So, could you survive if you were shipwrecked at sea - with or without a huge tiger on board?
No, I know I couldn’t. That's one of the things the film taught me (laughs).
Did you read the book before you were cast?
|Most books don’t go that deep. It’s like a raw piece of flesh being poked, and it’s horrible. But it’s good horrible.|
In what way?
It probes parts of being human that we are all very uncomfortable with. Everyone has a conflict inside of them - the conflict between what you should do and what you want to do. It’s about why we have religion in the first place; why we need that belief, why we can’t be content with ourselves as we are. Most books don’t go that deep, It’s like a raw piece of flesh being poked, and it’s horrible. But it’s good horrible.
For most of the movie you’re acting to nothing but green screen. How did you prepare for that?
The first three months was just training [and] I had to learn how to swim. I’d never been near the ocean so I had to learn what that’s like, learning about fishing, about isolation, about rope, about tigers, learning how to hold my breath. There was a lot going on, but through that I became extremely comfortable with Ang and with the crew. I felt like I was ready to take on something I never thought I’d be able to.
Still, how hard is it to envision the fact that you’re on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger for company?
Well, first of all, we took over an abandoned airport in Taiwan, cut up the runway and build the biggest wave-making tank in the world. Then we got four tigers, three from France and one from Canada, and we trained them. So I would watch these tigers every day moving around on the boat, reacting with the movement of the boat and with the humans on the boat. So you get an idea of how a tiger is going to be in that situation. And I watched videos of tigers on YouTube, which helped a little. Obviously I listened to Ang, and everything just came together. Every time I got onto the boat, right from the beginning, I’d think, "Okay, Richard Parker is over there so I probably shouldn’t go on that side." You end up brainwashing yourself to think, "You are Richard Parker and I can see you." It got more strange when we started shooting because then you’re looking at point on the camera and imagining that to be a tiger, which is weird. But you do it for so long it becomes as if the tiger is really there. Plus, you’re imagining everything, not just the tiger.
How did you feel when you saw the movie for the first time - the reality of what Ang Lee created versus what you imagined?
Unbelievable. I couldn’t understand how I was part of it, I didn’t get it. I was scared; I honestly didn’t want to watch it because making it was so special to me. First of all I didn’t want to see it because of the memories, both good and bad. There were moments when I reached this very dark, intense state that I didn’t want to be reminded of. And because making it was so special, I didn’t want the movie to ruin that in any way. Also I was sitting next to (novelist) Yann Martel. So no pressure there! (laughs).
Did he like it?
He did. And he didn’t say anything bad about me, which was great.
Life Of Pi is in cinemas on December 20.
Interview by Simon Braund