Interview: Suraj Sharma star of Ang Lee’s new film ‘Life of Pi’

Life of Pi
Life of Pi
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SURAJ Sharma only went to the audition to keep his brother company. Now he’s poised to take the world by storm in Life of Pi, writes Claire Black

I have changed quite a bit,” Suraj Sharma says with what turns out to be typical understatement. “I don’t know how to feel, really.” If the 19-year-old sounds a little overwhelmed by his recent experiences, it’s entirely understandable. Two years ago, Sharma was a school pupil in Delhi who lived with his parents and had never travelled outside of India or even seen a foreigner in the flesh. He couldn’t swim and he’d never been on a boat – these last two points might seem random, but bear with me.

Surji Shama

Surji Shama

Now, Sharma is the lead in Life of Pi, a huge Hollywood production helmed by Oscar-winning director, Ang Lee. During filming he spent months in a small boat in the largest ever constructed self-generating wave tank, containing 1.7 million gallons of water. Happily he’s now a very good swimmer. As it happens, he can also fish, he knows how to build a sail and collect fresh water. Oh, and somewhere in amongst all of that, Sharma learned to act.

A total of 3,000 young Indian men auditioned for the role of Piscine Molitor Patel, the titular Pi in director Ang Lee’s eagerly anticipated adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel. It was actually Sharma’s younger brother who was to read for the part, but Suraj went along with him to keep him company, so he auditioned too. When I ask him how his brother feels about how it worked out, he laughs.

“He auditioned and I auditioned and neither of us expected to get the role, really,” he says. “I think I went through because I was a more appropriate age for Pi. I honestly believe he’s a good actor and I’m not, but I was more Pi’s age.” I think it’s safe to assume he’s being modest – incidentally, he’s also unfailingly polite – since Lee has already been raving about his performance as Pi, the boy who begins his life in India, the son of zookeepers, is then shipwrecked as his family travels to Canada seeking a better life, ending up marooned in a boat with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. Lee, it seems, saw something in Sharma that made him believe that a teenager with no acting experience could embody a character whose journey is as much spiritual as it is physical, across vast oceans and continents but also through faith.

Sharma was only 16 when the audition process started. “Initially everything was just surreal and unexpected,” he says. “It’s continued that way. It’s funny to say this, but it’s literally like I’ve been on this boat and I’ve been drifting around and doing all these things and seeing all these things that I never thought I would do or see. It’s quite unbelievable.”

He found out that he had been chosen six months after his first audition. His initial response was to feel numb, but also scared. When he asked his brother what he should do, he told him to keep his head down and “just listen to Ang”. He went further: “Trust him with your life and you’ll be OK.”

That would not be good advice in terms of every Hollywood director, but Lee is not every Hollywood director. The Oscar-winner, originally from Taiwan emigrated to the US to attend university and film school in New York. He is known to be utterly devoted to film-making, but almost completely uninterested in Hollywood hoopla.

He lives in the New York suburbs with his wife and children. His films – Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and, of course, his masterpiece Brokeback Mountain – tell the stories of outsiders, people who don’t quite fit in.

There’s only been one misstep – The Hulk. With its reliance on computer-generated imagery (CGI), it didn’t play to Lee’s strengths. With a budget of more than $100 million (£62m), shot in 3D and packed with stunning visual effects, Life of Pi takes Lee back to the world of CGI, but this time it’s combined with a story which demands complex emotional sensibility to capture what is essentially a fable about faith.

While Alfonso Cuaron, M. Night Shyamalan and Jean-Pierre Jeunet passed on what had begun to be thought of as an “unfilmable” story, early reactions suggest Life of Pi is potentially Lee’s best film. As for Sharma, any prospect that he was daunted at the prospect of working with Lee on such a high-profile project was ameliorated by the director himself. It’s clear that Sharma has been blown away by Lee, from his aura of calmness to his advice not to act but rather to just be.

“He’s a pretty great director, you know,” he says, giggling. “Oscar-winning and everything, but I like him and get inspired by him because after all this accomplishment he’s still simple, down to earth and very honest. How can a man who’s done so much be so simple? He really is like his movies you know – simple on the outside and very complex on the inside. I’m super lucky.”

The popularity of Martel’s novel adds to the sense of expectation surrounding the film. It has sold more than seven million copies. It won the Man Booker Prize and spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller lists. It has been translated into 42 languages. For his part, Lee has described it as “cinematically speaking, the most difficult movie I’ve ever made”.

It was only after his third audition, when he knew what he was auditioning for, that Sharma read Martel’s novel.

“I was intrigued because on the third audition day I was told that I had to do some sort of a circus scene in front of a tiger,” he says. “In my head I was like, OK, I might be playing some sort of a ringmaster. I had no idea what the movie was about. That’s when I read the book. Then I got ­really interested because it was the first time that a book really troubled me. I mean I had felt happy at the end of a book, or sad, but never troubled. I’ve always got the idea or the concept but for the first time I felt I was missing something, that really bothered me so I read the book again, and then I read the book again.” By that stage there was a script too so he was reading them as well. As to his final understanding? “All of it is a metaphor,” he says.

The impact of Sharma’s involvement was practical – he travelled, he learned to swim. But there were other changes too. He’s only 19, he’s now studying philosophy at the University of Delhi, but it’s clear that film-making has totally captured his imagination.

“Maybe the biggest way I changed was that I realised I was living in a very small world before this. I realise how caught up I was in these little ideas, how narrow my mind was. I was caught up in things that barely matter. There’s so much more to the world. When you get to see the world, it changes you. You realise that there are all kinds of people out there. There is nothing that you should be, that doesn’t exist. That’s only an idea that someone has in their mind, it’s not real. When you realise that, then you become a more open person, someone who is more accepting of others.

“It’s the first time I’ve worked hard in my life. And it was the first time I really wanted to. It was the first time I felt pressure but at the same time I had people to rely on completely. It was the first time I’d been with people who’d seen me, not literally naked, but stripped of everything. You trust these people more than you trust yourself then. The whole thing, it’s so inspirational.”

Sharma doesn’t know whether he wants to act again but he’s sure that he wants to be involved in some way with film-making.

“It’s the most amazing thing,” he says. “For me, I can honestly say it’s the only place where I’ve honestly felt that I fitted in.”

What made him feel that way?

“Everybody has that intensity and belief. It’s great. But why do I fit in? It’s because I feel that none of them fit in.” He laughs.

• Life of Pi is in cinemas from 20 December.