Having just completed its sixth season, the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory is more popular than it’s ever been (currently the highest-rated show in television with 20 million viewers), and 31-year-old Indian British actor Kunal Nayyar is working on his favorite storyline so far: his astrophysicist character Raj finally falls in love.
“It’s fun to explore that side of Raj,” says Nayyar, “to see him be vulnerable because he has a legitimate shot with a girl. I don’t think we’ve seen him genuinely like someone yet.”
Part of the reason Raj’s personal life has been so slow to develop is because he has social anxiety disorder, specifically selective mutism, which makes him unable to talk to women. Early in the first season, Raj discovered that alcohol overrides his psychological fears, and he has since experimented with other pharmaceutical drugs with varying results. Though often played for laughs, it’s a serious disorder that thwarts his desire to be a ladies’ man.
When Raj meets Lucy (played by Kate Micucci), he asks her out for coffee, only to have her excuse herself to go to the bathroom and sneak out the window. This sends Raj into a mini depression, and his friends find him alone in his apartment, bingeing on lobster, wearing only his tighty whities.
“You know, I’m not insecure about the way that I look, and as an actor, you’re just playing the circumstances,” says Nayyar. “But it’s not like I have a six-pack, so when I saw it, [knowing that] 20 million people were watching, I was like, ‘My God, time to go on a diet.’” He laughs. “But in my defense, I was wearing three [pairs of] underwear under the [top] one, because they wanted my tummy to stick out a little more.”
To see Raj failing at social interaction is not new, but this time, he wasn’t the reason the girl was scared away. Lucy later apologizes, admitting that she suffers from social anxiety and gets nervous around new people. Suddenly, Raj’s weaknesses that have crippled him in the past are the same qualities he uses to convince her to give him a chance.
When she finally agrees to a date, he calls out, “You won’t regret it! I’m the most pathetic guy you’ve ever met!”
“For the first time, Raj is the one who’s saying, ‘You have to put yourself out there,’” says Nayyar. “It’s their first date, and he’s worried that she’s going to have a panic attack, so [he says,] ‘let’s have a first date in a library,’ and ‘let’s text each other.’ He’s making an effort to take care of her, which I think is very sweet.”
In real life, Nayyar definitely doesn’t need help with the ladies — he married former Miss India Neha Kapur in 2011. Nonetheless, as The Big Bang Theory writers have gotten to know Nayyar over the years, they’ll sometimes slip in elements of real life into the character.
“Sometimes they’ll write something in the script, and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s how I, Kunal, talk,’” says Nayyar. “But sometimes it gets blurred. Sometimes my wife will be like, ‘You know, you’re sounding like Raj right now.’”
While The Big Bang Theory’s ratings have always been high, it wasn’t until after the show went into syndication in 2011 that Nayyar truly understood the extent of his reach. Now that people approach him in airports and restaurants all over the world, his success feels more tangible.
“I love playing a character that has this innocence and naiveté about him, because it’s rare in the real world,” says Nayyar. “I mean, it exists, but I’m not like that, so it’s great to be able to play a character that is pure, has good thoughts, loves his friends, and is really just a positive guy.”