Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Alexx O'Nell: Outsider in Bollywood Part 4

This is the fourth in a series of interviews with non-Indian actors who have appeared in Bollywood films. Next week will be with actor Conan Stevens (Game of Thrones) who beat up Akshay in Chandi Chowk to China. For part one of this series with actor Jonnie Louis Brown who went from Baltimore (The Wire) to Bollywood, please click here and for part two with actress Sarah Thompson Kane, who romanced Ranbir Kapoor in Raajneeti, please click here, and for part three with Australian actor Harry Key, please click here.

I was really honored when actor Alexx O’Nell agreed to be interviewed for my Outsider in Bollywood series and became even more so through the course of our interactions. Not only is he a talented actor but he is also a deep thinker who takes cinema very seriously. It quickly became clear that Alexx has very high standards for himself and the people he chooses to work with. I can only try my best to live up to them. And with that, I hope you enjoy what he has to say!

Alexx was born Alex O’Neill (like any respectable actor in India cinema, Alexx changed his name for numerology reasons) in the state of Connecticut to a Dutch mother (who still lives there) and a American father (who passed away when Alexx was 6 years old.) He is the youngest of three siblings, all of whom have migrated as far from Connecticut as one can get - a sister in England, a brother in the Caribbean, and Alexx in India. As he puts it: “I joke that we each have our own continent to ourselves.”

The performing arts have always been a passion for Alexx. After appearing in about a dozen plays in his youth, along with other artistic endeavors tantalizing described to me only as “musical,” he studied theater at both Wesleyan University and Boston University [my old stomping grounds - FG, Berklee graduate, 2003] while earning a degree in Psychology and another in Philosophy, eventually graduating a year early.

“College wasn’t the place for me and despite a generous scholarship I couldn’t justify spending more money on a year of education in which I couldn’t see proportionate value,” Alexx explains. “After university, I put my Psychology degree to work in two ways - as a residential care counselor for troubled kids and as a waiter.” Despite his international pedigree, Alexx inherited that celebrated New England work ethic. After all, idle hands are the Devil’s playthings. He lists off the long employment history that eventually led him to the silver screen. “As a kid, I would tutor other students, I officiated soccer matches as a certified referee, I taught an acting course, I acted, I was a bartender, I played guitar and sang in bars and clubs (and sold copies of an independent album), I was a videographer for rock concerts at a couple music venues, I taught GRE and LSAT test prep for the Princeton Review, and then, after working as a counselor (and becoming disillusioned with ridiculous system of “rehabilitating” underage offenders in the state of Connecticut) I left that to work for a marketing company.”

It was this was this last job that led Alexx to India and he slowly began acting again. After a series of ad films, he snagged small roles in
The Loins Of Punjab Present and Cheeni Kum and the rest is history. “I was trying to get to California I got stuck in India and never finished the route,” he says, laughing.

I’m always curious about people’s first impressions of Bollywood. Did Alexx have any idea what he was getting involved in? “No, not at all,” he says. “Actually, I don’t really call it
Bollywood or any of that. There are so many woods and I don’t understand where they all came from! It’s very complicated and confusing – there’s Sandalwood and Tollywood and Bollywood… All these names are misnomers because they’re not indicative of any industry. Bollywood – Bolly means nothing at all. It’s doesn’t make any sense! I just call it Indian cinema.” And what did Alexx think of Indian cinema? “I hadn’t seen Indian cinema until I had made Indian cinema and I kind of didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know what to expect until I was in the thick of it.”

Those of us who are fans of Indian cinema know that there are plenty of stereotypical roles for white actors. How does Alexx weed through all the offers to play British officers to find the good roles? “If it’s a well-defined character that has thought put into it then I give it a second or third read.” But Alexx is quick to point out that not all of those British officer roles are interchangeable. “People have said, ‘Well, look in
Chittagong you play a British officer, in Madrasapattinam you played a British officer, why would you do the same role twice?’ and my answer was, ‘Well it wasn’t the same role. They’re very different roles – a significant amount of time apart, 15 years apart.’ The point is that it doesn’t matter when the character existed; it doesn’t matter where the character existed. The character has to be defined, the character has to have a personality, it has to be believable, it has to be well-written and well thought out. If it is, then it doesn’t matter if you’re playing two characters on exactly the same day of the same year - it doesn’t make a difference at all. If you expect an actor to be able to differentiate two characters in the present day, then you need to expect that same actor to be able to depict two very different characters in the past – at any point in the past.”

“So, yeah, if somebody comes to me with a script and the only description is it’s a British guy in 1930 then I already begin lose interest because it’s clear to me that they don’t care about the character. They just want the character to exist so that they can build other characters around it and that’s not very interesting. It doesn’t have to be a huge role the point is that it has to be well written. It has to be something I can add something to.”

I was introduced to Alexx’s work through the amazing
Madrasapattinam [read my review here - FG] in which Alexx plays the devilishly handsome and deliciously evil (and very well-defined) Captain Robert Ellis, who squares off against Tamil hero Arya in a battle of wills over the heroine. I had to know all about it – what is like playing such a bad guy? “Despite playing the main negative role, I was inundated with hugs and handshakes in Tamil Nadu when I visited some theaters that were playing Madrasapattinam – and from my experience the baddies are given far more interesting things to do. Nevertheless, I have tried to balance the negative roles with the positive just to keep it interesting for me and to avoid being branded ‘that evil white guy actor’. Beyond that, I’m happy to see the industry waking up to the fact that characters that are nether inherently good nor bad (what people here like to call ‘gray’) are actually attractive to audiences.”

“One thing I loved about [director A.L.] Vijay is that he’s of the new generation that believes that the bulk of his audience needs the Good and the Bad – but he’s making his films for more than just the ‘bulk’. He was adamant in his narration of the story when we first met – and quite often thereafter – that Robert Ellis is not a ‘bad’ person in his own mind and neither he, nor any real life character does bad for the sake of doing bad. Unless you want to just call it insanity – which for an actor is the easy way out except in the rare cases it really fits - there need to be reasons why he does what he does, justifications, even if you don’t sympathize, you should understand why.”

The amount of thought Alexx put in Captain Ellis is incredible and it’s what made him more than a cardboard cutout British officer and makes him all the more threatening. Cartoon evil has nothing on the real things people do to one another. Alexx lays bare the psyche of Ellis. “Understand the British psyche of the period, fueled by the conquests of the empire and its belief in its cultural and technological superiority. Understand the intoxication of power, the same way you might see Caesar or countless United States presidents (Nixon, Kennedy, George W. Bush) feel they are above the law. Understand the immaturity of a guy who gets everything he wants the way he wants it. Now throw in a girl he is desperately in love with, have her fall in love with someone he thinks isn’t worthy of sweeping his floors, and I think you see that all we have is a spurned lover – not an inherently evil man.”

“Evil is the easy way out. Understand the reasons, feel the emotions, and you have the motivation to be doing what you’re doing – if you don’t have a reason, you’re not acting, you’re pretending – and the audience can tell the difference.”

And Alexx didn’t just get into Ellis’s head – he got into his body. The physical transformation was grueling. “In
Madrasapattinam, there are two especially significant fight scenes between Arya’s character and mine that required I prepare a great deal physically to try to match Arya’s excellent physique.” If you have seen Arya, you know this was no easy task but Alexx attacked it with the same dedication he does everything else. “I designed a strict diet of 6 meals a day, 360 calories and 30 grams of protein per meal to achieve a more bulky and muscular look. Additionally I went on a workout regimen lasting 3 hours a day including abs, over an hour of cardio, and over an hour of heavy weight training.”

Interestingly to me, especially after speaking with
Jonnie Louis Brown, was that the fighting style was true to the period. “I researched the English fighting style of the 1940’s in an attempt to move and fight the way an Englishman of that era would when competing in a boxing match. I was lucky enough to find some video online which put me in the right direction. Despite what most people on the project thought, it was nothing like Mohammad Ali’s style of fancy footwork, that was far too modern – the 1930’s and 40’s style was more of a rocking back and forth on the front and back leg, while maintaining a wide stance, and moving in a circle.” [Check out a video demonstrating this here. – FG]

I have been constantly surprised by the stories this Outsider in Bollywood series has turned up. There are many challenges for non-Indian actors beyond things like language and culture barriers. Alexx brought a very practical consideration to my attention. “Anyone who’s been to the south knows how hot the sun can be and how essential sunblock is but when I needed it the most – it didn’t work at all!” Sunblock! The most mundane considerations can sometimes be the most important. “While shooting the fight scenes both Arya and I were topless [!! – FG] and wrestling from early morning straight through the peak sun and into the sunset. This went on for 5 days.”

“On the first day, for some reason, no matter how much sunblock I used, I kept turning redder and redder… it turns out the lotion we had on set just wasn’t working. The second day, we started later in the afternoon so we would have some time in the morning to find some sunblock that worked and some cold cream to sooth the burn. Though I finally found a brand I recognized, I was already bright red and wrestling in the sand was extremely painful. I just kept thinking – ‘I’ll remember the scenes by how they look, not how much it hurts’ – and tried to stay focused. I’ll never forget wandering around a small town called Srirangapatina, about 5 hours drive from Bangalore, buying up every tiny shop’s supply of Nivea cold cream because they only had tester-size packages. After having seen the wrestling scenes in the film, and almost forgotten how much it hurt, I’m glad we went ahead with shooting despite the pain.”

If you’ve ever wondered why so many outdoor song picturizations feature the heroes wearing sunglasses (or “goggles” or “sunnies” or “shades” or whatever you want to call them), the brutal sun is why. “Whenever I’m shooting outdoors, whether an ad or a film, I always succeed in doing one thing – loosing my sunglasses! And the more expensive they are, the faster they disappear.”
Madrasapattinam was no exception. “On shooting for Madrasapattinam, which spanned over 6 months, I must have lost over a half dozen pairs. In fact, at one point, I was wearing Director Vijay’s sunglasses since mine had been lost and it was hard for me to survive between takes without them. When I returned from Mumbai to meet Vijay on the next schedule, I gifted him a pair of aviators – which I haven’t seen him wear much, so he either didn’t like them, or I’ve somehow passed on my bad luck for loosing glares. I’ve started buying lots of really cheap sunglasses and strangely enough, these seem to last much longer...”

It’s true my $10 CVS goggles always last much longer than anything fancier! Plus, they always carry the tacky rhinestone covered ones I like.

We move on from
Madrasapattinam to Alexx’s next projects – he’s got five films coming up! The one closest to release is Santosh Sivan’s Malayalam-language Urumi (and the international English-language 90-minute edit, which will be called Vasco da Gama.) “Those two films are very uncharacteristic of what you would think of as Bollywood or even Indian cinema because they’ve got a totally different flavor. Vasco da Gama, in particular, is going to have a very international flavor because it’s going to be devoid of the songs and the involved romance between a couple of the characters.”

Urumi (check out the official website here) is a historical film set in the 1500s and stars Prithviraj as a warrior who is on a quest to hunt down Dom Vasco da Gama. Alexx plays Estavio da Gama, Vasco’s son. Also starring are Prabhu Deva, Genelia D’Souza, Vidya Balan, and Tabu.

“I think if you like
Madrasapattinam you’re going to love Urumi,” says Alexx. “Malayalam cinema is well regarded in all of India as kind of the hot spot for very, very good and interesting cinema. It’s very forward thinking cinema and they’re exceptionally serious about their cinema. And because of that, [director] Santosh [Sivan] being from Kerala really wanted to make an epic for Kerala but while making it realized it was something that really could be well received elsewhere.”

“It’s a beautiful film, you don’t expect anything less from Santosh, but it’s phenomenal. And we’ve used some amazing technology on this film – we used a Wisecam [note from FG, I know nothing about cameras, so I may have misunderstood this part], which is a camera that can shoot up to 350 frames per second, so you see the beating of a dragonfly’s wings as it passes in front of the camera during one of the fight scenes in the climax.”

Filmi Girl is really looking forward to seeing it. “I’ve seen it,” Alexx says excitedly, “and now I’m looking forward to people seeing it because it’s just a really great film. And to have worked with [Santosh Sivan] it’s like - I’ve said it in an interview before - he is the Steven Spielberg of India. The guy is just amazing. It’s a joy to work with him.”

And what about working with Prabhu Deva? I’ve become quite charmed with him since seeing
H20. “He’s a cool guy. He’s very quiet. While we were shooting, he was going through some personal stuff. [Prabhu Deva was divorced in late 2010 - FG] He’s one of these people…” Alexx searches for the words to describe the great Prabhu Deva. “I love and I hate these actors - I’ll tell you why. So, you’ve gone through rehearsal, and you always go through one rehearsal for camera, and everybody knows what they’re going to do. And then the camera is rolling and you hear the whirl of that camera which means that every second is costing x amount and then this guy will do something totally different - something you hadn’t rehearsed and had no idea was coming and you have to react in your character!”

“Working with Prabhu Deva, you’re always on your toes, you’re constantly being tested as an actor,” continues Alexx. “He’s constantly testing you and he’s trying to do something interesting, trying to do something different, trying to make something very spontaneous and that’s wonderful. But having done theater for so long, I’ve gotten into the habit of over-rehearsing everything so it was a really, really interesting experience working with him on
Urumi because he reawakened that improv thing inside of me where it’s just like, ‘Oh, shit! He wasn’t supposed to do this!’ And before you’re done with the thought, you have to react with something. The first couple of scenes we did together I was like, ‘What’s happening?’ from then on I expected that our shot was going to be nothing like the rehearsal. So then we got along a lot better.”

“[Prabhu Deva] just keeps you on your toes all the time and I think that’s probably why he’s done so well, especially with action. You and I both know how good he is with dance [he’s amazing at dance – FG] and action is all about timing and moves. It’s basically identical to dance because unless you really want to kill somebody, you’ve got to get the timing perfect because if you’re stabbing at the wrong time, you’re going to end up with blood on your sword. It was a pleasure to have a few action scenes with him in the film.”

Urumi will also feature a re-match between Arya and Alexx. “We fight twice in Madrasapattinam and I joked with him when he came on the sets of Urumi, “Hey, we fought twice and both times you won. The third time...”’ Well, Filmi Girl won’t spoil it for you!

Also coming up is
Joker, which stars Akshay Kumar and Sonakshi Sinha and is directed by Shirish Kunder, who is one of Filmi Girl’s favorite directors (read my reviews of Jaan-e-Mann and Tees Maar Khan). It’s a complete departure from Alexx’s previous work – a real big budget masala potboiler.

“It’s awesome to work with Shirish!” Filmi Girl is happy to hear that. “He’s totally different from other directors that I’ve worked with in that he’s kind of introverted. He’s always thinking and watching and observing. Whereas you’ve got a [
Urumi director] Santosh who’s very personable and very outgoing and always laughing and happy to have a drink with you, Shirish is kind of stepping back from the whole thing and giving it a different perspective.”

Of course, the big name attached to
Joker is Akshay Kumar. Just like R&B singer James Brown was called the hardest working man in show business in the United States, Filmi Girl considers Akshay Kumar to be the hardest working man in Hindi films. “I think he continues to work very hard,” agrees Alexx. “I think he’s had a pretty difficult past three years with everything he’s done flopping. Yet he’s an actor who doesn’t have dates until 2012, he’s an actor that’s got 7 more films awaiting release. So, there’s something to be said for the way that he works and the fact that people continue to want to work with him, despite having a difficult almost half-decade.”

“And I think it’s testament to the significant impact that his earlier films made. The [
Khiladi series of films] was extremely well received and put him on the map as that one and only action hero star in India and you don’t have any others. You’ve got Salman Khan, who, obviously, has a well-renowned physique but I don’t think he’s really attained what Akshay has in terms of being able to just jump up and say, ‘Hey – I am the action star of India.’ He’s got a very unique, a very interesting, a very well-deserved, and very difficult to attain place in the industry. There’s a whole lot of respect from you and from me, as well, for that, so it’s great to be working with him.”

“I honestly believe, despite Akshay Kumar’s track record in terms of his most recent films, that
Joker is a great film. I truly love the script, I love the location, I believe in Shirish Kunder. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing the movie. Because I don’t want to do that - I don’t want to work really hard of a film, knowing that it sucks. If I read a script and it’s terrible, why would I put two or three months into it?”

That faith in
Joker is faith in Shirish Kunder. “I try to watch at least three films of every director that I work with,” says Alexx. “ So, when I met Shirish I asked him, ‘What should I see of yours to get a feel for the way you’re going to make this film and he told me definitely see Jaan-e-Mann.”

Jaan-e-Mann (2006), which stars Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan, did poorly at the box office when it came out but has become a cult classic over the years. It pops up all the time in conversations with film buffs, for example, when I interviewed Patiala House actor Armaan Kirmani, he singled out Jaan-e-Mann as a favorite film.

Jaan-e-Mann was very cool,” says Alexx but no film fan stops there in discussing it. “If you look at Jaan-e-Mann there’s some really cool things he’s done cinematically and edit-wise. Shirish is a master editor and I think that’s from where he pulls his main strength. For me, one of the coolest things is towards the end where [Salman’s] character reunites with his wife and child and - you’ll have to see it again if you want to see what I’m talking about - but the curtains fall and they fall at maybe 250 frames per second. He’s doing something in speed and [the curtains] are falling very, very slowly and it’s a beautiful image. I think he’s captured some amazing moments in that film.”

(A production still from Joker that Shirish tweeted.)

“[Shirish] is a guy who pays a lot of attention to story and he makes the surroundings – like the curtains or fireworks in
Jaan-e-Mann - those things take on a character persona and they become a character within the film. In Joker, you’re going to see the surroundings, you’re going to see the set and the locations become a character. They’re very, very involved in the scenes and they’re very involved in the story. They’re essential. There are lot of films you can shoot them in the jungle; you can shoot them in a field; you can shoot them in a university it doesn’t make a difference but with Shirish it matters a lot. It’s very important that the surroundings be a part of the story, be a character in the story and I think that’s very cool.”

Joker managed to tempt Alexx into the world of big budget masala, he doesn’t think there is a place for him in mainstream film, which doesn’t really bother him too much for one reason. “I don’t understand how so many bad films can be made,” he says. “When I see one of these films what I envision in my head is a bunch of people sitting around in a boardroom and they’re all looking dully at each other thinking, ‘Okay – why did it go wrong?’ And the first guy goes, ‘We had a lot of money and we spent it all.’ And the other guy goes, ‘We had all these big stars and we signed them all.’ And then the other guy says, ‘We distributed it to every single theater in India.’ And then the last guy, who’s sitting at the other end of the table was like, ‘Well, nobody wanted to read the script.’ They’re not executing them well; they’re not actually paying much attention to story.”

“I haven’t done the quintessential
masala film. I haven’t done the mindless one guy slapping the other guy, who slaps the other guy, who slaps the other guy… You know what I mean. I haven’t done the films where you’re thinking, ‘What is going on?’ and you want to walk out halfway through. I’m not the kind of guy that you would cast for any of those roles and that’s a blessing in a way. I don’t want to do the next major Hindi flop. I don’t want to; I’m just not interested. And the way that I look and the way that I act and the films that I’ve done have kind of kept me out of that. It’s kind of like - I’d rather not do an Adam Sandler film and the nice thing is because I don’t fit that, I’ve been thrown into a Schindler’s List and you can’t complain about that. That’s really cool.”

Finally, what does his mother [a librarian, like Filmi Girl!] thinks about his career choice. How did she react to seeing him torture Arya in
Madrasapattinam? Alexx laughs. “My mom has seen me do similar and worse things on stage and in other films. She’s got a good separation between character and actor. She knows I’m a very sweet kid. She actually cried at the end of Madrasapattinam and it had nothing to do with me getting thrown out of a clock tower. She cried because she was sympathizing with Amy and Arya!”

And, really, there is no higher praise for an actor in a negative role – if Alexx can get his own mother to root against him, he is clearly doing something right.

I want to thank Alexx for taking the time from his very busy schedule to indulge my questions. You can find him appearing on
Jhansi Ki Rani on ZeeTV and in the upcoming films Urumi, Vasco da Gama, Joker, Chittagong, and Na Voh Hoti Na Yeh Hota.


S said...

Thanks so much for this filmy girl! I can't comment too much because I have exams going on but this was a FANTASTIC interview! I was fascinated Alexx's work in Jhansi ki Rani and always wanted to find out more. You are so lucky! I would have loads of questions to ask too. Do you know if he knows Hindi? If not, I wonder what he thinks of the people who dub for him. LOL the anecdote about looking for Nivea packets in Srirangapatina is really funny because I've done the exact same thing so many times!

Filmi Girl said...

@s Thank you for being the first to comment! I was afraid this piece was too long... :)

I believe he does speak Hindi but I didn't ask about the dubbing! Next time I will. :)

S said...

No I loved this piece. Sometimes foreign actors in Bollywood come off as condescending but Alexx was great. I've always been fascinated by the process of dubbing for foreign actors. Most of the time it's frankly pretty crappy. Have you seen H20 yet? It's one of my movies in my to-watch list. I'm halfway through Sevanti Sevanti now. Decided to see it based on your review.

aham said...

First things first, filmigirl how on earth do you get time to write this in between watching movies and doing your daily stuff? I am amazed after reading this,extremely well written and enjoyable, havent seen any of Alexx's work but heard about the films he has done especially Urumi since its Santosh Sivan's film,have to watch it sometime.

Great read,waiting for more and kudos to you for writing such an in depth interview.

Filmi Girl said...

@S Here is the reply from Alexx: "I'm glad S likes my work in Jhansi Ki Rani - we didn't talk much about it, but the reach of television in india is far greater than film. Films tend to be treated as foreign niche cinema outside their target (linguistically defined) regions (i.e. a massive Malayalam Hit wont even make the paper outside Kerala and a tamil super hit will play longer in New Jersey than in Mumbai). TV appears less regional - at least thats how it seems to me. I constantly get emails and messages related to JKR and DLMH, even long after i've stopped playing significant roles in them. With film, its a massive bulk of feedback for a month or two and then it trickles off (still i prefer Film). Again to S - my hindi i terrible - but luckily i get my scripts for film well in advance. For TV, its incredibly hard, they come on the set just before the take. And for S once again - I dub all my own dialogues regardless of the language (and have always done all my own stunts- except once when my director wouldn't let me since, he so logically stated, "we have a lot more to shoot with you, Alexx…"(Vijay, Madrasapattinam, the clock tower breaking glass and falling sequence))."

S said...

Thanks filmigirl for asking my Alexx! I really didn't expect to get my question answered and it was really nice of him to reply! Interesting that he prefers film but understandable given the cultures of both industries. TV is so touch and go. It's impressive that he does his own dubbing and fortunate too. I thought he might because he was one of the few foreign actors whose lips corresponded with the words. Thanks again FG and Alexx! I'm sad that I had to stop watching JKR - got too sad towards the end.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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