Suraj Sharma landed the lead part in Life of Pi by accident. Accompanying his brother to Dehli, India for an audition, casting agents asked Sharma to read for the part as well. He was there, why not? Sharma’s natural, emotional presence (and a dash of Pi-appropriate fate) made him director Ang Lee’s choice for the role, and now the unknown actor is headlining this holiday weekend’s thrilling blockbuster.
Tasked with leading a film that relies heavily on his abilities — a majority of the movie is Pi stranded at sea in a life boat with only a Bengel tiger for company — Sharma collaborated with the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain director to find the core of Pi, and in turn, Lee pushed him harder then he had ever been pushed before, physically or mentally.
Hollywood.com caught up with Sharma after Life of Pi‘s New York Film Festival premiere. The blockbuster debut marked a number of firsts for the actor, who couldn’t have been happier to finally see his laborious role pay off on the big screen:
The movie played for the first time in front of an enormous crowd. What was the experience like for you?
Suraj Sharma: I saw the movie for the first time then. I had not seen any bit of any of it.
Some actors don’t like watching themselves.
Sharma: It’s strange seeing yourself at first, but I got involved in the movie! There’s so much going on in the movie that you forget about yourself.
It’s impressive you were able to lose yourself in your own movie.
Sharma: Well when we made the movie, everything was blue [laughs]. Now there are so many colors, so much going on on screen… I mean, I was reliving bits and pieces of what was going on behind-the-scenes, how things were at that point. But at the same time, I had never seen anything like this. I watched the entire thing and I couldn’t move from my seat. I didn’t know what to say.
How much acting had you done before?
So how did Ang guide you through this experience? I imagine walking on to set on Day 1 was terrifying.
Sharma: Three months before shooting he trained me. In a million different fields. Basically, everyday in every way, he’d build a little bit of Pi in my head. Little by little there were blocks and blocks and blocks. By the end of it, I felt Pi was part of me.
What is the Ang Lee boot camp regiment?
Sharma: He never really tells you anything directly. He’ll just get it in you. You’ll understand without him really saying anything ever. It’s really [imitates sound of a drum] — you gotta go with him. It’s hard. He knows what he wants and he will get it out of you. So you don’t really need to “act” you just need to listen to him. And it’ll happen on its own.
I had all this training: yoga, meditation, weight loss, weight gain, learn how to swim, learn how to hold your breath, sea skills, fish, cut fish….
Who trained you to do all this stuff?
Sharma: All these people on the crew! We had a crew that was like a family to me. Everybody — be it the stunt people, Ang, the producers, the camera guys — everybody taught me something. I was there for 10 months and every day I learned something.
Was there a particular skill that was hard for you to master?
Sharma: Everything was extremely hard, but you get trained by some of the best people. The best at what they do. And because so many people are trusting you, you want to give it everything. There’s no space for not learning.
It was a big risk putting me in the movie. I had never acted. I didn’t understand why they were trusting me with it. But because they were trusting me… it gave me some serious drive.
How did you discuss Pi’s faith with Ang, which is complex, but always present on the journey?
Sharma: There was never one conversation. He talked about religion, he talked about spirituality, he would talk about how religions are, he would talk about the central theme to everything. Looking for truth, faith or hope or whatever you anybody want to call it. It’s common to all religions basically. There’s the exterior shell, but inside it’s all the same thing.
Did he have a method to explaining the character?
Sharma: There are a million ways he did it. He made me watch all these movies, which gave me an idea of what was going on at that point. 1960s, ’70s. My favorite among them was The Bicycle Thief, which is just…wow. But he would also make me watch films like It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World or Young Frankenstein. Anything to get an idea of what it was like at that time. We’d also do meditation every morning. It centers you.
You and Ang would actually meditate together?
Sharma: Oh, every morning. He was better at yoga than me! Ang as a director wants to be involved with everything. He wants to undergo the same thing to understand what he wants.
How did Ang help you understand what the world was going to be like when you were performing on the all-blue set?
Sharma: So over the months as we were building, by the end of it I too knew how Pi was going to react. The other thing about Ang is he will make you feel however he wants you to feel and it won’t be hard for him. You just have to look him in the eye and listen to him.
What types of things is he saying to you while directing?
Sharma: It’s less about what he says than how he says it. I used to walk to the place he watched on set and I’d literally walk in with no feeling, no emotion whatsoever. He just explained the shot to me and looked me in the eye. There was a technique he taught me in the beginning where you get an idea of what emotion you want to portray and then you go, go, go, go, go back until you find something with a similar emotion. And then you live them again. You keep playing it and playing it until it’s in font of you and you feel it. You do that, and you talk to Ang and you look him in the eye and even though you walked in completely numb, you walk out overflowing with emotion. Then you don’t need to do anything. You go on camera and do what he says.
Then you see a tiger.
Sharma: [Laughs] Tigers, whales, everything.
Were you ever playing opposite a real tiger? Or even a guy in a tiger suit?
Sharma: Unless the tiger had to whack something from my hand, then there would be a string pulling it away. But mostly, it was an empty boat.
We had four tigers on set, being trained. They wanted it to be as real as possible so they needed reference. There were four different tigers of different sizes. I used to watch these tigers for long periods of time just to get an idea of how they react to things, move on the boat. Ang made me watch videos of tigers in different scenarios, different moods. Angry tigers, sad tigers, happy tigers, friendly tigers, tigers killing things… you get an idea, but you can never have an idea of what a tiger is really thinking [laughs]. But you get a sense and deal with it.
Even though it uses a lot of special effects, were the stunts you performed real?
Sharma: Oh yeah. Lots. That was my favorite part. This movie was extremely physical and I didn’t know how to swim when I came into Taiwan. They tossed me in the ocean. I learned somehow [laughs]. I came in really skinny with no muscle. I had gain weight and become stronger. You can deal with most things after you’ve done that.
Charlie and Cameron who were the main stunt guys, they became very close to me. Cameron was my aid. We would work every day for three hours. Swim underwater training. There would be weights tied to me and I’d have to go across swimming. All day. I’d sink to the bottom of the pool and I’d pull a rope to get to the other side. Then I’d have to lunch during the time I had to lose weight. We’d work out, but I’d eat tuna and lettuce after that. But I became strong and I could swim forever. I felt like a fish — nothing could sink me.
We just went and did the stunts. I’d be hanging upside down on a boat and there would be waves and I’d be submerged and then come back and submerged. Then the boat would flip — BOOM! — and I’d be holding on to it — BAM! — and then I’d jump off the ship.
Have you kept up the training?
Sharma: [Laughs] I will never be as strong as I was back then. It was awesome. I used to feel like Superman.
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox]
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
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