He is the lead star of what figures to be one of the biggest hits this holiday season, both at the box office and on the awards circuit, but you wouldn't know it when looking for information on "Life of Pi" star Suraj Sharma.
That's because the 19-year-old Indian was plucked from obscurity via a nationwide talent search to star in the title role of Ang Lee's breathtaking adaptation of Yann Martel's spiritual bestseller.
So as we're known to do with Next Factors, we gather some intel on Suraj (pronounced "Serge") and find out, among other things, that he's just happy to be here, but also really just wants to direct.
So when I went to look you up on IMDB, there was no data on you. Let's fix that. Tell me about yourself.
I am 19 [and] from New Dehli, India. Grew up there, born there, still studying there … My ma is an economist. My dad is a software engineer. I have a brother and sister both younger than me. My brother is older than my sister but younger than me. What else do you want to know?
That's great. We're going to go update your bio right now. So what was the casting process for "Life of Pi" like? Was there a talent search for this role?
Well I think they went through many high schools in India in all the major cities. I went with my brother. He didn't want to go alone to the audition and he [asked me to go with him]. I was just going to support him morally and then eventually they said, "You should audition as well, you are the appropriate age and you are Indian." So I said, "Fine, yeah I am not doing anything, I might as well."
So then I auditioned, and went from one to the next and then four months later, after like three more rounds of auditions, I got to meet Ang in Bombay and we did an audition there. Well, we did it twice. The first time I messed up really badly with my lines because I was that nervous, and then he directed me for the first time. The second time we did it I ended up in tears. So … that was good.
How'd your brother take all this?
He has been really good about it, he has been really happy. He's happy that I got that opportunity. I was going through a rather lost phase at that point so it was a good feeling to get out of it and my brother knew that, so he was happy with the whole thing. He just told me, "You've got an opportunity, you should just keep focused and keep your feet on the ground and everything will be okay." And that coming from a 14-year-old is a good feeling, it gives you that little bit of strength inside of you.
And he got to come on set in Taiwan and he did some hand double work. He had lot of fun, basically. Even in the one month that he was there, he learned a lot. He got to come to New York. He just had a great time. He took it well.
Through the shipwrecking Pi gets pretty emaciated. What did you do to lose the weight throughout the shoot? Did you have to starve yourself?
Yeah, kind of. I was on a tuna and lettuce diet for like three months. So that was pretty painful, to say the least. And we went to this super-dance workout every day for two-three hours, and lunch. So when the crew and everybody had lunch, we would train. Yeah it was very intense. But I guess that helped because one, it got me thin, and second, I didn’t have to act much when we were shooting. 'Cause then I was hungry and dying [laughs].
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Did you actually work alongside the tiger at all?
No. I never worked with the tiger, or [was on the boat] with the tiger. That never happened. But I would watch them be trained and stuff like that. I'd watch how they react to the world, the boat, movement, water and stuff like that. I would also watch videos [of tigers] on YouTube. And then I'd listen. I would talk to the tiger trainer. I would talk to Ang . Then you just use that information when you're out on the boat.
Was this your very first acting gig?
Yes, first time acting.
See yourself following this as a career path now?
Well, I really like being on set. And I like the idea of filmmaking. So I probably will act again. But I really want to make movies. I don't know how but I just want to be on set, really. So I might want to direct or do something with the camera. I want to tell stories.
So where would you be today if you hadn't been discovered for "Life of Pi"?
Oh, probably doing something really boring. I mean before this I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I was in the final year of school. I was going to pursue economics, which was a really bad idea, because I realized I can't do a desk job as such. I will not be very good at it ... I'd probably be in a very bad situation. But you know how life has this knack of, just when you're at your worst, it just picks you up and puts you in a better place sometimes. Yeah.
Did you buy anything special with your first Hollywood paycheck?
Yeah. I bought a camera. Not too fancy, a Canon 650D. It's a nice camera, it's really good. It’s got the swivel lens, and it's got great video. I really want to make movies. So I just wanted a camera with good tilt and good video also and this just seemed to be the right thing to do.
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Mac or PC?
Oh, I use a PC but I'd rather have a Mac.
New York or L.A.?
Rock or rap?
Snoop Dogg. Notorious B.I.G. Dr. Dre. Tupac.
Beer or wine?
Beer. But I don't drink, by the way. [laughs]
Twitter or Facebook?
Vampires, zombies or werewolves?
So what is next for you? Where do you go from here?
Well, I'm in college right now [at St. Stephen's College in India]. I'm starting philosophy. Hopefully eventually I will study filmmaking, hopefully at New York University. But I don't know. And from then on we will just see how things go. And just take every day as it comes.