Interview: Freida Pinto, actress

Freida Pinto was 24 when she became a Hollywood star with her first film, a success story that took everyone by surprise – not least her.

•'If someone tells me i look beautiful i don't care. i want to hear about the performance' Picture: PA

To say she had few expectations of Slumdog Millionaire is an understatement. It was a low-budget movie with a cast of unknowns about a slum kid competing for 20 million rupees on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? – and even its director, Danny Boyle, had no great hopes for the film.

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"He said to me, 'Well Freida, just be happy that you've done an amazing job and maybe 50,000 people will see this film,"" recalls Pinto in very British-inflected English. "It turned out he forgot to add a few zeroes to that."

In keeping with its theme of boundless optimism in the face of adversity, Slumdog Millionaire has led a charmed life, dodging the straight-to-DVD bin, winning critical praise, pushing past the $100m box office milestone and finally winning the Oscar for best picture.

For Pinto, the movie was a last throw of the dice before retiring from the limelight. A model who had presented a TV travel show on Asian TV, she had never played anyone other than herself in front of a camera.

Disillusioned, she had privately decided that by the age of 25 she would switch careers and go into event management. Instead, she found herself walking up the red carpet to the Kodak Theatre on Oscar night with Boyle and the eight other actors who played the three lead characters at different stages in their life.

Thrown on to the global stage in electric blue John Galliano and borrowed diamonds, she epitomised the rags to riches fable of Slumdog, and was the subject of some envy back home in Mumbai by doing what few Indian actors have managed to do before her. From Om Puri to the glamorous Aishwarya Rai, many had worked in Hollywood films but none had tasted instant, mainstream fame like Pinto, who is the first to point out that her total screen time on Slumdog amounted to 20 minutes.

"It changed my life completely," agrees the demurely glamorous actress dressed in a short-sleeved floaty number with her hair long and loose. "A film like that gives you an amazing opportunity to choose projects you really want to do and say no to the ones you don't want to do."

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As well as opportunities, however, it has also brought scrutiny. While on the road promoting Slumdog in 2008, she split up with her PR manager fianc Rohan Antao, who complained bitterly to the papers that she broke her engagement off in order to pursue a successful movie career.

Some reports even claimed the two had been secretly married. Shortly afterwards Pinto confirmed she was dating her Slumdog co-star Dev Patel, the gangly Londoner who came to the film via Channel 4's Skins.

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In India, the couple seem to have a Posh'n'Becks status. Their foreign jaunts and jewellery shopping excursions in Jaipur are eagerly reported and analysed, and the papers have alternately depicted them as splitting up or getting married. Unsurprisingly, Pinto is now wary of providing any more detail on her private life because the demand for detail never seems to let up. "I don't want to feed stupidity with more stupidity," she says, rather despairingly. Nor is Patel, 20, lurking anywhere in the background, but only because he is currently shooting The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in India. Ironically, Pinto's overnight success means she no longer spends much time in her hometown of Mumbai, where she still technically lives with her parents.

She grew up in an affluent suburb. "I went to an all-girls' convent school, run by nuns. It was fun until I got to 16 and told my mum, 'That's it. I need to go where there are some boys.'" Acting is not in her blood: her mother is a headmistress and her father a banker but she did a film studies course which included Boyle's Trainspotting ("and I understood the accents"). After school she completed a BA in English literature, and did commercials for DeBeers and Wrigley's gum.

In her early 20s she hosted a travel show for Zee TV called Full Circle, which saw her travel to Afghanistan, Fiji, Thailand and Indonesia among other countries. Now she trots the globe making movies then promoting them.

In the UK, her first film since Slumdog Millionaire will be the title role in Miral, which she landed with the help of Boyle while they were in Los Angeles for the Oscars. Boyle, by all accounts, has kept a fatherly eye on Pinto ever since he talentspotted her to play Latika. "She was inexperienced," he recalls. "But the first time I saw her audition tape, I had a reaction. The same thing happened when I was making Trainspotting with Kelly Macdonald too; I just remember thinking, 'I bet that's her."

Miral's director Julian Schnabel had loved Slumdog but wanted Pinto to tape an audition to prove she could play the part of a Palestinian activist. "I was really nervous because I'd waited a long time for a project like Slumdog that I was proud of, and I lived in a lot of fear as to what to do next," says Pinto. Schnabel also asked Boyle to direct the test, and despite being in the middle of touring award shows for Slumdog, Boyle not only organised the recording but ended up playing opposite Pinto as a policeman who interrogates her. "It was Danny's audition as well," she laughs. "He played it very well. He can really instill fear in you. After Julian saw the audition tape he called me and said, 'You're fantastic – but Danny gave a great audition as well.'"

In Miral, which takes place from 1948 until the 1990s, Pinto plays the title character, a Palestinian schoolgirl whose political conscience is awakened during the first Arab-Israel war. When she read the script, adapted from the autobiography of Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal, who is also Schnabel's girlfriend, Pinto knew the film would be difficult but could also establish her as a bona fide actor.

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Unfamiliar with the politics and history of the Middle East, Pinto threw herself into researching the role. She moved to Israel six weeks before filming and stayed with a Palestinian family to tune into the accent. She walked round old Jerusalem to familiarise herself with the geography, and is sweetly proud of the fact that after a few weeks she was able to walk into a mosque without being stopped because she was assumed to be Palestinian.

"Sometimes you need to be true to the ethnicity of a character, but I feel like an Indian can easily play a Palestinian, or the other way around. The people have a very dynamic kind of look that can be very Middle Eastern and very Asian as well. So I wasn't worried about how my character looked – I was worried about getting the emotions right."

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Originally Pinto is not just Indian but was brought up Catholic with a Portuguese name in Mangalore, in the south. "Growing up, I was told all these stories about the Holy Land and Bethlehem, so to go there and see the walls and the checkpoint and feel the tension and unhappiness was very emotional for me," she says. In particular, she was shocked when she visited the refugee camps.

"The first time I went there, three young boys were there, and they had stones in their hands so the people I was with were a bit scared, although they were only kids. I know a little Arabic, so I went up and said, 'Hello how are you?' At that moment something just calmed down. They dropped the stones and shook hands with me instead. I think all it took was someone to show a little love and affection, when for so much of their lives they'd experienced hatred and violence."

A year later, when the bear-like Schnabel spots Pinto on the red carpet in London, he wraps her in a hug that almost makes her disappear. Clearly Pinto has a way of wrapping film- makers around her little finger but it's not vulnerability they respond to, but her sincerity.

Pinto is a super-polite, earnest young woman who keeps reminding us both of her good fortune. When she goes to glittering industry dinners, she takes her place name home with her afterwards, as if to prove to herself that her invitations are not some mistake, and she sounds heartfelt rather than glib when she says she feels her biggest privilege has been her schooling, because "a good education is a healthy ammunition".

This seriousness did not stop Woody Allen teasing her when he hired her for You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, which also stars Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins, and has Pinto playing an object of desire for married Josh Brolin. While reading the script, it dawned on Pinto that she was being asked to play a woman who ditches her fiance for another man. "I did wonder if someone had been reading the gossip pages to Woody," she says lightly.

During rehearsals in London Allen, who usually eschews small talk, tried to put Pinto at her ease. "So," he said to her. "I hear you still have flying carpets and snake charmers in India."

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"I looked at him then I realised that he was kidding," laughs Pinto. "Sometimes people don't get his humour and think he's being rude. But I think it's funny." The hardest thing about working with him, she says, was trying to deliver his script without doing an Allen impersonation: "He's very infectious. It's not that people end up trying to imitate him because they want to. I think it just happens when he comes and talks to you."

Is he tough on actors? "Well, he would never say, 'That was terrible,' but he'll say, 'Well, you know, you can just do it better.' And it's very difficult to get approval from him. You want a smile or a yes or a no – but you hardly get that from Woody."

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After Miral and Tall Dark Stranger, Pinto will appear in Rise of the Apes, a sci-fi prequel to Planet of the Apes, in which she plays James Franco's primatologist love interest. She is also part of The Black Thirst, directed by acclaimed French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud, about America's interest in Gulf oil in 1920. And she's just finished playing a prophesying priestess in Tasem Singh's sex and sandals blockbuster, Immortals. At some point too, she says, she would like to make a movie as part of the Indian film industry, with or without Dev Patel. "There are some amazing films in India, made on a much smaller scale than Bollywood movies, which don't get the same appreciation. I want to be a part of those films and when it comes my way, I'm going to grab it with both hands."

Twice voted one of the most beautiful women in the world, Pinto's looks clearly helped her win some of these roles, but she hopes great acting rather than great genes will carry her through to the next stage of her career. Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep are role models, she says, actresses who combine great bone structure with a lack of personal vanity. Consequently, she was rather thrilled on the set of Miral when Schnabel stopped a scene and strode across to wipe Pinto's make-up off her face in order to reveal more of her naturalness.

"If someone tells me I look beautiful in a film, I don't care," she says. "I just want to hear about the performance."

• Miral is released in the UK on 3 December