07.14.12

Freida Pinto on Playing Passive ‘Trishna,’ Her ‘Slumdog’ Break, and More

India’s first bona fide Hollywood star in ages keeps getting cast in depressing roles. Between laughs, she talks about never saying ‘no’ in Michael Winterbottom’s Tess remake Trishna, getting cast in Slumdog, and more.

The first thing you notice is the hair, jet black and straight, but not in the way American women iron it out until they look like a third-string publicist or someone in corporate marketing. Then there are the copper-colored eyes, painted with a touch of green and black eyeliner to give them a smoky effect. The lips are insane, the chin is perfect, and the near constant smile is big enough to send Julia Roberts running for cover.

So why is it that people keep casting Freida Pinto as women whose lives are so depressing they can hardly manage to get out of bed?

As a child growing up upper-middle class in Mumbai, Pinto saw a Miss Universe pageant and decided she wanted to be a beauty queen.

Instead she became an actress, the first bona fide Indian movie star in the United States since practically anyone could recall.

Those looks would make it impossible for nearly anyone else to play dramatic roles. How on earth do you empathize with someone so genetically blessed?

But so far she’s managed to do that and to do it just fine. First came Slumdog Millionaire, the 2009 Oscar-winning Danny Boyle film in which she starred as Latika, a young woman so beautiful she winds up a slave, first as a kind of concubine, and then as the wife of a horrible gangster who basically imprisons her.

Now she’s hitting theaters in Trishna, the new directorial effort from Michael Winterbottom and an adaptation of Hardy’s 19th-century novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles set in modern-day India. Pinto plays a poor woman who goes to work at a hotel, falls in love with the wrong man, and descends into despair as his heart grows cold and their relationship becomes more and more destructive.

She was dying to do it, she says, because she thought highly of Winterbottom, whose 2002 film about the Manchester music scene, 24 Hour Party People, is something of a classic among hipster film buffs. And she’d been a fan of Tess when she read it in college.

Still, it was a stretch, she says.

It was hard to get into character.

“Her being so passive was not easy for me to digest,” Pinto says. “Sometimes I needed someone to say, ‘No, you’re playing Trishna. She would not say this, this, this, and this. You’re not going to say ‘no’ to anything, you’re not going to refuse.’ I needed someone to remind me of that all the time.”

Growing up, Pinto’s mother was a role model for having your cake and eating it too: the headmistress of a school and a woman intent on her daughter becoming more than just a beautiful plaything.

“All she does is teach boys and girls to stand up for themselves and be educated, even if it means saying ‘no’ to her,” Pinto says. “It’s a completely opposite thing my mom has given me. And my grandfather, who was my mom’s worst nightmare, said, ‘Always ask why.’ And can you imagine how many ‘whys’ I used to ask as a child? From my grandpa to my parents, it’s always been about questioning things.”

At 16, Pinto wanted to start making her own money, so she suggested to her mother a job idea she had. “I said, ‘There’s this thing girls do. They serve Bacardi shots at parties, and I’m going to go and do that.’ And she was like, ‘You are not going to go and do that.’”

Finally, mom allowed her to go ahead and become an entertainer at children’s parties. Then Pinto began modeling. She got a gig as the host of a travel show that sent her all around Southeast Asia. But what the girl really wanted to do was act.

The first real gig she got was Slumdog, but it was not an easy job to land. “I auditioned for six months before I got the role,” Pinto says. “It was not just me. They had to find the me, and the younger me, and the younger younger me,” she says. (The movie tracks three kids growing up in the slums from the time they’re tots until they’re in their early 20s).

But it turned into a massive worldwide hit, and during filming Pinto fell in love with her co-star Dev Patel, with whom she now lives in Los Angeles, where he is doing the new Aaron Sorkin HBO show The Newsroom.

“I said, ‘There’s this thing girls do. They serve Bacardi shots at parties, and I’m going to go and do that.’ And she was like, ‘You are not going to go and do that.’”

How did news of their involvement break in the press? “It was over here, courtesy of one of our other co-stars, who decided to say something on the red carpet to Ryan Seacrest. And who better than to reveal it to than Ryan Seacrest?” She bursts out laughing. “It was awkward.”

One thing about fame Pinto doesn’t mind is all the freebies that come with being a young starlet. “It’s a funny situation, when you can actually buy things, you get things for free. Ha ha ha. And it’s always nice. I’m happy to promote brands. I make sure I send the picture irrespective of whether they let me keep it. But it’s a strange situation. Finally it happens, I get my paycheck from Slumdog, and I start getting gifted.”

Where’s the bag from, I ask.

“Roger Vivier,” she says. “I love him.”