'The weight-loss for I wasn't tough. But to do this for two-and-a-half years left me looking very strange. People started asking questions about my health. Going anywhere became difficult. Meeting relatives and friends became impossible.
'Even my wife grew very concerned. I’d be very angry with their worries. This is my job!'
Tamil actor Vikram talks about his physical transformation for Shankar's I, in which he will appear in four looks: a body builder, a beast, a model, and a hunchback.
Vikram is not just a hugely talented Tamil actor. His ability to slip into different characters at the cost of his health has earned him the reputation of being a formidable performing force in Indian cinema.
Vikram’s latest avatar in Shankar’s I has everyone wondering what this chameleon actor up to this time.
Vikram shares his thoughts with Subhash K Jha.
The level of interest in I is incredible. Are you nervous?
This film has got the whole nation curious. My director Shankar has been able to break the language barrier. I think that’s a huge achievement.
Is it true that you lost more than 25 kilos for I?
(Laughs) Unfortunately, it’s true. But I am not alone. I think Matthew McConaughey lost 23 kilos to play the character of an AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club.
The thing is he was already fit and he just stopped eating, while I was on a diet to lose weight.
You have repeatedly re-invented yourself physically and emotionally for your roles. is it worth it?
Of course! I don’t find it interesting to do a character unless it offers me the challenge of reinventing myself.
I don’t work for money. My wife has to keep reminding me that we need to buy stuff around the house!
For most of my movies, I end up giving back some or all the money. So if I am not in this for money, I must be in this for something else.
Your passion for the craft?
I won’t argue with that (laughs). From the time I did theatre, I have been like that.
I have to be challenged as an actor.
No amount of money can lure me into doing a film or character that I don’t want to do.
It’s been 24 years of dedicated character roles for you. Where do you place I in your repertoire?
It is my most challenging role to date.
A recent development regarding my Tamil films is that their reach stopped being restricted to Tamil Nadu; they were appreciated in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka.
I think this trend started with Anniyan in 2005. It was dubbed into Hindi as Aparichit. I feel it would have worked much better in Hindi if it had been made as an independent Hindi film and not a dubbed film. That’s what we’ve done with I.
Why are you so fascinated by psychologically traumatised characters like in Sethu and now I?
I don’t know why.
In Deiva Thirumagal, I played a man with a child’s mind. Director A L Vijay insisted I play the character. He made other films and waited for me to do this film.
Likewise, Shankar wanted me to do I.
I love doing roles that challenge me emotionally and physically.
Though I enjoyed doing a masala film like Gemini, I still try to bring in a performance even when I am doing something not so out-of-the-box.
How tough is it to play characters who are on the verge of breaking down?
The others were easy enough but I was really tough.
The weight-loss wasn't tough. Staying in prosthetics every day was very difficult.
I went through the experience of being in unrecognisable prosthetics for a whole year. People, who worked with me, could not recognise me.
When I began to lose weight, I had to cut myself off from social interaction because people began asking too many questions.
How did you lose so much weight?
Cycling for 15 km and working out for an hour in the morning, and then another in the evening.
I had 10 small meals every day, like egg whites and half an apple. A 22-year-old friend of mine with a fantastic physique helped me with my diet.
To do this for two-and-a-half years left me looking very strange. People started asking questions about my health. Going anywhere became difficult. Meeting relatives and friends became impossible.
Even my wife grew very concerned. I’d be very angry with their worries. This is my job! Do I ask a lawyer what he does in the courtroom? Just let me be.
I just cut myself off (from everyone).
People couldn’t recognise you while you were shooting for I?
I’d be the first one to reach the sets and the last one to leave. The crew would sometimes fail to recognise me.
Amy Jackson, my co-star, saw me in the gym one day and couldn’t recognise me without the prosthetics. When I said ‘hi’, she turned around and said, ‘Oh my God, it’s you, Kenny! You are looking good.’
I was bald and extra thin. But she had seen me constantly in that grotesque prosthetic make-up on the sets, so she found me looking good (laughs). I was actually looking pathetic.
What exactly is your character in I supposed to suffer from?
I can’t tell you that.
It’s a romantic thriller. Even if you look at Shankar’s Anniyan, it has a very complex theme -- multiple-personality disorder -- disguised in a lot of masala.
Anniyan has had a long shelf life.
Yes, it comes so often on television. Even when we were shooting in Madhya Pradesh for I, these guys who came to see us had seen it repeatedly.
Shankar Sir makes masala movies but he’s also done many serious films.
In I, for the first time he has combined seriousness of purpose with the masala. Everybody from the frontbencher to the intellectual viewer will be shocked.
Now I must get my body and face back. Normalcy will be a slow process.
Even if I’ve lost my face and physique it was worth it. My role in I is worth any sacrifice.
You are ready to make any sacrifice for a good role?
Yes. I am young now and can afford to play around with my body and looks. Later, I’ll be unable to take up the challenge.
Look at Mr Amitabh Bachchan; he went away and came back to play older roles.
And look at the roles he does. I’d love to handle my career the way Mr Bachchan does.
Besides Mr Bachchan which actors do you admire?
I like different actors for different things.
I like Salman Khan for the way he carries himself. His self-confidence is fantastic.
I love what he did in Tere Naam, which was a remake of my film Sethu. He’s a close friend. When I went to his home, the only trophy he had in his living room was that of Tere Naam.
I like Kamal Haasan’s daring choice of roles. When I was in school and college, I modelled myself on him.
I was so much in awe of him. I used to do my scenes like him until I did Sethu. Then I made a conscious decision to move away from Kamal Haasan’s influence.
Are you working with Shankar again?
We spent two-and-a-half years on this one. We need a break from one another.
I need to do something with another kind of filmmaker. I am currently being directed by Vijay Milton, who did the highly acclaimed GoliSoda.
I am doing a road film which gives a new twist to screen heroism. I like the change of pace.
Is it important to be successful in Hindi cinema?
It isn’t really important. I have an audience in the South.
Initially, when I went to Mumbai and nobody recognised me, it disturbed me. Now, I am beyond that feeling.
In fact, it’s a relief to be left alone in Mumbai. Recognition doesn’t matter any more.
But I am fascinated by scripts like Rang De Basanti, Wake Up Sid and Barfi, almost every film of Ranbir Kapoor.
Tamil cinema is changing but blockbusters like the ones being made in Bollywood are not possible any more. Films like Kick are no longer possible in Tamil. Audiences are looking for something different in Tamil films.