Most actors spend their careers seeking out larger-than-life characters who promise to an indelible impression with their overwhelming magnetism or malevolence. The very definition of a meaty, Oscar-baiting part has long been viewed as a hero or villain who lives at life’s extremes, igniting the screen with superhuman acts of bravery, iniquity or both. But for Irrfan Khan, the ultimate test of an actor’s mettle lies not in stealing scenes but rather in giving them away by disappearing imperceptibly into characters who often go unnoticed. Average Joes and mild-mannered mensches have become a kind of Holy Grail for Khan, the Indian actor best known to American moviegoers’ as Ashoke, the docile, Gogol-obsessed paterfamilias in Mira Nair’s adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake. Tellingly, Khan proudly describes Ashoke as a character “so unobtrusive that if he’s sitting right in front of you, you might not notice him.”
For his role as the title character in Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” due out in theaters this week and based on the bestselling novel by Yann Martel, Khan was called upon to perform his greatest vanishing act yet. He pulls double duty as the film’s (possibly unreliable) narrator and an older version of its protagonist, who survives a shipwreck while stranded on a small lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Throughout the film, Khan becomes an increasingly captivating presence -- almost despite his best efforts otherwise -- as he imperceptibly seduces the audience while also sowing the seeds of doubt.
Khan recently sat down with Signature to discuss surviving the choppy seas on the set of “Life of Pi,” embodying the book’s philosophical underpinnings, and forging a path outside his comfort zone.
Signature: I saw “Life of Pi” about a month ago and it’s been in my bloodstream ever since.
Irrfan Khan: Ah. That’s the fun of doing film; that’s the fun of being in this line of storytelling. Somehow you connect to people who’ve never seen you, who don’t know you, and somehow you become one by sharing experience. It’s something that is so rare, so interesting.
SIG: There is a unique accessibility and openness to all the characters you play. It was particularly strong in “The Namesake” and you brought a similar wholeheartedness to Pi in “Life of Pi.” Is that something you consciously set out to do in your work?
IK: I’ve never created a system for myself. Although there is a system and it reveals itself as the part comes. There is some power that’s trying to nudge me in that direction. I remember when I was doing Bollywood films. I had found my comfort zone there and I wanted to continue to do roles with immense presence on the screen, like the one I played in “The Warrior.” And then suddenly I was given this part in “The Namesake” and I accepted that part without realizing that it’s completely against the things I had been doing and which made me feel good. When I started reading the script and realized if [Ashoke] has a noticeable presence, it will go against the part. What I noticed in reading the book was that this guy is so unobtrusive that if he’s sitting right in front of you, you might not notice him. That was something new for me to explore. And that’s when I realized I should avoid my comfort zones. I should feel lost and in a deep sea and not have the knowledge of how to row the boat. I feel like that when I get a part where I don’t know how to approach it or how to deal with it. That vulnerability, it’s something I’m okay with now. Earlier I wanted to be sure about myself. You need to have some crutches you can depend on. But what I really like about myself now is that I don’t really look for those crutches. I’m okay with the freefall. That’s what makes it exciting. You have the danger of landing in the wrong direction or maybe you don’t succeed in your journey, but that’s what this journey is all about.
SIG: That idea of jumping in a boat without knowing how to row is good metaphor for the ideas about faith and letting go at the heart of “Life of Pi.”
IF: Exactly. And with the character of [Pi], I was completely lost. I was literally feeling like I had to cut down and unwind and recondition myself completely. I had to forget I have an existence as an actor and my name is Irrfan. I had to feel like I’m nothing. Zero.
SIG: Why did this role require you to wipe your identity clean.
IF: I had to shed everything because that’s what Ang wanted. Films don’t come to me as an object. Ang chose a difficult journey and that was bound to affect my performance. It created a journey for me that was not easy. It never came to me easy. The whole journey was difficult. Dealing with a subject about existence, about God. It has its own tests, its own exams. The spirit tested everybody.
SIG: How did that come through in your corner of the film, beyond all the technical challenges? How did that manifest itself in your experience working with Ang?
IF: I was not supposed to play just a part of a story. The book had to be in my bloodstream. I had to live in new shoes. There are so many issues in the book, I had to go through it and make it mine. Ang was wanting me to speak in a specific way. He wanted the edge of a guru, a swami and there should also be an edge that he is cooking up a story, the audience shouldn’t completely believe what he’s saying. It might be that he’s cooking up the story. So you’re left with options: To believe or not to believe. That was a kind of challenge. That was a kind of homework I had to do for the part: How to make this philosophical thing engaging emotionally. It’s too much to expect from a film where there’s so much action going on and suddenly everything becomes philosophical and emotional. You can’t just rely on the philosophy because philosophy can’t be described in cinema. You have to layer the emotions on top of it and put the philosophy underneath.
SIG: Your character had to carry the weight of that philosophy. What kind of direction did Ang give you?
IF: He was busy shooting the adventure part so I was longing to spend more time with him. I got a little time with him before the shoot. I went to meet him and got a day with him. I wanted to spend much more time with him. Ang was the person who guided us. He was in the sea with us. He was also the person responsible, upon whom we were all relying to take us to the shore. None of us knew how to swim. In the beginning when he first confirmed I was supposed to do the film, I started talking to him about this character; he said I see him as a person who’s a very smooth talker, who should appear as though he’s bullshitting. He’s so in tune with the character’s emotional journey. What is interesting about Ang is that he gives a lot of importance to the gaps between the lines than to the lines themselves. So the lines are basically what you’re playing. You’re playing the gaps. The lines are there to hide things, to say things you don’t mean to say. Maybe you’re lying or trying to protect yourself through these lines. Maybe that’s not what’s happening with you. Between the lines is much more profound and much more important to Ang and that’s something very interesting for an actor to try and embody. That’s what filmmaking is all about. It throws you challenges and you have to figure out how to deliver.