June 2 2016
Glam Asian character in long running comedy talks to us about upbringing, not being Indian (probably) and LA, ahead of Wolverhampton Uni appearance…
SHE is one of the most recognisable Indian characters on television, but she isn’t actually Indian.
Or at least she’s never been told about any Indian ancestry – her German single mother never fully disclosed who her father was, growing up in a children’s home in the West Midlands.
Now, she lives in Hollywood, has appeared alongside George Clooney, when he was on the TV soap, “Emergency Room” (ER) and tomorrow (June 3) she returns to her alma mater, the University of Wolverhampton to talk about her career as an actor stateside in one of the biggest TV programmes in the world.
Alice Amter plays Mrs Koothrappali, the mother of Raj (Kunal Nayyar), in the popular global comedy, “The Big Bang Theory” (‘TBBT‘), about the trials and tribulations of four very eccentric male scientists (and now their love interests) based at a California University.
In the show, she and on screen husband (Brian George) talk to their son Raj from India via a laptop screen – and from more recent episodes viewers have come to learn that the couple have divorced after many years together.
“I have no input or contribution to the storyline,” Amter told www.asianculturevulture.com, speaking from her temporary base in the Midlands. “It’s really out of my hands, and was a huge shock: middle aged Indian people don’t usually get divorced.”
But no doubt the clever writers on ‘TBBT‘ have their reasons and the comic possibilities of warring parents and a battle over the couple’s considerable wealth (Raj’s Dad is a famous Indian gynaecologist), present opportunities still to be exploited.
Amter has been in the show from Series 1 and has spent nearly 20 years as a jobbing actor in Hollywood.
She went to the audition knowing full well they were casting for an Indian mum role.
“I’ve been part of the Indian community of actors in LA. Before 9/11, they did not know what to do with me, after it, it was Middle Eastern or Indian, wearing a sari or a hijab,” she chortled.
She said that she was very comfortable with Asian culture, having grown up in the West Midlands and had learnt to wear a sari before she got to the audition for Mrs Koothrappali, who is always in a sari.
Amter revealed she had appeared on an Indian show in the US, and that the host had suggested she wear one for her appearance.
“He told me ‘my mother wants you to wear one’, she showed me how to wear it, the pleating and how it is worn.
“I had two or three saris in my closet, and at the beginning it was hard, but then I learnt about the right spaces and creases, and once I did it right, I had it pinned.”
She said used her own saris for the show until Series 4, when they started buying them for her.
“I was authentic as you could get for someone who is not (strictly) Indian,” she reflected.
On the day of the audition, she looked even more Indian, wearing socks.
“I had socks on at the time with my sandals, because it was cold and the other Indian women audiutioning said: This is very ‘auntie’, auntie, auntie’. I had no idea at the time.
“I didn’t even do it for the character, I did it because it was cold and because of my sandals,” she chuckled.
It was a timely break for her and she sensed something about the show and her character.
“It was a difficult time, I had a very precarious living situation as a struggling actor and my personal life was also troubled,” she confessed.
Getting the part of mum to the nerdy, needy astrophysicist Raj in ‘TBBT, allowed her to break free.
“I just had to get it,” she said. “I remember one of the other women auditioning and challenging me saying – ‘you’re not Indian, are you?’
“I was there with my big hair, these 1970s type Sophia Loren style glasses and thinking you’ve got to get this.”
Few people probed her ethnicity and she understood what the producers were looking for and how she could develop the role when saw it for the first time.
“I think being English helped, I had good timing and wit.
“I helped to create Mrs Koothrappali. When I saw it on the page at the audition I said to myself they want a stereotype.”
But she had seen real Asian mothers in Birmingham and knew they were not all docile or meek.
“I thought she (Mrs K) is going to look fab, like she had done beauty pageants, is a former Miss India and is still glamourous and beautiful,” she explained.
There are hints that her on screen divorce has been triggered by an affair and looking at Mrs K and her feistiness and independence, it’s not hard to see how Mr K’s neglect or obsession for cricket might lead a fine woman astray…
Amter is in the UK to celebrate her recent birthday with friends and family and made a short work/recreation trip to the latter half of the Cannes Film Festival.
She has appeared in the university magazine before and they invited her to speak to students on their Film and TV course.
Amter told www.asianculturevulture.com that she had always been put forward for public events as a young girl and that she was very creative, making up her own dance routines and the like.
She had a complicated upbringing in the home, which was run by family and where she and her mother lived initially.
“The first half of my life was difficult,” she admitted.
But she found a way out, performing and was not one to be cowed.
“I looked different from others in Leamington Spa, I was a girl within an ethnic tinge, different and photogenic.
“Yes, I was called a P**i and was picked on – yeah, so…people were rude and racist but you learn: if you’re cleverer than they are with your wit and not be a victim, you can find some flaw in them and turn it back on them and then they’re laughing.”
She graduated from Wolverhampton with a degree in French and German and International Relations, and wound up in Japan teaching English.
“A friend had come to stay in Tokyo and had told me that it was no place for a girl over 25 and Japan was limiting in what you can do as a woman and told me to go to LA.”
She went on that hunch and has never looked back.
“I fell in love with the place, it was where I wanted to live, whatever I was doing and it was such a contrast to Birmingham. It appealed to me and I figured out a way to live there.”
She is in talks about a lead role in a regular US TV series and is an effervescent, open, friendly personality.
Don’t rule anything out…
“Bollywood,” she said, when we mentioned what www.asianculturevulture.com was doing in Cannes. “I’d love to get involved in that,” she laughed.
Alice Amter – ‘An Afternoon with Raj’s Mother’ as part of Artsfest 2016 at the University of Wolverhampton, 3pm-5pm, Light House, The Chubb Building, Fryer Street, Wolverhampton, WV1 1HT.
FREE but you must register http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/alice-amter-an-afternoon-with-rajs-mom-tickets-25719984165
‘The Big Bang Theory’ Series 9 continues on Channel 4 in the UK…