Capone With Director Mira Nair About THE NAMESAKE, The Upcoming SHANTARAM w/ Johnny Depp & Not Directing HARRY POTTER!!
Published at: March 12, 2007, 12:28 p.m. CST by merrick
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here, presenting you with my interview with one of my new favorite citizens of the world.
Around the globe, Mira Nair is one of the most successful and well-known Indian directors of all time. Although her films do not fall under the "Bollywood" blanket, she has been know on occasion to borrow from that tradition in such films as MONSOON WEDDING and her rich and colorful adaptation of VANITY FAIR. But for me, Nair's best works are her passionate dramas, like her breakthrough 1988 work SALAAM BOMBAY!, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar; MISSISSIPPI MASALA (the first film of hers I ever saw); KAMA SUTRA; and her devastating HBO movie, HYSTERICAL BLINDNESS, starring Uma Thurman.
It was announced just a couple weeks ago that Nair had signed on to direct Johnny Depp's next film SHANTARAM, a very different kind of Indian story, which we do talk about a bit in our conversation. But it's her current film, THE NAMESAKE, based on the massively popular Jhumpa Lahiri novel (I believe there's a well-read copy on my wife's bookshelf), that is our primary reason for conversing.
Although Nair was in Chicago to do press for THE NAMESAKE, I was actually visiting my family on the East Coast, which I feared would mean I wouldn't get to speak to her. But after the proper amount of begging on my part, she kindly agreed to do the interview on the phone. Enjoy…
Capone: In keeping with the theme of THE NAMESAKE, the reason I couldn't be with you in person today is that I'm visiting my family in Washington, D.C.
Mira Nair: Nothing is more important; you're a good son.
C: That's kind of you to say. Thank you. A couple of months ago I interviewed Kal Penn--he was promoting another film [VAN WILDER: THE RISE OF TAJ], actually--but when I brought up THE NAMESAKE, it became very clear to me that that was the film he wanted to talk about...
Mira Nair: Of course.
C: …and he told me a very funny story about how he came to your attention. Can you give me your version of that story?
MN: [Laughs] Oh, my goodness. Two 15-year-old boys totally responsible for casting Gogol--one is my son and the other is his friend, Sam Walker, who took me by the hand early on when I was casting and showed me Kal, whom I really wasn’t aware of, on the Internet. And, I thought, you know, he’s a nice, comic, goofy actor, but I’m looking for a dashing young man. So I said ‘thank you very much,’ and, I left it at that…until every night, putting my son to bed, he would say to me, “Mama, tell me in the morning it’s Kal Penn, tell me in the morning…” Literally, insidious domestic pressure. [Laughs]
And, parallel to this going on, I got a letter from Kal, which was a very seductive letter, saying he was an actor because of me, because he saw MISSISSIPPI MASALA when he was eight years old in a New Jersey mall and realized people on screen could look like him, and all these nice things. And I said, I was thinking of other people already, but if he was interested, he should fly himself in, and I would see him with pleasure.
And, he did. I don’t know if you’ve met him, but he’s very wonderful in person, and he’s utterly different from those comic films that he makes. I was really knocked out by his authenticity. I mean, he was clearly Gogol. He had lived that life, and he had such a hunger to do this, to prove to himself that he could do it and to me that he could do it. Hunger goes a long way in terms of anything.
Then, he also gave me a major key. When I looked at him, I felt I could cast him as the adolescent young man [rather than a separate actor to play Gogol at 15], because of his comic physicality and all of that, the gangliness that he can easily muster--as well as the dashing young man who moves to New York. So, that was a big key, because…you can imagine for me, What would I do? How do I cast another 15-year-old, and then cast a 28-year-old? It’s very difficult in terms of an audience, and so, it was quite interesting. Anyway, that’s how it happened. But really, these two 15-year-olds were key. That’s the truth.
And, Kal is such a sweetie that he doesn’t forget them, ever. He routinely has dates with them, these two boys. He takes them to the premieres that he has of the VAN WILDER movies, or whatever he’s doing, and they are, of course, so happy about the whole thing. Genuinely, they are the ones who made me cast him.
C: He told me that, when he came in to audition, you had already cast somebody.
MN: I had already cast somebody, yeah.
C: But then, that person couldn’t do it.
MN: That person began to sort of have issues about nudity and kissing. He was a Bollywood star, and I was also not sure that he could really do it, because with those kinds of stars, you don’t have time to rehearse. They just kind of move in and move out--it’s not the way I work. So, I was, in any case, on the fence about him, but was hoping it would work out. That was the mood I was in when Kal walked in the door. But, when I saw him, it was like, why am I looking anywhere else?
C: It seems like you went through a great deal of cast changes during the preproduction of this film. Is that typical for your films, or unusual?
MN: Most unusual. This film, more than any other, I feel like an angel of casting flew over me, really, because…except for Ashoke [Gogol's father], who was always going to be Irfan [Khan, whom Nair discovered and cast in SALAAM BOMBAY!]…the others were all up in the air. I was thinking of so many other people, and had in Ashima’s [Gogol's mother] case cast another younger actress whom I liked, who then started to make issues for her dates and schedule and all.
So, just two weeks before shooting, I had to recast, because I need time to be with my actors and rehearse with them and not have this sort of pressure. In India, actors have so many commitments. They commit themselves to so many movies at the same time. It’s just not the way I work. So, two weeks before the movie began I called up Tabu, who is a major star, but she just cleared the deck for me and came. She’s amazing, as you see.
C: Yes, she is. Kal definitely seemed very grateful and moved that you had given him this opportunity, this comic actor, to be in his first real dramatic leading role. Was there something about his audition? Did you have him audition as both the younger and slightly older character?
MN: No, no, no, because at that moment, I was just looking for the older. I thought that I would be casting two Gogols. It’s only after I met him that I realized that he could be both--but only later, not then. So, he read only the more adult parts, but I just liked him. He had great skill, but he also had an incredibly lovely appeal in person, which I certainly hadn’t seen in his films that the boys had shown me. And, I’m sort of an aesthete, and I have to love the look of my actors, because I live with them for goddamn one year, or something. I have to look at your face for a year. So, I have to love them in many ways. And, he had that quality in person that he certainly didn’t have in those other films.
So, first it was that charm and appeal, and then only later I realized that he actually also could play the younger part, which is a huge boon, because if you can imagine, it’s a very tough thing. How do you cast a 16-year-old of someone else, and then make him a 28-year-old of someone else? It’s very difficult.
C: As much as THE NAMESAKE is about Gogol’s journey--and I had not read the book, although my wife read and loved it and has been talking about it, pretty much since it came out--I was very pleased and surprised that it was as much, if not more, a story about Gogol's parents. And, so many of your films are about these strong family bonds. Why is that so important to you?
MN: In Indian philosophy, we believe that there are four stages of human life: one is the celibate youth; the second is the householder; the third is the karma yogi, the person who works in the world; and, the fourth is renunciation. These are the four stages of life, and I am definitely and resolutely between the second and the third--the householder and the karma yogi, the worker. And, these past few films definitely mirror my own stage of life. MONSOON WEDDING was very much about family madness, and this one was my first experience…the big thing that informed me and prepared me to absolutely have to make THE NAMESAKE was my first experience of the death of a beloved one and the finality of that loss. I had never experienced that.
I think when you experience that you realize…it’s like when I became a parent, I realized what I put my parents through. You don’t realize that until you are doing selflessly for a little baby. You don’t realize what you meant to your parents back then, or what your parents did for you. Similarly, when they are gone, there’s nothing more devastating at that time. So, that was what prepared me to make this particular film, really.
And, even early on, I have always loved the idea of two people marrying as strangers and then falling in love in a distant country. I think that’s a very enchanting and even erotic idea. We as young people think that our parents don’t know passion, or they don’t know what we know now. We have our girlfriends and our boyfriends... But really, because you never see in our parents’ generation, especially coming from India, any public displays of affection, anything, anything--no Hallmark cards, no roses and diamonds, no ‘I love you,’ none of that--but the fact is that there is such a deep and unbridled passion between them.
So, that was a very beautiful thing for me. I was very clear that the two pillars on which the movie would rest would be the adult love story and the quietness, the stillness of their love, of their connection versus the kind of jangle of a young guy making his way in the world. So, for me, it was always a balance between these two. I think that counterpoint is more interesting.
C: There have been so many films lately where we see traditional parents sort of push their children to adhere to the more traditional ways of whatever culture the film might be about. I actually appreciated that in THE NAMESAKE the parents are more standoffish, as if they know he will eventually find his way back on his own, without their interference. Was that something that appealed to you? Is that a relationship that you had with your parents, where they weren’t as forceful?
MN: Yeah, my parents…It’s because I had two older brothers that I was always sort of left to do my own thing. And, that was a very great liberation, even as a child, because the worry and the tension was how the boys would do, you know? I guess, without it being said so, I was [assumed to] eventually be getting married and have a hubby or something. [Laughs] Little did they know! So, that was a liberation, and they didn’t force themselves on me, and I used to do various things, like get myself scholarships to Harvard, and present it on a plate to them, and they would say, “Oh-h-h, the Kennedys went there! I suppose you should go.”
C: So, this is very much, in a lot of ways, your story, too. One that is very close to home.
MN: It is, in its essence, yeah.
C: Concerning Gogol’s white girlfriend--I don’t know how it was in the book--was it important that you did not demonize that character or her family?
MN: Very important to me, very important, because I don’t believe the world is like that, and it’s much too easy, if you do that, which is also why we invented the character of Sally, the library coworker of Ashima, because I wanted economically to speak of the fact that, you know, yeah, Ashima misses her home, and she wears saris in New England and all of that, but you have relationships, you have relationships with the world.
It’s very important for me, because it’s too simple the other way. And, that’s also a big reason why I cast Jacinda Barrett, because she has a great intelligence and empathy at the same time as she can show her, not self-absorption, but that kind of what I call the ‘approach appropriativeness’ of the American way, you know, ‘this is my world.’ And, of course, it’s in my world, you enter my world, but when I’ll go into your world, I’ll still be in my world, you know.
C: It’s funny you say that about Jacinda Barrett because, of course, she’s not American.
MN: Of course, yeah, yeah.
C: I know there were a few Western actresses that expressed some interest in her part. I'd heard Natalie Portman was involved at some point.
MN: Yes. I met with Natalie, and we are both fans of each other, but she didn’t…I guess she wanted the part to be more than it seemed to be. And, I also thought that she was…it’s weird, I almost thought that she looked more Indian. I really wanted a blonde. I really wanted someone…it’s in the book like that, this kind of fascination with each other. Gogol has a fascination with Maxine, and Maxine has a fascination with the brownness of Gogol. And, Natalie is more like us, in my strange way of looking at the world, you know? But, yeah, I thought of Natalie, and I thought of Scarlett Johansson as well.
C: Tell me a little bit more about the actors who play the parents, especially Gogol’s father, because you worked with him many years ago on SALAAM BOMBAY! Had you always had him in mind to work with again?
MN: Yes, I did. You know, he’s a wonderful actor, you see. And, because I discovered him, and for that I gave him the part of the street kid, the main part, and then he was so tall, and he just didn’t fit in with the malnourished level of kids there, that I had to kind of de-cast him, and sort of give him a little role, and I was always looking to pay him back. I was always looking to find something deserving of him. He’s like my younger brother. I have just finished a new film in which he’s acting again, lovely actor. And, he’s wonderful, just an extraordinary actor who makes very wise decisions about what he does. He doesn’t just throw away his talent.
And, Tabu is sort of like a young Meryl Streep. She’s a very well-known actress, a star really, with more than 100 films to her credit. Five years ago, I had written a screenplay for her, which I then abandoned. So, I knew her well, even personally, and when things didn’t work out with this other young girl, I thought immediately of Tabu, because she has life in her eyes, amongst her other attributes, you know, her beauty and her skill and her depth. She has seen the world in her eyes, and that is an impossible thing to direct. You cannot direct life in one’s eyes--what you have seen and what you have not seen. That was key, because I just didn’t want any sort of latex horror of makeup in this movie. The makeup was very artful in the aging and so on, but it had to come from within. And, Tabu could do that. She could play the dewy bride, and she could play the gravitas of a widow, because of what she has seen in her life. And, that was the clincher for me.
C: I was going to ask you about the characters growing old, because that does not come across as artificial. Makeup obviously does only part of it. There are a few actors I’ve seen really pull off that transition. It’s a gradual aging, it’s not like young, then old. You see them in all stages of their aging. That’s very hard.
MN: Exactly. They did it beautifully, I thought.
C: I did, too, and considering I’m not real familiar with either of their works outside of the work with you, I wasn’t sure exactly of their real ages.
MN: They’re both in their early 30s. She’s 32, and he’s about 36.
C: I wanted to ask you about the film starring Johnny Depp that you have been signed to direct.
MN: Yeah, I’m so happy. It’s called SHANTARAM. It’s a monumental best seller, huge story, a true story about a heroin addict who escapes from prison in Melbourne, Australia, in the ’80s and comes to Bombay, kind of by chance, to disappear as a man on the run. And, he’s mistaken for being a doctor and ends up in a slum, because he figures that’s where he’s most anonymous, and how he meets a series of people--Indians and Afghanis--and gets involved with a kind of underworld as well. But how he meets these key people who change his life and teach him what honor is. It’s a wonderful part and a wonderful story. And, Johnny is an amazing actor. So, I was very honored to be asked to direct him in a film where, I think, we can finally get the continuum between East and West right, for a change.
C: I know you may be tired of this question, but I had read that you were asked to direct the HARRY POTTER movie that’s coming out this summer.
MN: THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX.
C: Right. Was that a case of you had to do either THE NAMESAKE or HARRY POTTER?
MN: Yeah, you know, they asked me just after VANITY FAIR, which they loved, and they were talking to me right at that time. And, I was already deep in THE NAMESAKE. I was two months before shooting THE NAMESAKE, and it would have sort of derailed my inspiration--and I know inspiration is very precious. And, I also know that, as my very wise 15-year-old said to me, “Mama, lots of people can make HARRY POTTER, but only you could make THE NAMESAKE,” which I thought was very lovely, because, you know, obviously, HARRY POTTER means a lot to someone that age. It’s also not my forte, I think. With HARRY POTTER, you inherit a world, you don’t create it, you inherit that world and you service it.
C: For any good book or film, like THE NAMESAKE, you begin to consider the future of the characters that you have fallen in love with. Have you considered Gogol’s future after the point where you had to end it?
MN: It’s too early for me to do that. It’s more [author] Jhumpa’s [Lahiri] terrain, but you know what, we have considered the future or the past of the characters in MONSOON WEDDING. I have always thought that I would love to see Alice and Dubey, the maid and the tent man, I would love to see how they lived after, you know, I would love to see how they lived.
C: It’s rare in your films that we get a definitive, traditional happy ending. You tend to put your characters in a place where they could go in either direction, and we hope for the best, but it’s not always clear. Also, a lot of your films focus on women or, at least, are equal parts male and female, but with THE NAMESAKE and now Johnny Depp in SHANTARAM, it looks like the shift is going a little toward the male-driven story. Is that a deliberate move?
MN: No, nothing deliberate. It’s all about intuition, really, and where one is drawn. But, I grew up in a household of boys and men. I have two brothers, and I’m very much at home in that universe, so I don’t see the world so separately. It’s more about an interplay. But, the women are also as brave as the guys are.
C: Indeed. Well, Mira, thank you for taking the time to talk with me, and please thank your son for pushing Kal, because he’s terrific in this film.
MN: I will do that. Thank you.