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The Busiest Firang Actor In India

April 23, 2024 09:54 IST
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'There have been and will continue to be, so many captivating stories in colonial India.'

'Obviously, most of the white people were British, so if I am going to take on a role in a film set in one of the most turbulent periods of Indian history, then it only stands to reason that my character would be of British descent.'

'But that doesn't mean all my roles are negative.'

Photograph: Kind courtesy Alexx O'Nell/Instagram

Is Alexx O'Neill the new-age Tom Alter?

While he's probably one of the busiest actors in the industry, Alexx tells Subhash K Jha, "All actors are chosen for roles based on how they look and how they perform. We are all limited by these boundaries. But part of our job as actors is to try to push these boundaries as much as possible."

Are you not weary of being offered mandatory roles in films about colonial India?

Just like Hollywood is never going to stop making films set in World War II, India will never stop making films set against the backdrop of colonial India.

This was such a formative and tumultuous 80 years or so that there are so many fictional stories yet to be written, and a seemingly endless supply of historical stories yet to be discovered.

Ae Watan Mere Watan is a great example of that. This story of Usha Mehta versus the British Empire waited 80 years to be told!

I think we should all be grateful to Kannan Iyer and Darab Farooqui for finding and elevating this story to the level that they have.

Just like Usha's, there have been and will continue to be, so many captivating stories in colonial India.

Obviously, most of the white people were British, so if I am going to take on a role in a film set in one of the most turbulent and formative periods of Indian history, a period out of which so many incredible stories arise, then it only stands to reason that my character would be of British descent.

But that doesn't mean all my roles are negative.

Look at Jhansi Ki Rani in which I played Robert Ellis, a British officer torn between his duty to the empire and his affection for the queen of Jhansi. Indeed, in some literature, it is suggested that the two had an affair.

If you look at my portrayal of Winston Churchill when he was serving on the Northwest frontier in the 1890s, working, living and fighting alongside his Sikh regiment in the Discovery series 21 Sarfarosh, you will see a strong, positive character.

Of course, I have also played negative characters like Charles Johnson in Chittagong, Vasco Da Gama in Urumi and Frederick Jackson in Golondaaj.

I would say about a third of my roles have taken place during colonial India, and all are distinct in their own way.

Do you find yourself limited by the colour of your skin and nationality?

All actors are chosen for roles based on how they look and how they perform. 

We are all limited by these boundaries. But part of our job as actors is to try to push these boundaries as much as possible.


IMAGE: Alexx O'Nell with his mother in The Netherlands. Photograph: Kind courtesy Alexx O'Nell/Instagram

How do you look at India? Is it home now or do you divide your time between India and the US?

India is one of my three homes, alongside South Africa and The Netherlands.

My family is in The Netherlands, my career is in India, and a couple of years ago, I shifted my music career to South Africa.

After my first three music video releases in India -- Still on My Mind, Twenty Days and A Bhagavad Gita Song -- I had to come to terms with the fact that in India, music is so inextricably connected to films that a song is not identified by the singer or song-writer but by the actor who lip-syncs to it on screen.

And my songs were simply never meant to be in Indian films.

My lyrics are in English, strictly from my personal experience.

So, my music doesn't get played on radio or on television, and thus, it doesn't get discovered.

Outside of India, my music has a better chance of reaching its audience.

At the moment, my two recent singles, Pride and These Four Walls play every day on the radio in South Africa. They have even gotten plays in Europe and the USA.

It is a feeling like none other when I'm riding in a taxi in Cape Town and one of my songs comes on the radio!

So have your songs have stopped releasing in India?

Just because it is doing well abroad doesn't mean I have stopped releasing my music in India.

I triple-check every time I have a release to make sure it plays on Indian as well as international platforms.

It is very important to me that the people who know me from my films and series, also know this other side of me.

IMAGE: Alexx O'Nell with Tabu is Khufiya.

Where is your family? Do you have close friends in the entertainment industry?

I am a dual national, American and Dutch, and have family in the US and The Netherlands.

I rarely get time to travel to the US.

I consider most actors, cinematographers and directors that I've worked with, especially multiple times, to be friends.

But these aren't the friends I play poker or football with. They are the friends with whom I spend long hours on location, have deep discussions about character and art, and experience incredibly intense emotions.

They are friends who make the effort to see my creative work and congratulate me on my success, and vice versa.

These experiences forge strong bonds that last even if you don't meet often.

For example, when I arrived on location for Devi Chowdhurani, my sixth Bengali film, Prosenjit Chatterjee and I met like the closest of friends. I am so fond of him.

It has been so long since I've seen him because we don't spend a lot of time together when we're not shooting. But we have been exchanging messages and appreciating each other's work for all these years since we first worked together on Yeti Obhijaan.

This is similar to almost all of my work friendships. Akshay Kumar and I, for example, just began shooting The Untold Story of C Sankaran Nair, which is our first film after Joker.

When we reached the location, we met with a hug and caught up on all that we've been doing.

Rajkummar Rao and I have known each other for nearly 14 years, spending time together on Chittagong, Bose, and most recently, Roohi.

Richa Chadha and Ali Faisal and I have met a number of times after having completing Main Aur Charles, Inside Edge and Khufiya.

My other Main Aur Charles co-actor Randeep Hooda and I met up a week before the release of our films and he greeted me, hilariously, with the French accent he used in the film!

But yes, there are some friends, like (music producer) Debarpito Saha, (actor) Danny Sura, and (celebrity host) Siddharth Kannan who exist in my world as I exist in theirs.

IMAGE: Alexx O'Nell with Prithviraj Sukumaran, director of L2 Empuraan. Photograph: Kind courtesy Alexx O'Nell/Instagram

Tell us about your forthcoming projects.

My next release is likely to be Bak Bak, a dark comedy series on Amazon Prime that co-stars Divya Dutta.

It is a very interesting series from Director Raja Menon in which my character speaks only pure Hindi.

I have recently completed Ananth Mahadevan's Phule, our second collaboration after Dr Rakhmabai.

I've had the pleasure of working with Pratik Gandhi and Patralekha.

Like Kannan Iyer, Anand Mahadevan is using his platform to shine a light on a lesser known but incredibly important and inspirational figure in Indian history, Jyotirao Phule, who was a pioneer in the field of education.

Pokkhirajer Dim will be my next Bengali release. It's a fantasy film. It is truly 'out of this world' since it features a UFO and a magic horse.

It was lovely to work with SVF once again, who produced my most recent Bengali film, Golondaaj, for which I was nominated for Best Actor by the West Bengal Film Journalists Association.

I'm presently shooting Devi Chowdhurani, my second with Prosenjit Chatterjee.

Then there's L2 Empuraan, the second installment of the Lucifer franchise.

Director-Actor Prithviraj and I first met on Urumi, and we kept in touch ever since.

In this second installment, I have a larger role than the first part. In the third part, it will be even bigger. It's such a pleasure working with Mohanlal for the first time.

The Untold Story of C Sankaran Nair marks my first collaboration with Dharma Productions.

I am putting the finishing touches to Ghosts, my next song. The music video will be recorded and produced at Cosher Studios in South Africa, and shot on the streets of Cape Town.

IMAGE: Alexx O'Nell goes on a bike ride in Ladakh. Photograph: Kind courtesy Alexx O'Nell/Instagram

Do you aspire to direct a film anytime soon?

At the moment, I feel I do not have the technical knowledge necessary to do justice to someone else's story, so direction will not happen until I've developed those skills.

Because my music is so close to my heart, and I wouldn't trust anyone else to understand how I want them made, I direct the music videos of all my songs.

Directing these has given me an introduction to the process, but I'm a very democratic director, who likes to work in a collaborative way, rather than a dictatorial one.

Also I work with a very small team, so I don't think these experiences have prepared me to make a film.

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