Slumdog to stardom: How Freida Pinto has adapted to the demands of fame

In just three years, Freida Pinto has turned from 'Slumdog' neopphyte into one of Hollywood's hottest properties, witha starring role in the new 'Planet of the Apes' reboot. But, she reveals to Sam Peters, she was more than happy to shoot her latest film back in India

"Rough! Sad! Tragic!" Freida Pinto is saying with wide-eyed gusto. The 26-year-old, Mumbai-born actress is talking about her most recent filming experience, shooting Trishna, a new version of Tess of the d'Urbervilles with Michael Winterbottom. "Whatever you wanna call it, that was that film," Pinto continues. "But Tess is one of those books anyway. With just 10 or 15 per cent of happy moments. Or less than that." Pinto furrows her brow slightly. "I would say 12 per cent."

The British director of foodie road-movie-cum-sitcom The Trip, 24 Hour Party People, A Mighty Heart, A Cock and Bull Story, 9 Songs, The Road to Guantanamo and myriad others is a man of wildly eclectic tastes. Thus, for Winterbottom, a modern Indian version of Thomas Hardy's stoutly English, 19th-century tragedy was perhaps the most obvious thing in the world.

For his leading lady – precise, ambitious, enthusiastic – the cultural leap was equally logical. She acknowledges that "we had to suit the place we were making the film" – in this case, dusty Rajasthan rather than blowy Wessex.k "The weather was a bit of a bummer – it was really hot. But it was great – there were no trailers, there was no fussing, no make-up artists running behind you dabbing your face. Michael," she smiles, "loves speed."

The dialogue was in English, Hindi and Marwari. "Trishna [the role] couldn't be the whole English Tess. But all the adjectives we used were appropriate."

To research the part, in which she stars opposite Riz Ahmed (Four Lions), Pinto watched Roman Polanski's 1979 film of the novel, but opted to avoid the 2008 BBC adaptation which helped make Gemma Arterton's name. She also drew on her memories of reading Tess of the d'Urbervilles as part of her English literature course at college in Mumbai.

"I loved being back home working," sighs this young woman who has been living out of a suitcase for the best part of three years, ever since her first film, Slumdog Millionaire, shot her to fame. "I think I really needed it. There are so many stories, and India is so rich and vibrant and stimulating. There are stories every 100 metres."

She says Winterbottom first had the idea for Trishna when he shot the end of his science-fiction drama Code 46 in India in 2002. "But there were obviously no actors [suitable for it]. Then he comes back after nine years and Slumdog has happened, thank God for that! And Riz did a film with him, The Road to Guantanamo – so that's basically how it all happened. So," she smiles, "I so believe in my destiny. Slumdog revolutionised the way films were being perceived outside of India."

If Winterbottom, and Tess, are both on remarkable journeys, then so is Pinto. When Danny Boyle cast her in Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, her only acting experience had been in Indian commercials. Since that film's staggering box-office and multiple-Oscar success, the actress has hardly had time to pause for breath. She's filmed Israeli-Palestine conflict drama Miral with director Julian Schnabel, Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger in London, upcoming fantasy epic Immortals in Montreal, oil-industry potboiler Black Gold in Tunisia, and, for much of last summer, Rise of the Planet of the Apes in Vancouver. Great for her rocketing career. Less so, perhaps, for her relationship with boyfriend Dev Patel, the young Londoner she met while filming Slumdog.

"We've arrived at a situation where understanding is primary," she says of their relationship. Patel, a graduate of Channel 4 teen drama Skins, has an equally busy international schedule – he's also been filming in India recently with Dame Judi Dench, and this summer is shooting in San Francisco with Pinto's Apes co-star James Franco. "Now we don't need to Skype all the time, we don't need to talk every day over the phone. It's just understanding that OK, he's doing a film right now, so today is gonna be a busy day for him, he'll call me up tomorrow..."

In terms of her own globe-trotting, back-to-back workload, "It's like playing," Pinto says by way of explanation. "And you want to play more and more, you don't want to go home. After the Woody Allen film was probably the longest break I took – two-and-a-half months. Then I did Immortals, which was completely a new kind of a game that I was playing. There was CGI and a big green screen, and men in short skirts – and probably no skirts at all sometimes! Even a girl wouldn't wear a skirt as short as that – well, good for us!"

Working in a special effects-heavy movie was, she admits with girlish enthusiasm, a different kind of fun. "It was all so new. I had never done anything like that before. And then dealing with marking – this is the spot you have to stand on and if you move the camera's not gonna see you... it was very specific. Oh, and pretend there's a horrible beast there. Or pretend a storm is coming at you and your wrap is flying away..."

Borderline-silly stuff, for sure. But Immortals was great preparation for Rise of the Planet of the Apes – a prequel to the famous monkey franchise that is at pains to stay as far away as possible from any kitsch associated with the original late 1960s/early 1970s series. The film-makers, led by young British director Rupert Wyatt, wanted their film to look and feel a cut above, in every sense.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes kind of became a bit easier for me cos I had my initiation into green screen and CGI on Immortals," says Pinto. "But again it was completely different because we had the technology of [Peter Jackson's effects house] Weta Digital, and Andy Serkis being the ape. If anyone's gonna be the ape, it's Andy." The British actor who provided the physical movements for King Kong and Lord of the Rings' Gollum "is the undisputed king of the apes", she adds.

This origins movie may be a summer blockbuster with its share of action-packed, man-versus-monkey set pieces, but Pinto's first big-budget Hollywood film is no simple simian yarn. James Franco is a scientist working for a pharmaceutical corporation in present-day San Francisco. Via genetic engineering, he's trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's – a goal that goes from professional quest to personal odyssey as his father (played by John Lithgow) gradually succumbs to the disease. In the course of his experiments, Franco inadvertently creates the glimmer of human intelligence in one of his subjects, a new-born, orphaned chimpanzee, Caesar. As Caesar grows up, raised secretly at home by Franco's scientist with the help of Pinto's primatologist and veterinarian, his cognitive powers develop. He begins to chafe against captivity, and to question the scientist's "fatherly" role – when it comes down to it, the scientist, after all, is a vivisectionist.

Sent off to live in a brutalising primate sanctuary, the adult Caesar secretly rallies other chimps to his side. Pinto's character finds herself caught between her care for the animals and her sympathies for Franco's personal anguish. The themes of man playing God and the treatment of animals, notes Pinto, "are very current, and a script that can get me to tears is beautiful. It was just very moving."

"We wanted somebody that had a certain effervescence about her," says Rupert Wyatt of what is effectively his film's sole female role. "And Freida is a very bright and breezy individual by nature. The film needs that, in that it deals with a quite a lot of dark themes. I'd only ever seen her in Slumdog Millionaire, so I could judge her only on that. But we had a long conversation and what really intrigued her was the whole idea of monkeys being a species that are very like us but are exploited by us and looked down on by us. She's a very open actress and that's why she worked for the part.

"You could compare her to a young Julie Christie," the director adds. "She's very young and very unformed in a way – she's not had professional training. She's an actress who relies on her instincts, and her own natural charm. And she is very sharp. She was very quick to suss out which of the cast were inspirational, and she really gravitated towards them. She's obviously got a very long career ahead of her. It doesn't hurt that she's stunningly beautiful as well."

If Freida Pinto's banker father had had his way, both his daughters would have followed him into the world of finance. Growing up in a nice suburb of Mumbai, in a home where English was always spoken, and schooled at a well-regarded Catholic establishment, the Pinto girls seemed destined for Establishment careers.

Her military grandfather, meanwhile, dreamt that one of his grandchildren would be a doctor. Her headteacher mother would no doubt have been happy with either. In the booming new India, particularly for middle-class families like the Pintos, encouraging children to pursue a "proper", vocational career is paramount.

"I actually didn't mind school, and I enjoyed university and college. But while that was happening I still knew that this was not satisfying enough. So among my friends' circle, I'm the least educated! A lot of the younger Indian generation are either IT geniuses or doctors – the number of doctors I've seen in LA who are Indian is just crazy," Pinto says in her fluid, lightly accented English. "So it is a very common thing. Or an accountant! That again is a very, very big thing. So I guess we're just a minority, my sister and I. We were naturally inclined towards not doing anything that was super-academic from the very beginning. We were always interested in performing arts, and media-related stuff."

Her elder sister studied advertising prior to ending up in her current job, as a producer with an Indian TV channel. Before Danny Boyle cast Pinto in Slumdog Millionaire (he was looking for young, relative unknowns to play his starcross'd lovers), Pinto also worked in television, presenting a travel show.

At college in her mid-teens, Pinto had realised that theatre and literature were her "calling". To earn some money, she began modelling. The well-mannered, inquisitive youngster found it easy working with photographers, but it was far from satisfying. Nor was the advertising work which followed.

"There were some very silly, stupid auditions that I had to go for. Like, there's this girl who walks into college and nobody's paying any attention to her because she is not using this particular cream – some kind of moisturiser or fairness cream, which I'm completely against. Then she'd put on the cream and all the boys would turn to her. And, I was like, 'Arrgh, this is so bloody cheesy!' If I ever got shortlisted for any of those parts I'd feel this sudden burden: 'Oh my God, if I do this, they'll pay me and I'll earn my pocket money – but then it's gonna be history.' Some of my ads are now on YouTube and it's just so embarrassing."

Embarrassing, yes, but she can laugh about them. "There is a silly Wrigley chewing-gum ad you should check out. It's so stupid. This guy pops a gum in his mouth and I fall from a tree on to his bike! Then he's got a girl!" Pinto cracks up with laughter at the memory. "So from doing cheesy stuff like that to doing something as fulfilling as Miral – I think I've come a long way."

She has, but Pinto can't, and won't, forget where she has come from. She despairs at the popularity of those "fairness creams" in Southeast Asia – bleaching potions to lighten the skin. "It's completely wrong medically – and culturally, of course, because it's giving people the wrong idea. My friend who's a doctor told me that she'd have parents come in with kids who were three years old, saying, 'Do something – I want my baby to be fair.'

"It's just this thing that people [in India] are so fascinated by white skin. There's a lot of people there who are naturally really pale. But the whole idea that you have to be fair – without naming actors, but there are actors who admit it – the fairer you are, the easier it is."

Even within Bollywood? "Oh yeah, absolutely. The amount of pancake cream on your face is ridiculous. I don't think it is required, by the way. If a cream can give you confidence then you really have to check your whole confidence department in the first place."

But Pinto herself is a bright beacon for Indian actors. Slumdog Millionaire showed that European and American audiences could be receptive to non-Western stories. And with her nonstop career since, this proudly Indian actress has succeeded in Hollywood without having to compromise by changing her looks or the way she speaks.

"Yeah," she nods, "but it's so funny. I feel like this whole idea of wanting something that you don't really have is also very American in a way. They love tanning! Why the hell are you tanning that much? Then in my country people want a fairer skin tone! It's just crazy.

"So when I was that Indian export that went to America and people were wanting that natural tan – which I don't really have to go through tanning [to acquire] – they were excited to include something in their culture, into their film industry, that was not really there already. Or not properly or appropriately represented. So I just feel that this was a change.

"And I embrace the change and am hopeful it brings in more actors from Southeast Asia, without [them] having to do stereotypical roles. To be able to do something like Rise of the Planet of the Apes that is not concentrating on ethnicity – I'm so glad that is changing in the West."

She is impressed, too, that an Indian actor, Irrfan Khan, has been cast in the upcoming Spider-Man reboot, as in the dual role of Nels van Adder/Proto-Goblin in The Amazing Spider-Man. "I just feel that's amazing – this is a comic book that didn't have an Indian character penned down in the series, and now they're including an actor like him. That's the whole colour-blind thing, and I feel like that's a great change. And I think Slumdog was the pioneer of the change."

Danny Boyle would be proud of the woman he plucked from obscurity. "I tried to explain to Freida and Dev," the director says, "how they would suffer from expectations and pressure" after the release of the film. "It is really hard to handle all that," he adds. But, together and apart, with enthusiasm and passion, his young leads have.

"This year I'm really hoping to have a break," says Pinto. "To kind of pace it and have time off." But even as she says it, she knows that her hot-property status means that is unlikely. "It looks as though I'm going to LA now this summer – just for promotion for films. Sometimes I feel like that's the bit we get paid for. Not for the performance. The performing part just feels so great."

'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' (12) is out on general release from 12 August

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