On a sitcom like The Big Bang Theory — where jokes fly fast and character growth moves at a glacial pace — moments of genuine pathos can catch the audience off guard.
Perhaps that’s why viewers were so taken aback by Raj’s surprisingly candid confession to Penny that he felt unlovable after his break-up with Lucy in the sixth season finale. Of course, they were equally surprised by the revelation that Raj was able to do it without his usual dose of liquid courage.
For Kunal Nayyar, who plays Raj, tapping into the character’s emotional core came naturally.
“To be honest, I just didn’t have to dig that deep,” he says. “I had to get what he was feeling right, but to get there emotionally, I didn’t have to go away into a dark hallway and find something dark about this character. It’s just, I’ve played this character. I know how much he’s struggled with this condition, and how much he’s struggled with trying to find love, so it sort of came very organically.”
Raj’s ability to talk to Penny sober is a different conversation entirely. From the beginning of the show, he’s only been able to converse with the opposite sex while under the influence. (Or, in one memorable instance, when he thought his nonalcoholic beer was the real thing.) Nayyar sees this as the natural progression for a lovesick character who came very close to a relationship.
“I think his bubble burst,” he says. “He finally found someone who he had to take care of, as opposed to it being the other way around, and even she rejected him. He finally met this wounded bird that he was going to take care of, and he thought he was in control, and he still lost her.”
So what took so long?
“These guys — the guys on the show — they don’t have a lot of room for self-growth,” Nayyar admits. “They do, but when they change something about themselves, they do it slowly. It takes a lot of time.”
The Big Bang Theory is not known for its big dramatic arcs, but the characters have developed over six seasons. Raj in particular, however, seems more stunted than the rest, which Nayyar considers a welcome challenge.
“It’s never frustrating,” he says. “Always wonderful. I think the more challenges you throw in front of a character, the more fun it is to play, because if a character has no obstacles, then what are they really fighting up against, and why is that ever interesting to watch?”
“It’s very fun to play the subtle changes in the way these characters are growing,” he says.
At the same time, Nayyar admits, there is the desire to do more — to play against nerdy, comic relief type. He is consistently gracious as he talks about The Big Bang Theory, which went from fledgling sitcom to an unequivocal hit. Last season, it was the third most-popular show on television. But that doesn’t mean Nayyar hasn’t imagined life outside of Raj.
That’s part of what drove him to writing, something he says is only a hobby at the moment. But as he explained his interest in writing his own parts — or writing parts for actors like him — he specifically addressed the lack of available roles for someone who has been pegged to a certain character type.
“Let’s say I want to play a detective or a guy who has an M16 machine,” he says. “Everyone has something they want to play that they may never get to play because their physicality or because the way they sound or look, so therefore actors and actresses will say that they like to create their own work. And I think that that’s sort of the avenue that I would eventually like to be in.”
Though he’d like to fight Hollywood typecasting, he also acknowledges the broadening opportunities for actors of color, particularly — as in his case — actors of Indian descent. Nayyar was born in London but was raised in New Delhi before moving to the U.S. in 1999.
“When I first moved to Los Angeles, and I booked Big Bang, at that time on the air was— I’m trying to think of even a show that had an Indian character on it in 2006,” he says. “I can’t even remember.”
Since The Big Bang Theory, the number of roles for Indian actors has increased. Last year saw the debut of the Mindy Kaling-helmed The Mindy Project, the first U.S. TV series with a South Asian American as the lead.
“Every show has an Indian character in it,” Nayyar says. “Not every show, but a lot of shows have an Indian character in it, and all my friends are working, and that’s really wonderful. And I’ve seen that shift happen in the last three pilot seasons especially.”
When it comes to the types of roles available to actors of Indian descent, Nayyar isn’t quite as optimistic — though he’s careful not to throw any particular shows under the bus. It’s hard, he notes, to appeal to the country as a whole, which is why the most mainstream TV series often remain more traditional.
“You’re still going to have the all-American boy being the lover on a TV show,” Nayyar says. “You’re not going to see Kunal — well, I look like this — but I’m saying if there was a really good looking Indian six-foot-two, like Sendhil [Ramamurthy] on Heroes — Sendhil is that sort of leading man, but would Sendhil play the leading man? I don’t know. So there’s still that thing where the Indian guy can play the funny or the Indian guy. We’re not there right now where actors of my color at least are going to be the leading man in a TV show, not that that won’t change or that can’t change. I just think that we’re not there yet.”
But Nayyar rejects the notion that his Big Bang Theory character is stereotypical.
“I’ll get questions from the media, like, ‘How do you feel playing a stereotypical Indian?’” he says. “And I’m like, ‘Well, how is he stereotypically Indian? Because he’s smart?’ And if that’s the stereotype, I don’t mind.”
Nayyar believes that his series has found its audience in part by poking fun at all of its characters — and not for the obvious reasons. Raj is often the punchline, yes, but it’s as much about his fumblings with the opposite sex as it is about cultural differences.
Despite his show’s massive success, Nayyar’s humility shines through as he discusses his career — not an uncommon trope with actors who recognize the persistent uncertainty of their chosen profession.
“I think every actor has this fear that you’re going to forget how to act, or you’re suddenly going to audition badly, and you’re never going to work again,” Nayyar says. And few TV series, as he notes, become Big Bang-level smash hits. “It’s not pessimistic. It’s just how we all think.”
But there does seem to be something particularly grounded about Nayyar — and much of The Big Bang Theory’s cast. Perhaps it comes from relating to their outcast characters. (Nayyar’s dog Boba Fett certainly earns him geek cred.) Or it could be that the show took time to find its audience and spent its first season on shaky ground.
“Even after so many seasons and syndication and success, you always just hope for one more season, one more season, one more season,” he says. “It’s so hard for me personally to think ahead and say, ‘Hey, I wonder what will happen in Season 9 and Season 10.’ Right now I’m just hoping we get through Season 7 to Season 8.”
While Nayyar’s name recognition builds, he continues to exist on the fringes: just as Raj learning to talk to women sober doesn’t make him a ladies’ man, Nayyar’s rising popularity hasn’t transformed him into a fame-driven celebrity.
“It always feel like it’s happening to someone else,” he said. “I always feel like I’m looking at myself from the outside … I’m very flattered. I’m very humbled by everyone’s response, but I’m finding it hard to stay in the moment. I want to stay in the moment. I want to be a part of all of this now. But I’m almost certain that when it’s over, I’ll look back and say, ‘Oh my God, that’s what it was.’”