On the surface, Irrfan Khan might seem to have the most thankless role in Ang Lee’s epic “Life of Pi.” Based on the beloved bestseller by Yann Martel, the film tells the story of a young boy named Pi (played primarily by Suraj Sharma) trapped at sea with a Bengal tiger while he grapples with issues of faith and humanity, along with the simple fact of survival. Khan portrays Pi as an adult, bookending the movie by telling his tale to a journalist played by Rafe Spall.
But in Khan’s hands, the role of narrator becomes a powerful character, providing the film with many of its most emotional moments. The actor has long been a star in his native India, where he is known by fans as “the Great Khan.” American audiences likely recognize him from films such as “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Namesake” and the HBO series “In Treatment.” Khan spoke about the process of bringing Pi to life.
On getting the role:
“I was here in America doing ‘In Treatment,’ and I got the call from [casting director] Avy Kaufman. She wanted me to meet Ang, so I met him, and he asked if I’d be interested in playing the role. That’s a kind of dream, when Ang Lee asks you to be part of his film. It’s like magic, like a fantasy.”
On landing roles without auditions:
“I never got a part where I had to audition. I could never perform. And I hate this kind of situation where somebody is testing me. For me, acting is becoming naked in front of people, you know? And when you know in the back of your mind somebody is testing you, you cannot really bare yourself. That’s a feeling I always have when I’m auditioning.”
On reading the book:
“I hadn’t read the book before getting the part. When Ang told me he wanted to cast me in this film, even then, I didn’t read the book. Because then I got really cautious, you know? I wanted to sign the contract, and then I wanted to invest in the movie, because it’s a kind of emotional investment when you start—you get attached to the part. And I told him, ‘I need your confirmation, I need to sign the contract before that, I’m not going to read the book.’ Once it was all set, I read it again and again. I wanted to try to make those shoes of the character my own.”
On working with Lee:
“There’s an actor in him. He understands actors; he takes immense care of actors. He gives you so much material to think about, huge material. He keeps nudging you in a particular direction. He tests you, he really tests you, and that’s what you want as an actor; unless you’re being challenged, the journey stops.”