Suraj Sharma's debut film was no easy task: Not only does he play the title character in "Life of Pi," he has to share most of his screen time with only a computer-generated tiger as his co-star.
Sharma stars in Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's best-selling book as Pi, a young man who must learn to survive on a small boat in the Pacific Ocean after the ship carrying his family sinks near the Mariana Trench. Oh ... and the other passenger on this small boat is that aforementioned beast, a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Needless to say, Pi and Richard Parker aren't really friends, but an interesting relationship between the two begins to develop.
When Sharma spoke to me at the swanky Mandarin Oriental Hotel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, he was charming, but also understandably nervous: After all, before "Life of Pi" Sharma had never even left his native India. Now, he's got the lead role in a film that may very well wind up as a Best Picture nominee.
"Life of Pi" is one of the prettiest movies that I've ever seen.
Yeah, I thought so, too. It was really -- visually ...
Had you done any acting at all before?
No, nothing. I mean, I had a really small part in one school play. But that's all I've ever acted. So technically, the first time I acted was the audition.
Why go to an audition?
Well, my brother.
Yeah, I heard your brother wanted the part.
Yeah. And, you know, the casting director there said, "You know, you might as well go for it, too." And, you know, I'm not doing anything. So I did.
That's a good answer.
Yeah, I didn't expect anything. I was just doing it just to give my brother some sort of company, I guess. And I guess I got pretty lucky. And one day, they say, "You come to Bombay and meet Ang." By then, though, even though I didn't expect to get the role, I really wanted it. You know, I had read the book and it's a really beautiful book. It really does touch you, and, you know, Ang, obviously, is Ang, so ...
Did you feel bad because it was your brother's idea and you wind up getting the part?
Well, I think if my brother was older he'd probably get the role, because he's a really good actor. And he's been very, very good about it. He's been very supportive, you know? When I got cast, I didn't know anybody who had been in any situation like this -- so I looked at my brother, because he's acted in two movies before. And he said, "You know, you have this once in a lifetime opportunity. And you just keep your head focused, keep your feet on the ground. Just listen to Ang, and everything will be okay."
It's not just that it's your first role. I know there's other people in this movie, but it's pretty much just you for a long time in this big studio film.
For the most part.
Does that make you nervous?
Honestly, I tried not to think about things like that. You know, for me, I was just part of this big thing. I was just one little piece of the puzzle and I just had to do my job.
You're more than a "little" piece of the puzzle.
No, honestly -- well, onscreen, I'm there for a long time, but there's so much that goes into it. There were 3,000 people who worked on this and for so long. So, I mean, you see me, but there's so much behind it, you know?
I mean, this was the first time I'd seen anything like this. I worked with so many amazing people who were so good at what they did and they came from so many different places. And I thought that, you know, these people -- so good at what they do; so accomplished -- are trusting me with this. So I just wanted to give it my best. I just didn't want Ang to be let down.
Is this normal, though? For a guy living in India to be thrust into this? I can't think of many examples.
No. I don't think it happens too often. I've been wondering why you just get lucky, I guess. You just get, you know, pulled out of a bad situation into a good one sometimes. Sometimes it just happens, I guess. I don't know how many people it happens to or what the chances are, but it happened to me. And, you know, I'm just grateful that it did.
Ang Lee seems like a pretty gentle guy. Would that describe his demeanor as a director?
Well ... he's very patient. He's extremely patient. But gentle? He pushed everybody quite a bit. He did.
At least his public persona seems very nice.
Oh, most definitely. The great thing about him is you know he's an amazing director, you know he's a genius in that sense. But what's better -- or what I like more about him -- is the fact that he is just an amazing person. He's so down to earth, he's so simple, and he's so -- he just somehow connects with everybody. And, you know, the intensity with which he works, you can see in his eyes that he's thinking constantly. He's completely devoted to this. He's completely given himself to it. I think everybody -- me, the crew, everybody -- just saw that and wanted to do their job; wanted to give him their best, I guess. You know? All of us, all of us. You know, we went on this journey with him, with Pi. It was really like that. We went on this wild and crazy, intense journey.
Were there any times you had to remind him, "I've never done this before and I don't know what you're talking about."
Well, he never really says anything too confusing. Because it's really what he does to you rather than what he says, do you know what I mean? There's an impact that you feel. Even if he says something very normal, you'll feel something different. I can't explain it, really. I think it's the way he looks at you, really. You get caught in something and you just go with that.
What's that mean?
Okay, I'll give an example. Many times, I didn't know what I was going to do when I going to go on set. So I knew basically what was going to happen, what scene we were doing, but I didn't know exactly what to feel. And just before the day call, he would call me into his room and I would walk in completely emotionless -- completely without any idea what I'm gonna do. And five minutes later I'd walk out and he would have just explained to me the blocking. He would have explained to me what, vaguely, I wanted to feel. Indirectly, he would tell you this. And somehow, within those five minutes, when you walk out, and when you walked in emotionless, and you would walk out just brimming. I don't know how it works. I don't know how he works, but he does that to people. He can really get them caught in whatever he wants to get you caught in.
So I had just assumed that the tiger was CGI for the whole time. At least for a couple scenes it was real?
So it's like this: If you want something to be as real as possible, and especially a tiger, considering how complex that creature is, just the way it moves -- I don't think a human being can really imagine, to such an extent, where they can make it completely real. You need that reference. So we did have four tigers training on the boat. I mean, they were never there when I was on the boat, obviously. But they were there and I used to watch them being trained.
They're very intimidating to be around.
Oh, yeah. One time I remember -- because I had to get an idea of what they used to move like on the boat and how they react to things -- I remember once I was sitting on the opposite side of the cage, and something that happened in the movie happened to me. OK, so in the movie, there is this line where [Pi's father] says that when you look into a tiger, you may see your own reflection. And I'm looking at him and he never really looks at what he's not supposed to look, but one second, he just turns, zoom, looked at me, and I swear that I froze. And I was looking right into its eyes, and it was looking into mine. And I swear, it just -- things like that kind of get you an idea of what a tiger is.
If that fence wasn't there, what do you think would have happened?
I have no idea.
Do you think he would have just left you alone?
Pounced? You know, tigers are very unpredictable. They are like that. You can't tell what's going to happen. Because in the end, they just -- literally, their eyes are just showing you what you want to see or what you feel.
I heard you say that you spoke to a guy who was out at sea for 80 days?
Yeah, Steve [Callahan]. Yeah, he's an amazing man. He's so great.
Do you think you could have actually done that?
I mean, I might have gotten through a few days, but that's about it. I don't know -- conceptually, I get an idea.
Did you meet him before you filmed, or after?
What tips did he give you?
Many. One of the things that really stuck out is the fact that he told me about this journey he went to, which was really insane. It was amazing. It was so scary. He even wrote a book named "Adrift," so I had read that book also as research. And so, I kind of knew what he had gone through, but you can never put yourself in those shoes. But more than that, you lose sanity. You become insane. You literally go crazy. And this man, after going through all of this, in the end told me that when he looks back at this, in many ways, he misses it.
Can you possibly even understand what that means?
It's insane. Yeah, that's what I felt, that "how"? You know, because this is so intense, what he's saying right now, because he went through all of this. But he said that he was so aware. You are so alive. You're trying to survive. You're down to your instincts, that's all you have left. You are so, so alive. He told me, most of the time, you don't even feel anything. You are too busy just trying to survive. You're just numb, just trying to survive. But in those specific moments where you feel something, you feel them at such extreme levels.
Before this film, did you travel? Had you been in the United States before?
It was my first time out of the country. I had barely even ever seen the ocean.
So where was the first place you went outside of India?
Taiwan. I was in Taiwan for a very long time. I didn't come to L.A. until just this year, I guess. I was in Taiwan for 10 months and I went back home. I was in India, then, for about a year. Then I came to New York for the first time.
Is New York what you thought it would be?
I didn't know. I mean, I'd seen this place on TV. Obviously, I'd seen it so much. But when you actually come here, I swear, the first time I came here, I fell in love with it. Because I had so much free time, I would just walk. I would walk for hours -- because you can. In this place, you can just walk for hours and hours. There's so many things to see. And, I mean, I'm not talking about the buildings. I'm talking about the people. It's just such a melting pot, and there's so much texture in everything. Like the trees right now. You can see things.
What do you want to do now? I mean, you have a publicist now, but have you thought about a plan?
Well, right now, I'm going to college in India. I'm studying philosophy. Hopefully, eventually, I will come to NYU and study film.
Was that always your plan or has that changed?
Before "Life of Pi," I wanted to do economics. And now, I realize how bad a mistake that would have been. I just can't see it as my cup of tea anymore. But yeah, I guess the movie did really change me in so many ways.
So you want to go into film school?
Yeah. I mean, I don't know about the acting. I don't know whether I want to act again or not. Maybe, maybe ...
Don't go around saying, "What I really want to do is direct," because that's a cliche. People will make fun of you for that.
OK, so I won't say that.
Put it a different way.
I'll just say, "I want to be behind the camera. I want to be able to tell stories in a different way."
That's a good way to put it.
I just want to be on set, really. Honestly, I love that. It's just so intense; it's crazy. So many people with so many different skills just come together and make this dream into reality, trying to touch a million hearts. It's just beautiful. I like that. And that's what I want to do.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.