Esquire, Apr 2012
She was the Indian girl with the faraway eyes in Slumdog Millionaire and the best supporting hottie in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This month she’s the winsome star of British director Michael Winterbottom’s new movie. But who knew she’s also a funny, no-nonsense, fast-talking Anglophile?
On Tuesday evenings about six, the lounge at the Pali House, a boutique hotel in West Hollywood, is something of a haven. It’s all low light and vintage furniture tucked into remote corners of the room—a place of meetings, Macbooks and murmurs. And in the darkest of corners, Freida Pinto and I are on a long blue divan, where she’s telling me something very important about jihadis in Afghanistan.
“We were on our way to one of the temples in Kabul and we saw these people standing around, staring at this car, their arms folded,” she says. “They calmly asked us to go the other way.”
We’re talking about her life before the seismic Slumdog event of 2008. Post Slumdog is more familiar territory—she made a bunch of movies with several huge names, but with the exception of The Rise of the Apes, most of them didn’t quite hit the mark. She was Josh Brolin’s obsession in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, a Palestinian freedom fighter in Julian Schnabel’s Miral, and a Persian Goddess in The Immortals, starring Mickey Rourke. No, I didn’t see that one either. But it looks like her latest film, Trishna, by Michael Winterbottom, will break the pattern. It’s a meaty R-rated role and it’s set in India, which worked out quite nicely for her in the past. And that’s why we’re here—2012 may well be the year in which Freida Pinto shows us what she’s made of.
“The guy said, ‘you see that little red car? There’s a suicide bomber in that car, and it’s going to go off anytime.’ He was so matter of fact.”
I know a young man’s about to die here, but first things first—Pinto, 28, is a distressingly beautiful girl. Almost too beautiful. You don’t see girls like her in the line at Starbucks. People would drop their mochacinnos. She looks airbrushed. She glows. She’s all slender limbs and a ring-pull waist, slim as a sapling and feather light, an effect compounded by the wafty chiffon top she’s got on, and that long black hair they make in India, swishing around her shoulders.
“It was so sad,” she says. “No one even knew who he was. I don’t know if there was an explosion. We left the scene.”
It doesn’t hurt that her accent is kind of posh too. That’s how Bombay girls talk, especially the Catholic ones. There’s none of those hard D’s or Goodness Gracious Me head wobbling. Everything is enunciated and proper, even a bit haughty in its inflection. The BBC with bells on. There is however, the question of what she was doing in Afghanistan in 2006 in the first place.
“I was shooting my travel show for Zee TV in India,” she says.
A travel show? Come and get stoned to death in sunny Kabul!
“No silly!” Pinto creases up. And between her eyes and her mouth, her whole face seems to twinkle. “Those were exactly the kind of stereotypes I was trying to shatter!”
There’s something about excessively pretty girls that compels them to seek out life’s gnarliness and grit, as though to distract us from their looks. It never works. It just makes them hotter. Angelina Jolie’s made a career of it, helping refugees and making films about warzones and terror. Pinto went to wartorn Afghanistan. And with Trishna, she’s at it again.
It’s an Indian reworking of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. Pinto plays a servant girl from a poor family in deeply conservative rural Rajasthan, who succumbs to the entreaties of a wealthy English Indian (Riz Ahmed of Four Lions) who offers her a job at one of his father’s hotels. Ahmed’s on the hunt, and Pinto eventually succumbs. But their relationship devolves into abuse and before long we see Pinto submitting, tears in her eyes, as Ahmed has his way with her. She dances for him, all listless and broken. It’s strong stuff.
“It was hard,” she says, “but it was a small crew, and they were good at not making their presence felt. They didn’t go, ‘Quick! She’s nearly naked! Get your camera out!’” She cracks up again. “Seriously, if I was ever in the position that Trishna was in, I’d probably kill him. And not at the end of the movie, but waaay before that.”
There’s no guarantee that the film will even see release in India, where it was made. The Indian censors are a prickly bunch. But Pinto isn’t fussed. “Even if it doesn’t, the people who want to see it will find a way to get an uncensored copy,” she says. In fact, she’s quite happy to be even more daring in her next movies. She’s OK with appearing topless, for instance, or even fully nude, if the part demanded it.
“In Shame, Carey Mulligan has this full frontal scene, and the way it was shot, and the context, was completely fine,” she says. “It wasn’t just there to titillate. But in The Immortals, there was a nude scene in it, and it was purely for people to get a hard-on in the theater. And people still think that my body double was actually me. If you’re just doing a nude scene in order for everyone to like wank off or something, then that’s not my thing at all.”
It’s in little glimpses like this, that Pinto’s Indianness comes through—the casual and correct use of the word “wank”. An American couldn’t pull it off. And though she’s living in Los Angeles now for the next couple of months—just down the road from Pali House in fact—it’s by no means home. Outside of Bombay, it’s London she loves.
“Even though it’s so dreadful in the winter, I still think it’s beautiful,” she says. “So much culture and history. Like Bombay!” She raves about the restaurants, and Hyde Park, and all that theater and music. She also quite likes the people there. She stays with friends in north London, and can be seen marching up Primrose Hill now and again. And let’s not forget, that one of the reasons she’s in LA is because her other half, her Slumdog co-star Dev Patel, is here working on a new Aaron Sorkin series for HBO. And Dev, of course, is English. As is Michael Winterbottom.
“It’s amazing working with British directors,” she says. “I’ve worked with three so far—Danny, Rupert Wyatt [Rise of the Apes] and Michael. They’ve got a certain ease in the way they work, but at the same time, they’re so sure of what they want, you feel very confident in them.”
For someone who’s worked with Woody Allen, this is no faint praise. But there were similarities between the two. Like Winterbottom, Allen encourages his actors to go off piste and improvise, make the words their own. But where Winterbottom scored was his dedication to authenticity. “We used an actual Rajasthani family in the film. Everything was so real,” she says. “That’s the best thing about Danny and Michael—they don’t mind getting their nose dirty.” She may mean hands. But nose works too.
Listening to Pinto discuss the relative merits of some of the best directors of the day, it’s easy to forget that at heart, she’s just a girl from Bombay, from a middle class family, who grew up out in the suburbs up north, a part of the city she calls “the back of beyond. Have you heard of Mud Island?”
It sounds fantastic: She came from the mud and now she’s a millionaire!
“No, it’s spelt M-a-d-h. I lived near there. Long way from the Gateway of India and the Taj Hotel and all that.” There was no silver spoon. Her mother is a headmistress, her father is a semi-retired bank officer, and her older sister is a TV producer for a lifestyle channel there. She’s the first person in her family to have a career as an artist. And but for the odd play at high school, there was no hint of the life that was to come. She took English at the best college in Bombay – St Xaviers – but studying was never much her thing. She wanted to get out there.
“There are these guys who would hang out outside the college – model coordinators, they call them – and they would say, ‘you should shoot a portfolio, call me’,” she says. One such operator, called Sonny, tried to convince her to “bring your sexy clothes” and “make sure no one’s home when I come over”. The shoot happened—with Pinto’s mum kept popping in and out to keep an eye on things—but of course, she never saw the pictures.
But she followed through on the impulse. For a girl like Pinto, a modelling career was too easy to pass up. So she walked through the pelting rain to the offices of the Elite Model Agency one day, and they signed her on the spot. Cut to the glamorous, blingy life of a hot model in the fast lane of Bombay nightlife.
“No! It wasn’t like that at all! I was never into the nightlife part, so that’s probably why I didn’t fit in.” In fact, she spent most of her time doing ads for creams and drinks and colas. Not Pinto’s cup of chai at all.
That was when she landed her travel show, Full Circle, which sent her to Afghanistan. But that was the exception. For the most part, she was flying all over South East Asia, to one paradise resort after another. Her viewers were treated to the sight of young Pinto in a bikini drinking a cocktail and diving into crystal blue pool, over and over again. Ratings were good, as you can imagine. And after six months of this, she started to believe that this would be her life. And it wasn’t half bad.
Then everything changed. “My modelling agent called up and said, ‘there’s this audition happening in the English language with this director named’ – she said – ‘David Boyle’. So I’m on Google looking for David Boyle. And then she said ‘he directed The Beach.’ And I knew immediately.”
She’d seen Trainspotting in college, but The Beach made a bigger impression. Pinto had a scrapbook growing up with all her heroes on it, like Sushmita Sen, the first Indian to win Miss Universe, and Kate Winslet circa Titanic, and Michael Jackson. “In India we pronounce it ‘Michaelal Jaykeshun’!” But it was Di Caprio who was on the cover. “As a teenager you have all kinds of dreams. And Leonardo’s part of them!”
The arrival of Danny Boyle was a big deal for Bombay, let alone Pinto. She’d long nursed ambitions to act, but they were just dreams. She’d never had an acting lesson. What she knew was that she had no intention of becoming a Bollywood actress. Like a lot of liberal Bombay types, she prided herself on a more global tastes – “we watched films from all over. Iran, Israel, Korea, Japan, Spain… And I always had dreams of doing it internationally. I just thought, if Wong Kar Wei can make a film with Norah Jones, why not have an Indian actress?”
So she auditioned with a casting director named Loveleen Tandan, and then the two of them went through auditions with Boyle, twice a month for a full six months. They took place mostly in a regular suite at the Sun-n-Sand Hotel in Juhu Beach, a classic spot for the Bollywood set. It was usually Pinto, Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan and the screenwriter Simon Beaufoy. And they’d do the same scene every time.
The world and its sister was going for this part. Hordes of models and ingenues, along with established Bollywood starlets, would flock the lobby for days on end. And the news arrived – Dev Patel had been cast. And that meant things started to look up for Freida, in more ways than one. Firstly, being young, Dev brought the general age down, eliminating older girls from consideration. And more importantly, the final auditions were with Dev. And when it came down to three girls, his say began to matter. “They asked him, ‘out of the girls who would you take on a date?’” says Pinto. “And apparently he said it was me!”
Her life changed forever a matter of days later, when Pinto was at home with her mum, about 7.30pm. “My agent called. She said, ‘so it looks like Danny Boyle just found his Latika.’ And my heart just sank. Then she said, ‘and by the way, it’s you.’ I just started screaming.”
The goodwill towards Slumdog was about more than just the movie. There was a surge affection at the time for underdogs, for new faces, for the romance of India. This was the time of Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008. And India was all the rage. Eat Pray Love was doing brisk business. The world’s cricketing talent was joining the Indian Premier League and western businesses were flooding into Bombay and Delhi. Slumdog was hoisted up on these currents, and Pinto was hoisted up by Slumdog. She found herself quite suddenly at the center of everything, blinking on the red carpet, wondering why all those photographers were yelling at her. Were they angry?
“Now I’ve learned all these tricks,” she laughs. “Always smile, and look slowly from the left to the right. But in 2009, I was new to all of it. It was the Alice in Wonderland effect. Angelina Jolie would walk past and I was like ‘seriously?’”
The fairy tale was complete when it emerged that she and Dev were romantically involved. Nothing happened on set, exactly, but they both knew something was in the air. “When we finished shooting, we were like, ‘oh no, we’re not going to have another scene!’ Then Danny Boyle called and said, ‘we’re going to have to do reshoots in June, and it’s going to be a kiss at the railway station!’”
As Hollywood couples go, none have been quite as sweet and innocent as Freida and Dev. They encapsulated how people felt about Slumdog. They were awkward, naive and clearly having the time of their lives. Chat show hosts couldn’t help but use the word “adorable”. And it’s a tribute to them both that they’re still together, three years on.
“We look at those early interviews now on YouTube, and the two of us are all over the place,” she says. “We’re laughing at each others jokes and they’re not funny at all, but we’re just encouraging each other.”
She sighs. Things have changed since then. “It’s important to still be that 2009 girl at heart, but I just don’t feel that way anymore. I guess I’ve gotten used to it.” She’s certainly a much more seasoned celebrity now, more polished in interviews, more at ease and articulate. And with Freida there’s an additional dimension to it all. She’s not just any old star, but the biggest Indian movie star in the West, and certainly the only one to have actually come from India. And with that comes a burden – or a privilege – a kind of ambassadorial role.
“I feel it,” she says. “It’s almost a duty. People are very curious about India and I always try to represent my country in a non-stereotypical light.” Sometimes she slips into Miss Universe mode, with worthy statements like “it’s important to embrace every moment in life” and “I’m so grateful to be growing and learning every day”, that kind of thing. But there’s a lot resting on those slim shoulders. When Freida speaks, a nation of a billion is ready to tune in.
Right now, she’s all about the work. And her enthusiasm comes bubbling forth. The Pali House is filling up, the music is getting louder and the hipsters have started to filter in. But Pinto is on fire. “I want 2012 to be the year of the indie movie,” she says. “There are so many amazing stories out there. Especially in India. You could make a story about a rickshaw wallah and it would be so entertaining. Actually my friend told me a story. A rickshaw was taking her somewhere and then he suddenly stopped to take a leak, right there on the side of the road. My friend said, ‘hey, I need to get going!’ And he said, ‘madam, sometimes I also need to go!’” She laughs.
Here she is, Princess Beautiful embracing the gnarly again. So I tell her about this article I once read about chauffeurs in Bombay and where they go for their number twos. And it strikes me how wrong it sounds to be bringing this up with the fragrant and delightful Freida Pinto. But she’s beaming. That twinkling smile.
“That’s fascinating to me. I think of things like that all the time.”