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Kissing Winnie Cooper

British Indian actor  Kunal Nayyar  - better known as the astrophysicist Raj in  The Big Bang Theory  - thought of Winnie Cooper of The Wonder Years when he first kissed at the age of 12. Years later, on being told that he would get to smooch the real Winnie on the sets, he thought it meant only one thing: that God was real. An extract

TT Bureau Published 20.09.15, 12:00 AM
Dream come true: Kunal Nayyar as Raj (right) with Danica McKellar as Abby in the The Psychic Vortex episode in the third season of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory 

New Delhi, 1993. I was twelve years old and I had two great loves in my life. The first was Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years. Cable had just come to India and I was obsessed with Small Wonder, MASH, Doogie Howser, M.D., and my beloved Winnie.

My second great love was a friend of my cousin's named Aditi. She was two years older than me, she wore shorter-than-normal skirts, she smoked, and she always smelled like cigarettes and perfume...

"Have you ever kissed a girl?" she asked me one day.

"Never." I couldn't make eye contact. We were in my bedroom, sitting on the edge of the bed, side by side. The curtains were drawn closed, like always, to shield the room from the scorching New Delhi heat.

"Never?" she said, teasing.

My father was at work, my mother was taking a nap, and my cousin had gone upstairs to take a shower or something. We were alone...

"Kiss me," she said.

I froze. My twelve-year-old self was terrified...

At that point in life, my entire knowledge of kissing came from my true love, Winnie Cooper. I had just watched the episode where Kevin and Winnie share their first kiss, sitting on a swing, and I learned one very important lesson: As Kevin leans in to kiss Winnie, he closes his eyes. And he keeps them closed the entire time. Genius.

So that's what you do when you kiss - just keep your eyes closed. Got it. Easy peasy. So when Aditi kissed me I closed my eyes, kept them shut, and I literally replayed that scene from The Wonder Years on an endless loop. I can't remember what I was doing with my hands, or what my mouth was doing, or even what Aditi looked or felt like in that moment. When I closed my eyes, I was Fred Savage, and she was Winnie Cooper.

Afterward, I opened my eyes. Winnie was gone. Aditi was there.

"Okay," she said, with no inflection. Dry. Like it was a verdict. My kiss had been found to be okay.

Fast-forward seventeen years. Season 3 of The Big Bang Theory. We were prepping an episode called "The Psychic Vortex," and I picked up the script and glanced at the casting list. One name caught my eye: Danica McKellar.

The actress who played Winnie Cooper.

Holy shit. Danica was slated to play a character named Abby, and I flipped through the pages of the script to see if I would get to share any scenes with her. I learned that my character, Raj, would meet her at a party, bring her back to Sheldon's place, and then, in the episode's final scene, they would make out.

I was going to get to kiss Winnie Cooper. And this meant only one thing: God is real.

I'd like to say that as a professional actor I was far too mature to geek out over this, but the reality is that I immediately Googled her. I learned that in addition to acting, she had written well-received books about math like Math Doesn't Suck and Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape. I also learned that she had a husband, which immediately took any actual romance off the table; that's a line I would never cross. But still, even if it's totally innocent and just pretend... I was going to get to kiss Winnie Cooper.

On the morning before we were to meet at the table-read, I spent no more than seven hours thinking about what to wear. I decided to dress down. So, in true LA fashion, I wore a pair of expensive torn jeans, white T-shirt, sneakers, and to really complete the vibe of Dumpster Casual, I wore one of those ridiculous LA beanies that homeless people wear in the summer. I didn't shave because I wanted a little bit of scruff; it takes a lot of effort to show you're not expending any effort. Such is life...

Finally I saw her... and she looked exactly the same as Winnie. Perfect. She wore a white dress and had her hair up in a band. Her hair smelled like Head & Shoulders in the best possible way, though I'm sure it wasn't Head & Shoulders.

I introduced myself. "Hi, I play Raj, my name is Kunal." Funny that I said that in reverse. "That's me," I said, pointing to my assigned seat at the table, which had a big card reading "Kunal" on it. I tried not to giggle like a schoolgirl.

She smiled, we made some chitchat, and for the most part I avoided saying anything creepy. We sat next to each other at the table...

I spent most of the week hogging her time, chatting, soaking up every second of her glorious smile. "I understand that you've written a bunch of math books," I said casually, not mentioning that I found this out through Google at 2am. "It's so nice that you're on the show, because we have a big following of math and science fans." Was I laying it on a little thick? Maybe. But anything was better than getting nervous and blurting out, "Danica, oh sweet Danica, the first time I ever kissed a girl I closed my eyes and pretended I was kissing you, and I fantasised about you for most of my boyhood and sometimes still do even now in my adult life."

Kiss Day was Thursday, during the show's run-through. They served Lebanese for lunch - hummus, tabouli, yummy - Hell no, I'm not touching any of that! I even avoided coffee so I wouldn't have coffee breath, and then I popped seventeen Altoids. My brain hatched all these scenarios of things going tragically wrong: She'd be repulsed by my breath, I'd be overly aggressive, or maybe accidentally miss the target and kiss her on her nose or left ear or eyelid...

And then the moment arrived. No more excuses. It was time for the big scene. Sheldon enters the apartment, he doesn't get along with his date, and then Abby sits on Raj's lap. (She's sitting on my lap!) As soon as the director says "Action!" we're supposed to start kissing. While Sheldon is talking to his date, Danica and I HAVE to kiss for the entire time in the background. (Note to the writer of this episode: I owe you a Rolex.)

"Aaaaaaaaaand . . . action!" said the director. Before he even finished saying "And," we started kissing...

"You know, this might sound funny," I finally told her the next day, "but I have you to thank for my very first kiss." She looked at me. Those eyes. "Really? How?" I told her a short version of the story, playing up the angle of "I learned to close my eyes from your scene with Kevin," and glossing over the specific facts of "I visualised you and replayed the scene on endless loop." "That's a really cute story," she said, much to my relief.

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