In September 2008, Freida Pinto, along with a small coterie of Indian actors, arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival for the premiere of her new movie, Slumdog Millionaire. Its unveiling at Telluride the week before generated strong buzz, but not enough to ignite a storm of media interest in Canada. “There was a red carpet, one photographer, and one video camera. That’s it,” says Pinto, fondly recalling the simplicity of it all. “I thought, well, that was easy. Why was I so nervous?”
Slumdog Millionaire went on to win eight Academy Awards—including Best Picture—in 2009, becoming in the process an international phenomenon. The Dickensian fable of a Mumbai street kid who uses the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to reconnect with his true love (played by Pinto) made household names of its director, Danny Boyle, and its leads, Pinto and Dev Patel, her current boyfriend. “We were these wide-eyed babies, lost in a wonderland scenario. Danny said, ‘Enjoy this moment, because you might never get it back.’”
Two years have passed, and Pinto is back in Toronto. Looking like she just returned from a Beverly Hills shopping spree, the 26-year-old actor is clad in a gray Acne blazer, a black top from BCBG, and ash-gray jeans from Armani Exchange. She reclines on a sofa in a penthouse suite at Sutton Place, the hotel’s complimentary cotton slippers keeping her feet warm.
Beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows that surround us, Toronto glitters with city lights, but also with movie stars who are here to sell their work—and themselves. Pinto was especially busy this week trying to launch herself as a legitimate, working actor, but the festival publicity grind has left her sapped. She’s reluctant to leave the room, and cancels our dinner reservation at celebrity clubhouse Bistro 990 across the street.
Pinto debuted two films at the festival, Julian Schnabel’s Miral, in which she plays the title character, and Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, in which she stars as the exotic object of Josh Brolin’s extramarital desire. What was once, for her, a paparazzi ghost town has become a blitzkrieg of flashbulbs and screaming fans. The thought of her long flight home to India tomorrow doesn’t make matters easier.
Along with Pinto’s overnight success came a hectic traveling schedule, which means that she no longer spends much time in her hometown of Mumbai, where she still technically lives with her parents. Instead, she’s been crisscrossing the globe, shooting films—like the upcoming Planet of the Apes prequel, Rise of the Apes, in Vancouver—and falling in love with the cities where they’re shot. She talks about one day owning homes in Mumbai, London, New York, and Montreal (where she just wrapped Tarsem Singh’s Immortals). It’s a network of crash pads fit for the global star Pinto is positioning herself to become.
Pinto is currently breaking ground on a career she once worried would expire prematurely. “When your first film happens to be such a big success, there’s going to be pressure and expectations, and people are going to dissect you in a way that’s almost uncomfortable,” she says. Her accent oscillates between British, Indian, and American inflections, a colonial mishmash that leaves her sounding strangely scholarly. “I was worried people might dismiss me as someone who had 20 minutes in a film and now considers herself a big star. But it’s like, my god, I never asked for this.”
The reality is that, like all aspiring movie stars, this is precisely what she asked for. While the shock of instant fame was unexpected, Pinto has wanted a “life in the limelight” since she was young. With no formal training, the former model relied on her beauty and dedication to will herself through the casting rooms of an Indian film industry rife with nepotism and creaky depictions of women.
To help boost her confidence after the success of Slumdog, Pinto enrolled in a three-month acting boot camp in India. Her passion, she feared, was not enough. But her studies were nothing compared to the trial by fire she would undergo, courtesy of a gray-haired New York nebbish named Woody. “To have him directing you—it’s 30 years of learning, at least,” she says of her experience with Allen. “Okay, I wouldn’t say 30 years, because then I’d be comparing myself to Meryl Streep or Vanessa Redgrave. It’s more like three years, but you get the picture.” Although she was again cast as a mysterious love interest—this time as Dia, a woman who attracts the attention of a married Josh Brolin by plucking compositions on her guitar—the pressure of being in a Woody Allen film weighed on her. “I was doubtful I’d still be on the project after the second day,” she says. “But by the third day, it stopped affecting me. I was like, You know what? I’m an actor. I’m allowed to make mistakes. It’s all part of the process of learning the art.”
It was, however, Miral, a polarizing film about four Arab women and their harrowing experiences during the early decades of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which finally gave Pinto real confidence. “I don’t know where it came from, but it seeded itself within me and stayed in me the duration of the shoot,” she says. Schnabel, who has directed once-in-a-generation actors—Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp, among them—was amazed that Miral was only Pinto’s second film. “She worked as hard as anybody I’ve ever met,” he said from his home in Montauk, New York. “Johnny once said, ‘There’s nothing to it but to do it,’ and Freida is one of those actresses who does it.”
Critics, many of whom believe Miral tells the one-sided story of a two-sided conflict, have been quick to attack. In the film, Pinto plays a young, impressionable girl raised in the Arab Children’s House, a real-life orphanage founded by Palestinian humanitarian Hind Husseini. After witnessing atrocities carried out by the Israeli army, Miral falls in love with a Palestinian activist during the first intifada, before joining him in the struggle. When she read the script, which was adapted from the memoir of Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal—who also happens to live with Schnabel—Pinto knew the film would prove challenging. But as the Slumdog glow began to fade, Miral, which Pinto describes as a “representation of hope,” appeared to be exactly the kind of movie that would give her the chance to establish herself as a serious actor.
To her credit, Pinto swats away the negative reviews Miral is receiving—some of which are lobbed at her performance—with nonchalance. “Here’s the thing,” she says. “I’m never going to be entirely happy with a performance. I need to push myself in order to get better. I look at the negative criticism as constructively as possible. People are opinionated. I am opinionated. It’s human nature.” Perhaps anticipating that Miral’s middling reception won’t likely add up to the career-maker for which she was hoping, Pinto seems to mean it.
Shot directly after Slumdog, Miral marks the first time Pinto has made a film outside of India, and the experience of filming in the Middle East shattered some of the illusions she had carried over from a sheltered childhood in the suburbs of Mumbai. “I was brought up in a Catholic family and taught about Bethlehem. When I got to Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem, I expected to see beauty and mountains, exactly how it was described to me as a child,” she says, laughing at how her naïveté now sounds. “But when I got there, instead of seeing children born in mangers, I visited refugee camps and saw children born into poverty and sadness.” I tell Pinto about a pamphlet featuring her image and protesting Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which had been circulating outside the Toronto premiere. “Wow,” she says, pleasantly surprised. “That is exactly what we want the movie to do.”
Miral’s hot-button subject matter was not the only thing to which Pinto was drawn. As she puts it, one does not say no to Julian Schnabel. The Academy Award-nominated director and world-class painter invited Pinto to audition after seeing her in Slumdog. Schnabel was, he says, struck by her resemblance to Rula Jebreal. “When bad things happened to Freida in Slumdog Millionaire, I found myself getting very upset, like they were happening to Rula,” Schnabel says. He decided to schedule a screen test, with one caveat—it had to be shot by Danny Boyle. Despite being in the middle of his Slumdog victory lap, Boyle agreed. In a scene they shot, he played Miral’s dying father. “The way she looked at Danny told me that she loves her father very, very much,” Schnabel recalls. “The kindness that she showed was profound. I trust my intuition. I saw something in her, and I think I was right.” Boyle was equally impressed. “I could tell how much she had grown already as a performer,” he says, adding, “It obviously helps if you look like Freida.”
About those looks. Pinto has a face designed for close-ups, and although it’s without makeup for most of Miral, her beauty is still enough to make Helen of Troy look frumpy. “I needed somebody audiences would want to watch because her character was destined to make some questionable decisions. People had to care about her mistakes,” Schnabel says. But Pinto downplays her genetic luck, partly out of modesty, but most likely for fear of sounding ungrateful. When pressed, she’ll admit that she is not “unfortunate looking.”
Pinto is realistic about Hollywood’s superficial side, and the doors that were open to her because of it. She recently watched Salt simply to ogle Angelina Jolie, but also says she’d relish the chance to tackle a role like Charlize Theron’s Aileen Wuornos in Monster. Boyle insists that despite Pinto’s glamorous image, she is not consumed by her own looks. “I once worked with Cameron Diaz and she’s very similar,” he says. “You’re expecting women who look like that to be attached to the mirror the whole time. But Freida didn’t have any vanity at all.”
For all her symmetry, Pinto admits to a time when she felt unsure if she could find her niche in Hollywood, an industry known for overlooking minorities, especially Indians. “I guess I’ll take that as a compliment,” she says when I suggest that she’s the only current Indian actress who would be considered for a lead in a $90-million popcorn movie opposite James Franco. She tries to name others, but the best she can do is Archie Panjabi, the British actress who just won an Emmy for her supporting role on the CBS drama The Good Wife. “There are people who still focus on skin color, but most people don’t,” she says. In Rise of the Apes, she offers by way of example, the background of the primatologist she plays is as relevant as Franco’s hair color. “It didn’t really matter where she came from,” Pinto says. “She just needed to understand what she was meant to do.”
Pinto identifies herself with the global cinema, and isn’t terribly inclined to become a product of the movie factory on the West Coast. “My next film will be directed by a French man,” she says, referring to Jean-Jacques Annaud, who is scheduled to helm Black Thirst, a film set in the Arab states during the 1930s oil boom. Given India’s titanic film industry, does Pinto have any desire—or perhaps feel the need—to make a Bollywood movie? It’s a question that Indian reporters have fixated on since Pinto first became famous. “People in India wonder why I’m staying clear of Bollywood films,” she says. “I’m not staying clear of them, but there are some amazing films in India, made on a much smaller scale, that don’t get the same appreciation as the big Bollywood films, and I’ve never understood why. Those are the films that I want to be a part of, so I’m just waiting for something like that to come my way, and I’m telling you, I’m going to grab it with both hands.”
When I mention tabloids, a particularly unpleasant media niche, Pinto’s mouth tightens. “I don’t know how I could ever get a good night’s sleep after stripping someone of their dignity and writing things about them that are probably untrue,” she says, before jumping into a venomous rant that only seconds earlier seemed unlikely. Back when she was promoting Slumdog, Pinto was coerced by a reporter into revealing the end of her engagement to then-fiancé Rohan Antao. “I was new and an easy target, and they said it was going to be a quote about Slumdog Millionaire for the next day’s paper. I felt very betrayed.”
She understands why the public latched on to news of her romantic relationship with co-star Dev Patel, but the speculation—mostly surrounding their rumored engagement—was difficult. “Dev had such a problem trying to tell people that was not true,” she says, before deploying a stock answer: “I’ve decided not to answer stupidity with more stupidity.”
Despite the trappings of celebrity and the pressures associated with her still-nascent stardom, Pinto admits that there are perks that numb the trials and tribulations of being an in-demand princess of the cinema. “People work very hard their whole lives to get to this particular stage, so I’m not going to shy away from it. I’m going to enjoy it. It’s very difficult handling the pressure of being so recognized and being in the limelight, and at the same time having to deliver and perform.” She goes on, with a trace of childlike delight: “I used to look at the beautiful dresses in fashion magazines, put my finger on them and say, I’m going to have them one day. Now I’m like, it’s kind of easy to get those things.”
Photography by Richard Bernardin. Styling by Christopher Campbell. For a behind the scenes look at Freida in Toronto, head here.
Ed. Note: Miral‘s release date has been pushed back from November of 2010 to March 25, 2011.