On his second day in Los Angeles, Suraj Sharma was on a mission.
“In-N-Out Burger is gonna happen whether or not anything else happens,” said the lanky 19-year-old star of “Life of Pi,” who was visiting the U.S. for the first time from his home in Delhi, India.
In town in June for a few days of promoting the film and visiting college campuses, Sharma was determined to experience some of California’s creature comforts – the miraculous weather and a double-double, animal style.
“You have sunshine, and it’s not hot,” he said, tipping his head quizzically as he sat outside at a picnic table on the 20th Century Fox lot. “No one told me about this. That’s amazing. In India, if it’s sunny, it’s hot.”
Also amazing is how Sharma, a novice, landed the role of Pi Patel – one of the more demanding acting performances in one of the year’s most ambitious movies. Early reviews for the film have praised his engaging screen debut.
In “Life of Pi,” now playing, directed by Ang Lee and based on the bestselling metaphysical novel by Yann Martel, Sharma plays an Indian boy who survives a shipwreck only to be stranded alone on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.
Pi is Sharma’s first acting role of any kind and one that would present huge challenges for a veteran – he had to perform opposite computer-generated creatures, gain and lose almost 40 pounds, convey his character’s spiritual journey with just a few lines of dialogue and hold the screen for most of the film.
But Sharma, who carries himself with an unlikely mixture of enthusiasm and equanimity, seems unfazed by his near overnight evolution from anonymous soccer-playing teenager to the star of a widely anticipated big-budget 3-D studio picture from an Academy Award-winning director.
“This is all seeming like a dream and surreal to me. It’s only when it sinks in that it gets pressurizing, and it doesn’t sink. Hopefully, it doesn’t sink,” he said, adding, “Pi didn’t sink.”
Casting directors saw more than 3,000 boys in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and India for the role, and Sharma nearly wasn’t one of them. He wasn’t interested in acting but had tagged along to his younger brother Sriharsh’s audition in Delhi in hopes that they would stop at Subway for sandwiches afterward. (Sriharsh appeared in small parts in the 2007 Wes Anderson movie “The Darjeeling Limited” and the 2010 Sona Jain movie “For Real.”)
“I just went along ’cause I had to have lunch with him,” Sharma said. “They said, ‘You’re the appropriate age, just go and give it a shot.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m just waiting. I might as well do something.’ ”
FOR THE AUDITION, Sharma read from a survivalist manual. It was his unassuming appearance – he wore glasses and had a chipped tooth – that caught the eye of Lee’s casting director, Avy Kaufman, who also cast this year’s “Lincoln” and “Prometheus.”
“He was a little playful,” Kaufman said. “He’s got a tricky little smile. He was precocious in the right way.”
Kaufman was immediately sold on Sharma, whose acting seemed natural in contrast to the broad style of some of the young Bollywood actors who auditioned.
Sharma delivered three additional auditions over the next six months. When Lee screened footage of him for Fox executives, they were quickly charmed as well.
Sharma’s parents, however, took longer to convince – his mother, an economist, and father, a software engineer, were concerned about their son missing his senior year of high school and perplexed by the complex studio employment contract, according to Kaufman.
“Ang said this would be education in itself and it would be life-changing and it would teach me so much more than I would learn in school,” Sharma said. “At the end, they were excited, like, go for it.”
Sharma’s mother performed a small ceremony appointing Lee as her son’s guru, and the director took on his leading man as a pupil. There was a lot to learn besides the basic workings of a film set. Consider: Sharma didn’t know how to swim, and much of the movie would be shot in a 1.7-million-gallon water tank in Taiwan, with crucial sequences filmed underwater.
The film’s stunt coordinator, Charlie Croughwell, taught Sharma to swim, perform his own stunts and hold his breath for long stretches.
“The breath holding – our aim was a minute,” Sharma said. “I started off with 15 seconds and thought it was a really long time. When I came out of the water, everybody was looking at me like, ‘Man, that is pathetic, 15 seconds? Seriously?’ But they trained me. They would have a rope tied to the bottom of the pool and I would go underneath and pull it to the other side…. By the end of it I could do a minute and a half and keep swimming…. They had to get me to a level of swimming where I didn’t need to think about that and I could focus on the performance.”
Steve Callahan, a sailor who once survived 76 days adrift in a life raft in the Atlantic Ocean, served as the movie’s survival and marine consultant and taught Sharma tasks such as fishing and building a sail. The teenager also took lessons in yoga, meditation, breathing and philosophy.
“Suraj became the spiritual leader of all of us,” Lee said. “We’re experienced, but we are also jaded. After making movies for 20 years, you cannot pretend to have innocence.”
WHEN HE WAS CAST, Sharma weighed 150 pounds. Because of the physical training, he put on 17 pounds; then, thanks to a diet of tuna and lettuce, he dropped to 130 pounds for the portion of the story when Pi is near starvation.
Sharma’s co-lead was a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Though Lee shot footage of real tigers for the film, whenever Sharma was acting opposite Richard Parker, the animal was computer-generated. To be able to conjure the image when he was filming, Sharma watched videos of tigers playing and fighting. To find the necessary emotions for certain scenes, he relied on Lee’s coaching.
“Ang does this thing where he never really says anything directly but he’ll insinuate emotions,” Sharma said. “You’ll imagine what he wants you to imagine; it’ll somehow get into your head. Like suppose I’m supposed to be sad. Something depressing is happening. He’ll tell me to close my eyes and go back to times when you were depressed. He would make you think about things and talk and by the end of it, you’re feeling the emotion. By the end of it, you don’t need to act anymore, he’s made it real completely.”
Sharma, who was wearing a hooded sweat shirt and jeans, reflected on his adventure.
“The whole thing was real to me,” he said, earnestly. “I think I had a parallel journey – as Pi went through his, I went through mine. Spiritually, growing up. I turned 18 on set. In many ways it changed me. It made me more aware of what’s happening elsewhere in the world, how people are, what kind of people there are, that there’s just so much more to life than what meets the eye…. I would lie on the boat and think about Pi and think about life and what’s happening. For me, it wasn’t on set, it was on the boat.”
At his parents’ insistence, Sharma kept up with his math and economics studies during the 10 months of preparation and shooting, and he finished high school in the spring after the film wrapped. He is now studying philosophy at St. Stephen’s College in New Delhi, and he hopes to eventually attend New York University to study film and pursue a career behind the camera, a choice influenced by the intense experience of making the movie.
“The idea in my head is that eventually I want to make movies and tell stories and philosophy will give me a deeper insight, a different viewpoint from what others have,” Sharma said. “If I tell a story, I want it to be deep. Pi and Ang really made me want to dig deep. I probably will act again. But behind the camera just sounds more intriguing.”
Despite living in the bubble of a movie set for months, attending the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival in September and appearing on the “Today” show last week, Sharma seems unaffected by industry mores.
Asked whether he has a manager or agent, he said, “not that I know of.”
Did Hollywood seem exciting on his first visit?
“Have you ever been to India?” Sharma replied, nonplused. “India’s a crazy, crazy place with lots of crazy things happening … everywhere, all the time. Everything is just so fast, everything’s moving, everywhere you look there are a thousand people. There are so many colors and so many spices, so much of everything. It gets overwhelming for certain people. But I’m from there.”