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15 Minutes With Kunal Nayyar

Posted: 10/03/2013 3:52 pm

On TV's most watched comedy The Big Bang Theory, Kunal Nayyar plays a guy too shy to talk to women unless he's been drinking. In real life, things are different. Kunal is married to a Miss India pageant winner/Miss Universe contestant, and I'm the schmuck who can't talk to women unless I've been drinking. We meet for an interview in a Studio City bar on Ventura Blvd. We've met here before, and it's always the same dynamic: Women recognize Kunal from The Big Bang Theory, and pretend not to. I notice them noticing him, and pretend not to. They notice me noticing them notice him, and pretend not to. It's Los Angeles, and everyone is completely full of shit.

We settle in at a table near the street, dangerously close to three attractive women who recognize Kunal and frantically begin texting. I picture their cell phone screens: "OMG! Sitting next to Raj from The Big Bang Theory!" Fans used to drool in situations like this, but now things are high tech. Texting is the new saliva. I'm stressing over the loud bar noise, worried my recording device won't clearly pick up Kunal's voice. (I should conduct interviews in quiet places, but bars are more fun.) Kunal keeps glancing at the TV, checking the sports scores. His back is to the ladies. They smile at me, wondering who the hell I am. Eventually a cohesive blog post will come out of all this -- they always do -- but for now it's ADD's world and we're all just living in it.

I order a Jack and Coke. I haven't eaten, and the alcohol races to my brain.

The bar is getting crowded. Everyone knows Kunal is in the room, and the guys secretly hope Kaley Cuoco is on her way. As Kunal talks, I position my recording device, angling it so the ladies next to us don't see it. I want to look like the celebrity's cool friend, not the nerd journalist. At this stage of my life I should be above this sort of concern, but I'm not. It's both pathetic and profoundly human, the result of loneliness rotting my brain as I reel from the recent breakup of an eight-year relationship. Kunal has met my ex on a few occasions, and mentions how beautiful she is, setting off in me a whirlwind of emotions: sadness, regret, yearning, love, and an unwelcome smattering of anger.

A second Jack and Coke takes hold, and everything begins to twist. We begin the interview.

"It's very important to be a good person," Kunal says, when I ask him what matters most. "Staying humble. Doing good things for people who don't have the means to do them on their own. Being forgiving. That's a big one. Forgiving things that have happened in the past. Letting go of the past. I think that's important for everyone."

I've gotten to know Kunal a bit over the past few years, and can testify that he's a kind and gracious soul. Compassion is important to him, and he emanates it. I ask him what good things he does for people in his everyday life?

"If someone needs help or advice, I help them," he says. "If someone needed a job, I would make calls for them, and try to get them hired. If a friend needs something, it's important to be there for them. It's little things, too. If you see someone struggling with something, just help them out. Stopping your car to let someone back out of a driveway. Little things like that are important, too."

The women at the next table finish their round of drinks. They exchange glances and giggles, pumping themselves up for the big move. One stands up. Here we go.

"Excuse me," she says, wearing a most generous dress and standing directly over Kunal. (I hide my recording device, hoping to be mistaken for a The Big Bang Theory producer.) "Could you please take a photo of us?"

"Of Course," Kunal replies, standing to take their picture. The ladies snuggle tightly, beaming for the camera. This is exactly what Kunal is talking about. He's helping them, making their lives better. You should see how happy they are. It really is the little things.

"My daughter loves your show!" the woman exclaims. "She'd freak out if she knew you were here. Can I please take a picture with you?"

She hands her friend the camera as Kunal Nayyar -- lead cast member of the world's most popular television comedy -- poses for a picture with her.

The woman is thrilled. Her friends are thrilled. Her daughter will be even more thrilled. Kunal is spreading joy around the world right before my eyes. Life is good for everyone. Leave it to me to bring everything down.

"Someday The Big Bang Theory is going to end," I state. "Does that worry you?"

"The Big Bang Theory has given me everything I've ever wanted," Nayyar says. "I wanted to be an actor and I wanted to be successful, and this show has been that vehicle for me. It's taught me a lot about staying humble. You have to be humble because one day you're on the biggest hit on television, and the next day you're not working. It happens. I believe in my talent, I believe in my hard work, and I believe in my training. I feel like I'm going to be okay."

I mention a specific scene on The Big Bang Theory in which Kunal's acting impressed the shit out of me. Raj and Penny are on a couch. Raj is brokenhearted, and breaks down crying to Penny. It's the first time Raj talks to Penny without drinking, and it's an exceptional piece of acting, an advanced level of artistry rarely seen on a sitcom. Kunal Nayyar will work as an actor as long as he wants. You can't keep his level of talent down.

The woman behind us shrieks. She's received a text from her daughter, an ecstatic response to her mom's pic with Raj. I study this woman for a moment. She's having drinks with her girlfriends, impressing her daughter, taking photos with a huge TV star, and now she's getting written about on the fucking Huffington Post. Frankly, this random chick is living the life I should be living.

I shift my focus back to my interview subject.

Kunal Nayyar is a humble guy who's worked hard and come a long way. Without knowing a sole in America, he moved from New Delhi, India to Portland, Oregon, studying business and finance, and living through crippling periods of loneliness where he'd go to The Gap just to see a friendly face. ("The sales people were always so nice.") These stranger-in-a-strange-land hardships offered him the emotional depth and pain he'd later pour into his art. Relocating to Philadelphia, he earned a MFA in Acting from Temple University before returning West to reinvent himself an international television star.

"What else are you working on?" I ask, as if being on The Big Bang Theory and happily married to the spectacular Neha Kapur isn't enough.

"I'm writing a book of personal essays," Kunal reports. "And I'm also trying to give back to the people who helped me get where I am. I've started a scholarship at the University of Portland. I've started a scholarship at Temple University in Philadelphia, wherein inner city youth who don't have the means to complete their education can get an education. I really believe in education. The experiences you have in college give you the tools to be able to get over the hump when the wheels fall off. I like building safety nets for everyone. It's very important."

Things are winding down. As Kunal closes out the bar tab, the women next to us get up to leave. A few more women drift towards the door as well. Coincidence? One of them locks eyes with me, and waves a sultry goodbye. I catch a perfume whiff as she brushes by. It feels like we had a moment. Is it real? Is it my imagination? Or is it my proximity to a major TV star? You decide.

An interesting thing happens when you're seen with a celebrity. Onlookers assume you're an important person, too. (They'd be shocked to know that I'm always worried about paying my rent, that my retirement plan just might involve the Golden Gate Bridge.) I've sat with many celebrities, and the truth is that they've mastered a way of being close to you, while also staying a million miles away. It's nothing personal, just a survival tactic. At the end of the day, we're all just scared kids wanting to feel safe.

Kunal and I say our goodbyes, and I start walking up Ventura Blvd., thinking about my ex- girlfriend, wondering if there is anything I could do or say to make our relationship work again. I sense that I'm being followed, and then I hear clicking. The unmistakable sound of high heels hitting sidewalk. It's ominous. It's enticing. It's getting closer. I turn to look, and a woman from the bar says, "How do you know Kunal?"

 
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