YES! That’s what he is, a comedy genius. Starring in one of the most popular comedy shows in history – The Big Bang Theory – Kunal Nayyar has come a long way with his baggage of six stupendous seasons (more to come) and of course a massive lineup of fans across the globe, who just can’t get enough of his succinct wittiness. Growing up in India and bagging a major role on American television, Nayyar’s accomplishments surpass international boundaries with a wider audience wanting more and more of his intellectual humour.
As I converse with Nayyar, I find him laid back and composed, with his humour making appearances in between. He delightfully says working on the show is “a dream come true. Big Bang Theory has sort of been a dream scenario.”
Nayyar was born in London, United Kingdom, but moved to New Delhi, India at the age of four, and described the period as “wonderful” and the “best thing.” Nayyar says, “You are always surrounded by family. It would never just be you or your parents for dinner but always your cousins and neighbours. There was just this sense of community and there were always people around and I loved that.” He speaks profoundly on his love for New Delhi, talking about the love and affection, which in his words, extended beyond the nuclear family. “A nuclear family meant like 20 people basically,” he says with a laugh. “You know with all the festivals in India – Rakhi or Diwali or Holi, it was just wonderful… Delhi has just been home.” Nayyar’s parents – both retired – reside in New Delhi. His father was an accountant, while his mother was an interior designer. He was the younger sibling to an elder brother but was always treated like an adult by his parents, who constantly supported his dreams and journey to stardom. Nayyar credits them for the humble upbringing that his parents instilled in him. “I think that they cared less about my success and more about the kind of person I was going to become or I’m continuing to work on becoming.” Nayyar’s elder brother currently lives in India and works in private equity.
As Nayyar speaks lavishly about his love for New Delhi, he also throws light on a common misunderstanding that his fans hold about him. “A lot of my fans think I’m American…they don’t know I’m actually from India.” Most fans associate Nayyar’s life with two nations, the United Kingdom and the United States. “No one actually knows that I grew up in New Delhi and my parents live there and my home is there, which I find fascinating. But I guess you get your information from the Internet, right, so I don’t even know what’s on the Internet.”
Getting back to humour, Nayyar tells me that being part of a family that constantly cracked jokes at one another’s expense, he had no option but to develop quick wit and hilarity to bounce back from "what was thrown at you, otherwise you get eaten alive.” So now we know where those swiftly flying jokes come from. But what about acting? Well, Nayyar had never planned on making acting a source to earn his bread and butter until his junior year in college in America. Not that he had never experienced acting previously; rather it was something he was engrossed in since his schooling years in Delhi, but it was only in his junior year in college that he realized “This is what I really want… then I started taking all the theatre classes and I ended up getting my degree in business.” And to prove his passion for acting, this comedian then got his Masters in Acting, and jokes “so then it all evened out.”
A performer from a young age, Nayyar was involved in plays and musicals in India, but it was while doing theatre in America that he was exposed to the wider horizons of this glamourous profession. One of his prominent works dates back to 2006, where he was cast in the play Huck & Holden at the Dahlia Theater in Los Angeles. He played an Indian exchange student, who is anxious to experience American culture before returning back home. Nayyar was recognized for this role, and was awarded ‘Best Male Lead in a Play on the West Coast’ by the Garland Awards. Across the pond, he also acted in Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare.
Although Nayyar majored in business at the University of Portland, he was always acting and in his senior year, he was nominated for ‘Best Actor’ in his play The Rose Tattoo. He was then invited to the American College Theater Festival, where he
competed in an acting competition, where he eventually won the Mark Twain Award for comic brilliance, as well as a fellowship to the prestigious Sundance Theater Lab. He completed his Masters in Fine Arts from Temple University in Philadelphia
As for television, Nayyar landed television roles that include the popular series NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service), where he played Youssef Zidan, an Iraqi terrorist, in a Season 4 episode. Then came his big break – the comedic role of Rajesh Koothrappali in CBS’s The Big Bang Theory.
Playing Raj in The Big Bang Theory – the young genius astrophysicist, who suffers from selective “mutism” and pathological shyness, Nayyar mentions the hard work involved in entertaining a global audience. “We work very hard and make it look easy.” However, an indubitable team of talented and phenomenal actors, including Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco, makes the work effortless and as Nayyar emphasizes, a great team of writers further makes their job easier.
Reflecting on his experience in both theatre and television, Nayyar elaborates on both mediums saying that when “you’re in front of a camera, you are playing to an audience the size of a lens. The lens is small which means that’s what people are going to see.” Moving on to theatre, Nayyar explains, “When you are acting in theatre, you are acting in front of 300 to 1,000 people so you can’t afford the luxury to be as settled because in theatre you have to play to the last role.” He further elaborates on the intricacies of theatre saying a performer has to physically express various expressions like being shocked to every person in the theatre, whether he/she is in the 25th row or beyond.
“They can’t see every single facial expression of yours, they are further away so you have to really allow your body to be part of your performance. In television, you can get away with not having to engage your body as much.” That seems an apt description, but what does he prefer? “I’ll take it all, whoever gives me a job,” he replies with a chuckle.
This talented comedian is now gearing up for another bang, however this time the bang will reverberate his skills on the big screen. Nayyar is all set to make his debut in an upcoming film titled Dr. Cabbie, where he plays an interesting character differing from Raj and stars opposite Isabelle Kaif – Bollywood actress Katrina Kaif’s sister – who will also be making her debut on the big screen with Dr. Cabbie.
The movie revolves around an Indian guy, who comes to Canada to become a physician but ends up driving a cab and healing patients in his cab. Nayyar plays his best friend, who is a cabbie in Canada from India. “I was looking to do a project that was completely different from Raj, and this has been a great experience,” says Nayyar.
He also dishes on his co-star Kaif and says “Isabelle is a wonderful young actress. I think she’s talented and well trained, and she’s been a joy to work with.” The film is co-produced by Bollywood superstar Salman Khan and appears to be a collaboration between Bollywood and Canada.
Since the movie is set in the backdrop of Toronto, Nayyar spent quite some time shooting in this Canadian city and seems to be gaga about our wonderful country. “I was there for seven weeks and shooting 14 hours a day. So if you can still love a country after that grueling schedule… it really is a wonderful place. Toronto is a great city and I love the people.” Dr. Cabbie might be his debut appearance in a movie, but that would only be in terms of a physical appearance. Nayyar had previously lent his voice in the fourth installment of the popular Ice Age series for the voiceover of the animated character Gupta, who is an Indian badger and a pirate. Nayyar recalls how as children you dress up and play different voices, but as you grow up and adapt to adulthood, all those childish things take a backseat. However, with Ice Age 4: Continental Drift, Nayyar calls it a “wonderful” experience, as it’s like “being a kid again.” While it may sound like all fun and games doing voiceover work for the role of Gupta, it’s certainly not as light as it sounds. “You also have to do sounds, like effort sounds, such as climbing up the stairs or falling or hurting [yourself].”
Recently Nayyar was seen presenting at the MuchMusic Video Awards in Canada, where he was one of the notable presenters amongst others like Lucy Hale, Shay Mitchell, Stephen Amell, Naya Rivera and many others.
Another hidden talent this actor speaks modestly about is his flair of writing, “I don’t consider myself a writer. I’m an actor who writes.” It was a casual night in New Delhi when he, along with a friend, wrote the critically acclaimed play Cotton Candy. The duo worked through the night to complete the finished product, which was a success in India and ran over and over again, even after Nayyar came back to LA. “It was just sort of a spur-of-the-moment thing and it turned into this huge thing.”
The height of a comedian’s skill and talent can be interpreted with the manner he handles a live audience. Even in that sphere, Nayyar came out in flying colours with his highly appreciated comedic timing as host for the 2011 Just for Laughs: Tribute to Nerds; a show that pays homage to those whose lives consist of iPhones, apps, graphic novels and so forth. He co-hosted the show with his fellow co-star Simon Helberg from The Big Bang Theory. The show was one of the most celebrated and buzzed about show at the 2011 Just For Laughs festival in Montreal. Nayyar humbly talks about that experience saying, “We had really good writers to help us host the thing and it was really fun. Montreal is a beautiful city and celebrating nerds, which we do every day on our show… it was fun. I would love to do it again.”
When away from camera and limelight, Nayyar enjoys playing the guitar, spending the day on the green playing golf, watching television and spending time doing his favourite thing – taking a nap. “I love napping.” He relates this back to an Indian way of life, where the weekend afternoon hours are reserved for a nap. “That’s Indians, I mean no one is calling the house between 2 and 4 pm on a Saturday.”
In contrast from his reel life character of Raj – an individual who has a tough time when it comes down to dating – Nayyar in real life seems to be quite a charmer. In the fall of 2011, Nayyar married Neha Kapur – an Indian model and former Miss India, who also represented India at the Miss Universe pageant. The couple initially met in 2009 in India at the bar opening of a mutual friend. Nayyar recollects the first time he saw Kapur and thought to himself, ‘Oh my god! She’s hot.’ He goes on to say “She is 5’10 and I’m 5’8 and she was wearing 5-inch heels so she was 6’3 and I was 5’8. I said to her, ‘Sit down. I’ll buy you a drink’ and that was it.”
A predominant custom in the Indian fashion and modeling industry – a successful model at some point ends up diverting her career towards Bollywood, however in the case of Nayyar’s successful model wife, we witness Kapur burgeoning her career in the fashion industry. Nayyar tells us Kapur is designing a clothing line for the ‘Fall 2014’ season.
Gearing our conversation towards where he draws his inspiration from and who his role model or mentor is, Nayyar speaks passionately, making his father the focal point of his answer. “I have many mentors. But I think that if I end up like my father in my life, I think I would succeed at least in something in life.” So that speaks for who his role model is. But from who does ‘the comedian’ in him get inspiration from? “I love watching the greats like Steve Martin and Robin Williams. Peters Sellers is phenomenal,” says Nayyar. Another source of inspiration he mentions is the perfectionist of Bollywood – Aamir Khan.
Speaking of Bollywood, since he is starring in a movie co-produced by a Bollywood superstar, does he look forward to projects in the largest film industry on the globe? “There’s a lot of filmmakers doing really, really wonderful work in India and I would love to be part of that wave somehow,” says Nayyar. “In Dr. Cabbie, I did some dancing and lip-syncing and fun stuff like that. I’d love to do something [that] was just like a mirror to society, and to do a movie about something that no one talks about, and just show it in a very raw, not candid form, if that makes any sense.” Well, with his level of expertise in acting, we can expect more of him in the near future, whether it is Hollywood or Bollywood. As it is, his fan following surpasses North American borders.