(August 12, 2021; 9.30 am) Breaking into an all-white American sitcom The Big Bang Theory, and owning the ground like a true South Asian wasn’t easy but that’s Kunal Nayyar for you. An actor who holds his own. Steering away from run-of-the-mill roles, the 40-year-old made astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali shine alongside Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstader. Their nerdiness and bromance made The Big Bang Theory one of the most popular American sitcoms and catapulted Nayyar to the Forbes‘ list of highest-paid TV actors.
Muscling his way into an industry that has been all-white, the British-Indian actor is taking every chance to represent South Asians in their truest form.
From the bylanes of Delhi to the boulevards of Los Angeles, Nayyar’s story is a textbook example of making it big in Hollywood.
Theatre — where it all started
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 Nayyar’s new abode and this is where the actor grew up. After finishing his schooling from St Columba’s School, Nayyar moved to the United States to pursue a Bachelors in Business Administration in Finance from the University of Portland, Oregon. The Delhi boy found the move to a new country challenging initially — Nayyar often found himself lonely and devoid of any friends. It was this loneliness that drew him to theatre; it was here that he felt at home.
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“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 told CBS News.
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 desire to make it big in acting took him to Temple University in Philadelphia where he learnt the trick of the trade in his Master of Fine Arts degree in acting. This landed him in commercials on American TV and plays on the London stage. However, it was the 2006 play Huck & Holden that made people sit up and take notice of this Indian boy in the US. He got his first big break in 2007, thanks to a special appearance on CBS’ popular show NCIS where he played an Iraqi terrorist.
The show that changed his life
Nayyar was keen to break-free from the stereotypes that Asians were subjected to on American TV, and took his chance to audition for the role of a scientist in The Big Bang Theory, and as they say, the rest is history. The popular series made Nayyar a star in his own right who had an impeccable comic timing. His character Raj Koothrappali wore Indianness up his sleeve, and made people fall in love with him. But not many know that the the makers had the character of a first-generation American in their mind, however, they were so impressed by Nayyar’s audition that they reworked the character to build on his personal background as an immigrant from India.
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“They allowed me to be 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,” said Nayyar in an interview.
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 People’s Choice Award for favorite network TV comedy three years in a row.
The popularity charts
With The Big Bang Theory, a show that ran for 12 years, Nayyar became a household name. This popularity translated into big bucks for the British-Indian actor who made it to Forbes‘ top 10 list of highest-paid television actors in 2015 and 2018, with earnings of $20 million and $23.5 million. The actor made $900,000 per episode of The Big Bang Theory, reports Business Insider.
In between his well-received television show, Nayyar diversified with his stint in films, broadway shows, and a book to his credit. If he lent his voice for the 2012 hit animated film Ice Age: Continental Drift, he made his film debut with the 2014 rom-com Dr Cabbie.
A year later, Nayyar added another feather to his hat when he penned Yes, My Accent Is Real, a humorous account of his experiences growing up in India and 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 humanize the experience,” he told Verve.
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A champion of inclusivity and diversity
The 40-year-old, who has played many onscreen roles, has became a part of the South Asian tribe that has been putting India on the world map. Nayyar is a perfect example of inclusivity on American TV.
“It is lovely to see the huge surge of Indian characters on American television. I wear my culture very proudly on my sleeve. I am proud to be an Indian. It did set me apart in an advantageous way for Big Bang… obviously, although, in other instances it has also set me apart to my disadvantage,” he added.
After making people fall in love with his funny act, Nayyar moved up the alley into a world away from Raj Koothrappali by playing a killer in Netflix series Criminal. His menacing on-screen act earned him a nomination at the 2021 BAFTA Awards. The actor is making a conscious effort to push the envelope with each of his roles, and this decision has made him zoom into the world of science fiction with Adam Sandler‘s Netflix film Spaceman that stars Golden Globe-nominee Paul Dano and Carey Mulligan.
A prominent name in American entertainment industry, Nayyar has been a part of the brigade that’s promoting inclusivity and putting South Asians on the world map. Not one to play by the rules, Nayyar has smashed stereotypes in every possible way and is an inspiration from any individual who has plans of making it big in Hollywood.