November 25, 2012

Unlikely portrayer grasps concept of 'Pi'

Suraj Sharma auditioned on a whim, and making his first film became a personal journey.

By REBECCA KEEGAN / McClatchy Newspapers

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Suraj Sharma in a scene from “Life of Pi.”

Fox 2000 Pictures

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‘Life of Pi’ director Ang Lee on the set.

Jake Netter

"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."

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