“The Big Bang Theory” star shares his Hollywood success story from cleaning toilets when he first came to America to becoming one of the most popular (and highest paid actors) in television.
In case you were wondering, yes, Kunal Nayyar’s accent is real – and not simply because he’s telling you so on the jacket to his recently published, bestselling memoir, Yes, My Accent is Real: And Some Other Things I Haven’t Told You. In conversation, the 34-year-old – best known for playing Dr. Raj Koothrappali, the girl-shy, selectively mute, metrosexual astrophysicist with a thing for Halo, sweater vests, and the film oeuvre of Sandra Bullock on CBS’ smash comedy, The Big Bang Theory – reveals that his accent isn’t the only thing real about him. Raised in New Delhi, India where he played badminton, watched James Bond movies with his father, and got frequent nosebleeds, Nayyar came to America in 1999, with little more than a backpack and a common dream: to become a successful actor. As one of the highest paid actors on television today, Nayyar appears to be an object lesson in wish fulfillment, but a closer examination – the lean months of waiting tables and scrubbing toilets and auditioning endlessly for gigs he’d never get, then finally landing his “big break,” playing an Iraqi terrorist on a weekly drama – shows Nayyar is more precisely the perfect example of wish earning. Quick witted, a touch goofy, always endearing, genuinely thoughtful and sincere, Nayyar may not know his “string theory” from his “double slit,” scientific concepts Dr. Raj grasped before he was potty trained, but he is a charmed and charming cornucopia of real.
Including you, that’s four members of the Big Bang Theory cast who have written a book. So are all of you actually geniuses, or is there any acting going on there?
(Laughs) I think the common consensus is that actors are either good or bad at acting, which is for all of the world to decide when they watch our films or television shows, but I think many people in the media and the public also think actors, in general, are probably not the smartest people. So when you write something insightful about your life, some people get very surprised.
So you are all geniuses!
(Laughs) To be completely honest, I’m very lucky and blessed to work with some incredibly talented artists. Four of the Big Bang cast have their own production companies now at Warner Bros, which is a trend in the entertainment industry these days. I think artists today want to be masters of their own destiny, as opposed to maybe 15 or 20 years ago, when actors would have to wait for the phone to ring to get a job. We like to make our own phone calls these days. We like to put together the writers and producers and cast to get our own work produced. Are we geniuses? (Laughs) I don’t think so. But you can read our books and watch our shows and let me know!
In your book, you write very warmly of your father, who is apparently a wellspring of wisdom. Tell me about some of the things he’s taught you.
Well, we don’t get to choose our parents, right? You just wake up, you open your eyes, and your parents are standing there in front of you. Your mind is a blank slate, and you are 100% vulnerable to these people, and then you become a product of your upbringing. I was fortunate enough that my father instilled a lot of key values in me. Sometimes I struggle, of course, like everyone does, like my father did, but I know I’m better off for the wisdom he’s shared with me. When I started writing some of those things down for the book, I became aware that there’s a fine line between being preachy and being self-deprecating. Writing the book was about finding that balance. Ultimately, I could only write the book I had to write, and then I put it out there into the world with a good heart. I wrote down some things that helped me, and hope maybe it will inspire some other kid to live out his own destiny too.
Why was this the best time to write your book?
I’ve had the idea for a long time. See, my journey has been so intense and so rich – growing up in New Delhi and then moving to Portland, Oregon and then Philadelphia, and then paying my bills by becoming a waiter, like most actors do, and cleaning toilets too, then going off to auditions for some play in the basement of a computer store or something. When I started putting these stories together chronologically, I thought, “You know, if someone had lived this life, I sure hope they’d share it with me.” As for why now? Well, obviously, it’s entirely because of the success of The Big Bang Theory. I owe everything to that show. It’s created a platform for me to communicate, to reach other people, hopefully to inspire them. Five or 10 years ago, when I was one of those wide-eyed kids coming to Hollywood with nothing but a big, silly dream, I’m not sure anyone would have listened to me, let alone read my book. I’m only 34 now, so I’m still not in a position to spew knowledge on someone, but I thought maybe I could humanize this journey a little bit. I think people have a kind of strange idea about what working in television is really like. It is totally amazing being on a show like The Big Bang Theory, but your struggles are, in a lot of ways, my struggles too. The circumstances may be a little different, but we all struggle in life, don’t we?
In today’s celebrity culture, we tend not to perceive our heroes with much compassion, but as objects almost, which we’ll put on a pedestal until we feel like watching them fall.
That seems to be a new phenomenon. It’s the TMZ Culture, right? Fifteen, maybe 20 years ago, actors were revered in a way that maybe they’re not today. Not that actors deserve reverence exactly, but they do deserve the same respect and courtesy any other human being does. Now, it’s like, “Hey, let’s take a photograph of that actor taking a giant, messy bite of his hamburger. Look how stupid he looks! He must be an idiot. Let’s put it on YouTube!” Or let’s catch Kunal at the airport after a 22-hour flight from India and ask him some inane question about politics and then show it on every news show around the world. It can be kind of brutal sometimes.
I don’t have any questions about politics, but I promise you at least a couple of “inane questions.”
(Laughs) Please, fire away! I love stupid questions!
It’s said that where we are today is informed by everything we’ve done, everywhere we’ve been. You cleaned university toilets to pay your way through the early days of living in America. Is there a connection between polishing the porcelain throne and playing Dr. Raj or writing Yes, My Accent Is Real?
I think that when you have done something that maybe society thinks is ugly or dirty or somehow ‘less than,’ you realize that kind of work is actually a great equalizer in the game of life. I mean, I didn’t clean toilets because I wanted to learn some great life lesson; I did it because I needed a job. Also, I hadn’t cleaned toilets before I had that job. It’s not that I grew up in a wealthy family, not at all, but even middle-class families in India have domestic help, so the toilets were cleaned for us. But in America, I had no domestic help. I had to learn how to do things I’d never done before, including cleaning toilets. It was that simple, really. I took the job because it paid better than minimum wage and no one else wanted to do it.
Still, it’s not a ton of fun, cleaning up a bathroom after a Saturday night frat party…
No, that’s true. It’s disgusting. But I made it into a game, which is something I do, especially when I have to do something I don’t really want to. Instead of focusing on everybody’s poop and how disgusting my job was, I’d get down on my knees with my cleaning supplies and I’d start the job and sometimes I’d start wondering, “Hmm, that’s interesting; what did they have for dinner?”
Life is a matter of perspective, isn’t it?
Yes! Everything has the meaning that you give it. For me, cleaning toilets wasn’t about, “Oh, this is so disgusting.” Instead, it was, “Oh, this is awesome! Look how much money I’m making!”
There has been much made in recent years, and rightfully so, about Hollywood’s need to hire more women and people of color and other minority groups. But I don’t remember the “Hire People from India” movement, and yet we have wildly successful careers from you, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Anil Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Dev Patel. This strikes me as being truly significant, particularly seeing as how one of your first professional acting jobs was playing an Iraqi terrorist on NCIS!
Yeah, it makes me incredibly proud. It really does. I’m very proud of being Indian. I love wearing my ethnicity on my sleeve. I don’t hide from it. It makes me incredibly proud to see Mindy doing such incredible work, not only because she is first-generation Indian, but also because she’s a woman and she’s doing extraordinary work in writing a powerful – and vulnerable and hilarious – female character. Aziz is an incredibly smart guy and his new Netflix series is amazing, and Priyanka has been a huge Bollywood star for many years and is now on her own hit series (Quantico) here in America. It’s a good time, I suppose. I never really set out to break barriers myself. People try to drag me into discussions about typecasting, but my only response to that is, “Look, I’m an actor. All I want to do is act.” It’s almost impossible for anyone to get paid to do what they love in Hollywood, and I’m doing it. I never really wanted to take any gigantic political or social positions. When I was starting out, I just couldn’t believe I actually had an acting job. Even today, I think the best thing I can do toward more Indian actors being hired is to be an excellent Indian actor, to do the best job I can, to create work I’m proud of.
Indeed. Probably the best political move any of us can make is to simply be who we are and let everybody else figure out what statements we’re making.
Oh, that’s well said. I do like that, yeah. You can put it as if I said that, okay?
Um, maybe… (Laughs) You just said that all you want to do is act, but that’s simply not true, not anymore. You have the book. You’ve written a couple of plays. What else do you have up your sleeve?
I think I have a few things up my sleeve, but I try not to get too anxiety ridden about the future. In the past, that’s driven me mad. But if you asked me about my immediate hopes and dreams, professionally at least, I’d tell you I have a very real, burning desire to do a movie in Hindi in India. It’s doesn’t necessarily have to be a big Bollywood thing, but maybe an independent movie, like Lunchbox or Monsoon Wedding or The Namesake. There’s a beautiful script that I’m looking at that I would like to shoot in India this summer. I think that would be the most immediate step for me — to do a movie in India, where I’m from, in my native language.
Switching gears to an “inane question. . .”
(Laughs) Oh, excellent!
Several of your Big Bang cast mates are vegetarians or vegans. Do you get a lot of pressure to give up your beef stroganoff?
Wait. . .What? I don’t even know which of the cast eats meat, or who doesn’t eat meat. I maybe should pay attention to their lunch boxes! (Laughs) All I can say is: we’re actors! If there’s anything that actors are meticulous about, it’s their diet and their skin products.
Absolutely! If I made my living in front of a camera, I’d be in the gym two-hours every day.
Exactly! I know people make fun of an actor’s vanity, but if I don’t take care of myself and I start looking really tired or old or horrible on screen, I might lose a job I really want. Actors get a lot of flack for being meticulous with their gluten-free diets and their animal-free skin products, but at the end of the day, it’s our faces and bodies out there in front of millions of people for immediate judgment – and people are not shy about sharing those judgments. Everything we do is judged, so I think a lot of actors try to manage or control the things they can.
So no one’s forcing animal rights pamphlets into your hand at work?
Look, I’m a Hindu, and I eat meat, so I’m the worst. I know this is true. Don’t ask me if vegetarianism is good or bad! I’m the worst.
A few years ago, you married a truly beautiful woman, Miss India Neha Kapur. What’s your secret? Is it that you’re excellent at the game of badminton?
I really don’t know. When Neha and I met, I was – and still am – in a stage of life where I felt very confident, comfortable in my own skin, and I think that can be very alluring to members of the opposite sex. I was sure of myself, without being cocky. I didn’t have any demons in my head, so to speak. I had my feet on the ground. I think maybe she was attracted to those things. It certainly wasn’t my looks. Or my height. Or my general physical attributes. (Laughs) It had to be something else! I should ask her, actually. I really have no idea what she saw in me. It definitely wasn’t the whole acting thing. She’s never seen the show.
Never. She’s never seen it.
Maybe she loves you because of your really, really big, uh, book!
(Laughs) That’s got to be it!
Your success has come very quickly. It wasn’t much more than a decade ago that you came to Hollywood and landed what’s become one of the biggest hits on television. What have you learned along the way?
The number one thing I’ve learned is that humility is key. You have to find a way, in your heart, to be genuinely thankful and sincerely humble for everything that has come your way. I’ve seen it snatched away from people so quickly in this industry —one day you’re on top, and the next day you’re out. One year, you make tons of money and you’re driving a nice car and have a big house, and then the next year, your show gets cancelled and you can’t book another job for five years. I’ve seen the rise and I’ve seen the fall. I guess all of this will come to an end for me too one day, but I don’t want it to so I make sure to be on time, to be as kind as I kind, as humble as I can, to work as hard as I can. Those qualities will not ever go away, and they will serve me in whatever work I do. I think those are qualities every one of us would do well to develop in ourselves.