In just a few short years — following her luminous debut in Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire — Freida Pinto has gone from a virtual unknown to one of movies’ most feted young actresses. Her handful of feature credits already boasts performances for such acclaimed directors as Woody Allen and Julian Schnabel, while she starred in the summer’s surprise hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes and will soon headline iconoclastic filmmaker Michael Winterbottom’s literary riff, Trishna. This week, Pinto lends her talents to Immortals, Tarsem Singh’s visually stylish, violent and sometimes quite surreal imagining of ancient Greek mythology in which the actress portrays the oracle (and future lover of Henry Cavill’s Theseus) Phaedra. We sat down with Pinto recently where she discussed her admiration for the director and the experience of working on her first big-budget film, and how it affects her performance. She also took a moment to recall her five favorite films.
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980; 88% Tomatometer)
I can give you them as they come to mind; right now, when you say “five favorite films,” the first one that came to my mind — and I’m trying to think of different genres as well — the first one that came to my mind is The Shining. I do not know why, but that’s been one of my all-time favorite films. I’ve seen it about four times. I think that’s a lot for someone who’s completely petrified by darkness and lonely places.
Shawshank Redepmtion… I don’t know, it’s very uplifting and there’s something about it that motivates you, you know, and gives you that sense of “Let’s go and do it.” I’ve seen it like a million times. It’s kind of like a book that you can go back to and read again and again. I find it easier to go back to films than books, though.
In terms of romantic films, all-time romantic films, I really like Gone With the Wind. And I realize I sound so clichéd saying that, but there’s something so absolutely romantic about it. When I watched the film, I wanted to be in a situation like that — to feel that love that’s just basically, it’s crazy; it’s that kind of a crazy love.
Help me out here! Can I give you an all-time favorite animated film? An all-time animated favorite is Ratatouille. I do not know why, but that film about that rat really got me. I loved Lion King as a kid, but as a thinking animated film [Ratatouille] really has something that I like about it. I thought it was amazing. And Peter O’Toole’s voiceover as Anton Ego is just brilliant.
Next, Pinto discusses working with director Tarsem Singh on Immortals, the challenges of acting in big-budget films and how performances differ across projects.
This was your first really big-budget film — what drew you to it?
Freida Pinto: It was actually Tarsem. I had never done a big-budget film before, so I was not sure what to expect and what not to expect, but that becomes partly the allure, as well — not knowing. You wanna know what it would be like to do a big-budget film. The way Tarsem sold the idea of the film in my first meeting with him — how he envisioned it and how he pictured it — was everything that I had, when I was a child and watched films that were larger than life, always imagined myself being in. So the way Tarsem sold it to me, the story he told me, it was like, “I need to see myself in that film.” And I hoped Tarsem saw me in that film as well.
What were some of the films you thought wanting to be in, on that scale?
From the recent past, I would think, the first thing that came to mind in terms of grandeur would be The Lord of the Rings, and Gladiator, in terms of the way he described the fight sequences. Harry Potter had some kind of influence as well — I mean they don’t really have anything in common, it was more the magic element of it that made me feel like I would want to be a part of it.
Tarsem also has a very specific visual style. What’s it like working with him on set?
He does. I think he’s so specific, visually. He’s so artistic that he knows how he wants his painting to look; but at the same time he is very much open and flexible to injecting things that he’s felt on the day, on the spot, into his scene, rather than being so specific and so stringent about it so as to not allow any freedom. That’s very nice. To have someone who has been given a palette to paint whatever picture he wants — and he knows what the boundaries are; he knows what story line he has to fit into — but to be able to splash those colors in ways different to how he’s done it earlier, or in ways no one has ever seen before, I think that truly is his gift. And I could see that happening on set as well. The amount of flexibility he gave us as actors in terms of performances was just absolutely amazing. If something happened by chance on set and that was not part of his idea initially, it made him realize, “Oh, that could be interesting,” and he would include that as well.
Which is surprising, because the compositions in his films look so precise.
There is a lot of precision in what he does; he knows what he’s going to do and it has to be to a “T,” you know, to the point.
Coming from relatively small films with independent directors before Immortals, how does your performance change in a film like this? How does one prepare for a role as a mythological Greek oracle, anyway?
[Laughs] I think with a role like this you have to come in with a lot more patience than when you go on to an independent project, ’cause on an independent project you have set hours that you’ve got to finish the filming in, and very little money — so you don’t have massive sets or anything like that. And with a film like this you’re not the only one on set. You’ve got to remind yourself that there are multiple things happening at the same time. One scene depends on 200-300 people working in tandem at that point in time, and if one of them doesn’t work you’ve gotta do it all over again — which seems like an enormous job to keep repeating over and over again.
So it’s much more technical.
It’s very, very technical. There’s a lot of performance aspect to it as well but it’s very technical. [Spoiler] I remember doing the scene where my sisters die. For almost two hours I was screaming and crying and losing my voice — actually it was more than two hours — but then I understood why I was doing it, because of the way they were shooting that scene from the different angles, with the wide shot and the 3D shot. There’s so much happening that you have to remember that you’ve gotta have patience and be able to pace your performance in such a way that you can deliver on every take. Working on big-budget films teaches you a lot about performing in an environment that is not necessarily for an actor.
But you must have given a great crying performance, being so exhausted after so many takes.
No, actually I was better in the first couple of takes. [Laughs] After that I was just like, “Aaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrgh!” and screaming for the heck of it.
You’re filming on barely-there sets and blank screens, so what’s it like when you finally see the finished film, and yourself, in enormous 3D projection?
So much bigger than what I expected it to be, you know. I think we all have different imaginations and Tarsem’s imagination is truly one that is unleashed. There is not the smallest, slightest boundary or limitation that I see to his imagination. So when he described that the shrine and the village was going to be at the edge of a cliff, I thought, a cliff, you can imagine that, but what lies beyond, and further out, was something that I could not imagine what?s gonna be there. But the way he’s put it out there in post-production is just magnificent.
This is, what, your sixth film?
In terms of filming, this was my fourth. Released, this would be my fifth.
And in that time you’ve worked for Woody Allen, Julian Schnabel, Michael Winterbottom, Danny Boyle, Tarsem — you could almost retire at this point.
No! [Laughs] I’m far from retirement!
I’m kidding. I guess the question is, where to now? Do you like working on big-budget films?
I do, I do. I like working on big budget films. The logic I use to explain to people is that I love being entertained by them, and I can see myself entertaining people doing the same thing; so why do I need to be afraid of taking on projects like that? That’s the reason I enjoy being on the sets of big-budget films and working on them. And honestly, in terms of performance, I don’t see that much of a difference. You have to come in with the same amount of conviction and dedication to your character.
You’re also working with directors who each have very strong visions.
I think that’s what it is. That’s exactly what makes the difference. Even working with Rupert Wyatt, the director on [Rise of the Planet of the] Apes, he came from a very independent film background, so one thing you knew for sure was not gonna happen was performances were not gonna get compromised. So that’s nice to have that feeling. What would I like to do next? I don’t know. It all really depends on what is written out there, you know; it’s a lot more difficult for people to write roles for minority actors. It’s not like I’m telling you anything new. So it’s going to be interesting to see wriggle my way into something that is not necessarily written for me.
Immortals arrives in theaters this week.