Where are you at the moment?
I am in New York for a couple of days before I head back to LA. I live between the two cities but I am always moving and travelling for work. For me, staying a whole seven days in one place is like a holiday.
Love Sonia is set in India. Is it a ‘Bollywood’ film?
It is definitely not your typical Bollywood film. I wouldn’t call it art-house either but there are films that aren’t formulaic and you take a risk with — let’s call it that.
In the film Sonia uses ‘fairness cream’ to lighten her skin. Did you ever feel pressure to do that as a teenager?
No, not really. By Indian standards, I was already born with slightly lighter skin. I remember people being so fascinated and calling me things like ‘white angel’ or ‘white fairy’, and I was like, ‘White?!’ Whereas my sister, who had darker skin, would always be told: ‘Don’t go out in the sun, don’t get too much of a tan.’ In my modelling days I would be sent for fairer skin commercials and I would just be so put off by the whole thing — and the scripts were terrible!
Did you have Bollywood pin-ups growing up in Mumbai?
In India, Bollywood cinema is second nature — it is the thing you do. I wouldn’t say I idolised anyone in particular but Madhuri Dixit was definitely one of my favourites growing up because she was such an amazing all-round performer/actress/dancer. And in the art-house world of the 1980s and 1990s I loved the actress Smita Patil, who made two absolutely phenomenal films called Mirch Masala and Arth.
As a child you found then Miss Universe Sushmita Sen an inspiration. Do you still consider her a good role model?
The reason I found her winning that title inspirational was not because of the whole beauty pageant thing but because of the word ‘universe’. It introduced me to the concept of an Indian woman being celebrated on a world stage, not just by people from India. Since them my dream was always a global one.
Did you always plan to act in Hollywood?
No, I did all kinds of things. I wrote to National Geographic and said, ‘Hey, I would like a job’ and they gave me one. I did a travel show for them for about nine months where I travelled all over South-East Asia and I went to countries like Afghanistan and Fiji, so at the age of 20 I was getting exposed to the world and to different cultures. I always knew I would never be satisfied doing anything in just one part of the world and that includes Hollywood. People forget that Slumdog Millionaire was never a Hollywood film, it was a British film that happened to become beloved by America.
Where would you still like to travel?
Oh my God, if your article gets me to Argentina then I will call you up and thank you! I would love to go to Patagonia and just be in the mountains and be in the wild and be in nature as much as I can, but then to also experience the food because I know Argentinians really love their food.
You called Slumdog Millionaire the ‘highest high you could possibly have’. Was the comedown hard?
You have to come down from it — if you stay up there then you are not reaching up for anything any more. There are very few people who are always on top because they’re established and they do their own thing. When you go down you get to play with everybody else again.
You worked with Woody Allen. Do you regret that now?
I wouldn’t say I regret that experience, because I learnt a lot from my co-stars. I loved working with Josh Brolin, for example, and I learnt so much from him as an actor. But it is truly unfortunate that a lot of men still get away with things.
You are playing Mowgli’s mother in the upcoming Jungle Book movie directed by Andy Serkis. Who’s your favourite Jungle Book character?
Probably Baloo because there is something so big and caring and goofy about him. He is all heart. I love Andy Serkis, he is a good man. We worked on Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes together. He is super talented and hasn’t let all of that success ever go to his head.
What casting notes make your eyes roll?
Whenever they want to typecast for diversity, which means they need a token ethnic person in their movie so they don’t get written off for being all white, the notes always read: ‘She is dark-skinned, beautiful, long hair, big eyes’. I’m like, that is just a stereotype! Can’t she just be a woman? Why do you have to describe what she looks like? I think that kind of writing will have to change.