What was it like trying to capture Mallika Sherawat?
She’s a slippery one! I heard she would be a challenge but I had no idea just how much. Trying to dominate Mallika Sherawat is a fool’s game, but I tried my best.
Your character George States is inspired by George Bush and the concept of an American ‘supervillain’… what are your thoughts of America’s position in the world, and what other countries think about America, or should think in your opinion?
I was one who didn’t agree with much about the Bush/Cheney administration. His ‘cowboy diplomacy’ was such a belligerent approach to foreign relations. We had the whole world with us after 9/11. Everyone was an American after that horrible day, and we could have used that feeling of sympathy and unity to unite the whole world in condemning and finding Osama Bin Laden. Instead, because of his administration’s arrogance, we turned most of the world against us. Thankfully, President Obama is much more reasonable and much more of a peacemaker. He listens.
What I connected to with this American Supervillain concept was the brazen sense of entitlement that someone feels who has all the money anyone could ever ask for. This character just pushes his way around with little regard for anyone else. He thinks that as a rich American, he enjoys a certain amount of entitlement. He has a total disregard for human life except his own. So, when George hears about the legend of Nagin, he has the gall to think he can just take her power, as if he’s entitled to it because he’s rich. That’s the typical ugly American attitude.
Insiders say you could be the first American actor to be nominated for a Filmfare Best Villain Award, India’s own Oscars. What do you say about
‘Dominating Mallika Sherawat is a fool’s game…’
It’s probably just talk. I’ve won awards before, but it’s not the winning of the award that is flattering, it’s the idea that enough people think your work is good enough to earn an award that matters. There are so many good actors out there, who never have the chance to play such a juicy part, much less get a little press for it because you’re working opposite Mallika Sherawat and Irrfan Khan. I’m just grateful that people notice my work after almost 40 years in the business. However, it would be a great honour to receive a Filmfare award like my friend and great Bollywood villain, Gulshan Grover.
Are there any on-set stories you think readers would like to hear?
On my first day on the set, my wife Saba and I were introduced to Mallika. I had heard about Mallika, but hadn’t seen any of her work before I met her. For some reason, probably because she’s such a sex symbol in India, I was expecting some brainless beauty, who gets by on her looks, and has no real acting skills. We talked for an hour, and both Saba and I couldn’t get over how intelligent she was. At first she wanted to know all about Desperate Housewives because I play a recurring role on that show as Eva Longoria’s long suffering priest. But as we talked, I discovered that Mallika has an encyclopedic knowledge of filmmaking. She knew more about American films than I did, and we could tell that she really studies her craft. She was no brainless beauty at all. This woman knows what she’s doing on camera and off. She makes extremely intelligent acting choices, and is very generous with her time and talent.
I remember on the first day shooting in the jungles in Thekkady, everyone was concerned about the abundance of leeches. We wore leech socks, and sprayed ourselves with salt water, anything we could think of to avoid the bloodsucking leeches. When I saw Jennifer on the set, she had taken two leeches and purposely put them on her arm to let them feast on her blood just to show everyone that there was nothing really to fear. We all laughed and relaxed. If Jen could take it, we could take it.
The jungles of Thekkady were rainy, muddy, and leech-infested. I actually used the conditions to improvise a scene of where my character plays with a leach on his arm out of boredom.
I did all my own stunts in the film, and it was really difficult at times. I’m not a young man anymore, and some of those stunts were extremely demanding. In the last scene where I was being carried by Nagin to my death, I had to be hooked up to a harness and suspended by wires. I’ve never been in a harness before, and let me tell you it was very uncomfortable. All the stunt people were very impressed that I was doing the stunt myself without a stunt double. I was trying to be very brave throughout the process, but the harness kept digging into my side and back. Hours later when we finally got the shot, I took off the harness and we all saw these big blood blisters where the harness had been. Oh well, that’s movie making.
I had to use a gun a number of times in the film. In America there are a lot of safety rules around the use of guns on the set. I had a difficult time getting used to the way that is done in India. I knew they were using blanks, but the casual manner they were pointing the guns around had me a little nervous. So I started using the American system of dealing with the guns. I would yell out ‘fire in the hole’ or ‘Live ammo’ when the guns were loaded so that everyone on the set was warned, and I would double-check the chambers whenever they handed me the gun. Of course I trust my stunt men, but my own nervousness about guns made me want to be doubly careful.
Another time, Jennifer asked me to improvise a scene where I think I’ve killed Nagin’s lover, the male snake. She wanted to get this emotional scene in one continuous camera move without any edits. Unfortunately, we had a new camera crew on that day because we were using a special crane. On the first take I did things and felt emotions I’ve never felt before. I was totally connected to the moment and turned in a great performance, at least that’s what Jennifer told me. Unfortunately, this crew wasn’t used to the way I work, and couldn’t follow me very well through the entire take, so we had to do it again, and again, and again. Eventually we got the shot in pieces. I have no idea how that scene finally turned out, but I know I never felt the same connection after the first take.
There were so many. Just the culture shock of working with an all Indian cast and crew was extremely enlightening. Luckily, the language of film is the same in Hollywood and Bollywood, and all of the cast and crew were so wonderfully gracious and warm. Everywhere I went I was met with a smile and a pair of very kind eyes. I love Indian people.
I think my most memorable day was when we were shooting my fight scenes with my servants. It was very, very hot and humid that day, and it was extremely demanding physically to throw another man around and drag him. The fight choreography was difficult and a little dangerous. I remember we had to cover up a big metal shaft with a bucket so that we didn’t land on it directly, and there were no pads or anything else to soften the landings. It was as real as it gets, and very exciting. We did only two or three takes, thank God, because I was exhausted. Along with the fight, I think on that day my character killed four or five other men. I slashed a couple of throats, and gutted another guy, and shot one or two as well. It was like playing with my brothers when I was young. I went home and told my wife what I did that day. She asked me how I felt, and I said, ‘I feel great’. Only in the movies can you kill five men and feel great!
Describe your experience working with Mallika and Irrfan Khan
Working with Mallika was really fun. We were mutual admirers of each other’s work. She was impressed that I was doing my own stunts…without complaining.
‘Mallika is not a brainless beauty at all.’
How did you come across the project, and get cast in the role of the HISSS supervillain?
This is actually a great story. My wife, Saba, and her partner Sunil Sadarangani, had just shot a promo for a web series they wanted to produce called Bollywood to Hollywood. They wanted to go to India to raise money to shoot it. Meanwhile I told my wife that I wanted to play a great part in a film. We prayed on it, and two days later I got a call from William Sees Keenan, one of the producers of the film. Saba had helped him a few years earlier with a project he was doing, and we have always stayed in touch. He said that for some reason he couldn’t get me out of his mind lately because he was looking for an unconventional villain for a film he was co-producing. Evidently they had offers out to a few bigger names, but he kept coming back to me. Then he said that the only problem was that I had to shoot the film in India. I looked at Saba and we smiled. I asked WSK if I could bring Saba along, and he said that it could be arranged. I told him to send the script over because I think I’m going to like it. And I did. I loved that my character was so complex, very dark and intense. I just kept saying, ‘Wow! I get to do this, and this, and then this….’ I loved the writing, and I loved the story of Nagin. We don’t know about Nagin in the west. I think people are going to love it. So just like that we put the thought into prayer and it happens. Instant manifestation!
Jennifer Lynch is said to be a very intense director, any thoughts on this?
She’s intense and loving all at the same time. She learned a lot about filmmaking from her father David Lynch, so of course she’s going to be intense. But if you can’t love Jennifer, you probably are incapable of love. She’s just the opposite personally from the twisted intensity of her films. I think she is just trying to give the audience an insight into the human experience in as dramatic and entertaining a way as possible. Jen knows what she wants, but trusts the actor to give it to her. She gave me complete freedom, even encouraged me to improvise and go to emotional places that challenged me. As an actor that’s all you could ever ask for. We were on the same page from the first day as to who the character of George States was and what his motives were. That kind of mutual understanding and trust carried us through the whole movie. During the whole shoot, Jennifer created a loving family atmosphere. Her intensity shows up on the screen, not on the set. She’s a dream to work with.