Interview: Suraj Sharma of 'Life of Pi'
'Somehow I got this amazing gift, and the best thing you can do is plunge into it, you know?'
Even with the strain on his young head -- carrying a multi-million special-effects epic as the title character without a shred of prior acting experience -- Suraj Sharma talks and laughs with the relaxed good humor of the young man he is. Found -- by accident -- as part of a massive search, Sharma plays the title character in "Life of Pi," portraying the title character's journey adrift at sea in a lifeboat with only a massive tiger -- named Richard Parker -- as his dangerous company. We spoke with Sharma in New York about his casting process, the challenges of a co-star who's not there and the movie magic required to bring a beloved book to life.
MSN Movies: This is one of the first things you had ever done in terms of acting, if not the first; there were 3,000 other candidates; your brother was auditioning ... and then you wound up on a film full of special effects of a beloved novel by an acclaimed director. Did you ever think, "I could've done this a bit more easily," or was it great to just plunge into it?
Suraj Sharma: It was great to just plunge into it. You know, I went in with no expectations. I started off with no expectations and somehow I got this amazing gift, and the best thing you can do is plunge into it, you know? What else could you do? You don't know what you're doing. You just go for it.
You were spending days in a gigantic, colossal water tank and being told, "Well, we'll put that in later." Did your imagination get a workout, or were there days your brain just felt tired from trying to capture the vision?
It was hard, but you have these amazing people working with you. You have the greatest crew you could possibly imagine. You have Ang Lee, and he's just an amazing director; he's a genius. And somehow he gets his points across. He knows what he wants, and somehow really makes you understand. You just get it somehow. He has that quality. Not just me, I think the entire crew just wanted to do whatever he wanted you to do because he's just like that. He makes you want to work.
He could create a team of thousands working together out of a series of one to one discussions.
Oh yeah. He didn't create a team; he created a family.
You do some astonishing physical transformations as part of this. Your weight fluctuates, your body mass fluctuates, at one point your hair is crazy -- although I suspect that's a wig. What was it like doing that to your body for purposes of a role? Was it fascinating or a little scary to see yourself change so dramatically?
Well, I never thought I could do something like that, you know? I went through very intense training, and it was hard because you had to take a lot of pains and self-restraint and stuff like that. But the thing is, if you watch Ang work, if you watch that crew work, you will think like, "Oh my God. I'm just a speck. I better do the best I can, and I want to do this and I will do this to the best of my ability to satisfy them because they have given me this opportunity. They've given me this chance for a lifetime, and I can't be the one who's going to disappoint them. I don’t want to do that ..." and I just didn’t think about what I'm doing. I just did it.
Have you heard from novel's legion of admirers and fans? It's published in 48 different languages; everywhere have read it. Has anyone grabbed you yet and gone, "You're the guy from the film," or are you waiting for that to happen when the movie opens?
Well, I'm nervous about that because Pi has been an inspirational character for quite a few. A few people came and told me that, "If you don't do that well…"
(Laughs) So I'm nervous, but I have faith in that. I have faith in the crew, and I think it'll be okay.
That and it's not that scary being threatened by the fans of modern literary fiction. They're not a scary bunch, are they? The "Life of Pi" fans…
No, the "Life of Pi" fans, they can be very scary. They read the books.
It's a cultured kind of scary.
You obviously are working with a CGI tiger, but did they at any point put you in the same room as the real animal just for reference purposes to get the tactile sensation of it, the smell of it, or was that not part of your research process?
We did have different kind of research processes. Basically the tiger is being chained on a boat in an enclosure. Obviously I can't go near him or that would be dangerous, but I wanted to. Anyway, I would watch them move; I would watch how they react to the boat, how the boat moves, how the water moves, how they react to just being in that situation. I would watch videos of tigers in different moods, different scenarios. So basically you get this huge, massive (amount of) data to work with so you know vaguely what they're going to do. Plus you have all this; you have Ang Lee, you have the tiger trainers to advise you and to direct you in what they're going to do, and you just go out there and you react to your imagination, I guess.
It's interesting in that a lot of the shots that tiger looked like a very large house cat but nonetheless one that can kill you. Is that part of the key of acting opposite Richard Parker -- who's not there -- knowing that he's a dangerous animal but also he's an animal with needs and concerns and fears like any other living being?
Well yeah, yeah. There was this interconnectedness. Actually in the beginning, it was just a tiger to all of us. But by the end me, crew, everybody, there was this fondness with Richard Parker. Everybody, even though Richard Parker was never real, everybody loved him so much. He became something of a human being in many ways. He became someone we associated ourselves with. We would crack jokes about him. He became like one of us, even though he was never really there. So there was this connection that we built with something that was never really there.
If you continue in doing acting, are you hoping to find roles where you get to keep your shirt on and not be quite so wet?
(Laughs) Not be quite so wet, maybe.