I originally did this interview back in February, but since The Big Bang Theory just started up again on CBS, I thought it would be an appropriate time to transfer this interview over from my old space to my new one!
Kunal is a real sweetheart and I hope Raj gets more to do this season!
Here is the original interview:
While big Bollywood stars dream about working in Hollywood, one Indian actor is already doing it, Kunal Nayyar, one of the stars of the The Big Bang Theory, on which he plays the scholastically brilliant but pathologically shy Rajesh Koothrappali, Ph.D. The rakishly handsome Kunal took some time from his busy Hollywood schedule – and post-Oscar recovery – to talk with me about being Indian in Hollywood, Slumdog Millionaire, and, of course, geek pride.
Kunal was born in London but raised in New Delhi, where his family still lives. He didn’t come to the United States until college, where he earned a degree in business. But, his interest in acting was always lurking in the background and after satisfying his parents with a practical degree, he was free to pursue his passion. With a Masters in Fine Arts from Temple University and a long resume of plays under his belt, the question was now how to earn a living. Well, to make a living in acting, says Kunal, “you have to go to Los Angeles”.
When I asked Kunal why he chose Los Angeles – and Hollywood – over Mumbai or even London, he didn’t hesitate. America had become his new home. This was where he had built up his resume, made friends, and, more importantly, made contacts. Besides, he continued, there weren’t any Indians from India doing any serious acting in Hollywood. “How cool would it be if I made it here?”
The difficulties faced by ethnic actors, especially Asian actors, in Hollywood are fairly well known – that’s a large part of the joke in the Harold and Kumar movies after all. Still, Kunal says that while the leads may still go to the white guys with blue eyes, the casting calls for that guy’s best friend or co-worker are more and more often “ethnically open.” Although he’s happy playing Raj for now, and the show has a few more years to go until syndication, Kunal hopes that more and more roles become ethnically open so that “in 7 or 10 years, I can play a detective or a cop and really kick some ass.” (He’s also open to my suggestion that I write in to the producers of the show to have them give Raj a Bollywood-style dream sequence, where he gets to dishoom-dishoom some bad guys.)
While Raj is certainly not a tough guy, like a cop or a detective, he does have his own quiet appeal. (Well, he’s quiet until you get a couple of drinks in him…) I prodded Kunal a little on the NRI (Non-Resident Indian) stereotype issue but he didn’t bite. “If you go to Silicon Valley or the research department of a university, you find a lot of Indians.” And Raj isn’t exactly portrayed as your average NRI - he’s super smart but with some real pathological issues. And, can we really hang an entire nation of people on one character on one TV show? Well, I certainly hope the great Bollywood watching audience doesn’t hold all white people responsible for the filmi actions of Tom Alter – how many virtuous heroines did he hold hostage over the years?
More interesting to Kunal is the nerdy aspect of his current character. When I asked him if he was a nerd in high school, he couldn’t give me a straight answer. “I went to an all boys high school, and we were all sort of nerds.” The great social divide of American high schools was non-existant for Kunal. In India, it seems, being a jock isn’t enough to make you popular and liking Star Wars, reading comics, and being smart isn’t enough to get you socially ostracized and labeled a nerd. The cast, along with the show runners, of The Big Bang Theory did a panel at Comic Con last year and Kunal spoke with great affection the fans – nerds, in other words – who would come up to the cast and tell them, “Thank you for making us look cool.”
Everybody likes an underdog!
And speaking of dogs, the big wins of Slumdog Millionaire at the Oscars have brought the idea of Indian cinema and Indian stories to Hollywood’s attention. Of course, Kunal had seen it and called all the fuss “well-deserved hype” as well as saying the success of the film could only be a blessing for actors like him as the whole world gets used to seeing Indian faces on the big screen. The conversation turned, as it had to, to Bollywood. Would Kunal ever consider going to Mumbai? “Of course! I’m from India; I speak Hindi; it’s my home.” He hinted that he had made some contacts in the industry – I couldn’t weasel out any names, but I’m crossing my fingers for Anurag Kashyap – so, maybe we’ll be seeing him in Bollywood sooner rather than later.
(Kunal as Raj in The Big Bang Theory - from cbs.com)
Kunal’s favorite actor: Aamir Khan
Kunal’s favorite films: Dil Chahta Hai and Rang De Basanti