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The Transformation Of Kunal Nayyar From Childhood To The Big Bang Theory

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On CBS' sitcom "The Big Bang Theory," Kunal Nayyar's Raj Koothrappali is a main character alongside Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), Leonard Hofstadter (Johnny Galecki), Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg), and Penny (Kaley Cuoco). As the show progressed, it became increasingly clear that Nayyar was vital to "The Big Bang Theory." Were the other characters nerdy and awkward? Sure. But Raj was so uptight he had selective mutism that prevented him from speaking to women (while sober, at least) even through Season 6. And there's no denying that Nayyar created a special chemistry with his character's best friend Howard, creating a comedy duo to rival the greats.

When the show ended after 12 years in 2019, Nayyar told Metro, "I miss that stage so much, it was probably one of the only places in the entire universe where I felt absolutely free to be myself without any kind of outside influence, because it was such a safe place." He clearly felt in his soul what he was leaving behind. 

Kunal Nayyar's Raj was one of the most beloved characters in recent TV history, so let's see how the actor got there in the first place.

Kunal Nayyar fell in love with theater before his time on television

Today, Kunal Nayyar is an acclaimed comedic performer, but unlike many people in showbiz, he wasn't a child actor. In fact, he was just a normal kid. 

Nayyar was born in Hounslow, West London, England, then moved with his family to New Delhi, India when he was 4 years old. While in school, he hilariously tried to charm girls with his badminton skills. "Badminton was my sport growing up in India, and all of these girls would come and watch me. If the shuttlecock was right here, I would dive to get it, and I'd get up and I'd fling my hair... I had this flair for the dramatic," Nayyar said during a 2017 appearance on "The Talk" (via CBS.com). "To pick up girls, I used badminton. It didn't work, but in my head, I was like the Michael Jordan of badminton."

As the title of his book "Yes, My Accent is Real: and Some Other Things I Haven't Told You" makes clear, his accent is no joke. As Nayyar told the Times of India, he's "proud of [his] culture," and "wear[s] it on [his] sleeve.

When Nayyar was 18, he moved from New Dehli to Portland, Oregon to study business administration at the University of Portland (via Backstage). Starting over in a new country wasn't easy, and it led Nayyar to what eventually sparked a life-changing decision. "I walked into the theater because I was kind of lonely and didn't have friends," he told CBS News. "You know, the theater's a place where people who sort of feel like misfits can have a family because the theater is accepting of all types. ... I felt at home."

Kunal Nayyar's lightbulb moment led him to acting

In his book, Kunal Nayyar reveals that acting began as a hobby, taking classes while he was an undergraduate student at the University of Portland (via MyCentralJersey.com). It quickly became much more for Nayyar, who realized that he had a true passion for acting. 

"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," he told his "Big Bang Theory" co-star Mayim Bialik, who played Amy Farrah Fowler on the show, during an episode of her "Mayim Bialik's Breakdown" podcast. "I finished the play and then went home and told my parents, 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my life, and I'm going to do it.'"

It's easy to imagine Raj's on-screen parents objecting to abrupt switch like that, but thankfully, Nayyar's real-life family completely supported his decision. "When I decided to become an actor, I took it very seriously. I remember telling my parents, 'This is what I want to do.' I remember the day — I remember it like it was yesterday," he told Bialik. "They were very supportive. They said, 'Do whatever makes you happy.'"

Nayyar later earned an MFA in acting from Temple University in Philadelphia, which he attended from 2003 to 2006 (via Backstage). As he detailed to Bialik, he then moved to Los Angeles — and with just 10 months left on his work visa, Nayyar knew he had to "act" fast.

Moving to Los Angeles was the right call for Kunar Nayyal

Kunal Nayyar got his first big break in 2007 thanks to a guest role as Youssef Zidan on CBS' popular procedural "NCIS." As Nayyar recalled to USA Today, "I couldn't grow a mustache so they had to glue one on me. I got punched by Mark Harmon. It was the greatest experience of my life."

That same year, Nayyar landed an audition for the role of a lifetime on "The Big Bang Theory." Originally, Raj wasn't even the character's name; instead, it was Dave, and he was a first-generation American. However, Nayyar made such an impression that the part changed. His eventual co-star Kaley Cuoco was totally blown away by his audition, which happened to be one of his very first attempts. Apparently, Cuoco warned him not to get too comfortable with first-attempt successes, though. "I remember talking to him, going, 'Don't get used to that. That doesn't happen!'" she recalled on an episode of the "Anna Faris is Unqualified" podcast. "I couldn't believe that."

"Big Bang Theory" producers were so excited about Nayyar's audition that they even reworked the character to build on his personal background as an immigrant from India. Nayyar was delighted to bring his own experiences to the character, telling Metro, "They allowed me to really be an Indian, who has Indian qualities who doesn't always run away from them, but also does run away from some of them. That's just what all of us do. ... I think they found a really nice balance with Raj."

"The Big Bang Theory" is available to stream on HBO Max now.