Suraj Sharma, star of "Life of Pi," at Fox Studios in Los Angeles. (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)
On his second day in Los Angeles, Suraj Sharma was on a mission.
"In-N-Out Burger is gonna happen whether or not anything else happens," said the lanky 19-year-old star of "Life of Pi," who was visiting the U.S. for the first time from his home in Delhi, India.
In town in June for a few days of promoting the film and visiting college campuses, Sharma was determined to experience some of California's creature comforts — the miraculous weather and a double-double, animal style.
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"You have sunshine, and it's not hot," he said, tipping his head quizzically as he sat outside at a picnic table on the 20th Century Fox lot. "No one told me about this. That's amazing. In India, if it's sunny, it's hot."
Also amazing is how Sharma, a novice, landed the role of Pi Patel — one of the more demanding acting performances in one of the year's most ambitious movies. Early reviews for the film have praised his engaging screen debut.
In "Life of Pi" (opening Wednesday), directed by Ang Lee and based on the bestselling metaphysical novel by Yann Martel, Sharma plays an Indian boy who survives a shipwreck only to be stranded alone on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Pi is Sharma's first acting role of any kind and one that would present huge challenges for a veteran — he had to perform opposite computer-generated creatures, gain and lose almost 40 pounds, convey his character's spiritual journey with just a few lines of dialogue and hold the screen for most of the film.
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But Sharma, who carries himself with an unlikely mixture of enthusiasm and equanimity, seems unfazed by his near overnight evolution from anonymous soccer-playing teenager to the star of a widely anticipated big-budget 3-D studio picture from an Academy Award-winning director. "This is all seeming like a dream and surreal to me. It's only when it sinks in that it gets pressurizing, and it doesn't sink. Hopefully, it doesn't sink," he said, adding, "Pi didn't sink."
Casting directors saw more than 3,000 boys in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and India for the role, and Sharma nearly wasn't one of them. He wasn't interested in acting but had tagged along to his younger brother Sriharsh's audition in Delhi in hopes that they would stop at Subway for sandwiches afterward. (Sriharsh appeared in small parts in the 2007 Wes Anderson movie "The Darjeeling Limited" and the 2010 Sona Jain movie "For Real.")
"I just went along 'cause I had to have lunch with him," Sharma said. "They said, 'You're the appropriate age, just go and give it a shot.' And I said, 'Well, I'm just waiting. I might as well do something.'"
For the audition, Sharma read from a survivalist manual. It was his unassuming appearance — he wore glasses and had a chipped tooth — that caught the eye of Lee's casting director, Avy Kaufman, who also cast this year's "Lincoln" and "Prometheus."
"He was a little playful," Kaufman said. "He's got a tricky little smile. He was precocious in the right way." Kaufman was immediately sold on Sharma, whose acting seemed natural in contrast to that of the broad style of some of the young Bollywood actors who auditioned.
Sharma delivered three additional auditions over the next six months. When Lee screened footage of him for Fox executives, they were quickly charmed as well.
Sharma's parents, however, took longer to convince — his mother, an economist, and father, a software engineer, were concerned about their son missing his senior year of high school and perplexed by the complex studio employment contract, according to Kaufman. "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.
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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."