Every TV show needs an antagonist, and this season on CBS's "The Big Bang Theory," that role belongs to Aarti Mann.
She plays Priya, the sister of Raj (Kunal Nayyar), who has become the girlfriend of Leonard (Johnny Galecki), much to the dismay of Leonard's ex-girlfriend, Penny (Kaley Cuoco). In the final two episodes of the season, Priya will play a central role, especially in this week's season finale.
"Basically, things between Penny and Priya come to a head," Mann said in a phone interview earlier this month from the Los Angeles home she shares with her husband, who works in finance. "Priya has to face the music, and she and Leonard come to an important crossroads."
Mann said the show will end on two cliffhangers -- one involving her character, and she doesn't know whether she'll be invited back for the show's fifth season.
"I would love to come back and see where it goes with Leonard and Priya," she said, "but no contracts have been signed. I think we'll know by June or July."
Mann was born Aarti Majmudar in Connecticut ("Mann" is a truncated version of her married name) and moved to Pittsburgh as a toddler. Her mother, Vasanti Majmudar, an obstetrician/gynecologist, lives in the suburb of Fox Chapel. (Mann's father passed away while she was in high school).
Mann studied film at New York University. She never acted in plays in high school, but while in college studying film writing and directing, she helped fellow students on their productions.
"I convinced them to give me a featured extra part just so I could be in front of the camera," she said.
After college she wasn't sure what to do with the degree. She wrote a script for a Pittsburgh doctor who moonlights as a filmmaker.
"I'm the daughter of two Indian immigrant doctors and I have an older sister and younger brother and none of us have pursued medicine as a career," she said. "We're all over the artistic side of things."
Mann's brother, Nishad, is a journalist and her sister, Kruti, helped influence her decision to switch to acting. Kruti, who also lives in Los Angeles, is a filmmaker and cast Mann in her 2006 film "The Memsahib." While filming her scenes, Mann said she "got bit by the bug" to act and enrolled in acting classes in Los Angeles.
"Our parents were so supportive of us," she said. "My mom always knew I was going to be an actor because I was a ham from the very beginning, so she would push me toward it, which is really unconventional for Indian families to do."
Mann booked a national commercial for Volvo and other roles followed, including a part in the Web/TV series "quarterlife," which aired briefly on NBC in 2008. She was also a guest star on "Heroes" in 2009.
Mann had not watched "Big Bang" before joining the show and her acting background isn't even in comedy. So how did she end up on one of TV's top-rated sitcoms?
"I'm asking myself the same question," she said with a laugh. "Whenever we're rehearsing, I'll try to play it in a more comedic way and (executive producer) Chuck (Lorre) always comes in and says, 'Play it simply. You're beautiful when you're simple.' I'm constantly told to reel it back in. I think I'm giving them what they need for the show. Every sitcom needs their straight man or straight woman."
Mann appeared on "Big Bang" after series regular Cuoco broke her leg early in the season, forcing a delay in production and rejiggering of storylines.
When Mann auditioned, Priya's relationship to Raj was different from the sister she eventually became.
"The character changed completely. Originally she was engaged and she was going to get married and Leonard was her last fling. We rehearsed it over the week and it became just Priya making a booty call," she said. "It was revealed to me after we shot the show that (executive producer) Bill (Prady) wanted to leave the option open for Priya to come back later in the season."
After filming her first episode, Mann and her husband went to India for seven weeks. When she arrived back in Los Angeles, on the drive home from the airport, Mann's agent called to say "Big Bang" wanted her back on set in three days' time.
After that she was booked on the show one or two episodes at a time.
"It's fun to see how Priya has changed," Mann said. "She's made strong turns and it's been fun to see how fan sentiment has turned with it."
While she waits to hear whether she'll be asked back to "Big Bang," Mann hopes to land a dramatic role -- "that involves crying and screaming and turmoil" -- and she wants to get back to her acting roots.
"I'd really love to get back into commercials, actually," she said. "I love how quick and breezy they are. ... And honestly, they pay really well."