It was the chance of a lifetime: to star in Ang Lee۪s epic film ‘Life of Pi’. Suraj Sharma never expected to be picked for the role about a boy who survives a perilous journey on a lifeboat with only a tiger for company, but at just 17 years old, he beat more than 3,000 challengers, following a month long search.
Sharma had no acting experience, but Ang Lee, the masterful Oscar winning director of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005) and ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ (2000) saw the potential in the charismatic and naturally talented boy from Delhi and cast him in the leading role.
The film is based on Yann Martel۪s 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 India, 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 G̩rard Depardieu, Irrfan Khan and Rafe Spall.
Born and raised in Delhi with his brother and sister, both Sharma۪s 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 film۪s 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 Pi’.
How did you end up landing this fantastic role?
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 didn۪t even know what the movie was. Honestly, I didn۪t 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.
What was your response when you found out you had won the role?
I thought someone was playing a prank on me. I didn۪t believe it. I was just numb and I was so excited and my brother was madly excited for me. I started screaming: thank you.۪ I went crazy. Suddenly there was so much energy in the air. I was really happy and I ran up to my Mom and said I got the role.۪ It was my first, what I would call big achievement۪. I just felt really lucky.
There were a lot of firsts for you in the film.
Well it was all new for me. I didn۪t know how to swim, I had never acted before, I had never seen the ocean before. I had never been out ofIndia. 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, it۪s my favorite thing to do.
What was it like sharing the screen with a tiger (well several tigers were used to play Richard Parker)?
There were four different tigers of different sizes and personalities. We never really filmed with them but sometimes I spent six hours a day watching them being trained. I۪d watch how they move and see how they were behaving. I۪d kind of map it my head so I would have a sense of how the tiger was going to react and what he was going through. When we were filming my scenes I would just imagine Richard Parker in front of me. Funnily enough, I۪ve always been fascinated with tigers and for some reason I know instinctively how they move. It was hard but it was cool, like having an imaginary best friend. It became a weird combination of memory and imagination.
What was it like working with Ang Lee?
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.
What was involved physically when you were preparing for the role?
When I first came toTaiwan I was a really skinny twig. I say twig because there was no muscle on me. I didn۪t 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 can۪t recognise myself anymore.
Did you and Irrfan Khan spend time together? He plays the older Pi.
We worked with Ang together twice for very short periods. I۪ve seen Irrfan act a million times. I am a big fan. He۪s never seen me act. I۪m kind of looking forward to seeing how he plays me.
How did the experience of making the film affect you?
It was the ultimate adventure. We worked long hours and there was a lot of emotion and learning for me. I was just a normal kid from Delhi before Life of Pi. Now I want my whole life to be an adventure. I want every minute of my life to be challenging and exciting with things to overcome all the time.
I don۪t know. I۪m just going to see what happens really. I don۪t 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. I۪m 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 there۪s no other option.
‘Life of Pi’ released today in the UK and is playing in 3D in cinemas nationwide.