Back Stage: Prior to "Slumdog Millionaire," you primarily did Indian films. Did "Slumdog" open the door for you in terms of getting roles outside India?
Irrfan Khan: The film that made me familiar was "The Namesake." That was very well received, and I believed in that film. I come here and do these kinds of films to get more-challenging parts. In India, I don't get the chance to play parts like "Namesake" or "In Treatment" or "A Mighty Heart." I could never get that kind of work.
Back Stage: How did "In Treatment" come about?
Khan: Dan Futterman—we worked together in "Mighty Heart"—was an executive producer on the series. He called me up and asked whether or not I would be interested. They told me the story and I loved it. Then they sent me the DVDs of the earlier seasons. When I watched the seasons, I thought it was a fantastic show, and there was something in it which was unique. The show doesn't take the liberties of cinema. It doesn't play with time and space. It just lives with two people talking. There is no blocking. You're just there on the couch talking.
Back Stage: What is that like as an actor, sitting there and experiencing the static shooting style?
Khan: It's very harrowing in the beginning. You have to get used to it, because the takes are not short. They're 10-minute, 15-minute, 20-minute takes. It's like theater, like performing in front of a live audience. In films, you can do a line, go back, and do another line. Here you have to do it continuously, and that was very challenging for me. I used to do theater, but recently I haven't done it, so it was like recharging my batteries.
Back Stage: It must have been exciting then.
Khan: It was very, very exciting. Also, the actor I had in front of me [Gabriel Byrne] is an excellent—I have no words to describe him. He's a person who gives to other actors' performances, and there are very few who are more concerned about the story and whether the actor in front of them is working or not.
Back Stage: Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
Khan: He gives value to your performance, and that's what an actor looks for. That's what makes you more engaging in a situation.
Back Stage: Everything with him is genuine.
Khan: Exactly. He doesn't even want to know where the story is going to go after the episode. He acts it out based on what happens that day. There are some people who want to know what happens to the whole story. They craft [their performance] according to that, but he only wants to put his attention on the moment.
Back Stage: Was there a specific scene that was particularly challenging?
Khan: I remember in one of the episodes, I was supposed to be a little bit emotional. I disclosed certain things to Gabriel. [After I did the scene] the director was in tears. It's important for an actor to see how an audience reacts to your interpretation or the way you're playing it.
Back Stage: Did you approach this role any differently than on previous projects?
Khan: I don't have one formula. Every part guides you on how to work on the role. What does it want from you? This part was much more complicated. My whole effort was to go the opposite direction. [My character] is in a situation that is very serious and dark, but as Sunil, all I was trying to do was make it lighter for myself. I was trying to find certain things, elements like mischievousness, to make things lighter.
Back Stage: What is the difference between working on American projects and working in India?
Khan: In India in the '60s and '50s, there was cinema that was much more layered. Now we have two kinds: art cinema, which deals with issues, and then movies that are just escapist and entertaining, where the subjects aren't dealt with seriously. America has mastered this balance where they can pick a subject or an issue and also make the film engaging and entertaining, which we are trying to do. We have a whole new generation of filmmakers and they are trying to bridge the two.
Back Stage: Did you always want to be an actor?
Khan: I wanted to be a sportsman when I was younger, while I was in school. I didn't have any support from my family, and you need to have backing if you want a career in sports. I had to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, because I found earning money just for the sake of earning money too boring. I wanted to do something that engaged me, and that's what I discovered in acting.