By Elaine Lipworth
NEW YORK: In his very first film role, Indian actor Suraj Sharma stars in Life of Pi, a soaring action-packed adventure from acclaimed director Ang Lee.
The visually stunning 3D drama focuses on a boy who is adrift at sea in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger after his family is drowned in a shipwreck.
Suraj Sharma never expected to be picked for the role but he beat more than 3,000 challengers, following a month-long search.
He had no acting experience, but Ang Lee, the masterful Oscar winning director of Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger Hidden the potential in the charismatic and naturally talented boy from Delhi and cast him in the leading role.
The film is based on Yann Martel’s novel, a modern classic about Piscine Patel, (known as Pi) who lives with his zoo keeping family in Pondicherry. They decide to emigrate to Canada, taking their animals along with them and set off on a huge freighter ship, steaming from India across the Pacific. But a terrible storm destroys the ship. The family and most of the animals perish. Pi survives, stranded on a lifeboat with several animals. Ultimately it is just Pi and a Bengal tiger who miraculously survive 227 days at sea.
Much of the movie was filmed in Taiwan at a purpose built studio in an old airport in the city of Taichung. The other scenes were filmed in Pondicherry where the story begins.
“We searched throughout India for a young man who had the innocence to capture our attention, the depth of character to break our hearts, and the physicality needed to embody Pi on his journey,” says Ang Lee, explaining why he cast Sharma in the lead role.
“During his audition, Suraj filled the room with emotion, much of which he conveyed simply through his eyes. His natural ability to believe and stay in the world of the story is a rare treasure.”
Also appearing in the film are Gérard Depardieu, Irrfan Khan and Rafe Spall.
Born and raised in Delhi with his brother and sister, both Sharma’s parents are mathematicians. The young actor is highly musical, trained in Hindustani vocal and tabla, as well as keyboard and guitar. He is skilled in martial arts and is a keen soccer player.
Sharma began filming Life of Pi when he was 17 and actually celebrated his 18th birthday with the film crew in the midst of shooting the film’s lifeboat scenes in the massive outdoor wave tank built in Taichung especially for the movie.
Enthusiastic, engaging and delightful company, the highly attractive actor has dark wavy hair and luminous brown eyes. Sharma was dressed in jeans and a dark blue crew neck t-shirt when he sat down in Manhattan to talk about the experience of making Life of Pie.
Q: How did you end up landing this fantastic role?
A: I had never acted but I knew a little about acting because my younger brother has appeared in two movies and my mother used to tell me I should act too. But he was the outgoing kid and I was the shy one; I just kept to myself. The weird thing is that I went to the audition with my brother because he promised to buy me lunch and I was hungry! I was waiting for him and the casting director came up to me and said, ‘you look about the right age – you should just audition too.’ And I thought I might as well. I just had to read something out of a survival manual. I didn’t even know what the movie was. Honestly, I didn’t even think of it as a real audition and afterwards my brother and I went for lunch to Subway. As I progressed through the different stages of auditions it turned from a joke to the most important thing in my life.
Q: What is the story all about?
A: It is all about Pi, a 16-yera-old boy who grows up in a zoo with his family in India. Certain things happen which force them to move to Canada and they take their entire zoo with them on a ship. The ship sinks one stormy night and Pi’s whole family drowns. Pi is left alone on a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a tiger. Eventually he’s left just with the tiger (called Richard Parker) and he has to try to survive with the tiger on the Pacific Ocean.
Q: There were a lot of firsts for you in the film.
A: Well, it was all new for me. I didn’t know how to swim, I had never acted before, I had never seen the ocean before. I had never been out of India. Meeting people from all over the world you get an idea of how diverse and beautiful the world is. I had never met people from all over the world. I learned how to swim for the film and now I love swimming, it’s my favorite thing to do.
Q: What was it like working with Ang Lee?
A: It was extremely scary in the beginning because he is such a great director. Also I had never opened up to anyone at all before. Ang was the first person I talked to about myself and funnily enough I felt really comfortable with him after a few minutes. Ang is awesome. I feel like there is no one who knows me better than Ang and I mean no one. Instead of looking at me he looked inside of me, if that makes any sense. He gave out a lot of himself to everyone in the crew. He put an incredible amount of himself into the movie.
Q: What was involved physically when you were preparing for the role?
A: When I first came to Taiwan I was a really skinny twig. I say twig because there was no muscle on me. I didn’t have a straight back. It was really pathetic in fact. Then I trained with the stunt guys. They taught me how to swim and straightened my back up. I gained quite a bit of strength, thirteen kilos for the beginning of the movie. Then I lost fourteen. [when Pi is out on the ocean] My body has changed unbelievably. I can’t recognise myself anymore.
Q: Pi has very little food while out at sea for most of the movie. Did you have a special diet?
A: I went on this crazy tuna fish and salad diet, I could not eat carbs. I had to drink electrolytes.
Q: Did you and Irrfan Khan spend time together? He plays the older Pi.
A: We worked with Ang together twice for very short periods. I’ve seen Irrfan act a million times. I am a big fan. He’s never seen me act. I’m kind of looking forward to seeing how he plays me.
Q: Can you say a little about your life in Delhi prior to Life of Pi?
A: My life consisted of a routine: wake up, go to school, get shouted at by teachers, hang around with friends, come back, play football for a lifetime, eat and sleep. To some extent that was fun. That life was fun. It was carefree, Then everything changed. I grew so much.
Q: What’s next?
A: I don’t know. I’m just going to see what happens really. I don’t know whether I want to act; that remains to be seen. But I know that I want to do something that is in some way related to film and I want to go to film school. I’m going to go to college and see what happens and just experience life. I feel that I already have some stories to tell and I want to accumulate more stories that will really affect people in a good way, or leave them with something to think about. I definitely want to work in film because I love film sets and I love the way people work on films. I love that stressful hard working environment where you just have to give it your best and there’s no other option.
(Used with permission from Elaine Lipworth who works with UK-based Sterling Media)