Surendra was face-to-face with a Siberian tiger. The overwhelming smell of urine — how tigers mark their territory — hit him first. He stood watching, both captivated and terrified, as the beast crouched over a slab of raw meat. Every few bites, Surendra caught a glimpse of giant teeth.
As an actor, Surendra was used to getting into character, but this was way different than prepping to play Kevin Gnapoor, the mathlete in Mean Girls. Rapping at a talent show may be nerve-wracking, but there's no rehearsal for looking a tiger straight in the eyes.
Yet this was precisely the skill Surendra would need to draw on for his Life of Pi audition. In the 2012 film adaptation, Pi, the young protagonist, gets lost at sea with a tiger. But more importantly to Surendra, Pi also defies Hollywood stereotypes for an actor with brown skin. After years of reading for geeks and terrorists, the young actor recently cast opposite Lindsay Lohan was convinced this was the game-changing role he was born to play.
He was wrong.
But Surendra didn't know disappointment was looming. For the next six years, he transformed his real life to match Pi's fictional one. Getting up close and personal with a tiger at his local Toronto zoo, yes, but also setting off on an adventure that would take him across the world to Pi's hometown of Pondicherry, India. He worked tirelessly hoping to nab the role, even developing a correspondence with the book's author, Yann Martel.
But Surendra never even got a formal tryout. How could this happen? Let's back up for a second.
When I sit down with Surendra to talk about life post–Mean Girls, he explains how he fell in love with Pi while reading Martel's novel on set.
"I was a huge fan of big, epic movies [with] the quintessential American hero," Surendra told me, citing Lawrence of Arabia and Out of Africa as examples. "They go on a journey, they fall, they struggle, they have to pick themselves back up again. They’re not as beautiful as they were made out to be, but they’re stronger. That weakness has made them beautiful in people’s minds. I just never, ever thought that — well, those characters were always white. Or black. I thought that would never exist for an Indian guy."
On top of that, Pi and Surendra had a lot in common. Both are Tamil — an ethnicity and language common in South India and Sri Lanka — and grew up close to zoos. Pi is trying to reach Canada, while Surendra was raised in Toronto. Those similarities made the Mean Girls alum confident — perhaps too confident, I gather from reading his new memoir, The Elephants in My Backyard — that no one could portray this character better than him.
His daydreams are vivid: He's singing classical Indian music for the movie's soundtrack, helping his mom decide whether to wear a sari or a Chanel gown on the red carpet, chatting with Meryl Streep at the lavish after party, and, of course, giving his Oscars acceptance speech.
Before the awards roll in, Surendra first has to land the starring role. So he dedicates himself to preparing. Meeting that tiger in person made Martel's characters more tangible — more real — to Surendra, inspiring him to recreate Pi's story without actually getting stranded at sea. Instead, he visits a real-life castaway who survived 76 days adrift in the Atlantic Ocean. He lasers off his facial hair to clear up his skin and learns how to swim. He tracks down Martel and asks for his advice and travel itinerary. Most significantly, he leaves the University of Toronto and moves to Pondicherry, where he immerses himself in Pi's home.
Surendra already understands Tamil, but he wants to pick up the accent and mannerisms of native speakers. So he hangs out at a nearby school, befriends the students, and tours the same zoos that Martel did.
Even once Surendra returns to college in Toronto, he refrains from alcohol and partying to "maintain the mindset of an innocent Indian schoolboy." Armed with secondhand knowledge of a Pondicherry childhood, he's finally ready to be Pi.
Unfortunately, Director Ang Lee has someone else in mind. On a Saturday in July 2010, Surendra's six years of diligent work come screeching to a halt when Martel emails him an update. "Sorry to be the bearer of bad news," he writes. Pi has officially been cast.
The lucky actor is Suraj Sharma, a 17-year-old with zero professional acting experience. Surendra, despite his hard work, is still a twentysomething Canadian pretending to be a 16-year-old South Indian. Meanwhile, Sharma is the real deal: a New Delhi teenager plucked from obscurity. Lee says his eyes convey the innocence and emotion he was looking for.
"He didn't want an [established] actor. That's why mainly I wasn’t even seen for it," Surendra explains to me. His book details the grief he felt after losing the part. "What's ironic is when I was re-reading the drafts, I wrote this line in Pondicherry with the kids: 'Any one of these schoolboys could've played Pi.'"
He continued, laughing at himself: "Yeah, you’re damn right any one of these boys could play the part, because Ang Lee fucking went to India and found one of them. That’s what ended up happening."
Surendra went numb once his Pi fantasies crumbled. He had plenty of other awesome things going on — he's been practicing calligraphy his whole life and even drew his book's cover, as you can see in the video above — but he'd invested so much in Pi that he wasn't sure how to move forward without him.
"I created a real sixteen-year-old Indian boy [in my head]. And when I got that email [from Martel], he died," Surendra reflects now, nearly five years after Pi's big-screen release. On a chilly Christmas night in 2012, he bought one theater ticket and shed tears within the first few minutes of the movie.
"That was what was traumatic. It was weird because someone hadn’t really died. Like, I couldn’t go to my mom or my sisters and say, 'Oh, I’m crying because someone died.' They wouldn’t get it."
In time, Surendra healed and accepted his loss. (Escaping to Munich for an extended vacation helped.) He eventually collected his old journals — he recorded everything, he told me, so he'd have something to look back on while filming Pi — and turned them into a memoir about his experience.
"I realized that if I could put all my eggs in one basket, lose it all, and fall apart — fall flat on my face — and then pick myself back up, I could do it again," he said. "And the next time I’m not going to be afraid of failing, because I already failed."
This pursuit added one more title to the former mathlete's Mean Girls business card: author. He's also a performer, painter, potter, woodworker, and business owner, but that's probably too many words to fit on there.
Even though Pi didn't pan out the way he hoped it would, his unbreakable spirit makes it very clear: The limit does not exist for Rajiv Surendra.