All actors dream about the big break, the star-making turn, or, at the very least, the role that will open the door for more offers and opportunities. But the reality often differs from the fantasy. Back Stage spoke with actors who recently enjoyed breakthrough performances and how they handled the flash flood of success—and its aftermath.
'Slumdog' to Prince
Few actors have enjoyed as meteoric a rise as Patel, the British-born Indian actor who played Jamal, the young man hoping to connect with a lost love in “Slumdog Millionaire.” In 2006, Patel's mother took him to an audition for the BBC program “Skins,” which she had read about in the newspaper. Though he had no professional acting experience, the then-16-year-old Patel landed the role of Anwar Kharral, a British Pakistani Muslim teenager, after two auditions. When director Danny Boyle was looking to cast “Slumdog Millionaire,” Boyle's teenage daughter pointed him toward “Skins,” which landed Patel an audition for the film. Upon the film's release, a whirlwind followed: The world fell in love with the movie, Patel and his cast won SAG Awards in the ensemble category, and the film won the Academy Award for best picture.
Patel repeatedly uses the word “surreal” to describe the experience. “But when you're in the eye of the storm, you're just riding the wave,” he says. “It's only looking back on it now that I'm in awe.” Though he was still only a teenager at the time, he seemed to keep a cool head and enjoy the ride. Asked if he handled it well, he says, “Yes and no. And I realize now that the question isn't so much if I 'handled' it, but did I enjoy it? Fuck yes. I really did.” He points to the Academy Awards ceremony, where the cast and crew of the film were seated together. “You watch the Oscars, and there's all these actors who look so poised,” he says. “Then you cut to the 'Slumdog' crew, and we're all bouncing off our seats like we're at a football game.”
Patel adds that he was fortunate to be surrounded by people who were looking out for him. While filming “Slumdog,” he had yet to land an agent, so several people, including Boyle, urged him to start looking. Patel went to the casting directors of “Slumdog” and “Skins” and asked for recommendations; both provided him with a list. “Whoever was on both the lists, I went to see,” Patel says. “And the ball got rolling from there.” Patel eventually signed with Curtis Brown Group in England and recently with Theresa Peters at UTA in America.
Patel says that from the beginning, he sat down with his representation and explained what types of roles he was after. “I want to break the mold,” he says. “The way I see it, I've been given an amazing opportunity; I want to stretch and do things that interest me.” After the success of “Slumdog,” he was in demand. “I'd be lying if I said I didn't get any offers, but there was nothing that would have elevated me,” he says. “It doesn't need to be another lead role, just something that will either challenge me or help me improve. And what I was getting was very stereotypical, easy roles. With the way I look, it would be easy to fall into that trap, so I had to choose wisely.”
This week, Patel returns to the big screen in his first film since “Slumdog”: M. Night Shyamalan's “The Last Airbender,” an effects-heavy spectacle based on the cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” While it may seem like Hollywood came calling thanks to the success of his first film, the truth is that Patel had auditioned for “Airbender” before the release of “Slumdog.” Reveals the actor, “There was sort of a lull where I finished 'Slumdog' and came back to London and was still a nobody. I put myself on tape for 'Airbender' after hearing about the casting call. Midway through doing press for 'Slumdog,' I got a call from M. Night Shyamalan.” Shyamalan had seen “Slumdog” and was set on the actor to play the villainous Prince Zuko in his film. “He said he saw me on tape and I really popped out from the crowd,” Patel recalls. “But 'Slumdog' cemented me in his mind.”
One factor in playing Zuko that particularly pleased Patel is that the casting was colorblind; he didn't have to be of any particular ethnicity. As a result, when Patel was cast, the roles of Zuko's relatives and members of his nation were cast with Middle Eastern and Asian actors. “I feel the industry is slowly moving towards becoming more colorblind,” Patel says. “And with 'Airbender,' I struck gold in that department.”
Hands-On After 'Hairspray'
Like Patel, Nikki Blonsky found herself at the center of a Cinderella story when she went from working at a Cold Stone Creamery to landing the lead of the 2007 musical “Hairspray.” In her first onscreen role, Blonsky found herself starring opposite John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Christopher Walken. Her effervescent performance as Tracy Turnblad in the 1960s-set tuner earned her raves—along with Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations. For more than a year, Blonsky's life was about “Hairspray,” first with shooting the film, then months upon months of publicity. “I did press for almost a year after it came out, with the awards shows and everything,” Blonsky says. “So I was still doing press in January for a movie that came out in July.”
Recognizing what a great opportunity she'd been given, Blonsky says she works closely with her representation at Innovative Artists. “I'm a very hands-on person,” she says. “I want to be told every offer that comes in, and that's what I told my team.” Since “Hairspray,” Blonsky appeared in the independent films “Harold” and the upcoming “Waiting for Forever” and did a two-week singing engagement at Feinstein's in New York. But she says she still had to audition for those; the only straight offer she took was the Lifetime movie “Queen Sized.” While it was nice to be offered a role outright, Blonsky says she prefers the audition process. “I want to work for everything I have,” she explains. “There's a sweetness that comes with working for it, over somebody just handing me something.”
Currently, Blonsky is appearing in the ABC Family series “Huge,” created by Winnie Holzman, who wrote the book for the musical “Wicked” and created the series “My So-Called Life.” The role of Will, a tomboy from a wealthy family who attends a weight-loss camp, is one Blonsky went after with a passion. “I went back and forth through about five or six auditions; it wasn't just handed to me,” she says. “I wanted this role, so I just kept going back.” Blonsky says she shares traits with her offbeat character. “She'd rather start her own parade than join somebody else's, and that's how I am,” Blonsky says. She adds that in the future, she would love to play more roles like Will. “I have a lot of different characters that I can play around with, and I think they'd be a lot of fun,” says the actor. “I just feel blessed to have gotten this part. It's brought me right back to where I want to be.”
After a breakout role, there can be intense pressure to pick the next project wisely. Chris Pine was a veteran of several films, including “The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement,” when his career shot into the stratosphere after playing James T. Kirk in last year's “Star Trek” reboot. While headlining a worldwide blockbuster would give most actors confidence, Pine has confessed he still battled with insecurities. “I always talk about Gene Hackman on 'The Actor's Studio.' He said something near the end…[like he's] waiting for the acting police to come and take away his acting card,” Pine revealed in an interview with Back Stage last year. “If Gene Hackman is going to say that, I think it's fair to say that most of us out there feel the same way. The insecurity doesn't die; the fear of being never hired again doesn't die; the fear that you'll be revealed as a fraud of some sort, whatever that means, doesn't die.”
Pine said having more choices can actually be harder. “I feel it was easier in the beginning, when the laser focus was set on 'get a job,' and that could have been a B-movie or a C-movie or a mobisode shot in the Philippines or whatever; I just wanted to act and not work at the restaurant,” he noted. “And then as you get some money in the bank and you don't have to work and you can choose, it seems the choices do get harder.”
After the release of “Star Trek,” Pine returned to an old job: reprising the role he originated in New York of a press secretary to a presidential candidate in the West Coast premiere of “Farragut North” at the Geffen Playhouse. He then signed on to appear in Tony Scott's “Unstoppable,” a big-budget action movie. But the pressure there isn't completely on Pine; the film co-stars Denzel Washington. Pine continues to balance popular entertainment with more-personal projects; he'll next be seen onstage as an Irish terrorist in “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” at the Mark Taper Forum, opening June 30, before going on to lens “This Means War,” opposite Reese Witherspoon, and the “Star Trek” sequel. When choosing parts, Pine said he has learned to trust his instincts and think about the long term, noting, “At the end of the day, what do I want? I want a long career, and I want a career made up of many and diverse roles.”
Coming to Terms
Of course, there can be a down side to sudden fame and attention. Patel admits he went through a period of time where he would get “very angry” when his privacy was invaded. “The only hard part of any of this was being thrown into this whole paparazzi stuff and having people asking about my private life,” he reveals. “People were turning up on my doorstep and taking pictures of me wherever I went. It frustrates you; it can spoil your mood.” Patel says he has come to terms with it, and now has more sympathy for the celebrities he used to read about in gossip magazines. “There are some stories I've just had to laugh at,” he says. “There was one about me planning my wedding and having cakes flown in from other countries. I just have to shake my head and laugh.”
Blonsky, who has weathered a complaint from former representation and an altercation at an airport with a reality-TV personality, has chosen to concentrate on the positive. “That's something I choose not to speak about; I've put it in the past,” she says. “I feel so blessed to have the life I have now and the family that I have, that will stick by me through thick and thin. There are downsides to this industry, but you have to take the good with the bad. It's the same with every industry.” She says another challenge she faced was people telling her she needed to change her look to work in the business. “People had told me to lose weight, and I said, 'Then you just don't get me,' ” she says. “If there is a role that comes across that I really want to play, I absolutely will lose weight for it. But that role hasn't come across yet. Until then, I am who I am, and I'm proud to be who I am. I'm proud to be a plus-size women working in an industry where everybody's tiny, tiny, tiny.”
Pine also had to cope with sudden onslaught of people wanting to know every detail about his personal life. But he keeps things in perspective: “If the worst thing that happens in your life is that you're asked the same question repeatedly for a month, and people look very interested while they're talking to you and wanting to know about you, think about every day you worked at that restaurant and every day you worked as a delivery man for Domino's, every day you were a host, every day you were a bartender and worked until 4 a.m. And then just be very grateful.”