Life of Pi: Casting–Suraj Sharma as Pi

The heightened emotional connections presented in LIFE OF PI required exceptional performances from its cast, none more so than the neophyte thespian who would take on the titular hero.

After an extensive talent search throughout India, during which over 3,000 young men auditioned, Lee, his casting director Avy Kaufman, and her team chose 17-year-old Suraj Sharma to play Pi Patel.

Suraj is a student who at the time lived with his parents in Delhi, India.  Ironically, Suraj’s parents are mathematicians, and now their son was about to embark on his first film role–as a character named Pi–a mathematical constant and transcendental number.

Suraj hadn’t even intended to audition for the role; it was his brother who was set to read for the part.  In the course of six months, Suraj made it through four rounds of auditions. He found the process to be a heady one, because until that point Suraj had been living like a normal teenager.

“I was really nervous, especially during the final audition,” he recalls.  “I was actually shaking. I talked to Ang for five minutes and he’s got this thing about him:  Whoever’s around him, somehow you get really calm.  So Ang calmed me down, and we did the scene.  I wasn’t really happy with what I did because still I had this little bit of nervousness.  Ang talked to me for ten minutes, and we did the scene again. I don’t know what happened, but it was pretty much the best work I had done through all the auditions. Everyone in the room looked really happy.”

During this final stage of auditions, Suraj read an emotional monologue from the script, and his soulfulness, warmth and innate talent won over Mr. Lee and the studio.

“We searched for a young man who had the innocence to capture our attention, the depth of character to break our hearts, and the physicality needed to embody Pi on his journey,” says Mr. Lee. “During his audition, Suraj filled the room with emotion, much of which he conveyed simply through his eyes. His natural ability to believe and stay in the world of the story is a rare treasure.

“Suraj’s investment in the story made us really believe that whatever challenges we faced, the film was really going to happen,” adds the director.  “When we saw Suraj, we saw the movie.”

To mark the beginning of her son’s journey to a new world of acting and studio moviemaking (much like Pi finds himself on an adventure he could never have dreamed of), Suraj’s mother performed a small ceremony, during which she appointed Mr. Lee as her son’s guru.  Ever humble, Mr. Lee’s first thoughts were that he was unworthy of assuming such a formidable responsibility.  But the ceremony, he notes, “got to me,” and he agreed to strive to be deserving of the honor.

By the end of production, it was Suraj who became the spiritual leader on-set.  Lee marvels at Suraj’s innocence and efforts, noting, “We are all experienced and perhaps a little jaded.  Suraj reminded us why we want to make movies.  Every day was a miracle.”

The teen’s many new experiences making LIFE OF PI included the daunting but necessary task of learning how to swim.  Given that Pi spends much of the story on and in water, the aquatic training was paramount. Under Mr. Lee’s watchful eye, and through the guidance, hard work and discipline of stunt coordinator Charlie Croughwell and his son, stuntman Cameron Croughwell, Suraj was transformed into an outstanding swimmer, and learned to do his own stunts with uncommon stamina and drive.

To match Pi’s physical transformation, Suraj had to gain weight and then lose those additional pounds of muscle, and more, in real time and with no hiatus. (Tom Hanks’ dramatic weight loss in “Cast Away” was facilitated by a months-long break in that film’s production.)  Through a stringent program of diet and physical training, the Croughwells transformed Suraj from a skinny 150 pounds to a muscular 167 pounds. Then during the course of filming they dramatically reduced his weight to just over 130 pounds, to embody Pi’s struggles.

To further evoke Pi’s transformative experiences, Suraj learned ocean survival skills.  Steve Callahan was the film’s survival and marine consultant.  Producer David Womark explains, “Steve wrote the book, Adrift, about his experience surviving adrift at sea for seventy-seven days. He, together with Ang, created a program that taught Suraj how to fish, build a sail, and collect fresh water — so all these elements that you see in the movie are things he had to take on as challenges, and they became part of his performance.”

Suraj spent much of the production in the world’s largest self-generating wave tank ever designed and built for a motion picture.   Located in Taichung, Taiwan, on the site of a former airport, the tank measured 70 meters long, 30 meters wide and 4 meters deep, with a capacity of 1.7 million gallons, and allowed the filmmakers to generate a range of water textures.  For the sinking of the ship Tsimtsum, and a massive “Storm of God” sequence, the tank’s water was replaced by CG H20.

“The tank began to feel like my home,” says Suraj, who through his experiences there, learned much about the sea.  “As you will see in the film, the ocean has its own moods,” he explains. “It can feel like a monster, or it can be a mirror.  It’s both a killer and a savior.  The ocean is a beautiful thing.”

Pi’s companion on his oceanic odyssey, Richard Parker, is largely a creation of advanced CG wizardry, overseen by visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer (“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”).  The digital magic builds upon the revolutionary character CG work of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” creating a sentient creature that feels as real as the four actual Royal Bengal Tigers that served as physical and performance references.  The visual effects team strove to maintain subtle animal nuances, and avoid anthropomorphizing the beast.

Westenhofer credits the hundreds of hours of video the filmmakers took of tigers, with providing invaluable reference for their CG creation. (The animals also contributed some performance work.) Animal trainer Thierry Le Portier (“Gladiator”) found three of the four key animals in France and one in Canada. Their names: King, Min, Themus and Jonas.  King was cast due to his matching Ang Lee’s visualization of Richard Parker, and thus became the primary physical model for the character.