(November 2, 2023) The year 2024 is set to bring some exciting space-themed movies, and one of them is Netflix’s “Spaceman“, which is based on a book called “Spaceman of Bohemia” by Jaroslav Kalfař. But what’s making this movie even more special is the return of Kunal Nayyar, an actor from India who you might remember as Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali from the famous American TV show “The Big Bang Theory“. Slotted to play Petr, a space engineer, Kunal is making a comeback to the silver screen after a hiatus of about two years.
Even though the actor’s journey in the all-white industry hasn’t been easy, Kunal’s determination earned him a place on the list of highest-paid TV actors. Interestingly, Kunal’s financial success during his tenure on “The Big Bang Theory” laid a solid groundwork for his career after the show. His current net worth of $45 million is a remarkable tale of skill, commitment, and shrewd decision-making in the entertainment industry. “I still have a small voice in my head which sometimes wonders how all this happened,” the actor said during a recent conference, adding, “But, I also must say that I always believed in myself and my abilities. In the industry that I am in, one has to have faith in themselves to succeed. We go to so many auditions and never really know if you are going to get called back from any of the producers. I think my belief that I would be able to achieve something big someday, came from my parents.”
Theatre — his first love
It was in London that his story began but it soon shifted to India where he moved with his family at the age of four. New Delhi became the actor’s new abode. After finishing his schooling at St Columba’s School, Kunal moved to the United States to pursue a Bachelor in Business Administration in Finance from the University of Portland, Oregon. But the shift was not so easy for this Delhi boy at the beginning – the actor often found himself lonely, missing his family and friends back home. However, it was precisely this sense of isolation that would become the catalyst for a transformative chapter in the actor’s life.
Well, that, however, wasn’t the only reason that Kunal started auditioning for roles in plays happening at the University. The actor had actually fallen for a girl, who was also a part of the University theatre programme. And so, he devised a plan – audition for the play, secure a part, and relish plenty of quality rehearsal moments with the girl. “The funny thing is,” Kunal said laughing at an interview, “I fell out of love with her, and fell in love with my one true love—acting.”
At his very first college theatre audition, the actor had already demonstrated a knack for embracing new experiences. “You know, the theatre’s a place where people who sort of feel like misfits can have a family because theatre is accepting of all types. I felt at home,” he shared. Soon enough, he found himself taking acting classes. What had begun as a hobby soon transformed into a life-long passion. “I was on stage. I had a moment where I had completely, for the first time in my life, discovered what it means to be present, and it happened on stage. I finished the play and went home and told my parents, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life’, and I am going to do it.”
His aspiration to make a name for himself in the world of acting led him to Temple University in Philadelphia. There, he honed his craft while pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in acting. This journey helped him get a few American TV commercials, and the actor eventually bagged several shows on the prestigious London stage. However, it was his involvement in the 2006 production, “Huck & Holden“, that truly turned heads and put this Indian talent on the map in the United States. The breakthrough came in 2007, when he landed a significant role with a special appearance on the popular CBS show “NCIS,” portraying an Iraqi terrorist.
It all started with the Big Bang
Kunal was determined to shatter the stereotypes that often confined Asian actors on American TV. He seized an opportunity to audition for the role of a scientist in “The Big Bang Theory“, and as the saying goes, the rest is history. This immensely popular series propelled the actor to stardom, where his impeccable comedic timing shone. His character, Raj Koothrappali, wore his Indianness proudly, endearing himself to viewers. However, what many don’t know is that the show’s creators originally envisioned the character as a first-generation American. But they were so impressed by Kunal’s audition that they reimagined the character to reflect his background as an immigrant from India.
“They allowed me to really be an Indian, who has Indian qualities who doesn’t run away from some of them I think they really found a nice balance with Raj,” the actor said. Such has been the popularity of the show that it has been nominated for multiple Emmy, Golden Globe, SAG, and Critic’s Choice Awards and has won the People’s Choice Award for favourite network TV comedy three years in a row. During its remarkable 12-year run, “The Big Bang Theory” made Kunal a household name across the United States. However, amid his television success, the actor diversified his portfolio by venturing into film and Broadway productions. He even lent his voice to the 2012 animated hit, “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” and embarked on his film career with the 2014 romantic comedy, “Dr. Cabbie“.
And Kunal’s creativity didn’t stop there. He authored a book titled “Yes, My Accent is Real: and Some Other Things I Haven’t Told You“. This humorous memoir delves into his experiences growing up in India and traces his journey to becoming an actor in Los Angeles. “I didn’t want the book to be a self-therapy session. But I wanted to share a side of the journey that was unglamorous. The general perception around Hollywood is that it is this perfect place with rich people and tanned bodies, fast cars, and movie premieres. And sometimes it can be that, but under all that materialism lies a strong and diverse heartbeat. I wanted to humanise the experience,” he shared.
Loving what he does
The 40-year-old actor, who has played many onscreen roles, has become a part of the South Asian tribe that has been putting India on the world map. After “The Big Bang Theory“, the actor’s focus shifted from acting to a diverse array of projects. The actor and his wife, former Miss India Neha Kapur, are dedicated to leveraging their platform for a greater cause, exemplified by their generous scholarships for students at the University of Portland specialising in Performing & Fine Arts. They also extend their support by providing funding for guest artists and the University’s annual participation in the American College Theater Festival.
The actor’s heartfelt desire is to see young aspiring actors complete their education and follow their dreams, much like he did. “I love what I do. Regardless of the destination, it is important to love the journey. Love what you do. Let the universe decide the rest,” said the actor addressing the University students during a conference.