The new film Life of Pi tells the story of a teenage Indian boy who survives a shipwreck, only to find himself in another ordeal: stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. The movie is based on the best-selling novel of the same name, and is being mentioned as an Oscar contender by many critics.
Pi is the son of zookeepers from India. When the family sells their zoo, they take the animals with them aboard a ship bound for Canada, where they plan to start a new life. But after a terrible storm sinks the ship, Pi is the sole human survivor. He barely scrambles onto a lifeboat with a tiger and other animals. There are many moments when Pi is in danger of losing his life — and his mind.
An Accidental Star
Thousands of young men from India auditioned for the lead role, and Sharma won it without any acting experience; as a matter of fact, he won it without really trying. In an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Sharma says that he went to the audition to support his brother, not to audition himself.
"The casting director in my city was also my brother's drama theater teacher, and he knew my family. I was sitting on the couch waiting for my brother to get done, and he comes up to me and he said, 'You know what, Suraj? You're like a teenage Indian boy. You should try as well.' And I said, 'Fine, yeah. I might as well.' And I did."
Sink Or Swim
Critics say that the film's shipwreck scene rivals the spectacle and terror of the 1997 blockbuster Titanic. "We were on this huge multiton vessel on this huge metallic, like mechanical hand, being thrown around," says Sharma. "Yeah, it was pretty scary."
Surviving the scene could have been a challenge for Sharma — as well as his character — because before the movie, he'd never learned to swim. "I had never been in the ocean before that either," he says. "The max I had ever done was, you know, get my feet into the surf right at the end of the, you know, at the beach."
Eye Of The Tiger
Most of the film shows Pi trapped on a lifeboat with a vicious tiger named Richard Parker. Sharma was never in the boat with a real tiger — special effects were used to create that illusion. But there were four real tigers used for the production, so Sharma spent hours and hours watching the animals being trained to ensure that his fear would look genuine.
"Sometimes you look at them and you think, 'Aww that's just a big furry kitty cat.' Then there are other times when you just look at them and you realize these guys are powerful, strong, like really unpredictable creatures."
Eventually, Sharma says, his time watching tigers paid off, and his character's fear on the boat became real for him. "Richard Parker was there, you know. In my head, he just was on the boat. I didn't have to do much to imagine him there."
'Not The Most Disciplined Kid'
Director Ang Lee has raved about Sharma's performance and natural gifts as an actor. But the Oscar-winning filmmaker had some doubts about him at first, saying recently that Sharma was "not the most disciplined kid in India." Sharma admits that he was a bit of a troublemaker in the early days on set, especially after he found a scooter.
"When everybody was working and, you know, they were hard at work and extremely busy, I didn't have anything to do, so I used to go around on this little scooter and basically mess with people. So I was quite a nuisance!"
A Life-Changing Experience
The young actor says he spent 10 months doing things he never did before — things he never imagined he could do. He said he never worked so hard — or wanted to work so hard in his life — and he had never been exposed to so many amazing people.
"The intensity of a set is incredible, you know. And imagine things like this: You're coming from a little house, and you're in Taiwan. You don't know what's happening. And you go from the first day to the production office and they tell you, 'Oh, yeah, we took over an airport. And now that's our office. And the terminals are production thingy — production office. And we're gonna cut up the runway and build a tank.' It's just — it's really alien! You just don't imagine things like that! Just learning so much, you just get — your eyes get open to something," he says.
Sharma is attending college and hopes to continue on to film school. He says he might act or direct; he's not sure yet, but he just wants to tell stories.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, we turn to a film that's getting a lot of attention in the run up to Oscar season. It's called "Life of Pi" and it's based on Yann Martel's best-selling novel of the same name.
At its heart, it is the story of an Indian teenager who is the sole survivor of a terrible accident at sea, but the story comes with a surprising and terrifying twist.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LIFE OF PI")
SURAJ SHARMA: (as Pi Patel) My name is Pi Patel. I have been in a shipwreck. I am on a lifeboat alone with a tiger. Please, send help.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIGER GROWLING)
MARTIN: That was actor Suraj Sharma in the film "Life of Pi." And he joins us now from our bureau in New York.
Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us and congratulations.
SHARMA: Thank you. Thank you for having me here.
MARTIN: I understand that more than 3,000 young men auditioned to be Pi, so it was a bit of a surprise. I mean, wasn't it?
SHARMA: Well, yeah. I didn't...
MARTIN: That you got the part - you weren't a trained actor.
SHARMA: No. I'd never acted before. I didn't even go to the audition, really, to - I mean, expecting to get the role or even expecting to audition, at that point. I was really just going as moral support for my brother and then I guess I just got really, really lucky, so - yeah.
MARTIN: So I don't want to get into family dynamics here, but you were really - you were just going to keep your brother company. This is the part that - the story that I had read and - how did it happen, then, that you wound up reading for the part?
SHARMA: Well, basically, the casting director in my city was also my brother's drama theatre teacher and he knew my family. I was sitting on the couch waiting for my brother to get done and he comes up to me and he said, you know what, Suraj? You're like a teenaged boy. You should try, as well. And I said, fine. Yeah. I might as well. And I did and, you know, initially, it was really easy. I just had to introduce myself and stuff like that, so I did that.
Call-backs kept happening and I guess I kept getting lucky and, finally, I had to go meet Ang Lee in Bombay and then I was so nervous, I messed up my entire first - like, first scene that I had to do with him. He directed me for the first time and then we did it again and I ended up almost crying.
MARTIN: Were you supposed to be crying? I'm just...
SHARMA: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: OK. Well, there is a lot to cry about in this film. So had you been familiar with the book before you...
MARTIN: ...started auditioning? I wanted to ask about that because this book evokes very strong reactions. I mean, some people just love it, but some people just find it terrifying and the whole business. Right? So you had not read it before?
SHARMA: No. I hadn't read it until, like, the third audition or something. I mean, I didn't know what I was auditioning for. I didn't know anything, so when I found out, I was like, OK. I should read the book. And I did three times.
MARTIN: What did you think of it?
SHARMA: Initially, it's a little bit slow and then, eventually, it really grabs onto you and then you're just stuck. I mean, I had read more than three-fourths of the book in one day and the initial part I read (unintelligible), so you can imagine what I went through. And then, once I finished reading it, you know, the thing about the book is you take a certain amount of time reading it and then you take, like, three times as more time just thinking about what you read.
MARTIN: The book is stunning in its own way and then there is the film, which is visually absolutely stunning and there is this scene early in the film where you're thrown from the ship. You barely make it into the life boat. It's terrifying to watch and I just wondered - what was it like to film that?
SHARMA: It was pretty crazy. You know, the thing about Darien(ph) - oh, I call Ang Lee Darien because I just do. Anyway, he makes everything really real whether it's your own acting or the emotions you have to undergo or the sets, so at that point, it really was like I was on a ship trying to just, you know, get my family safe because, you know, we were on this huge, multiple ton vessel on this huge metallic, like, mechanical hand being, you know, thrown around and there was rain and it was just really real and I - yeah. It was pretty scary.
MARTIN: Could you swim before?
MARTIN: You couldn't swim, either?
SHARMA: No. I didn't know how to swim.
MARTIN: So you couldn't. You didn't know how to act and you didn't know how to swim.
SHARMA: Yeah. We went through three months of training and I didn't know a lot of things that I had to do. I had never been in the ocean before that, either. I mean, I come from a landlocked city really far away from the ocean, so the max I had ever done was, you know, get my feet into the surf right at the end of the - you know, at the beach. That's about all I knew about the ocean and, you know, things changed, I guess.
MARTIN: I guess they did. OK. And, presumably, you'd never acted with a tiger before, either.
SHARMA: I mean, I never did. I never got to.
MARTIN: You never did. You were never in the same...
MARTIN: ...boat with the Tiger.
SHARMA: Nope. Nope.
MARTIN: Were you anywhere near the tiger? You're a tiger? There were four Tigers, as I understand, who were part of the production.
SHARMA: Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: Did you ever meet the tiger - any of the tigers?
SHARMA: Well, I bet that the other side of the enclosure, but they never really let me get too close to the tiger because it was apparently too dangerous.
MARTIN: They're tigers.
SHARMA: I mean it is too dangerous, actually. Yeah. I don't want to mess with tigers. But, yeah, I would watch them for a really, really long time. Sometimes I'd spend like two, three hours just looking at them being trained and just watching how and what they do. Sometimes you look at them and you think, aww, that's just a big furry kitty cat. And then there are other times when you just look at them and you realize that these guys are powerful, strong, like really unpredictable creatures, you know.
And, you know, we had tiger trainings, like, theory, and there are lots of people who knew tigers, I would just talk to them about what it's like and he would explain all these different things about tigers. And, I mean me myself, you know, every time I go out in the boat I used to try and imagine that the tiger is on the boat and I used to like keep away from a certain side of the boat and imagine that the tiger's there. And initially it was kind of strange, just acting opposite nothing and trying to imagine like a tiger on the boat. But eventually it just became - because we were doing it every day, all day for so long - it just became like he was there, like Richard Parker was there, you know, in my head he just was on the boat. I didn't have to do much to imagine him there.
MARTIN: Richard Parker, for people who haven't figured it out, is the tiger. Well, the back story, for those who are not familiar, is that in the film Pi's father was a zookeeper, and they decided - the father has decided - that they have to immigrate, they had to leave because of political turmoil, and that he's transporting the animals on - his family - along with the freighter, to start a new life in Canada, and that they have a shipwreck and that the tiger is one of the few beings that survived the wreck. I'm just going to play a short clip. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LIFE OF PI")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SHARMA: (as Pi) I never thought a small piece of shade could bring me so much happiness. That a pile of tools, a bucket, a knife, a pencil, might become my greatest treasures, or that knowing Richard Parker was here might ever bring me peace. In times like these, I remember that he has as little experience with the real world as I do. We were both raised in a zoo by the same master.
Now we've been orphaned, left to face our ultimate master together. Without Richard Parker I would have died by now. My fear of him keeps me alert. Tending to his needs gives my life purpose.
MARTIN: You were never really in the boat with the tiger, but you were alone a lot, weren't you, as alone as you could be with a film crew.
MARTIN: And I was wondering how you captured that, both the aloneness and the fear in relating to something that wasn't there.
SHARMA: You know, I think it's just Ang, he does this to you. You know, you go talk to him and he will make you feel whatever he wants you to feel, just by what he says or how he says it or how he looks at you - I can't figure that out, but he just does it.
SHARMA: And, yeah. I mean there was also Peter, when I, he tried to keep me in a certain amount of isolation so that I would get into that state of mind. I would, you know, we did a lot of yoga and meditation, which also helps. And, yeah, he made me listen to a lot of spiritual or a certain kind of music. It's like very deep and very, it really affects you mentally. And you just use all of that and you kind of just do it.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I am speaking with Suraj Sharma. He plays a central figure in the film "Life of Pi." It's in theaters now. The lead character of Pi stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger and a complicated story.
But, you know, perhaps equally terrifying as being stuck on a lifeboat with the tiger would be working with an internationally known figure like Ang Lee, who is, you know, an Oscar winner, famous around the world for all different genres, and you've never acted before. This is one of those situations where, well, I don't know. Let's just play a short clip of him talking about his experience with you on the set. Here it is.
ANG LEE: Working on Suraj remind of some kind of talent. It seems like his last lives were doing acting. All you have to do is not training him. The training is really about awaking him, remind him of what he used to know. He's unnatural to be in front of the camera. I was worried in the training sequence, he didn't swim and never act before and not the most disciplined kids in India.
MARTIN: What's he talking about there?
SHARMA: Which part?
MARTIN: We got the - well we know that you didn't swim before, we know that you didn't act before, not the most disciplined kid in India. What's he talking about?
SHARMA: I have a lot of energy. There was point when I just arrived I didn't have much to do initially because, you know, they were still figuring out what I had to do and how they were going to train me, and I didn't have much to do all day. So I would, I found this scooter kind of a thing and I used to basically when everybody was working and, you know, they were hard at work and extremely busy, I didn't have anything to do so I used to go around on this little scooter and basically mess with people, so I was quite a nuisance.
MARTIN: Well, you are 17 - or you were...
MARTIN: You were only 17. Did he ever be like Suraj, stop it?
SHARMA: Yeah. Yeah. A lot of people were like that, initially.
SHARMA: But I was just having a good time.
MARTIN: You were having a good time? You were already doing this star turn, huh? Were you already being a star? Were you being a divo(ph)?
SHARMA: No. No.
SHARMA: No. No. I was not doing that. I was just basically being a kid, I guess. I don't know.
MARTIN: You were just bored.
MARTIN: Well, what do you think the whole experience taught you about yourself?
SHARMA: Oh my god.
MARTIN: What do you think?
SHARMA: Oh, that's not an easy. I can't explain it really. It just 10 months of doing things you never imagined you could do. Ten months of doing things that you had never done before, you know, it's life-changing. I can't tell you how because it changed me probably in a million ways, you know. I mean I never worked so hard, never wanted to work so hard. I never, I've never been exposed to so many, you know, amazing people. This was the first time out of the country.
And, you know, the intensity of a set is incredible, you know. And imagine things like this: you're coming from a little house, and you're in Taiwan. You don't know what's happening. And you go from the first day to the production office and they tell you, oh yeah, we took over an airport. And now that's our office. And the terminals are production thingy - production office. And we're gonna cut up the runway and build a tank. It's just - it's really alien. You know, you just don't imagine things like that. And just learning so much, you just get - your eyes get open to something. I don't know what but my eyes got opened. Ooh.
MARTIN: What's next for you?
SHARMA: I don't know. I'm going to college right now. I'm studying philosophy.
MARTIN: You're going to college now?
SHARMA: Yeah. And hopefully eventually I hope to go to film school. You know, I might act. I might direct. I really don't know. That's just to be seen. All I know is I want to tell stories. It's just inspiring so much.
MARTIN: How are the other students treating you? Are you a big man on campus or do people go ah, that's just Suraj, what the heck?
SHARMA: Yeah. It's really like that. I don't know. They treat me all right.
MARTIN: Well, you know, you have some tiger friends you could call on if, you know, anybody's messing with you.
SHARMA: Yeah. Yeah, if anybody's messes with me, man.
MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: Well, congratulations. I have the feeling it hasn't really even sunk in yet.
SHARMA: No. Not even close.
MARTIN: Well, keep in touch. Let us know what you decide to do.
SHARMA: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: We'd love to hear from you again.
SHARMA: Thank you.
MARTIN: Suraj Sharma stars as Pi Patel in the new film "Life of Pi," and he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.
Thank you for joining us..
SHARMA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.