Phaldut Sharma has the kind of delightful laugh that takes over his entire body. We are talking about the actor’s role in Alfonso Cuarón’s box-office success Gravity and I am suddenly very glad he suggested we do the interview over Skype. Right now I can see from the screen that Sharma is hunched over his laptop at his parents’ home in Wales, shaking with laughter. Behind him sit his two parents on matching easy chairs. It is a pleasant sight. He navigates the screen so that I can wave at them. They wave back.
I had just asked Sharma whether he saw Aziz Ansari tweet about Sharma’s role as the happy-go-lucky astronaut in the film. He hadn’t, but asks me to read him the tweet. I do. It reads, “Loved Gravity but disappointed I didn’t even get to audition for the role of the goofy Indian astronaut.” Sharma finally stops laughing and tells me, “I love Aziz. I was just watching him a couple of days ago doing the James Franco Roast. That’s a very funny tweet. I’ll have to reply to him.”
The Casting Call
Two years ago, Sharma received a request from Alfonso Cuarón’s people to come in and read at a preliminary voice audition for a role in Gravity. At that point, the film was only a 20-page pitch, recalls the actor. A year later, he was called back to the formal audition. Sharma got the part, the role of a fellow astronaut, “Shariff.” He was given no last name. Aside from Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, he was the only other actor shown during the 91-minute film. The film wasn’t the first time Sharma had worked with Cuarón, he’d appeared in a small part for the director’s 2006 release, Children of Men.
He was familiar with the director’s exacting standards. “Alfonso was there for all parts of the film – including voiceovers and special effects,” he recalls. “He always has his hands in all aspects of the production of a film.” Sharma’s role initially required him to go to a recording studio. Afterwards, he was asked to come in so the film crew could tape the physical part of his role. He entered the studio to a memorable scene. “I popped in and saw Sandra Bullock playing her part and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Sandra was performing a choreographed piece of movement. She looked like she was on the monitor spilling out into mid-air. I’ve never seen a film crew look so dumbfounded.”
Even that early in the filmmaking process, Sharma recalls hearing whispers of Gravity’s possible success. “People on the set were saying, “This is going to change the way people use 3D technology in films,” he recalls. “ They had literally built gadgets for this film that had never before existed in moviemaking. There was a sense that the reaction to this film’s release would be similar historically to what happen when the talkies came along.”
On Playing “Shariff”
Of his own character, Sharma was told little by Cuarón or anyone else in the film. “Even I wanted to know how the character fit into the film and his purpose,” he remembers. “But it was all very confidential — on a need-to-know basis. It was a real weird, unique gig.”
After the film’s release in America, many viewers, including celebrity Aasif Mandvi, noted Sharma’s song in the film’s opening sequence. While merrily bouncing around space, his character, “Sharrif,” sings a refrain from a classic Bollywood song, “Mera Joota Hai Japani” from the film, Shree 420. “Mera joota hai Japani, Yeh patloon Englishtani/ Sar pe laal topi Roosi, Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani,” sings the character in Hindi. Translated into English, it means “My shoes are Japanese, my pants are English-style/ The cap on my head is Russian, but my heart is Indian.”
But Sharma told me that initially, he was given another Bollywood song by Gravity producers. “When we were first working off the 20-page pitch they gave me a romantic Bollywood song,” he tells me. “I can’t remember the name. It was very swooshy and melodic, the kind that has a swelling symphony in the background. “But I don’t know. I felt it wasn’t quite right. Then this song [“Mera Joota Hai Japani”] popped into my head.”
A professional dancer and singer, Sharma decided to change the song on his own. “Honestly, I’ve always wanted to do a slow, jazzy tap dance to this particular song. A Fred Astaire version if you will,” he says, laughing. “What I liked about this role is that this Shariff guy has a real clown nature about him. He’s quite childlike and playful.
Sharma’s song choice was also influenced by the environment in which Gravity takes place. Outer space. “I loved the idea that this character is seeing this beautiful view, Earth below him, and seeing this multicultural song. I found the song quite sweet. And also of course – it’s a classic. Who wouldn’t sing it in space?”
I ask him if he would ever go to space after seeing the film. “Oh my god, yes. There’s some things you have to say “yes” to. Surely! Why not? You saw the film, right?”
“Yes, I did, but…it was a scary movie,” I argue.
“But I’m an idiot,” he says, laughing some more. “I love adventure. I would love to go to space.”
“The Brown Guy Dies!”
I asked him about the controversy surrounding his role. Some viewers pointed out on Twitter and in Indian newspapers that Sharma’s character, “Sharrif,” dies minutes into the opening and remains in the background to the characters of Clooney and Bullock. His face is not even shown fully until his death. And that too, in a photograph. Was he the token minority who is killed off early in the film, I ask him.
He pauses thoughtfully. “That is a definite train of thought that is out there,” he says, drumming his fingers together. “And it stems from the blacksploitation movement, where the black guy was always the first one to get killed. It’s certainly very much there in American movies and British ones.” But Sharma suggests the American entertainment industry has made progressive leaps in their use of minority actors. “In America, you see so many more Asian faces in sitcoms,” he says, “For example the headmaster in Glee. So I don’t think that’s what my role was at all about.”
“I don’t think that my character was filling a particular quota. But I understand why that mentality would be there. There’s always going to be that kneejerk reaction, “The brown guy dies!” he yells out playfully.
On Life After Gravity
Shrarma’s own parents have yet to see Gravity, which releases at the end of November in England. “My dad keeps looking at the trailers on the talk shows and he keeps saying “Where are you?” and I’m pausing it and saying “That. There.” He loves reading my name alongside Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. It’s very sweet and funny.” Sharma’s mother is less impressed. “My dad keeps calling my mum every time she sees my name and she says. “I know everything about him, what can they write him about that I don’t know.” At this point, Sharma’s mother personally thanks me for the piece I did on him a few weeks ago. I can now see where the actor gets his charm.
This November, Sharma wraps his long running role on BBC’s EastEnders. Afterwards, he plans to fly to a yoga ashram in Tamil Nadu, India that he has been attending for the last seven years. “I need to just discombobulate and recalibrate,” he says. But Sharma has no plans to rest easy. After he returns back to Wales, he’ll be hard at work on his passion project, I Gotta Be Me: A Gonzo Documentary. For the last seven years, Sharma has been working on a film about his infiltration of a Rat Pack impersonators group in Cyprus, where he adopts the role of Sammy Davis Jr. “I’m playing a fictional character of myself, but it’s all real-life,” says Sharma. “It’s all about identity. A British Asian guy playing an African American Puerto Rican Jew. We explore ideas of success and celebrity.”
I ask Sharma if he has any final thoughts. He does.
“Can I tell people just to be good to each other?” he asks. “Can everyone just calm down and be good to each other.” You heard the man.