Freida Pinto on Her New Film "Desert Dancer," Standing Up for Women and Breaking Away from Stereotypical Indian Roles

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Photography by Alisha Goldstein
Styling by Hayley Atkin
Hair by Mara Roszak
Makeup by Lisa Story
Set Design by Bette Adams

Freida Pinto trails off midway through a sentence. The actress, sipping a green tea in Los Angeles breakfast spot La Brea Bakery, is obviously preoccupied with something. “What’s happening?” she asks, looking across the restaurant as a tall woman walks up to the counter. “Where are all these beautiful women coming from? And they eat bread! Can you believe it?” Pinto realizes it’s the second time she has lost her train of thought during our conversation and laughs. “Women just distract me,” she explains.

It’s true: Over the course of an hour and a half, Pinto relates nearly every part of the interview back to women and their relationship with the world. She’s interested in action over discussion when it comes to equality, and she continually lists women who inspire her (Angelina Jolie, Mindy Kaling and Reese Witherspoon, among others). She says things like, “Everywhere I go, I’m just blown away by female beauty all around me,” and she’s genuinely interested in empowering her own gender through her work and life.

Pinto, who stars in the new film Desert Dancer, has been out of the spotlight for awhile. After the breakout success of her debut, Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, Pinto made seven films in three years, including Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Immortals. When she finished Trishna, the Michael Winterbottom film that was released in 2011, Pinto went on a self-imposed hiatus.

“There definitely was a lull because there were no interesting film projects for me to take on,” she says. “I had to make an executive decision for my career. If I only do those [big-budget movies], knowing that I’m an ethnic minority, it would be so easy for me to get stereotyped.”

That decision wasn’t easy. “It was time for me to think about, ‘When the Slumdog hype dies, what am I going to do next?’” she explains. “‘How am I going to keep myself alive and reinvented always?’ The depression of it pushed me into the realization that I needed to do something more than just act. So I started producing. And I started looking for stories that I could tell.”

During that time, Pinto also began training for Desert Dancer, a film that tells the true story of Iranian dancer Afshin Ghaffarian, who started a dance company despite the country’s ban on dancing Pinto plays Elaheh, a member of the company struggling with drug addiction and a tumultuous past. The role required Pinto to dance in the film’s lengthy choreographed sequences, so she trained every day for eleven months. By the time the film was shot in Morocco, Pinto was so good she didn’t need the dance double they’d brought in just in case.

“Fake it until you believe it,” she says. “And of course I had the best body for nine months, my God. Can I get it back please?”