With a new contract on The Big Bang Theory, you know Kunal Nayyar isn’t in a Canadian movie because he needed the money.
In fact, the man known to people on the street as “Raj!” headed North to escape the socially-panicky astrophysicist Raj Koothrappali.
In Dr. Cabbie – about an Indian doctor (Vinay Virmani) who ends up driving a Toronto cab because he can’t get accredited – Nayyar plays a fellow cabbie and friend Tony Singh, a womanizing party animal who’s perfectly content with taxi life.
“When the script came, I really liked Tony Singh because he’s the opposite of Raj,” Nayyar says by phone from Los Angeles.
The acid test came when Virmani and Nayyar had to deal with Torontonians who were trying to hail them for a ride. “We were parked next to real cabbie extras one time we were outside a theatre and a play had finished. And we kept having to tell people, ‘No, no, no. We’re shooting a movie.’
“A few people recognized me, but I don’t think everybody completely believed me because I looked so different in this movie with the scruff and curly hair and the chest hair I was showing.”
He found himself getting to know real cabbies that worked alongside him. “The thing I realized is it’s very easy for us to look at someone else and judge the job. We presume if you’re a cabbie, it’s side money, and you’re looking for something better.
“And that was horribly naive of me. When I started talking to cab drivers and learning the mannerisms and where their centre of gravity lies as people, I realized the majority are very happy to be taxicab drivers and they find it a noble profession.”
He also became fast friends with Virmani, the son of veteran producer Ajay Virmani (Deepa Mehta’s longtime producer), who became a writer/star in his own right with the Indo-Canadian hockey comedy Breakaway. “In movies, you tend to get close and then lose touch,” Nayyar says. “Vinay and I remain very close friends. We had a lot of fun.”
Born in England but raised in New Delhi, Nayyar’s heart belongs to Bollywood. And Dr. Cabbie attracted him on that score as well. The Virmanis, father and son, share a producing credit with Bollywood superstar Salman Khan.
“The passion that surrounds Bollywood is insurmountable and worldwide,” Nayyar says. “And Salman Khan is a huge deal. I know Big Bang Theory is a very big show, and I get recognized almost everywhere I go. But when Salman comes to Canada or anywhere in the world, people take to the streets.”
Even after living in America for 14 years, “I still consider myself living in India but working in America.” He’s even married to a former Miss India and Miss Universe contestant who had never seen The Big Bang Theory when they met. So he wooed her on charm alone? “That and my incredible good looks,” he says.
He adds, “I’ll stay on The Big Bang Theory as long as they’ll have me.” Just don’t look for Raj, the only unattached member of the geek gang, to change.
“The characters are pretty set in their ways. They’re scared of the outside world, they’re comfortable with the seven of them (Raj, Sheldon, Leonard, Howard, Bernadette, Amy and Penny), and it’s taken them seven years to get comfortable.
“It’s a big deal that Raj has been able to talk to women in the past few seasons. But I don’t think he’s going to wake up and become a womanizer overnight.”