Sunday, February 9, 2014

James Babson: Outsider in Kollywood (Vishwaroopam Special)

Kamal Hassan’s Vishwaroopam (2013) was a mass entertainer that told a story about terrorism and heroism. Rather than painting with the more typical cinematic terrorism shades of black and white, Kamal treated all his characters with compassion--even the non-desi ones. James Babson [check out his official site here] played FBI agent Tom Black, who works with “Wiz” (Kamal’s character) in order to bring down villain Rahul Bose’s evil plans. Although Agent Black doesn’t make an appearance in Vishwaroopam 2, with the upcoming release, now seemed as good a time as any to revisit the first one. (You can read my review of Vishwaroopam here if you want to refresh your memory.)

Listening to the recording of our interview again this past weekend, I was struck by just how much love James had for this project and for Kamal and I want to apologize to James and Kamal (and to you, dear readers) from the bottom of my heart for taking a year to put this interview together.

Consider this a promotion for Vishwaroopam 2 as my humble apology.

James is a wonderful storyteller and his impressions are so vivid that I’ll let him do most of the ‘talking.’ I started by asking him how he came to be involved with the film. “Well,” says James, “it was interesting because there was no audition process which is not common for me but my manager, who is also is a casting director, had worked with Jude Walko, the first AD on this film, slash actor in one scene--he was beheaded, slash jack of all trades. Apparently Kamal doesn’t like to have auditions. That’s what I’ve heard anyway. He tends to handpick his people. In this case, because it was set in New York City, he needed some gringos in there and so Jude put a feeler out to people he knew saying, ‘Hey, we need a couple of FBI guys’ and [my manager] submitted my photo and they said sure we’ll take a chance and that was it.”

“My manager calls me she’s like, ‘Hey could you be available to work in India in like two weeks.’ And I’m like, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ I’ve lived in LA for like five years and I’ve been acting for quite a while but, you know, I work at a bar, I’m still like grinding it out. So, I’m like of course I’ll go to India. I don’t even care what it is, I’ll go to india. I didn’t read a script; I didn’t know the plot; I didn’t know anything. I applied for a work visa and I got it the morning I flew out, so I’m sitting around all week on pins and needles going ‘What is going on...’”

“Right before I was set to depart my neighbor, a student, Manok, who is from Bangalore, was like, ‘Oh what are you up to?’ and I was like [faux-casually], ‘I’m going to India. I’m working with Kamal Hassan.’ And he’s like, ‘ARE YOU KIDDING ME!? That is like De Niro and Scorsese and Brando tucked into one! He’s like a hugely super star!’ And then I there I was. I got on a plane and I showed up in Chennai at one in the morning and it was just the craziest thing of all time. I literally didn’t have a script.”

And when did he meet hugely super star Kamal? “I met Kamal the first night I got there. I get off the plane and I get picked up and go straight to a movie theater where his daughter was in a film. I met them then at her premiere. And this was after the longest day of my life. It was totally bizarre. I get out the car and it’s pouring rain and there are hundreds of people outside screaming and trying to get in. I leave my suitcase in the van and I go up and I meet Kamal and I meet Jude really briefly and I sit down in the theater next to Kamal and his family and I watch this movie that I can’t understand for like hours on end and that was my introduction to India.”

[Note: He was either talking about 7aum Arivu or 3. I remember enjoying both but I can’t even imagine how confusing either would have been without subtitles and a working knowledge of masala.]

Talking about working in Chennai, James echoes what I’ve heard from other actors. There are a lot of people on set. A lot. “I had a costume fitting and it’s just a funny situation because for every one costume assistant you would have in LA you have ten in India. So the crews are just quadrupled because labor is cheap--is my guess--also it just gives an opportunity to be on set but it’s a lot of people. It was a little confusing but it was a trip.” But he also noticed some other things. “These guys that showed up to my hotel earlier, barefoot, like, ‘Hey we’re here to be your costume designer. Let’s try some clothes on and take some measurements.’ There were nuances to that that were truly interesting to me. You’ve got this man with no shoes on measuring you and then walking out he looks quite poor, you know, and that wouldn’t happen, probably, here. Just details like that, little cultural differences, were really interesting to me.”

What was his first day shooting like? “I had no script, like i said, and I barely had sides, and the sides that I had were in like Tamil and English. Obviously my stuff is in English but my cues are in Tamil and there was no translation and so I’m like, ‘Um, hey, nice to meet you, what’s this thing about?’” It turns out that the scene was the interrogation scene where Agent Tom Black tries to grill “Wiz” for information. “What’s funny is that interrogation scene was shot in an enclosed room. That was in India but it could have been shot anywhere. It just happened that that was their schedule, you know, ‘We’re doing these scenes in India so we’ll be flying you out to do them.’ I was thankful, actually, in hindsight that I got to go to India, but it was not location based at all, it was just a room. But it was wild!”

“My friend Manuk gave me the whole low-down. He’s like, ‘It’s like going to Mars. I mean for you.’ And it was. Totally, totally alien to me. Maybe it’s because it’s the first time in my life where I was a clear minority. I hadn’t experience that in my travels or in my life. Ever. And so that really alone throws you off. And once people understand that you’re working with Kamal Hassan, they treat you like you are royal. There is a definite shift. And Ralis Khan, who did the make-up is American and from LA and he had worked with Kamal-sir a few times and he kind of helped me out and ease into the weirdness.”

What about Kamal as a director? “He lets you do your thing. There’s not a lot of talking or breakdown.” So, he trusts his actors? “Absolutely, which is so interesting because we don’t know each other and he’d never seen me act. Ever. I mean, he looked at a film reel of mine, maybe but he just assumed I would do it well and that’s it. There’s an assumption that you know what you’re doing, that you do it all the time, and that you’re good at it. And that you enjoy it. So, therefore, you just do your thing and if he doesn’t like it, we’ll take it again but he never once said anything like, ‘This isn’t working.’”

“But he was micromanaging himself and the shot. I mean, he has just an amazing ability to see a shot, set up a shot right away, and get the shots that he needs. He’ll just… it’s just work. You’re just working here. You’re just grinding through it. You are on this mission to solve this puzzle. That’s all this stuff really is, putting pieces of the puzzle together. He’s a craftsman doing his bit and there wasn’t a lot of analysis. Obviously for some of the more emotional scenes and moments between him and Pooja [Kumar] they took a different care with but he wanted me to be as harsh as I could with him and just tell my little side of the story. There was a lot of trust there, which I appreciated.”

“[Vishwaroopam] was just an absolute ball to do. It was amazing watching him work. I had never worked on a film where the director was a star. That’s unique in and of itself and watching him solve these problems and just effortlessly… I will probably never again have an opportunity to work with an actor who’s done over 200 films starting from the age of 7. It’s absolutely unique. And this guy’s been just working. Solid. His whole life. And that’s a universal fact.”

As an outsider in Indian film, did the controversy surrounding the film’s release surprise him at all? “I thought it was fairly innocuous. I mean it’s a movie; he’s not out to get anybody. So, I was a little surprised by it. I get the sense that [controversy happens] when you depict jihadis in any way, I mean, it could even be a straight up documentary. Certain Muslim groups have a real major issue about image. I mean, most groups are particular of their image, especially in that culture. You know, at first part of me was thinking this is going to be good publicity for him because surely if it's going to be banned it will only be for a week and they'll release it and everything's going to be fine. And then I was like, wow this is deeper than that and it's a freedom of speech issue and it's a financial issue. This is his money and this could be…” James trails off before collecting his thoughts. “I hope that in the end people don't pirate it. I mean, they will but hopefully most people want to go support it so he can make his money and work again. I saw a speech he had given online it was really emotional and he was sad to see.”

“It's hard to know but ultimately--universally--I think the younger generation of actors are coming out and saying, ‘We want freedom of speech! We want the right to make a film!’ [Vishwaroopam] is already heavily censored. I said the word, 'ass' and I said the word 'damn' and they had to edit that out.” Filmi Girl laughs quite hard at that. “Yeah! They had to ADR that and it was as clean as could be. And there’s an element of compassion there and [Kamal’s character] has a conscience. It’s like he said in an interview, ‘Look, I cannot depict jihadis as white dudes from America. I have to depict them as they are in relation to the causes they believe in.’ Of course, it’s superficial to a degree because it’s a film and you have to tell the story quickly but it’s not derisive i think at all.”

After all of this, would he do another Indian film? “You know I talked to Kamal and was like, 'Hey, how about part 2? Can we open up in a village in Scotland at like an argyle shop and I get the call that I have to run to india.” Agent Tom Black is very fond of an argyle print. “I’m like the literary division of the FBI or something!” But then he gets serious. “Look at it this way, any time you’re thrown into a different culture--I don't care where you're going--there's an upheaval. And I will always be changed by this experience. It was way less about the acting in the film or even the role I played. But I loved being with Kamal and the actors. Shekar Kapur, to work with him is amazing.”

“Just meeting Kamal Hassan, working alongside him, learning from him, watching him work, learning about his legacy, knowing that I was a part of something really special, having the opportunity to work in a foreign country, completely out of my element, completely alien to me, and getting the opportunity to spend a couple of days taking really great photos around chennai on my own completely, not even having a map of where I was going. It was a wonderful experience overall for me.”

“I’m kind of off Twitter right now but I was on Twitter for a minute and I made a comment about Vishwaroopam and suddenly I have like 200 Indian followers. I got three e-mails this morning like, ‘Thank you, sir.' People after the premiere of the film in LA were thanking me. I'm not trying to downplay myself at all, but these guys are coming up to me and thanking me for being a part of Kamal's work because they admire him so much that for me to be a part of that helps Kamal elevate himself to another level. Because we're all in it together. I thought that was really interesting--they were thanking me for being a part of his project and his world.”

But Agent Tom Black did get some memorable lines, even if his character was a bit two dimensional. “My friends have been texting me for the last three days: ‘Dammit, there's a school nearby’ and ‘Thank god that's over.’ With these kinds of lines you could be Laurence Olivier times a thousand and there's no way you're going to pull those off. It's like, 'Can we improvise this a little bit?’ But you know they write these characters really two dimensional in a lot of ways because they want the focus on Kamal and their people. A lot of the secondary characters are just functionary characters, you know?”

“And sometimes they write Americans to be a little dumb. They're not that clever because he's the clever guy who’s going to solve everything, you know what i mean?” Filmi Girl does know what he means. “The reality is the FBI would absolutely be totally on the case, you know, a terrorist attack, not to say that there wouldn't be problems. So, there is a little bit of a stereotyping going on there, which is totally interesting to me. An American stereotype in an indian film. I've never done an Indian film, I don't really watch Indian films, so it was interesting to see the kind of two dimensional stereotype--not in a bad way but the same way we [Americans] have completely two dimensional ideas of people from India.”

Agent Tom Black is basically the equivalent of an Indian IT guy on an episode of CSI. “Yeah, pretty much,” James agress. “We've got some facts and we're doing our analysis but it's not quite adding up and then this guy comes in and says, ‘That's because you're not doing xyz.’ Everyone's running around saying, 'How the hell do we catch these guys' and the star, whether it’s Monk or Jack Bauer says, 'Well here's what you gotta do.' And then he goes and does it. That's a kind of typical hero movie where you're just not quite as bright as the rest of them.”

“My friend just worked on a soap for a couple of weeks and I have to say that I compare [these two dimensional characters] to soap opera work. There's an element that's funny but you can't really be snarky about it or find a way out of the earnestness. But I think any film you do, any genre you do as an actor is interesting because you have to learn the language and tell it that way and there you go. I thought Miles Anderson had a really nice part. He played Dawkins and he had a nice subtly to him. I thought that's a good example of making a nice nuanced choice with very little do.”

“But I look at [some of Agent Black’s lines] and laugh because it is what it is. You have to laugh at it because there's no way around it, if this is what you gotta do. But it was fun. We had a lot of fun with it. It's part of the genre. There's a soap opera element, a slapstick element, straight up action-thriller. That threw my friends off so much because they were like, 'What the hell genre is this?’ It's everything. These folks want to go to the movie, bring grandma, bring some food, they want to see singing-dancing, slapstick comedy, drama, a little bit of sex, and have an intermission, have lunch and they want to beat the heat and stay in the air conditioner all day. It's a different deal. In America we're so into 'naturalism' and we're so.. western culture they're looking for that super-sincerity sometimes that isn't necessarily the case in India, they want other things. Kamal was like, ‘There have to elements of dance in this movie.’ That's just the way it is.”

“I know I'm being funny--us comedians can be smartasses--but there were some really wonderful moments [in Vishwaroopam.] One of the scenes was cut from the interrogation scene but [Kamal] and I had some nice moments together, actually. It was a sincere moment when I want to know what the hell is going on and he isn't revealing anything to me and I have this fear that this city that I work in and live in is going to be destroyed. And so even in the action elements, there's a lot of sincerity. And I thought there were some nice acting moments throughout. Andrea didn't have much to do but she's got a very cool demeanor and Pooja was great. And it was fun being at the premiere to see Kamal. It was a mad house. It was a. Mad. House.”

“The premiere was hectic and we didn't really…” James pauses as tries to figure out how to describe the difference between Kamal Hassan, celebrity and the Kamal Hassan he worked with. “Kamal had the best fucking stories. He was so funny and he just loves what he does and the last time he was in town, we were in Koreatown sitting in this little restaurant, just talking for a couple hours. That's how it was in Michigan and New York, too. We'd sit at restaurants and just chat and have long talks. And then when I saw him at the premiere it was like, 'Wow, this is his real life, actually. It's full of cameras and craziness and freaky fans and people who are willing to die for him.’ It’s totally strange for us Westerners because George Clooney is… you're going to get a mad house and girls screaming and stuff like that but not to this degree.”

Well, we had the Beatles. “Yeah, but this never ends for him. I don't know if you've seen Kamal's work before or read into how he's sort of viewed there but it is wild. We came off set in India--we were shooting the interrogation scene at a call center in Chennai, an AT&T kind of thing--and we went outside for a minute and there were like hundreds of people outside trying to see him. I mean, it's crazy.”

“And it was sad, in a funny kind of way, for me because I didn't really get a chance to chat with him this time around or even Pooja. I saw that there was kind of a movie star element going on there that I couldn't really touch. We'd had such intimate chats over the months we'd worked together but I saw this star doing his thing and he looked at me like, 'Hey, I'll see you next time but maybe not.' You know? And in my own private mind it kind of made sense to me, in a way, why he seemed so open with me. He probably enjoys talking to people who don't really know who he is, to just have a really nice chat about things without any sort of sycophantic thing going on. No ass kissing going on.”

“I mean, I loved being able to act with him. What a pleasure. What a real gift that was. We just had a fantastic report with each other and that was the most fun. I mean, the acting was a lot of fun, too, but it was really enjoyable just to chat with him and pick his brain. He's so well read and he knows so much. He's like an encyclopedia. You don't have a chance to meet people like this, in everyday life, who have done that much work and are that talented. It's incredibly rare. I can't even think of a comparison in the States, like a true comparison.”

I have to say that I was surprised and delighted to hear such a passion for acting and such a deep appreciation of other cultures while talking to James about playing Agent Tom Black. How did he a guy from Ohio end up working with Kamal Hassan? “I started acting in high school. I went to an all guys school and the only way to really meet women was to do plays. We had girls audition from all over the city! Doug Montgomery, my theater director, was just an amazing guy and I fell in love with acting. I always liked it as a kid but he just masculinized it for me, especially being at a boys' school, it kind of needed that. I wouldn't go as far as to say it was macho, but it was like, 'Be real; Be truthful; Be honest. Telling a story with compassion and clarity is a masculine thing.’ I got a lot of grief for doing plays because everybody else is doing football or whatever and [that masculine ideal] helped me just a little bit. It's a life long quest as an actor to do that.”

From Ohio, James went to Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh. “It's a very intense place. It's not for everybody but going to place like Carnegie will weed out those who can't hack it and those who can, at least at that age. So, I got through that and then reality hit and I’m 21 and living in New York. I wanted to do theater. I had no desire to do film. It's like a martial art to me, theater acting. It’s a place to work and fine tune something. You have five weeks of rehearsal to get it into your body. In films… I mean I didn't even get a script [for Vishwaroopam] and I'm acting with this man who's a legend in India but I was just going with it. There's something to be said for just jumping in.”

From New York to Ireland and eventually, James landed in Prague, which has become a cheap place for Hollywood to film in recent years. “I stayed there for like five years. I was in dozens of films, dozens of commercials, lots of voice over work. I basically used Prague as a grad school for filmmaking. I got to work with [Roman] Polanski and [Guillermo] del Toro and I really got to learn what I was up to. And now I've been in LA for six years and I'm still at it. It's been a real wake up call.”

“It felt like this is like the end of the rainbow. This is where actors come to die or something. That sounds terrible but in my mind LA had been like this golden place. You know, ‘If this doesn't work out, there's always Hollywood, California.’ But you get here and it's like 'This is it?' You have to get very internal with your idea of success. It took me a long time to realize that no matter where you live, success is relative. All I want to do now is just make myself proud. That's all I can do. Whether its two lines in a TV show or a supporting role in an Indian movie.”

“I just got back from Prague, where I spent seven weeks on a film and now I'm working at the the door at a music venue. That's a humbling experience--I’m literally shooting in 12th century castles with movie stars on horseback for months and now i'm working at the door, checking IDs and taking money. But it's all part of it, it is what it is, it's life.”

Filmi Girl finds this all very inspirational. “So, it's been fun but I would never recommend doing this. It's just a totally mad way of living. You never know what's around the corner. You have roll with the bad and the good, the great performances and the crappy ones. In a nutshell, that’s my journey. It's not a logical endeavor, it's one of passion and madness. For whatever reason, we want to see ourselves reflected on screen or on stage. As human beings we demand to see ourselves represented and that's what the actor does and that's why we do this stuff.”

I want to wish James the very best of luck in the future! I’m sorry Agent Tom Black didn’t get called from the argyle store in Glasgow to do Vishwaroopam 2 but I hope some casting director in Chennai or Hyderabad or Mumbai or Bangalore is reading this and will keep James in mind for any roles that need a white guy.

Vishwaroopam is out now on DVD and Vishwaroopam 2 should be hitting screens in early March, although that date may change.

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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