Sharon Knolle Freelance Writer

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east west magazine

Winter 2007 issue

Watch for: Actor Kunal Nayyar

From writing a successful play in India to playing Rajesh on CBS's new hit, "The Big Bang Theory," Kunal Nayyar is one to watch

By Sharon Knolle
Click thumbnails for full-size image

Actors of Indian descent appear on some of TV's hottest shows, including "Heroes," "ER," "Lost," and "The Office." Kunal Nayyar, who plays brainy-but-shy Rajesh Koothrappali on the new CBS sitcom "The Big Bang Theory," laughingly refers to himself as "Indian Indian," meaning he's possibly the only raised-in-India actor currently starring on an American series. "It's kind of historic, what's happening here," he says. "It's a pretty big deal."

Nayyar was born in London to an accountant father (whose clients included The Police) and an interior designer mother. The family relocated to New Delhi, India, when Nayyar was 5. At 18, he moved to the United States to attend the University of Portland in Oregon and went on to get a master's in acting from Temple University in Philadelphia. Acting showcases landed him an agent, who got him roles on "NCIS" and in commercials. He also got great reviews and notices for his coming-of-age role in the play "Huck and Holden" in Los Angeles, for which he won a Garland Award.

On "The Big Bang Theory," Rajesh's very traditional parents, who appear via Web cam in a funny, recurring bit, constantly pressure him to find the right Indian girl and settle down. In real life, Nayyar's parents couldn't be more different. "The circle that I grew up in is very different from what you call a traditional Indian family. My parents are like, "Yeah, go act!" and all bohemian and they're smoking cigarettes, which is something you very rarely see. That's maybe 10 percent of India and the rest of it is very conservative."

Nayyar's parents supported his acting, as long as he had a backup plan, so he studied business. "When I actually started acting in college, I just fell in love with the entire art form. The thrill of being in front of an audience ... they're breathing with you, they're laughing with you, they're crying with you, so that's a thrill I didn't get in any other field."

He says his business degree has come in handy in the entertainment industry. "It really helps me to market myself. I'm not a guru or anything," he says, "but I'm a big believer in just being yourself. People tell you do it in so many ways: You have to wear a white shirt, don't wear blue... I think it's all crap."

He knows how lucky he is to have landed a role that's not just a cliché. "It's actually the wit of what I'm saying and the affectation of the dialect is just what comes with the character. It's not the source of the humor itself, which happens so often," he says. "You could make a case that Rajesh is stereotypical because he's smart and he's Indian, but that's not a bad stereotype," Nayyar laughs. "He's not a taxi driver and he doesn't work at the 7-11 and sometimes that's all people think of when they see an Indian person in a turban. So it's nice, I think it's changing. It would be nice now to see the next level, to see [Indian actors] playing detectives or playing the hero in the movie."

Nayyar's real accent is somewhat less pronounced than Rajesh's. "For that character, it's slightly thicker. But if I am in New Delhi, that is how I would speak. I'm going home next week and when I come back, my accent's already thicker."

The day we caught up with Nayyar, he was just about to go home for his older brother's wedding. "I'm so excited," he says. "My parents are there and my whole family and they're my best friends. You get used to living in America and I've been here eight years now, but out of nowhere there'll be a moment ... like all this stuff that's happening now, I really want to share with them, but they're far away and they have no idea." Although "Big Bang" has since premiered in India, when his mother came to see an episode she cried during the entire taping. "She actually could not believe that this is how big it is."

When he's not shooting the series, Nayyar enjoys hanging out with his girlfriend and his "entourage" of 10 friends or so. "I'm Indian, so I need people around me all the time. I'm very sociable," he says. He's also formed a tight bond with other Indian actors he's met on auditions over the years. "Once a month we try and get together and have dinner at someone's house. We just hang out and talk about auditions."

Nayyar, who wrote the play "Cotton Candy," a huge hit in New Delhi, says, "I'd like to write my masterpiece one day. I have so many dreams but I have to make sure that I'm patient and I'm smart. If we get picked up for the second season, I'll sit down and start writing."

He's still adjusting to life since "Big Bang," which has already been picked up for the season. "You have to take your entire life one day at a time," he says of his newfound success. "I'm trying to soak it all in and enjoy it."