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'I learned about Bollywood by being a part of it'

April 18, 2024 13:45 IST
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'In India, I'm able to work with the biggest stars on creating a scene, creating that emotion, without being too hung up on their persona.'

Photograph: Kind courtesy Alexx O'Nell/Instagram

American actor and singer Alexx O'Nell is to Hindi cinema what Tom Alter was at one time: Any time Bollywood requires a Caucasian actor in a substantial role, Alex shows up.

In an extensive two-part interview, Alex tells Subhash K Jha, "There are not so many roles for non-Indian white actors in Indian cinema, but I'm grateful that when there are, the people that I've worked with tend to recommend me."

It has been quite a while since you have been part of the Indian movie industry. How would you describe your journey so far?

In a word, it has been an 'adventure'.

I have had the privilege of being a part of telling some of the most incredible stories ever told, collaborating with some of the most skilled and talented technicians and actors, and working in some of the most beautiful places on the face of the earth.

It is a joy to have been able to make my passion into my profession, as an actor and musician.

I'm grateful for this adventure.

I'm also filled with gratitude towards audiences in India and abroad for accepting me on their screens and in their ears, and I hope they continue to do so.

Finally, I'm thankful for the positive reviews that I've received from critics and the public alike for my performance in Ae Watan Mere Watan.

IMAGE: Alexx O'Nell in Ae Watan Mere Watan.

Was acting your chosen vocation? What brought you to Indian cinema?

I began my journey as an actor on stage in the US at the age of nine or 10. Over the next 10 years, I performed in about a dozen plays, musicals, dramas and comedies.

I credit the directors with whom I worked over the course of my childhood and into my early adult years, especially theatre director Tom Peterson, with giving me the fundamentals that I rely on to this day.

At 19, I took time off from acting to focus on studies. I earned a degree in philosophy and a degree in psychology from Boston University.

I found that I couldn't act and study at the same time, but I did write a lot of music in that period.

After university, I got back into acting and did a bit of modelling.

It was when I was traveling in India, on something completely unrelated, that a friend sent me to an audition for a television commercial.

As you know, ad film-makers in India also make films. R Balki was making Cheeni Kum at the time, and he put me in the film.

Even though it was a small comedic role, the film did extremely well, and the audience and industry noticed me.

After Cheeni Kum, and few more films, series, and Nach Baliye, opportunities kept coming.

I continue to benefit from the kindness of my co-actors, directors and others who keep recommending me for work.

Ae Watan Mere Watan is a great example of this. My name presumably came to Director Kannan Iyer through a number of channels including (cinematographer) Amalendu Choudhary with whom I'd shot two films (Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster 3 and Roohi), (actors) Emraan Hashmi and Anand Tiwari with whom I'd worked on a film each (Chehre and Jo Dooba So Paar respectively), and most significantly from (casting director) Gautam Kishanchandani, with whom I had worked just a few months before on Khufiya.

There are not so many roles for non-Indian white actors in Indian cinema, but I'm grateful that when there are, the people that I've worked with tend to recommend me.


IMAGE: Amitabh Bachchan and Alexx O'Nell in Cheeni Kum.

How and when did you land your first role in India?

As I mentioned, Cheeni Kum was my first experience in Bollywood.

Thereafter, I worked on Loins of Punjab Presents, which was a delightful comedy and has become something of a cult classic.

After that, Nach Baliye gave me pan-India exposure on television.

With my girlfriend at the time, Sweta Keswani, we danced everything from North Indian bhangra to South Indian classical, to contemporary Bollywood, and even the Waltz.

It opened doors to a lot of opportunities.

I did a number of television programmes like Jhansi Ki Rani and Dhoondh Legi Manzil Hummein. I broke into Tamil cinema with Madrasapattinam alongside Amy Jackson. I was introduced in Malayalam cinema in Santosh Sivan's Urumi with Genelia D'Souza, Prabudeva, and Prithviraj.

In Hindi, I carried on with Chittagong alongside Manoj Bajpayee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and Main Aur Charles with Adil Hussain, Richa Chaddha and Randeep Hooda, and Joker with Akshay Kumar.

I debuted in Bengali with Yeti Obhijaan opposite Prosenjit Chatterjee.

When OTT took off, I starred in Amazon Prime's Inside Edge, Alt Balaji's Bose, Disney+Hotstar's Aarya...

With Khufiya and Ae Watan Mere Watan, I've seen my first direct-to-OTT film releases.

What was it like to be a part of a cultural phenomenon so far removed from your own?

Well, I didn't grow up knowing anything about Indian cinema.

I learned about Bollywood by being a part of it.

That has been incredibly advantageous for me.

When I go on set and encounter superstars like Amitabhji, Tabu, Mohanlal and Mammootty, I meet them as co-actors.

Sure, they are incredibly accomplished co-actors, and that can be intimidating but they're not the personification of cinema for me, the way they would be if I grew up watching their work.

If I were to shoot with Brad Pitt or Robert Downey Jr, I would be star-struck.

But here in India, I'm able to work with the biggest stars on creating a scene, creating that emotion, without being too hung up on their persona.

Even though the cultural context is different across industries and very removed from the one I come from, ultimately, we're doing the same thing I began doing years ago as a kid on stage: We're trying to tell stories, to connect with the audience and give rise to an emotion in their hearts.

IMAGE: Alexx O'Nell and Amy Jackson in Madrasapattinam.

Which films have offered you the most scope?

The first project that I felt offered me significant scope was Madrasapattinam.

My character falls in love with Amy Jackson while she's in love with the actor, Arya.

The film features an epic wrestling match and later, a clock-tower fight sequence between Arya and I. But more than that, the role of Robert Ellis has a lovely arc for me to explore.

He goes from being a rather content, albeit spoiled, man, to a spurned lover, to a maniac hell-bent on revenge!

Look for the scene in the climax wherein Amy's character threatens mine with a sledge hammer, telling him 'leave us alone or I'll kill you' to which Robert replies, 'Kill me? For what? For loving you?'

In that moment, I remember Director Vijay explaining that what he wanted was for the audience to see the world from Robert's point of view, just for a moment.

Even if they didn't agree with him, they should at least understand him.

IMAGE: Randeep Hooda and Alexx O'Nell in Main Aur Charles.

Any other film?

The other film that gave me a lot of scope was Main Aur Charles.

I portray Richard Thomas, a good man who finds himself imprisoned in India on drug charges.

While in jail, he is manipulated by Charles Sobhraj into becoming an accomplice but he eventually reclaims his power and escapes the clutches of Sobhraj by becoming the key witness against him in court.

His journey from a hapless prisoner to an unwitting accomplice to a victim, and finally, a free man is captivating.

Then, there was Aarya.

Director Ram Madhvani brought me Bob Wilson, a character that is very similar to me. He's a musician, who has moved from the US to India, and is married an Indian woman: All hallmarks of my own journey.

Bob is a good guy whose life becomes increasingly polluted by the darkness and violence of his new wife's family.

His downfall begins when, shortly after he marries into the family, his brother-in-law is shot and killed.

A short time later, his niece becomes infatuated with him and tries to seduce him.

Then, shockingly, his wife is murdered. Finally, when he discovers who has killed her, he takes revenge by becoming a murderer himself.

Everything that Bob does, starts from a position of a good person, but he loses everything, and is unable to escape the tragic spiral that befalls him.

The scope as well as the journey was meaningful for me, since in the course of playing the character, I faced the realisation that in the same set of circumstances, I probably wouldn't have acted any differently than Bob, and would have likely suffered exactly the same fate...

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