When Manish Dayal auditioned for The Hundred-Foot Journey, it was a mystery project that had yet to be green-lit. He was not given the film’s title, a plot description, or the name and circumstances of his character. “They didn’t tell me what it was,” says Dayal. “I just honored the sides and in the sides, the character was a young Indian boy, so that’s what I played.” A few weeks later, the actor received a call from Dreamworks: Steven Spielberg had watched—and liked—his audition tapes. “That was the moment that I was like, ‘Holy crap! This is kind of a big deal.'” Dayal was told that some other people had watched the footage too, including producer Oprah Winfrey. “Four months went by and I still didn’t know what the movie was,” recalls Dayal. “I ended up meeting [director Lasse Hallstrom]. The next day I got a phone call saying ‘Steven Spielberg wants to hire you.’ “
As Hassan, an Indian boy who moves to France with his family to start a restaurant and ends up across the road from an old-fashioned, Michelin-starred, French institution, Dayal has a pretty plum role. The film is family-friendly, backed by a major studio, and co-stars Helen Mirren, Om Puri, and the Winona Ryder-resembling newcomer Charlotte Le Bon. Once Spielberg’s name came up, however, Dayal would have accepted the role regardless of its size and the material. “When I learned that Steven was involved in this movie, I wasn’t nervous because I knew whatever it was, it had to be special,” he explains. “Steven Spielberg was my idol growing up. I knew that all of his movies have a very specific message and point of view, and the always are really epic.”
The Hundred-Foot Journey is certainly Dayal’s most prominent role to date. “I was the guy nobody knew; Steven and Oprah had to learn about me before they put me on board,” comments Dayal. A graduate of George Washington University in D.C., Dayal didn’t discover acting until after college. He’s had a few television roles—in the CW teen reboot 90210; in the Emmy nominated, but short-lived AMC series Rubicon—and will next appear in I’m Obsessed with You (But You’ve Got to Leave Me Alone), “a little indie film” with Thomas McDonell.
HOME STATE: South Carolina
CURRENTLY LIVES IN: Los Angeles
LOCATION AT TIME OF INTERVIEW: New York City. It’s so weird walking around the city—this is the city where I think I grew up in a lot of ways. I became a man here—I [was] working and hustling as an actor how everyone does. I’m still sort of hustling, and I’m still in the beginning phase of my career, but it’s weird to walk around and see my face on telephone poles and stuff like that.
BREAKOUT ROLE(S): I didn’t act in school. I didn’t study acting either. I learned everything when I got to New York. There were little things as a kid—the first thing I ever did I think was in kindergarten or first grade, Jack Be Nimble. I was playing Jack. This random Indian kindergartener playing Jack Be Nimble in the South is a little weird.
I actually wanted to first direct and produce, but then I got this very cool opportunity to be in front of the camera once. I had no fucking clue what I was doing. It was weird, but there was something so cool about it—it was kind of like free falling and not knowing what you’re doing, but at the same time, I understood it. After that experience, I was hooked. I just got it. I got an opportunity to do some commercials and stuff. I did an Off-Broadway play in New York that got transferred to Broadway—we actually never went to Broadway but we got it transferred. It was a comedy called Rafta, Rafta that got me my first agent.
RANDOM ROLES: I’ve done some video games—some Grand Theft Auto games. I’ve done three of them. This was years and years ago. I don’t even remember [what I did], but I played this character in a voice-over booth and that’s how it started. I’m very unfamiliar with the voice-over world; I don’t understand how it works. It’s sort of like this weird anomaly, no one understands it but it all gets done.
HOBBIES: I used to take photographs and I was really into it—this is before Instagram and filters. Now it’s become a little different, but I’m still into it and I still do a lot of photography. I box, that’s something that I like to do a lot, this awesome thing that keeps you physically in check but also mentally. There’s a mind thing that boxing has to it that I find awesome.
SIGNATURE DISH: I can cook the omelette that I make in the movie. That is my omelette. I thought cooking the traditional French omelette in the movie wouldn’t make sense it had to be something different. I had to change the ingredients, because that’s what the whole point of this character. He changes things up; he succeeds by using his own instincts in everything he cooks. So I thought, “How about the omelette my dad made growing up?” And boom, we made it.
WORKING WITH OM PURI: I call him Om G. He affectionately says, “Come over here idiot, shut up.” In France, that was his soundtrack. We used to always mimic him and he would get a huge kick out of it. He’s kind of like a big kid. He’s not just a great actor; he’s got this way he speaks—he speaks in metaphor. He always means 50 things and he just saying one thing. He’s really smart.
GOOD ADVICE: Om G said “always bind the poetry in a scene” to me. I had never heard those words before. Then Helen said when you take projects, take them based on how much fun you’re going to have. I thought that was good advice too.
BAD ADVICE: People who don’t know you or don’t know where you come from or your experiences may assume things and may give you advice that doesn’t really make sense. I remember once being told by a casting person, years ago, that I shouldn’t pursue a career in the business because of the color of my skin. The fact that I remember it today means it stuck with me. I thought that was really stupid advice and advice nobody should ever give someone.
BUILDING A LEGACY: I guess 10 years ago, you weren’t seeing South Asians on screen or the way we see them now. You talk to any South Asian actor right now and they’ll all tell you it’s a difficult landscape to be breaking into, but what this movie has offered me and other South Asians, I think, is a mainstream presence, and that’s a big deal. That’s currency. It’s an honor to be playing this character in this movie that is being backed by prolific American icons. It’s a huge deal and it means something greater than just the movie. This movie has a life beyond just this Friday.
FAVORITE SPIELBERG FILM: Jurassic Park. It was the movie that hit me like lightning. I remember seeing it so many times; I remember watching it back to back.
THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY COMES OUT TOMORROW, AUGUST 8.