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The Rise of Raj

The Rise of Raj

Kunal Nayyar, the actor behind The Big Bang Theory's Rajesh Koothrappali, joked about doing the APA interview MTV Cribs style, before giving us a more subtle glimpse into the life of a CBS sitcom star.

By APA Staff

Interview with Kunal Nayyar
Interview and article by Ada Tseng
Video edit by Oliver Chien


As of March 17th, 2008, freshman sitcom The Big Bang Theory has been called on to anchor CBS's Monday prime time lineup. 8pm is a tough timeslot, opposite the popular Dancing with the Stars, but The Big Bang Theory has been holding its own since its post-writer's-strike return: good news for its ensemble cast.

The Big Bang Theory follows a group of male friends -- Leonard (Johnny Galecki), Sheldon (Jim Parsons), Howard (Simon Helberg), and Raj (Kunal Nayyar) -- who all happen to be brilliant physicists, and the girl next door, Penny (Kaley Cuoco), who infiltrates their social circle. The show prides itself on its factually-accurate references and insider science jokes; a consultant on the show is UCLA professor of physics, David Saltzberg.
Kunal Nayyar's Raj, often clad in his signature purple jacket and vest, is the shy one of the endearingly socially-awkward bunch.

As the first season develops, we start learning more and more about the deceptively quiet Raj. He keeps in contact with his parents in India via webcam, and he dreams of singing lullabies to his future wife. A running gag in the show is that Raj is unable to speak to women. That is, unless Raj is intoxicated or on experimental anti-anxiety drugs (a fate that happens in "The Grasshopper Experiment" and "The Pork Chop Indeterminacy" respectively). In these scenes, Raj turns into a more aggressive, seductive version of himself, and Nayyar gets to let loose a little bit. In the most recent episode "The Peanut Reaction," Raj ends up singing karaoke shirtless, wearing a red handkerchief on his head and a long yellow streamer loosely hung around his neck.

"I have the good fortune of being one of those people on the show who has a lot of one-liners," says Nayyar. "So I get to come in and say a funny thing. I'm like the monkey. I say exactly what's on the page and I get paid for it. It's great."

According to Nayyar, the producers were originally looking to cast an Asian American actor as part of the supporting cast of The Big Bang Theory.

"I'm from India," says Nayyar. "I'm not an American-born Indian. But I stumbled upon them, and they just really felt that I would fit."

Born in London, Nayyar moved to New Delhi when he was four and lived there until he was 18. Although he grew up watching both Bollywood and Hollywood, he thinks he actually missed out on a lot of Indian culture growing up.

"It's kind of weird. When you grow up in Delhi, you want to be the cool American kid," says Nayyar. "I loved listening to Backstreet Boys and Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams, and it was cool watching Terminator and Star Wars and all these pop culture movies from America, so I missed out on a lot of the great Indian movies. It was just this rebel phase where I wanted to fit in with the cool kids. It was uncool to speak Hindi, and it was cool to speak English. It was cool to wear baggy jeans and listen to rap and stuff. Now as I'm older, I wish I had gone back and immersed myself in my own culture."

After high school, his parents encouraged him to travel, so he came out to the States -- specifically Portland, Oregon -- for college.

"I think when I came to America, I was just as lost," says Nayyar. "My idea of what American pop culture was and the reality of it was quite different -- in the sense that, when you're 14 years old, The Backstreet Boys are cool, but if I'm 19 years old listening to The Backstreet Boys in America, it's kind of weird."

While he officially earned a degree in business, Nayyar was constantly taking acting classes and performing. "I hung out with actors, who talked about all the cult movies that actors like: Swingers, The Princess Bride, movies that I had no idea about. And it's the same thing in India. Especially now, when I go back and people are talking about movies and things, I don't know what they're talking about either.

"I'm this world citizen stuck in the middle. You're always one foot in, one foot out. I've traveled the world; I can speak different languages. I get along with everyone, every single culture, but that's one thing I've found about myself, that I'm always slightly stuck in between."

After winning some awards and recognition for his theatrical work during his last year as an undergrad, Nayyar gained confidence and realized it might be possible for him to pursue acting as his career. He earned a Masters of Fine Arts at Temple University in Philadelphia before making the move out to Los Angeles. The Big Bang Theory was his very first pilot audition.

"I booked it pretty much out of grad school," says Nayyar. "I worked in England and in DC, and then I came here and booked this, and people think: what a lucky guy. But no one sees everything you have to go through to get that role."


Pilot's long road to take-off

Despite successful readings for the casting director and staunch support from the producers from the get-go, there was a six-month, anxiety-ridden waiting game before Nayyar could be sure that he secured the role on the series.

"Before you screen test for a show in front of the producers and executives, you sign papers as if you've gotten the part," says Nayyar. "You sign six years of your life away, and you haven't even gotten the role yet. So, I go in there, and I was like, 'I don't want to see it. I don't want to see what I'm going to make. I just want to sign the papers.' Then of course you read it, and it's like, 'Wow this is life-changing.'

"[Afterwards,] they can hold you on a contract," explains Nayyar. "You're not allowed to do anything for five days. After the fifth day, they have to tell you [whether you got the role]. Usually you hear as soon as you leave the studio, within ten minutes, but I didn't hear anything. On fifth day, Business Affairs calls my agent, and says, 'We don't know what's happening. We need five more days. Will you please sign an extension?'"

But after the tenth day, they still had no answer. By this time, Nayyar was getting restless, but his agents talked him into signing the second extension. Two hours after he signed it, they called to give him the part.

"And that's just to get the pilot," says Nayyar.

Although the pilot shoot went smoothly, it wasn't until three months later that Nayyar heard that the show had gotten picked up. However, no one had called to congratulate him. He soon realized that the rest of the cast had been flown to New York to present the show without him.

"Two days later, I get a call from the producers, saying 'We don't know why you're not here. Something's going on. We'll give you a call when we figure out what it is.'

"So now, it's May," says Nayyar. "They have to tell me by June 30th whether I'm on the show or not. I heard that my character didn't test well in front of the audience. But then the producers really fought for me."

At this point, his American visa is running out. He's going back to India because there's a dream project that he is in negotiations for. Then finally, on June 30th, he gets the call that he's on the show.

"So I say yes to the show; I fly to India, say no to the movie; they fly me to Canada to get my work visa; I come back; and I start shooting," says Nayyar. "And here I am, on a hit TV show somehow."

The movie he ended up turning down was a Bollywood film starring one of his idols, Aamir Khan.

"There will be a time and place for everything," says Nayyar. "It's very encouraging, because eventually I'll go back [to India], and people will know more who I am. I'd like to do one or two more movies over the summer, if I can, over the next few years. And then when The Big Bang Theory goes into syndication, I'll make a lot of money, put it in the bank, and go home to India and become a movie star. [laughs] It's mapped out perfectly."

In the meantime, being on The Big Bang Theory will suffice. "This is just fun," says Nayyar. "You go to work and everybody's in a great mood. You're doing a comedy, and it's doing well. Your sole purpose is to make people laugh."


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Published: Friday, May 16, 2008