Suraj Sharma had no prior experience and limited interest in acting when he auditioned for the role of Pi Patel in Ang Lee’s ambitious 3D adaptation of Life of Pi. “The first three times I didn’t even know what I was auditioning for,” says the 19-year-old New Delhi native of his lucky break. “After the third audition, I started to read the book. I didn’t even know who was directing. By the fifth audition I wanted it more than anything.” After a country-wide search, Sharma was handpicked by Lee to embody the eponymous hero of Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize–winning novel, launching a two-year process that would wring a profoundly emotional performance—one of the year’s best—from the first-time star
Did you have any idea that [the film] was going to be in that grand scale and sparkly?
No. When we were shooting it was just blue. We were in a blue tank with blue stuff all around. At least, I never knew what it was going to look like finally. I never really went for all the rushes or all the shot B screenings, because it would have been a little strange. But it was good to finally see it after two years. I think it’s a really great movie.
How did you get involved with the project?
There were auditions in my city, and my brother was called for the auditions, and he told me to come along with him for support, to give him moral support, because he was nervous. And so I went and the casting director when I was there went, “OK Suraj. Why don’t you give this a shot?” I was not doing anything in particular, so I just said, “Fine. Yeah, I’ll do it.” I wasn’t really expecting anything, and I never imagined that I would actually get the role. I was just doing it to pass that amount of time. There were callbacks and callbacks and callbacks. I think I got pretty lucky with the whole thing and finally had to go meet Ang and do one particularly important scene, which I think I messed up the first time I did it. [Laughs]
The last scene when he’s in the hospital with the monologue. So I did it, messed it up and Ang directed me and talked to me about going back in your own memories to find a similar emotion and kind of reliving that memory until it’s ready to explode. I did it and I ended up tearing up. They seemed to like it a little bit, and one week later I go to Taiwan. I thought someone was messing with me. I never expected to get that role. Never, ever, ever ever.
So your older or younger brother was auditioning?
Was there weirdness?
No. Normally, when you have a younger brother or sister, you have that sibling thingy, but no he was supportive, he told me, “Go for it. Keep focused. Listen to Ang and everything will be ok.” If it weren’t for him I would be really reluctant and nervous, because I just didn’t know what to do. It was something I never thought I would get into, and then I did.
It’s interesting that he gave you method-acting instructions. Was that a scary instruction?
Well yea, but I didn’t think of it that way, because it’s Ang. You kind of know he’s a genius. You kind of know he knows what he’s doing. All I did was listen to him the whole way through. I mean. I didn’t know how to act and really didn’t know what I was doing. I just listened to him basically and turned out pretty ok.
Had you seen Brokeback Mountain and all that?
I had seen Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and I had learned karate as a child, so it was a special energy-filled movie for me. I was like, “Ohhh. Let’s go back to class now”.
How far did you get when you were learning it?
I went black belt. Nine years.
So you can kick anyone’s ass basically?
Well, martial arts is more about yourself and calming yourself down, reaching that point when you don’t need to kick anyone’s ass.
Did it affect you, your character being in isolation?
It did. In that isolation, you end up getting way too deep inside yourself. It can get a little bit creepy. You can realize a lot of things about yourself, sometimes too much. You really realize what affects you, what has affected you in the past. In a way, you stop looking outward and look inside yourself. I mean, if you’re working with Ang, you need to find all these emotions that you don’t normally deal with or don’t want to deal with. You change. I guess you grow up, in a way. You really do. Ang is a really special person. He can bring anything out of anybody.
Have you read the book?
Yeah, in the middle of the audition process. Initially, first three auditions, I didn’t know what I was auditioning for. [Laughs] I didn’t know who was directing it. I had no idea. I was just doing it. I had to read this page out of a survival manual. Stuff like that. So you really don’t get anything out of it. It’s strange and weird. Slowly, I got really involved in the whole thing. By the fifth audition, I wanted it more than I wanted anything else. In my own life, I was going through this rough phase. I was not doing well in school. Things weren’t going so well. I really wanted to get out. I felt like I wasn’t doing anything. I just felt useless. Yes the movie kind of saved me from that.
So when you auditioned, were you 16?
16 turning 17.
When you read the book did you have any questions about it, because it’s kind of a complicated book to interpret, and the movie being more visual sort of helps that, but there’s still that question at the end. Did you make up your mind as to what the real story was?
The book really hit me. Initially, it was hard to read. It’s a slower book and then it starts getting really involved. I don’t know when, but suddenly I got so involved. The end, the fact is everybody will have their own interpretation of the end. No two people will have the same idea of it, because somewhere it touches everybody inside. So based on your own life, you make that interpretation. For me which story do I believe? Because I had to play both parts and tell both stories, they’re both true to me. I like the tiger story better but they’re both real in my head.
When you’re thinking about the future and a possible acting career. Are you sort of just weighing pros and cons right now? There’s this very clear path I could take or just…
Oh no. There is no clear path for me. It’s like this. I want to be involved in filmmaking. I want to be on set, because that intense fiery passion with which everybody works, 300 people bang, bang, bang. Everybody’s doing their own thing. Everybody comes from their own different places with their own different skills and come together for maybe three seconds of film. Just bringing someone’s imagination to life, putting our own pieces. I get really inspired by that whole thing. I don’t really know about that acting thing, because it entails stuff, which I might not want to get into much, but yeah I want to make movies, even if I’m not good. I want to do it. I don’t care about that. It just makes me happy.
So you would be cool directing, or writing, or lighting or anything on set?
Just being on set is enough. It feels like you’re part of something. That’s one place honestly that I feel I can do something. Some things I’m really bad at, pretty bad at. Over here I just feel like it’s something I can do, that I’m in someway part of something. It’s almost like you’re creating something. That excites me. That is something I want to do. People in the movie business, I love, because they’re all crazy. There’s this creative edge to everybody. It’s just so exciting. I love that fiery passion thing.
What is your most surreal moment, and it can be drug or non-drug related, or a dream? A moment where your just like, “What the fuck?”
The movie is my most surreal moment of my life. Ever. That is something I will never get over, but if I had to pull some little moment. You’ve seen the movie right? When the ships sinking and he’s underwater not moving, I was there. I will never forget that. I was underwater, nothing was moving. The shots’ kind of action-y, because you’re underwater and these guys pull these ropes off of me and I’m spinning underwater trying to hold my breath and not think about all of that and try to give an emotional performance and I’m doing that. I know exactly which take we got, because we did it many times. We did it 23 times, but it was the 17th. A minute and a half I’m underwater, all this spinning and you imagine sharks coming at you, and you’re dodging that and suddenly boom. You look in front of you and you these lights coming at you, and, in your head, you can see the ship sinking, and you can see your family dying and you’re just there and you’re not moving. You’re just there. The thing about being underwater is there’s always something holding you. I love that feeling. I’m there, not moving, and looking at those lights. And…woah. Yeah that was insane.