A 'Life' changing film for the young actor of 'Pi'
FILE - This Sept. 28, 2012 file photo shows Suraj Sharma at the premiere of his film, "Life of Pi," at the 50th annual New York Film Festival opening night gala in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, file)
NEW YORK (AP) — The only thing more unlikely than a movie about a boy adrift on a ship with a Bengali tiger is the tale of the film's star.
Teenager Suraj Sharma went along with his acting brother to a Delhi, India, audition of "Life of Pi" purely as a favor, motivated by the promise of a free meal.
"He said, 'Come with me because I don't want to go alone,'" Sharma recalled in an interview at Lincoln Center shortly before the film premiered at the New York Film Festival in September. "I said, 'Fine, as long as you buy me a sandwich afterwards.' That sandwich got me 'Pi.'"
For a film about the wonder of faith, Sharma's experience is one that stretches belief. Despite no prior acting experience or ambition, he managed to separate himself from 3,000 applicants and emerged through four rounds of auditions as the star in one of the most anticipated movies of the year.
For "Life of Pi" to work, Sharma — now 19, 17 when filming started — had to succeed. And many think the film, to be released Wednesday, not only works, but is a legitimate Oscar contender — a 3-D magic act from director Ang Lee that translates Yann Martel's 2001 best seller into a colorful cinematic language.
In it, Sharma plays Pi Patel, who, as a child, precociously combines Christianity, Buddhism and Islam into his own blend of religion. When his family is uprooted to Canada, the ship taking Pi, his family and many zoo animals, sinks in a storm, leaving Pi alone and clinging to life in a raft boat.
Making the film meant working with one of the most revered directors in movies. It meant spending months shooting in India and Taiwan, where a giant water tank was built for scenes at sea. It meant learning not only how to act, but literally how to swim.
This film image released by 20th Century Fox shows Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel in a scene from "Life of Pi." (AP Photo/20th Century Fox)
"I can't put it in words," says Sharma, a bright and earnest kid who humbly recognizes his good fortune. "It's too much. It was emotionally and spiritually and physically exhausting. I would never be able to tell people what I went through exactly, but hopefully it will come through in some ways."
It was a journey Sharma's parents (both mathematicians, fittingly) had some reluctance about, as it would mean missing a year of school. Lee argued a year spent working on "Life of Pi" would be more rewarding than a year of school. Sharma's mother performed a ceremony that made Lee her son's guru — a new role for the director.