NEW YORK (AP) — The only thing more unlikely than a movie about a boy adrift on a ship with a Bengali tiger is the tale of the film’s star.
Teenager Suraj Sharma went along with his acting brother to a Delhi, India, audition of “Life of Pi” purely as a favor, motivated by the promise of a free meal.
“He said, ‘Come with me because I don’t want to go alone,’” Sharma recalled in an interview at Lincoln Center shortly before the film premiered at the New York Film Festival in September. “I said, ‘Fine, as long as you buy me a sandwich afterwards.’ That sandwich got me ‘Pi.’”
For a film about the wonder of faith, Sharma’s experience is one that stretches belief. Despite no prior acting experience or ambition, he managed to separate himself from 3,000 applicants and emerged through four rounds of auditions as the star in one of the most anticipated movies of the year.
For “Life of Pi” to work, Sharma — now 19, 17 when filming started — had to succeed. And many think the film, to be released Wednesday, not only works, but is a legitimate Oscar contender — a 3-D magic act from director Ang Lee that translates Yann Martel’s 2001 best seller into a colorful cinematic language.
In it, Sharma plays Pi Patel, who, as a child, precociously combines Christianity, Buddhism and Islam into his own blend of religion. When his family is uprooted to Canada, the ship taking Pi, his family and many zoo animals, sinks in a storm, leaving Pi alone and clinging to life in a raft boat.
Making the film meant working with one of the most revered directors in movies. It meant spending months shooting in India and Taiwan, where a giant water tank was built for scenes at sea. It meant learning not only how to act, but how to swim.
“I can’t put it in words,” says Sharma, a bright and earnest kid who humbly recognizes his good fortune. “It’s too much. It was emotionally and spiritually and physically exhausting. I would never be able to tell people what I went through exactly, but hopefully it will come through in some ways.”
It was a journey Sharma’s parents (both mathematicians, fittingly) had some reluctance about, as it would mean missing a year of school. Lee argued a year spent working on “Life of Pi” would be more rewarding than a year of school. Sharma’s mother performed a ceremony that made Lee her son’s guru — a new role for the director.
“I couldn’t even tell a joke in front of him. I had to behave,” Lee jokes. “I had to look after him. Normally when I work with actors, they move on and I move on. … I can pretty much say he started at the top — getting this kind of reception and making a movie. So I want to make sure he’s grounded and still getting his education — not only in school but in life. He should be OK if he doesn’t get crushed by what’s coming.”
“He’s a good boy,” adds Lee. “It seems like he can take it.”
In “Life of Pi,” there’s nowhere for a young actor to hide, either. For a long stretch of the film, Pi is alone in the skiff with only the tiger, which was digitally added. Sharma had the added pressure of acting extensively in front of a blue screen, with little to go on other than Lee’s directions.
“Honestly, I still feel like I don’t know how to act,” says Sharma. “It was just him. I was just an instrument. He has this thing — suppose you’re really nervous and stressed out and going crazy — he’ll look you in the eye in a particular manner, and no matter who it is, you just go: whoosh! He’s like a Zen master or something. He makes you so calm that you just let him mold you into whatever he wants to mold you into.”
Sharma is now in his first year at Deli University where he’s concentrating his studies on philosophy.
“I’m pretty sure I want to end up in the film industry,” he says. “I don’t know if I want to act or not, but I do want to be part of making magic.”
Follow Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jake_coyle
More Related Stories
- Ray Manzarek, founding member of The Doors, dies at 74
- Beware of book blurbs
- Did a Salon excerpt ruin Penn Jillette's chance to win "Celebrity Apprentice"?
- Zach Galifianakis to take formerly homeless woman to "Hangover 3" premiere
- Seth MacFarlane will not host Oscars again
- "SNL's" uncomfortable Garner/Affleck moment
- "Celebrity Apprentice" finale ratings hit a new low
- Worst National Anthem fails
- The truth in Kanye's anti-prison rap
- Stephen Colbert to UVA: "You must always make the path for yourself"
- "Game of Thrones," season 3, episode 8: A salon
- Bieber booed, Miguel falls on fan at Billboard Awards
- "Mad Men" recap: Love, acid and whores. Lots of whores
- Taylor Swift leads Billboard winners
- “Game of Thrones” recap: “We must do our duty”
- "The Unwinding": What's gone wrong with America
- Michael J. Fox wins: The best and worst of the new fall shows
- First look: The Coens' marvelous folk-music odyssey
- New York's most persecuted subway artist?
- James Franco: "I really felt I was in conversation with Faulkner"
- "Jodorowsky's Dune": The sci-fi classic that never was
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11