Young actor Suraj Sharma came to global attention after the release of his high-profile Hollywood film Life Of Pi.
Instead of being crushed by the new-found stardom and weight of expectation, the talented actor has risen to the challenge to show off his versatility in an array of international projects like big-budget movie Million Dollar Arm and hit TV series Homeland.
For his latest project Umrika, Suraj has gone back to his Indian roots to portray a young village boy who goes off to the city to search for his missing elder brother, who he believed was in America. Umrika has been wowing audiences, including opening the recent Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival to great acclaim.
Eastern Eye caught up with Suraj in London to talk about Umrika, his newfound stardom, future plans and more.
When I spoke to you before the release of Life Of Pi, you said you weren’t sure if acting was the career for you. When did you decide that you did want to pursue it full time?
I don’t think it was a moment, but an ongoing process in my head. I was like ‘should I do this, do I want to do this’, but I soon realised that I love acting. More than that, I began to understand that I love filmmaking and being a part of that. Between studying and projects like Indie film Umrika and Homeland, it suddenly dawned on me that this is all I want to do.
You seem still really shy despite all the acclaim. Have you got used to the attention?
(Smiles) No. I think it’s funny because I’ve just been very lucky with everybody who has surrounded me so far where filmmaking is concerned. Every director I have worked with has done my job for me and all I have to do is just listen to them.
How have you selected your projects?
I just look for good stories, honest and good people working on the project and great characters. As long as those three things are there, that’s all that really matters. It’s always fun to read scripts to see which ones really hit you and are good, so it’s a very interesting process. I go based on gut feeling.
What did you like about Umrika? It is an outstanding movie.
Thank you, Asjad. It’s a very emotional piece. The director Prashant Nair gave his heart and soul writing this for so long, and the fact that it was an indie film supposed to be made in India, I had not done that. Prashant and (producer) Swati (Shetty) are great people and I wanted to work with them. The script is beautifully told and emotional, and it’s also got these social indicators that I really felt have importance in today’s times. I thought it was very appropriate and so I did it.
As an actor, are you more under pressure doing a mega-budget movie like Life Of Pi or a small independent feature such as Umrika?
I don’t know how to explain it, but I try not to think about the pressure. I just see the character and listen to the director. I’ll tell you, it’s weird. On a bigger film, there are things like green screens, special effects, stunts and stuff like that; there are things you have to keep in mind, so in that sense it’s harder. But with an indie film, there is scheduling, time constraints and an over-arching presence of failure, which dawns on every independent filmmaker. So both are equally hard, I feel, but in different ways.
Have you been surprised that Umrika has won so many accolades and so much acclaim?
Oh yes. Prashant, Swati and I have lost oursel-ves in everything. Making it was so intensely hard every day and the only reason it was being taken forward is because of these people’s belief in it, otherwise we were done for. Then to see how that manifested and how it was received is crazy. Nobody expected it, not a soul.
Umrika has so many wonderful moments. Do you have a favourite?
My favourite moment is when (my character) Ramakant reaches his lowest point, goes insane and starts to break things. I loved doing that scene – it was like a dance between me and the cinematographer. We were dancing around the room like we had choreographed the whole thing. (Laughs) Everybody else went insane because it was four in the morning. That is why I like acting.
You and Pratiek Babbar actually look like brothers in the film?
Yes, it was amazing. I think in the back of our heads we are the same, as weird as that may sound.
Going forward, have you made a plan for the kind of roles you want to do?
I’m just following my instincts and my mother. She is the one who I go to for advice. My mother is a very smart lady. I trust her more than anybody.
You must be happy that you are one of the actors who are building a bridge between India and Hollywood?
I hope so. I hope that happens because both sides need it, you know. I’m glad that I got lucky enough to be picked up at the right time and I’m getting to be a part of that process.
You have worked with and met some extraordinary people. What has been the most memorable encounter you have had?
Well, honestly my time with Ang Lee was like a student sitting next to a guru and just absorbing and listening. For me that would be the stuff which really formulated a large part of who I am now.
What about the actors?
Robert De Niro, for sure. (Laughs) I had an extremely awkward encounter with him – I was not wearing my glasses at some Oscar thing. I was blind and just standing and waiting for Ang (Lee). It was super awkward. I looked to my right and this man who looked really familiar smiled at me and looked away. Then I had a moment of realisation, kind of panicked and didn’t know what to do. So I started pacing back and forth and around the room, almost like I was checking out a curtain and whistling to myself.
Did you speak to him finally?
Yes, I told him but sometimes you are left speechless and it’s best not to speak when that happens. But I tried to mumble a few words.
You have been all over the world. Which was your favourite country to visit?
You know, it’s weird. There are different things in every country, like I love the people of Taiwan, I love the beaches of Australia, I love the skies of Cape Town and the streets of London. They are all amazing.
Which other films do you have confirmed?
I am just trying to do one thing at a time. I am focusing on college right now and there is another independent project that I am part of which might be shot in Canada. It’s a very interesting, strange script, but I’m excited about it. It should hopefully be shot in August.
When will you get used to the fact that you are now a strong role model and a big star?
I don’t think about those things and don’t believe they are entirely true. I think there are many people to look up to, and I’m not one of those people. I shouldn’t be.
What do you like to do when you are not working?
I like to play football, take photographs and love to walk wherever I am. I love to see everything and like to get a feel of the place.
Which football team do you support?
Manchester United, no question.
You are becoming quite a student of cinema. Is directing something you would be interested in?
I don’t know what I want to do in the long term. I am extremely interested in writing. I don’t know if I will direct, but I want to try my hand at it one day. But right now I am still at college, so I don’t know. I am also very interested in cinematography. I really want to produce things and try to give my friends a chance. So hopefully it will all work out.
Is Bollywood something you would consider?
Bollywood hasn’t really happened for me yet, but yes, I would. As I said, what’s important is the people, the script and character.
Finally, why do you love cinema?
I love cinema because it opens a place in everybody’s mind and heart where they can escape to and find solace in. There is so much chaos, pain and stuff in the world, where people don’t feel touched, connected or sensitised. I think cinema works to help people feel. It’s weird that you need the imaginary to feel real again.
Special thanks to Cary Sawhney and Naman Ramachandran