Saturday, May 7, 2011

Conan Stevens: Outsider In Bollywood Part 5

This is the fifth and final part of a series of interviews with non-Indian actors who have appeared in Bollywood films. 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 ditched Angel to romance Ranbir Kapoor in Raajneeti, please click here, for part three with Australian actor Harry Key who went from extra to leading villain, please click here, and for part four with Alexx O'Nell who gave Arya a good fight in Madrasapattinam, please click here.

I will continue to try to secure interviews with non-Indian actors and hopefully I will be able to add to this series in the future. If you enjoyed it, please leave a comment telling me what you liked or who you would like to hear from in the future.

As we have discovered in this series, non-Indian actors are often asked to play the antagonists to the hero in Bollywood films. Since a hero’s worth is measured up against the enemies he defeats, smart filmmakers will cast strong, powerful actors to square off against their heros - whether it’s in the boxing ring (Jonnie Louis Brown) or facing the business end of a British officer’s sword (Harry Key and Alexx O’Nell).

Well, 7-foot tall Australian actor/scriptwriter/professional wrestler Conan Stevens [] took strong and powerful to a whole other level in Bollywood films Drona, where he squared off against Abhishek Bachchan, and Chandni Chowk to China, which saw him face down India’s no. 1 action hero, Akshay Kumar. Conan, who can currently be seen in HBO’s smash hit mini-series Game of Thrones as Ser Gregor Clegane, took some time from his busy schedule to share some of his experiences working in Bollywood.

To make it in the Indian film industry, a non-Indian actor needs to be flexible and he or she needs what we Americans call
game. And Conan certainly has both those qualities in spades - he was his school’s chess champion and then his University’s beer drinking champion, performed modern ballet at the Sydney Opera House while he was the Australian Professional Wrestling champion. After a nerve injury sidelined dreams of a career in wrestling, Conan ventured into acting, making his name in Thailand. The action-oriented cinema of South-east Asia was a perfect fit for the muscular Conan and he appeared in a number of Thai films before landing the role of the Asura (demon) in Drona.

So, what did Conan think of Bollywood before working in the industry? Did he have any concept of what it was? “I had been to India before to film a
Mirinda softdrink TV commercial in Delhi in the late 1990s and I had the pleasure of staying in a hotel ‘like a 4 star’ for several days on either side of the shoot. There was really nothing for me to do except watch TV and try the various Indian foods on offer from the menu. [Note: that sounds amazing - FG] I specifically remember the same four actors in three different movies played one after the other on TV with essentially the same script - a mad rush to each get married, of course, with lots of singing and dancing in between. Unfortunately, that was my only experience with Indian film before I was contacted for Drona.”

Bored Australian actors in Delhi aren’t the only ones who find those race-to-the-wedding films tedious. In 2007, director Goldie Behl was cooking up something the likes of which had never been seen before in Bollywood - a fantasy adventure film rooted in both Indian culture and global fantasy tropes, containing mystic villages, evil puppets, magic rose petals, and an evil demon.
Drona was an ambitious film with an all-star cast. Abhishek Bachchan, beloved industry son, played the titular hero. His mother Jaya Bhadhuri made a rare return to the silver screen to play Drona’s mother. Former Miss World Priyanka Chopra was Drona’s love interest and critically acclaimed actor Kay Kay Menon took on the role of the main villain. Conan plays a demon summoned by Kay Kay Menon’s villain to hunt down Drona.

The film was poorly received by critics at the time but has since developed a cult following among Bollywood fans. [See here and here for the fan take on the film.]

[Conan getting his demon make-up touched up!]

It only makes sense that the oddball film found a perfect fit for the demon Asura in oddball Conan Stevens. “For
Drona I was contacted via the Internet,” he explains. “ I did not audition. I think my past experience and my showreel, which supported my experience, showed that I could do what was needed in this film, as the role was not very large. As I was living in Asia at the time, I think that I quoted significantly cheaper than the (US based) competition, that probably factored in, too.”

The importance of the film sunk in slowly. “ I was staying in Bangkok, Thailand at the time. Before leaving I had to get measurements taken for my costume. I went to a local Indian tailor who let me know who Abhishek was, and
more so let me know who his father, Amitabh is. So I had a fairly good idea that Abhishek was a major star.”

Even after living in Thailand, arriving in Mumbai was a bit of a shock. “What surprised me most about India was how genuinely friendly strangers were to me. Even at the Thai embassy getting a new Visa to re-enter Thailand, Indian visa agents went out of their way to help me for free, everywhere I went people where just helpful. But then again maybe they thought I was lost, I have a habit of getting to new places and just walking off in random directions seeing how things really are in the city I am visiting. I almost never visit 'tourist' areas and am almost always the only foreigner in sight.”

But there were some familiar aspects. Conan explains that he saw “how heavily Thai and Cambodian culture are influenced by India. Not just the religion but also the clothing, the music, the traditional dance, so many aspects. My girlfriend at the time was Khmer so when I got home after filming it was funny to see her in Indian style clothing! Though she, of course, maintained that it was Khmer style clothing.”

Once in Mumbai Conan took the opportunity to check out how films had changed since those days spent watching TV at the Delhi hotel. The film he went to see?
Om Shanti Om. “It remains one of my favourite movies ever. In fact, it is one of the very few movies that I have watched repeatedly, and is probably the only romantic film I have watched more than once.” That is high praise indeed for the Shahrukh Khan starrer!

Om Shanti Om is a world apart from the epic swirl of Drona. What was it like meeing Abhishek after all that build-up? “Working with Abhishek was a pleasure,” says Conan. The Junior B’s easy going nature shone through. “He came up and introduced himself on set and I must say his costume at the time made him look almost regal so it was nice to meet him as a 'normal' person with a job to do.”

[The mystical village in Drona... behind the scenes!]

[Unusual art direction made the village set seem otherworldly.]

“The set of Drona that I worked on was actually in Film City, so that was a great treat. Seeing a true Indian set up close and personal was also amazing - the amount of work and detail that went into each set was unbelievable. What was more sad though was seeing these great sets built up quickly to make these fantastic places come real then three days later just seeing a pile of lumber and trash where this whole other world had been alive just days before.”

[The demon make-up in progress. Not so scary... yet!]

English was the main language on set and Conan had no problems communicating with the cast and crew. “In fact, it was far less of a problem than working on Thai movies at 'home', where my Thai falls far short of being fluent!” And his Thai experiences came in handy again when faced with India’s famous spicy curries. “There was one funny moment when the Production staff first met me and invited me to a traditional Indian lunch with lots of different foods laid out on the table. Being a part of the Commonwealth I am reasonably familiar with curries, but this was special. As I tucked in several of the production staff watched me, after a few minutes one fellow said, ‘Don't you find it hot?’ My reply, much to the surprise of several present, ‘It's quite mild actually.’ I have to say that Thai culture has been influenced by India, but in the case of food the influence is more Chinese, except for one thing - spice - and with this the Thais followed India but went overboard - wayyyy overboard.”

[Conan enjoying a (spicy!) curry, in make-up.]

Conan has kind words for the whole crew. “[Director Goldie Behl] was an absolute gentleman, very understanding and very easy to follow his directions and to work with. I would not hesitate to work with either of them again.” Abhi-baby, the ball is in your court!

Chandni Chowk to China [a favorite of Filmi Girl’s] was Conan’s second Bollywood project. This big-budget kung-fu film follows the hapless Sidhu (Akshay Kumar) as fate - and a magic potato - take him from India to China, where he falls in love, finds his true strength, and saves a village from an evil villian. Conan plays a henchman named Joey.

[Hero Akshay Kumar actually was a chef for a time!]

Drona, which was shot in Mumbai, CC2C filmed in Bangkok and Conan was personally asked to come audition. As he tells it, “Waiting to audition I heard the other people trying out before me yelling and screaming loudly, just vague yelling, no words. When it was my turn to audition they said they wanted me to yell loudly. I asked, ‘Why? What am I yelling at?’ Apparently, I was the only one to ask this question and they told me some guy was trying to get into a nightclub and I was stopping him.”

“With 9 years Professional Wrestling under my belt, I was quite comfortable with improvised acting techniques and made up a whole story on the go and acted it out. And I had worked at troublesome nightclubs for about 10 years previously and was fairly confident that my acting was good enough for what was asked of me. As you can imagine, come time for the Casting Director to review the auditions there were a bunch of guys screaming incoherently and me acting out a scene with appropriate yelling and much quieter threats.”

Obviously, the Casting Director made the right choice. “I had a much bigger part in
CC2C, says Conan. “So I was on set a lot more and got to work with Gordon Liu and, more importantly for me, I got to work with the Hong Kong stunt team headed up by Dee Dee, part of Yuen Woo Pings stunt team, which later helped me get a role in the Chinese movie True Legend directed by Yuen Woo Ping. Also, I had a much longer and more intricate fight scene with Akshay Kumar, who coincidentally studied martial arts in Bangkok before he was an actor.”

[Conan, Gordan Lieu, and a lucky little baby!]

[Conan faces Akshay Kumar and Roger Yuan for an unusual fight!]

And the question everybody wants the answer to - what’s it like facing off against the
Khiladi? “The fight I did with Akshay was more comedic than serious,” says Conan. “He was fighting as a puppet of martial arts master so he did not get a chance to display many of his skills.” Well, he may not have exchanged tips with Akshay but Conan did chat with the “tall, blonde, and beautiful” English gymnast who was training the Khiladi. Conan recounts a funny story about the pair, “In a hotel in China, the staff knew that famous actors were staying. When [the gymnast] walked in with Akshay, they assumed she was the star and handed Akshay a camera and asked him to take photos of the staff with her. Some of the Indian crew looked on in horror at this faux pas while Akshay just smiled a huge smile and took some photos for them.”

As Filmi Girl has heard from countless other industry insiders, Akshay Kumar is a true professional and a very kind soul. Conan also shares this story. “In Thailand, I overheard [Akshay] dealing with a problem staff member. He approached the situation so politely and spoke so well, that to this day I remember the way he presented himself and try to hold myself to that high level when dealing with problems on set. He has become a role model in that regard for me.”

[Aw... Joey's not that bad when you get to know him!]

When Filmi Girl asks about inspiration for playing a Bollywood baddie, one name pops up - Bob Christo. “I do not only know
of Bob Christo, when I first decided to base myself in Bangkok to pursue my acting career, I spoke to him about working in Indian film! I am sorry to hear he has passed away, even though I did not know him personally. I was introduced by a mutual friend and Bob was more than willing to help in any way that he could when I came to India.”

Conan is philosophical about his career of playing the evil Bollywood whitey. “Working in Thai films before I worked in Indian film had well and truly prepared me to play the evil, white guy. In fact, in Western films I play
exactly the same role so nothing much changes for me.” The 7-foot tall ex-wrestler is clearly a threatening on-screen presence in any language! “I just thought of something - for CC2C I must have been the ultimate bad white guy then as I played an albino!”

Chandni Chowk To China was torn apart by critics in the West, as are many Bollywood and other popular Asian films. The cultural divide is so deep and the acting styles are so different that to transition from one style of cinema to the other is something very few actors manage to do. Conan, who will be appearing in the English-language HBO mini-series Game of Thrones, has some insight into the culture clash. “Many Westerners just blow off my experience as ‘just Asian movies.’ They do not understand the differences in the cultures and the aims of the movies. Westerners are too protected and too safe in their lives, so they want some danger and gritty realism in their movies. In Asia, reality is often too close and not comfortable; people want an escape for the duration of the movie.”

It’s an excellent point and one that many Western film critics seem to be unable to grasp.

Conan also thinks
CC2C was misunderstood. “CC2C is often labelled as a flop but I think that would be a rather narrow, audience type view. This is a business and the film was Warner Bros first foray into Indian cinema. [CC2C was] more an experiment, the reasonably massive International cinema release of a Hindi language film. It was shown all over the world.”

“In my opinion, this was an attempt by Warner Bros to gauge the interest by NRI's [Non-Resident Indians] in Hindi cinema in their new home countries. Warner Bros was testing the size of the potential market. Remember that India might be a massive film market but NRI's with Western incomes could produce a bigger return on investment if that market could be targeted properly, thus making a Hindi film less of a risk to make and potentially a lot more profitable. I judge that if Warner Bros got this market information then the movie would be a success to them as they would be planning long term strategies, not trying for one hit wonders.”

And, perceived flop or not, that big budget Bollywood experience did count for something when
Game of Thrones came up. “I think the more respected heads in the industry do see it as reputable and useful experience,” says Conan. “My feelings are, that having worked my way to work in some top films in Thailand then moved across to work in some of the top films in India and China then it would be hard for the serious people not to recognise this as an accomplishment in itself.”

“The Producers and Directors are not only interested in your acting ability but your experience and time spent on a movie set. Inexperienced people can cause unexpected problems as they are not used to working on a movie, believe me many times it is not fun at all. So, I seriously do believe that my work in Indian film helped me secure the role, or at least an audition, in
Game of Thrones. Then I used Game of Thrones to get me into an audition for my next film that will be announced soon. Each previous film should provide a platform to continue to move upwards in your career if you are serious about it.”

I want to thank Conan Stevens for taking the time from his busy schedule to answer my questions!

For more information on Conan and his work, I would encourage you to check out his very cool
website and read his always fun and insightful blog. (I suggest taking a peak at this entry!) He will be announcing an exciting new role soon, so do go check it out!

(All photos used with permission from Conan Stevens - please don't repost them.)

1 comment:

S said...

Again, great interview FG! Unfortunately I haven't seen any of Conan's work but he seems to be a very thoughtful and hardworking actor. Sad that this series is getting over but I am looking forward to more great stuff in your blog. Are you participating in Madhuri-week?

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