By Shilpa Jamkhandikar
MUMBAI (Reuters) - Suraj Sharma went from being a regular teenager growing up in New Delhi to starring in Ang Lee's big-screen adaptation of the bestselling novel "Life of Pi".
The 17-year-old Sharma was picked from more than 3,000 hopefuls to play Pi, an Indian boy who finds himself stranded on a lifeboat for 227 days with a Bengal Tiger.
Now 19, Sharma spoke to Reuters about the film, which opens in cinemas next month, acting with a computer-generated tiger and why "Life of Pi" may well be his first and last role.
Q: How did this film come about?
A: "I have been born and brought up in Delhi and my brother has acted in a couple of films. The auditions happened and the casting director was my brother's friend and he's been close to my family for a while. I went for the auditions with my brother for moral support ... I didn't really want to act, but I don't know, it happened. They kept calling me back. And then they called and said you have to come to Mumbai to meet 'Dao Yan'. I call Mr Lee Dao Yan."
Q: Yes, I noticed that. What does it mean?
A: "It means Mr Director in Chinese. I don't like calling him Ang, there is something not respectful about that ... Two weeks later, they said 'hey, Suraj you have to come to Taiwan'. Funnily enough even then I didn't believe I had got the role. It's very difficult to believe. You don't think things like that can happen to you."
Q: What was shooting in Taiwan like?
A: "I did three months of training -- learnt swimming, sea skills, raft work -- I even learnt how to fillet fish. I also ate raw fish, but let's not talk about that. There was weight gain and eventually weight loss. I came in very skinny, like a weak little runt (laughs).
"Somehow we all went through Pi's journey together. There were many times where I felt that all of (us) together were Pi. I don't know what normal movies are like when they are made, but this can't be it."
Q: What changed from the time you went for the audition to the moment when you got the role?
A: "I had never acted before, but I knew I would like it. My brother and I would act to ourselves. We would walk down streets being different people and that is the only acting I have ever done. I got exposed to real movie-making and how things are done. It's a lot of people who come together, a lot of dreams that come together. For me, I just want to be on set. I don't care what I would be. If it's acting, directing, if it is props, I don't care ... Things might get better or worse, but this will always be there. A part of me will always be stuck in Taiwan, on that boat."
Q: You had to shoot with a 'fake' tiger for the most part. How do you emote in front of something that isn't there?
A: "Don't call him fake. He was real to me (laughs). No, but for the most part, we were shooting in a big blue tank with big blue walls around it and the blue sky above you. Everything was blue except for me and the raft. We had four tigers being trained as reference. I would watch them everyday -- how they would react to the water, the atmosphere, how they moved. I watched videos of tigers, I talked to the tiger trainer, etc. and so you assemble this huge picture in your head. Initially it was a very conscious attempt to imagine the tiger on the boat. But later, it became real to me. By the end of it I didn't need to imagine him. For me it was real."
Q: What next? Roles for Asian actors are limited in Hollywood, aren't they?
A: "I don't know whether I want to act. I might, I might not, depends on what comes my way. I want to be on set. I want to tell stories. I was really, truly possessed by being on set. I cannot get over that feeling. It was more than an adrenaline rush, that fire. That collaborative feeling -- different people come together, and they all have their own stories -- so many strings are pulled and they come together to create something which goes on to touch a million hearts. I can't get over that. I don't care what I do. It still hasn't sunk in actually. Sometimes I think about the whole thing from the third person and it seems like a blur."
(Editing by Tony Tharakan and Ross Colvin)