Suraj Sharma, 19, is making a splash in the new 3-D film Life of Pi, opening November 21. The film, based on the best-selling book by author Yann Martel, has been in the works since the release of the novel in 2001. In the film, Sharma plays teenager "Pi" Patel who survives a shipwreck and spends 227 days stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean. To stay alive, Pi must work with the only other survivor– a Bengal tiger.
With no acting experience, Sharma beat out more than 3,000 other actors for the role- without meaning to audition! Recently, TFK spoke to Sharma about how the role of Pi changed his life.
TFK: This was your first time acting in a film. What was it like?
SURAJ SHARMA: It was the first time I’ve ever done anything of the sort. It was the first time I’ve been outside of the country. I learned so many new things. It was my first time acting, so it was really something special for me. I never thought it would happen to me. Even until this day, I feel it was somewhat of a surreal journey for me. It’s been pretty amazing.
TFK: Is it true that you didn’t plan to audition for the role?
SURAJ SHARMA: Well, my brother has acted in two films before. The casting director, who was also my brother’s acting instructor, was holding the auditions. He called my brother for the audition and I decided to accompany him. When we were there, the casting director said [to me] you might as well give it a shot. I wasn’t really doing anything besides sitting there, so I said I might as well, and I did. There was a callback and another callback and I kept getting lucky. Eventually, they got me to Mumbai and said you’re going to meet (the director) Ang (Lee). That’s how it all happened.
TFK: How did you feel when they finally picked you?
SURAJ SHARMA: Honestly, I didn’t believe them. Sometimes you just don’t expect , it just somehow happened. I am very grateful. I consider myself very lucky.
TFK: How long did filming take?
SURAJ SHARMA: I was in Taiwan for 10 months.
TFK: How long were you out at sea?
SURAJ SHARMA: Well, we were filming in this tank inside an airport. We never filmed in the sea, but to get an idea of what it would be like, Ang took me on a ship into the ocean. We got off the ship and we were moving around in a little boat for a long period of time, just to get an idea of what it was like.
TFK: Your character, Pi, goes through changes physically and mentally. How did you prepare for that?
SURAJ SHARMA: For three months in Taiwan we were training every day. Honestly, right through production, we were training. We had yoga training in the morning, then Ang himself would give me some acting training. I had to maintain a certain amount of weight and then lose it and gain it. I would learn how to swim. We would have intense workouts in the water and outside of it. Ang would give me homework. I would have to read a play or watch a certain movie from the 1960s. So, there were lots of little building blocks and that’s how we built the character.
TFK: You didn’t know how to swim before?
SURAJ SHARMA: Nope.
TFK: You also had to hold your breath under water for a part of the movie. How long did you hold it?
SURAJ SHARMA: We trained for one minute, 30 seconds.
TFK: Your character, Pi, is very spiritual. Are you, too?
SURAJ SHARMA: I come from India where you can get exposed to different religions and cultures. Even though I come from a Hindu family, I was not very religious. But, working on this movie, I kind of built this part of me. I can’t say I believe in a particular God, but I do believe in something, I would call it an essence or light, or something that keeps us going, keeps us hoping.
TFK: Was it easy for you to become Pi?
SURAJ SHARMA: We kind of built those blocks during the training, so by the end of it, there was a part of me that was Pi. I never really became Pi, it just was part of me.
TFK: I have to ask about your co-star, Richard Parker, an animated Bengal tiger on the boat with you. Was it hard to act with a character who wasn’t really there?
SURAJ SHARMA: For me, if you have Ang as a director, you can do anything he wants you to do. He’ll get it out of you, so I didn’t need to worry too much. I watched tigers being trained, how they react and how they move around a boat. I also watched videos of tigers in different scenarios. You kind of get an idea of what the tiger will do and how it will move, and how strong and graceful they are. You build up images and you react to them.
TFK: What do you think is the message of Life of Pi?
SURAJ SHARMA: It’s the kind of story where everyone will take something different out of it. Everyone will have their own interpretation. But, for me, the movie is about hope, and finding that essence that is common to all religions, which is essentially human beings looking for hope or something to back themselves on.
TFK: Will you continue acting?
SURAJ SHARMA: I don’t know, really. I’m going to college in India and I’m studying philosophy. I’m going to see how that goes. I’ll see how my life will go after the movie is released and I’ll decide based on that.
TFK: Overall, how was your experience with Life of Pi? Would you do it again if you were asked?
SURAJ SHARMA: Oh yea. I would definitely do it over again. Funny enough, yesterday I was talking to a friend that worked on the movie and I said I would do it all over again. Even though it was so hard, we became so close with so many people. It was amazing in so many ways.