'Life of Pi': Suraj Sharma's Odyssey From Typical Teen to Leading Man
At Friday's Los Angeles screening of Life of Pi, the opening sequence had just began playing on the screen when director Ang Lee stopped his own movie.
The Taiwanese-born director, who had just left the stage after introducing the film, ran back up onto the platform.
“I forgot to introduce the most important person of all,” he told the audience gathered at the Zanuck Theater on the Fox lot.
Lee then called for Suraj Sharma, the 19-year-old Indian actor who plays the titular character in Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s adventure novel.
Sharma took the stage for a moment, offering a small wave to the crowd, seemingly unbothered by Lee’s accidental omission. It was just another new experience in Sharma’s odyssey from regular teen living in India to leading man.
Sharma’s journey to standing on that stage was an accidental one from the start. He had not planned on auditioning for the role of Pi but had tagged along with his brother and decided to audition since he was waiting around anyway.
Out of the 3,000 young men who auditioned for the part, Lee chose Sharma to play the 16-year-old boy who loses his entire family when a freight ship sinks and is stranded on a lifeboat with an orangutan, hyena, a zebra and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Lee tells The Hollywood Reporter that he chose Sharma because he “looks like Pi” and has the innocence he was hoping for in his lead character.
“Starting with a new actor is starting from zero,” says Lee. “It was good because there’s no negative. So, I had to watch that he doesn’t pick up anything negative.”
Sharma, who had never starred in a film before, did have to pick up a long list of new skills for the part. He did yoga and meditation, studied films and plays and learned how to swim. Lee also made Sharma listen to what he called “god, music,” which Sharma describes as “strong, effecting music” that helped emphasize the spiritual undertones of the film.
Sharma even had to learn how to act on a film set, he tells THR.
“Until now, I feel like this is all just training for me,” he says. “Every day, I’m doing something I never did before.”
The film was shot in chronological order so that Sharma could progressively lose 30 pounds as his character spends more time stranded on the lifeboat.
“There would be days when you’d feel really, really tired but then you look at [Lee], you look at the crew, and they’re literally almost collapsing they’re so tired, but they’re still going,” said Sharma. “And if they’re going for it, there shouldn’t be anything that should stop me.”
Lee tells THR that shooting the film in chronological order was "very inconvenient.”
“The only upside is that -- along with Suraj -- we take the journey that’s parallel to the journey across the Pacific,” he says. “Both physically, in terms of improvement of handling his sea life, and also spiritually.”
Sharma says that the Oscar-winning director, who helmed 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, doesn’t explain things too deeply on the set but rather creates an atmosphere.
“Once you walk into that atmosphere, you start dealing with it and learning new things and experimenting in your own way,” he says. “If you look at him in the eyes, you get absorbed.”
Sharma, who has returned to school to study philosophy in Delhi, could be in for another new set of experiences if the film, which is Lee’s first venture into 3D, makes the impact on awards season that many predict it will.
Lee, who has already been through the whirlwind experience that is awards season, says he has shared some advice with the young actor about dealing with those few months of insanity.
“Don’t go crazy, don’t walk on the clouds,” Lee says. “Keep grounded. I keep him humble.”
Life of Pi opens in theaters Nov. 21.