Freida Pinto walks into a bar. No, that’s not the beginning of a joke, it’s actually a succinct observation about the fact that she is walking completely alone—no minder, no publicity—into the bar and restaurant of the Soho Hotel in London. Sure, it’s a late June afternoon at the ebb of the café’s normally busy daytime service, but still, Pinto’s solitary state suggests an independent spirit, someone who is good at looking after herself. And that is undoubtedly a good way to be when you’re as head-spinningly gorgeous as she is, never mind one half—the other being British actor Dev Patel—of the most adorable couple in global moviedom. If Pinto arrived on the comet that was 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, her career path has followed a scarcely less surprising trajectory—only 26 years old and four years into her filmography, she’s already worked with a handful of the world’s most adventurous and discerning directors. This year alone she has veered from the intensity of Julian Schnabel’s Israeli-Palestinian political drama Miral and the upcoming Middle-East epic of oil Black Gold, through the CGI-and-testosterone-loaded fantasy of Immortals, in which she plays a Greek priestess, to this month’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where she plays a primatologist, opposite James Franco. But the part that might come to define Pinto’s immediate future could well be Trishna, Michael Winterbottom’s contemporary revisioning of the Thomas Hardy classic Tess of the d’Ubervilles. With the tragic tale relocated to Rajasthan, the film will hopefully win the hearts and minds of the one market that has yet to surrender to Pinto’s charms: her homeland, India. But before we get to that, it’s her hometown that requires attention.
TIM BLANKS: Why do you call it Bombay and not Mumbai like everybody else?
FREIDA PINTO: God, I get that all the time. I’m just so used to calling it Bombay. I know everything has changed. It’s India’s way of trying to brush off colonialism and make it what it originally was, but unfortunately for me I called it Bombay for 16 years, and I think that’s a long time in a 26-year-old’s life to automatically start calling it Mumbai. It’s very confusing for a lot of people. My agent thought Bombay and Mumbai were two different places. And I was like, “No, it’s the same thing.”
BLANKS: It’s an odd coincidence that, out of six films, you’ve already played two big Muslim characters, in Black Gold and Miral.
PINTO: What attracted me to the script for Black Gold was that I play a very forward-looking, independent Muslim woman. But it is more like a guy’s film. Miral was definitely a very big Muslim role, for obvious reasons.
BLANKS: And intensely political—which was brought home by the murder of your co-star Juliano Mer-Khamis a few months ago. [Mer-Khamis played a Kuwaiti sheik in Miral and was a political activist who was murdered in the West Bank in April, outside of the children’s theater he founded.] That was the intrusion of real-world politics into the world you created in the film. How did the volatility of the situation affect you while you were making the movie?
PINTO: Very much. There was a lot I had to learn, because all the news channels say is “Israeli soldiers” and “Palestinian terrorists”—we’ve already compartmentalized them. But when you go there, and you see the real story, that’s where your journey really begins. For me, to start learning from scratch, knowing that people like Juliano exist even though they’re not spoken about in the media, was so important for me. The way I started learning about Juliano was through his mother, Arna, who taught at the theater school that Juliano continued to run, where a lot of Palestinian children were called in to vent their frustration and their anger through arts or dance or plays. The best way to describe it is that there are people who are trying to make a difference in a very civil manner, not just by picking up a gun. I felt that if I became part of this film and I gave it my all, that’s exactly what I would be doing. I can’t join the army, I’m not a politician, but through my film I could talk about it. I knew the film was not going to be accepted too well, but I did it hoping that somewhere in the future it would be referred to as one of those films that started the conversation.
BLANKS: Could you take that consciousness away with you and apply it, for example, to India?
PINTO: Absolutely. There’d be a whole long list of issues as far as my country is concerned. I really wouldn’t know how to approach a topic like corruption because it’s something that I haven’t completely understood. But if it were women’s issues or education I had to deal with . . . I think the reason why I haven’t done a film in India so far is because I haven’t found a script that’s completely gotten my attention and made me passionate to get it made. I keep saying I’m not at all famous in my own country, because people do not think I have done anything for India. The reason why I’m doing these things outside my country, bit by bit, is to be able to come back to India equipped with the knowledge and understanding of how to hopefully produce my own films one fine day.
BLANKS: Do you think you’ve been given a hard time for not doing an Indian production?
PINTO: Um . . . Yes. I was upset initially. I guess everybody in India has tried really hard to do what they do and then move into the West. And I suppose I just popped in from nowhere, like, “Who the hell is she?” So I can kind of understand the surprise, and that’s why I’m not bitter about it. My friends meet people all the time who say things like, “But what has Freida done before?” Obviously they get defensive about me because they’re my friends, but they also try to understand the other side to make me understand it better. And I feel it’s maybe a very human tendency.
BLANKS: I can see how it would be a bit hurtful by now. You’ve done all these other things since, for God’s sake. You can go back home and say, “I was just in a Woody Allen movie! What more do you want?” So there must be a “tall-poppy” syndrome in India.
I can’t imagine ethnicity being important…I’m not playing the Queen of England.Freida Pinto
PINTO: That’s what my agent said to me the first time when I read something that upset me. I guess it happens in every country. I just had to escape all of that and start by doing something that was international.
BLANKS: There’s a story about you being inspired when you saw Sushmita Sen become Miss Universe on television in 1994.
PINTO: That’s what my mum says. It was so big for India. I saw the whole country celebrating and it felt so good. I was like, I would love to do something like that one day. I guess that’s where the whole thing comes from—not wanting to feel like an outsider in my country because they’re not appreciative.
BLANKS: Did you have to audition a lot before Slumdog came along?
PINTO: Yes, I did. And I was rejected at almost every one of them. [laughs] One person said, “She doesn’t look too Indian.”
BLANKS: Did you get a lot of that when you were modeling?
PINTO: I got it from my own agents, actually. They were always like, “Don’t worry, something is gonna come your way!” But I do still get it a lot.
BLANKS: I’m sure it’s helped you in your international career.
PINTO: I guess it has, actually. I like the roles that I have played to date. I’m not saying I look Arab or I look Spanish or anything, but I could if I wanted to. And I have.
PINTO: [laughs] I get that a lot. The Portuguese people love to claim me as one of their own, and I don’t like that! When I was in Istanbul for vacation recently, this large group of women came up to me saying “Pin-to! Pin-to!” And when they introduced themselves and said they were from Portugal, I said, “Yeah? I’m from India,” and they were saying, “Did you know that your last name is actually very Portuguese?” and I was like, “Yes, I did.”
BLANKS: But Goa used to be Portuguese, so there would have been a little cultural exchange going on.
PINTO: That makes sense. I’m going to do the DNA testing because I’m very curious to know what I have as part of my ancestral heritage.
BLANKS: Well, you have a Portuguese name and you were raised Catholic.
PINTO: I also come from Bangalore, which is in the southern part of India, where you have a big Catholic population. Some of them were forced conversions by the British and Portuguese. So I may not necessarily have that kind of lineage. I could pretty much just be a Hindu from India. But I’m still very curious to find out.
BLANKS: I get the feeling you grew up in quite an enlightened household, probably quite bookish.
PINTO: Not so much, actually. My mum was academically inclined because she was the headmistress of a school, but if there was anything that really was common in the family, it was music. My parents love Willie Nelson. And I think almost all my family members have been band members at some point in time. My sister and I were probably the only two people who did not form or join a band, though we performed at home.
BLANKS: So would you say that you were a ham from an early age?
PINTO: Nooo . . . [laughs] Yeah, I would say that. I was more interested in dramatics. I loved performing and putting on plays for the family—pretty much a drama queen.
BLANKS: I was impressed to read that you’d staged a Kafka play—
PINTO: Occupational Hazard. Actually that wasn’t a Kafka play, it was Rosalyn Drexler, but it was based on a story Kafka wrote [“The Hunger Artist”]. It was part of a joint production we did with the Ionesco play The Chairs. I was 19.
BLANKS: Did you feel that acting was your destiny at that point?
I can’t join the army. I’m not a politician. But through my film I could talk about it.Freida Pinto
PINTO: No, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was very confused, because everybody pretty much knew that they were going to a school to continue their postgrad work, and I was the only one saying, “I’m done studying! I cannot pick up another book or write another thesis. No, I need to do something practical and be on the run!” I guess it was when I watched Monster , the Charlize Theron film. And then I pretty much knew. I had to find a way. I had to do something like that, something completely transformational.
BLANKS: So modeling was one step toward that for you?
PINTO: Elite [modeling agency] was one step toward making pocket money so that I could be more independent. I did not particularly enjoy modeling. I felt I was only utilizing 10 or 20 percent of my abilities. In India, it’s just another job. Luckily, Full Circle, the travel show happened, and I did that for nine months. Then Slumdog Millionaire happened. And then there was this tension and pressure of “Now what? Where do I go from here? What if no one approaches me?” But then I guess it was just destiny. The film became what it became, offers kept coming in . . .
BLANKS: I imagine the actual experience of filming Slumdog must have been quite emotional.
PINTO: Very. Straight after the experience I went into an acting workshop for three months, and it just couldn’t hold a candle, because the real acting experience on the film set was beautiful. It was in my own city, in my own backyard, and I had to draw from the natural surroundings, and it made me learn and appreciate my city more.
BLANKS: How aware were you of Mumbai’s underbelly while you were growing up? Were you protected from it?
PINTO: No, I mean, everybody’s aware of it. It’s not really hidden from the public. I never really gave it a second thought while I was there, but then seeing it through another person’s eyes—for example, when Dev, who is from London, came down, and I had to show him all of it. I was like, “Oh, wait a minute, I didn’t know that myself!”
BLANKS: If Slumdog was a sort of fairy tale, it couldn’t have wished for a better couple than you and Dev falling in love while the film itself was—
PINTO: A celebration of love! I just think it was both of us sitting in the same boat. For both Dev and me, Slumdog was our first film, and it became so massive that you had to preserve and pro- tect what you had before, that innocence, without getting sucked in. And who better to do it with than someone who knows what you’re thinking? Dev had never done a talk show before—his first was [Late Show With] David Letterman—and he said to me, “You have to come with me and give me moral support.” So it was very much a case of being there for my friend. Nothing we did was planned. We were making a lot of mistakes, but we were together, and most of the time our mistakes were looked on as, “Oh my god, that’s so cute.”
BLANKS: And that becomes a bond that’s very hard to break.
PINTO: I don’t think anybody—not even family or friends—can understand what the two of us have been through. As beautiful as it is, there are parts of it that just become a bit tiring to deal with. The paparazzi, for example, and not having privacy. He made a statement unknowingly once and he said, “Oh, she is like my soul mate,” and we were not dating or anything back then, and it became this big hoopla. Like, “Oh my god! How could he have said that? What does that mean?” But I guess he was right in a way; we are soul mates.
I guess everybody in India has tried really hard to do what they do and then move into the West. And I suppose I just popped in from nowhere, like, “Who the hell is she?”Freida Pinto
BLANKS: But there was so much goodwill about the film, and about you two as its embodiment, that it’s always seemed to me that people are very kindly disposed toward you. It’s not like the Brangelina scenario, where they’re constantly being picked at all the time in a slightly malevolent way. With you, everyone goes, “Awwww.”
PINTO: You’re right. We were just at Katsuya [a Japanese restaurant] in L.A., and when we were walking out, there were a lot of people waiting to get a table, and for the whole five seconds all we could hear was “Awwww.” [laughs] Oh my god, it’s been four years since the film, and they still immediately associate us with our characters Jamal and Latika. It’s sweet in a way but it’s difficult to break it off sometimes.
BLANKS: But in real life, as well, you two were in Cannes recently. I would imagine it must feel lovely. I hope it feels lovely.
PINTO: It is definitely very lovely. I mean, we had so many people at Cannes who came up to us just to say, “Oh, you’re, like, our favorite couple here.” You feel like you’re getting support even from people you do not know, and that feels good. There isn’t much jealousy toward the relationship. I guess it’s sweet.
BLANKS: Sweet and rare, which is why people can’t resist it. But that does raise the issue about you being so busy and Dev not being so busy. What happens in that situation?
PINTO: We have to deal with it. It hasn’t been the easiest. I literally did four films in eleven months and I hardly got to see him. But that’s when issues start getting dealt with, because things you’ve probably not dealt with in the past come back, and that’s the point when you’re at your lowest and you’ll bring up all your frustrations. We’ve been sensible enough to know that these things are part and parcel of the relationship. Especially being in a relationship with an actor, it’s not going to be the easiest. So now I’ve decided I’m going to take it easy, and he’s going to do the filming. He’s off to do another film in San Francisco very soon, and I’ll be busy in terms of promotion. But when he’s free, I’ll take him with me whenever I can.
BLANKS: Is your family relatively traditional about your relationship—happy you’re with a nice Indian boy instead of off in Hollywood with Colin Farrell or something?
PINTO: [laughs] Who they would probably never have met then! Yes, this makes them feel much more relaxed that they know who I am with. The first time, my mum was like, “Well, he’s six years younger than you are.” I said, “I know. I don’t know how it happened.” But she met him and it all worked out.
BLANKS: Six films, six very distinct directors. Tell me about your education at the hands of all those directors.
PINTO: Julian is very nurturing as a director. He was almost like my father figure in the film, guiding me through it. He didn’t want me to be roughed up at any point. Danny [Boyle], on the other hand, is intense, caring, but also very passionate. He won’t pamper you the way Julian will. Woody Allen will just leave you to it. [laughs] “If you’re on my film, there’s a reason you’re on my film. You’d better be handling your bits for yourself.” He’ll tell you as much as is required and walk off and when he gets what he wants, that’s the end of the day. If he doesn’t get it, then you’re probably fired. I probably learned the most from him, because he was the first director who made me leave the script alone and do my own thing. With Danny, we strictly stuck to the script. With Julian, we wrote our lines, but we had a script. With Woody Allen, we had to just make it very real, like I’m doing with you right now. Very daunting, by the way, to do a Woody Allen film as the third film in your entire career. And I guess I made the little mistake of being very nervous for the first couple of days on the set. If I hadn’t been, I would have learned much more. Now I’ve just finished working with Michael Winterbottom, and he was closest to Danny.
BLANKS: Did you read Thomas Hardy in school?
PINTO: It was part of the syllabus, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I always meant to watch the Polanski film [Tess, 1979], but I never got down to it. When I heard Michael was looking at making an Indian version of it, I thought, “Now I have no choice. I just have to find the time, pick up the film, and watch it.” That was last year. I liked it. There was something very ever-green about the film in a way. And the lines were literally out of the book, so watching the film was like watching Thomas Hardy in a direct translation by Roman Polanski. Trishna was not going to be like that, for obvious reasons. Rajasthan is hardly the same background as Tess. And Trishna is contemporary, so we had to change a lot of things around. But the underlying story is the same. There’s also the same very tragic ending. We took the liberty to change it around a bit, and it was an interesting way of working. We never had a script. Which is why we had better have read the book!
BLANKS: It feels to me that even more than Miral, this will be the film that you carry.
PINTO: And this was the first film where I worked every single day on set for the entire shoot.
BLANKS: Is Trishna going to be your Indian movie—the one that makes the country take you to its heart?
PINTO: I hope it is, because I’ve made a lot of effort in this film in terms of speaking a language that is local to Rajasthan, and in the end, the way we’ve adapted it to the Indian setting makes it a very Indian movie. When Michael said he was doing it, I did not for one single moment think, Oh my god, how are we going to do it? It was like, Oh, yeah! That’s a great idea. Apparently he’s been toying with it for nine years. And Rajasthan is the perfect state to do that kind of a film.
PINTO: The loneliness, the desert, the poverty, and the backward thinking in certain families. And there’s a girl trying to leave all of that behind and do something. I met a lot of Rajasthani girls who belonged to these big affluent families but were not really allowed to do everything they wanted to do. And there was the loneliness of that.
For both Dev and me, Slumdog was our first film, and it became so massive that you had to preserve and pro- tect what you had before, that innocence, without getting sucked in.Freida Pinto
BLANKS: And then to move on to Immortals, where you play Phaedra—the legend is she was destroyed by her love for her stepson.
PINTO: Yes, but we haven’t really done it that way. We’ve obviously changed it around.
BLANKS: In a movie like that, aren’t you mostly an ornament?
PINTO: I hope not! When I took up the project, I thought to myself that if I’m going to be the ornament, this is going to be the one film that I sell my soul for—just do it for the heck of it. But it so happened that they had written my character very differently, and Phaedra is the guide to what Theseus is going to do next—she’s his vision.
BLANKS: But it isn’t really the “independent woman” angle you were going for, is it?
PINTO: No, not this time. Tarsem [Singh, the film’s director] was the reason. Have you seen The Fall ? It was his film after The Cell . It’s beautiful. The way he drew a performance out of Catinca Untaru, a Romanian girl, was just fabulous. So I just said, “This is kind of going to be a break from acting, but a good break.”
BLANKS: And now you’re a doctor in Rise of the Planet of the Apes?
PINTO: I play a primatologist. We used a bunch of technology that was used in Avatar . Andy Serkis played the ape and he was in the motion-capture suit throughout. And he’s a great actor, so it made life very easy. But at times there were scenes where James Franco and I would have to basically caress the air around us. And again, such a novel experience! So I embrace that one as well.
BLANKS: Did you and James Franco swap Danny Boyle stories?
PINTO: That was obviously how all our conversations were going to start, but I knew he was in school, and he was always reading his books, so I didn’t want to disturb him. But that filming experience is hard to describe because there was a lot that happened. I guess when I watch the film for the first time, I’m going to know what I did.
BLANKS: What do you take away from a film like that to your next assignment?
PINTO: I always imagined that I would learn something each time that I would take to a new project, then I realized that each new project poses a completely different challenge. I guess confidence is the only thing that I take from project to project, but I’m always open to learning everybody’s style—the director, the actor I’m working with. Not everybody is, “Okay, let’s dis- cuss this scene and how we’re going to do it.” And some over-discuss it. So I’m just open to everything. But it is all about being able to do it as a team. And there are some people who can do it fabulously as a team, and some people who like to work as individuals, like they’re the only people on the team, and you’ve just got to learn to work in that person’s style as well.
BLANKS: Who’s like that?
PINTO: I’m not telling you. [laughs] It was difficult, but as much as I probably wanted to curse when I went home, I realized that I had learned so much, so I actually thank them for having a different style.
Tim Blanks is Editor at Large for style.com and a frequent contributor to Interview.