place in 2018, on that list of most highly paid TV actors according to Forbes magazine.
- Nayyar is Rajesh Koothrapalli, an astrophysicist and Wolowitz’s closest friend. He has a thick accent, and is so painfully shy around women that he spent much of the earlier seasons unable to talk in their presence unless he’d had a drink. His relationships tend to be the briefest and most bizarre. He spends most of the show single, wishing he wasn’t.
- Penny, played by Kaley Cuoco, lives next door to Sheldon and Leonard, an aspiring actress who marries Leonard in Season 9. She is one of the highest-paid women on television.
- Also in the gang are Bernadette (played by Melissa Rauch), a sassy and brilliant microbiologist now married to Howard; and Amy Farrah Fowler (Mayim Bialik), a neuroscientist who becomes, incredibly, Sheldon’s wife.
What parts of the show / story tracks have you enjoyed doing the most?
I’ve always loved it when the four guys get together for some epic adventure. It reminded me of going to school in Delhi at St Columba’s and of all the shenanigans we used to pull.
Are you at all interested in science? Did you pick up any science doing the show?
I have always had a fascination with science, especially astronomy. There is something so overwhelming (in a good way) about exploring what lies beyond our logical understanding of space and time. So it has been exciting to follow that world quite closely.
Would you be open to doing a Hindi movie?
Absolutely. I think we make some of the greatest films in the world. And it would be a privilege to come back home and work. So if someone is reading this, send me a good script!
What next, after Big Bang Theory ends?
Retirement. Haha. In all honesty, I will continue to act, continue to push my boundaries as an artist, and challenge myself by taking on different types of characters. But even beyond acting, I’d love to do something bigger than myself, create a platform that makes the world a more joyous place.
Indians are doing so well in the very competitive American entertainment industry these days – there’s you, of course, Mindy Kaling, Priyanka Chopra...
It is a great honour to be talked about in the same circles as the aforementioned actors. I’m very proud to be Indian, and I feel very blessed that I can carry our flag forward and bridge the gap between Bollywood and Hollywood.