Freida Pinto On Hollywood Excess, Diversity, And Learning To Love Herself

"I am a 31-year-old who doesn’t give a fuck about what other people think about the way I look"

Photo by Jason Merritt / Getty Images

Freida Pinto skyrocketed from a Mumbai-based aspiring actress to a big screen staple after appearing as older Latika in the Oscar-winning sensation, Slumdog Millionaire. She followed that overnight success with requisite blockbusters like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Immortals, but lately has been steering her career in a more indie direction. So when the elusive auteur Terrence Malick offered her a role in his latest mystery project, Pinto was instantly on board. In Knight of Cups, Pinto portrays Helen, a free spirit who romances Christian Bale's character and moonlights as a model. For an actress who spent her pre-Hollywood days posing in front of the camera, it was a role that came easily to Pinto, but one that called back to some darker days. At an L.A. junket, Pinto, now a Hollywood veteran, was keen to talk about how her perspective on the film industry has changed, her role in Hollywood's diversity issue, and just how horrible the fashion industry can be.

What was it like working with Terrence Malick?
It’s kind of what everybody thinks and expects working experience with Terrence Malick would be like. But more than anything else, I love the fact that it wasn’t scripted. So we just had to go in there, and just be present, and think on our toes, and think out of, literally, and try everything. There was no right or wrong. So a lot of shedding of your own inhibitions was very much part of the whole experience in a way. I just knew what my character’s name was and a little idea of who she played in the film but beyond that, there was no information that I really had.

The movie often portrays Hollywood as this land of excess and showcases the more self-destructive side of the city. What are your personal impressions of Hollywood?
I think there’s a good balance of the excess, as well as a spiritual side to the space. It’s really what you want to make of it. I came from a film that was loved by all, that kind of overnight [success] changed the way that people were looking at an absolute unknown from India, and it opened doors. And this is something that I always wanted to do, but I did not expect the platform that I was going to be given. So I did experience and see the excess that there can be in the very beginning stages. But at the same time, having spent about four years now in Los Angeles, and having spent time with the agents, publicists, and the studios heads, I’ve found that knowing yourself is more important than trying to dissect the city. As soon as you know yourself, you won’t be affected by the things that you don’t need to be affected by. And as soon as you’re comfortable with who you are, you’re not constantly in search for that outside validation. I think a lot of the excess comes from a certain level of insecurity as well. “It’s not enough. I’m not enough. Let me go do more. Let me be seen at more at carpets. Let me go and do more PR activity for myself.” As soon as you feel “I’m enough,” I think you conquer it all.

When you first arrived in Hollywood, did it live up to the expectations that you had of it as a child growing up in India?
I didn’t work in as much of a film industry over there, so I had nothing to compare it to in terms of like filmmaking or whatever. My first film, in any part of the world, was Slumdog Millionaire. I don’t think I had an impression to be really honest. I probably was less filled with expectations before Slumdog than I was after Slumdog. I think with Slumdog, the experience of being on every possible red carpet can tarnish you a little bit, because then you expect that the next one’s going to be the same. But before that, I had nothing, so I walked into it quite wide-eyed. In fact, if Terry had cast me in his film then, I think it would have been a very, very different me as well. It would have been an even more liberated me. I feel like knowing too much sometimes is quite detrimental.

What was the hardest thing for you to adjust to with relocating from India to Los Angeles?
I think definitely the fact that people are quite spread out, and there’s not a lot of mixing and mingling that happens the way it happens in smaller cities. In L.A., you really have to find a group of friends, your clan, that you can really relate to. That took a while. But also, the other thing was, I feel there's a genuine sense of warmth that you get from India and from the people that live in India. I did not experience that here at all. It felt very business. It felt really [like] work. And then, over time, I’ve just come to find when it is work, I don’t mind if people are very business with me. People who run our lives and people, like agents and publicists, can be like very scripted. You get used to that. But then you know exactly what to look for when you’re looking for the real, more grounded truth.

There’s been so much talk about the lack of diversity in films, and actresses are constantly saying how hard it is to land good roles. Is it a double whammy for you in that arena, being an Indian woman?
I’m really happy that this happened for me and this was also at a time when people weren’t talking about diversity. In 2009, it wasn’t as big as it is right now, and I’m really glad that I can be part of the movement in a way. I definitely feel my purpose was not just to be an actress. There’s more to me and I’m glad that I’m in a position of a little bit more recognition, credibility, and fame, and to be able to further that kind of conversation along with all the other amazing actors, artists, producers, everybody actually, who are contributing to this movement. But I also am very careful when I’m talking about diversity, to be all-inclusive. What is diversity, first of all? Is it just this conversation about black representation? Or is it Asians? And is it Middle Easterns? Is it homosexual representation? I think the word diversity needs to be really categorized and defined, first of all. And secondly, I feel like no battle can be won by alienating the other community that is doing well. So I don’t feel there’s any joy or profit in making the white community feel like they need to step down from these roles because we are not getting our representation. As long as everything is based on merit, everything is good. And we just have to open more doors, and we need more writers and more female directors to be able to make that kind of conversation move forward.

At this point in your career, are you still being offered roles to play “the Indian girl?”
Not so much. I stopped getting offered those roles right in 2009 because I made a very conscious effort with the Julian Schnabel film [Miral] and the Woody Allen film [You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger] to not be pushed in that direction. So I think it’s been a good seven, eight years now, and I’m not offered those roles specifically. But now the challenge is different, because if I am not going for those roles and I’m going for the roles that are not necessarily written for me—and if I’m not even on their radar—how do I put myself out there and remind them that it is okay? This character can be ethnically diverse or ethnically ambiguous, rather. That’s a different kind of challenge. It puts a lot of pressure on the vision and the imagination of filmmakers.

You portrayed a model in this film and you have a bit of a background in modeling. Did it come right back to you?
It came back right back to me and it reminded me of how much I hated it. So, yeah! Good job, Terry! No, I couldn’t stand it to be really honest. It’s just my personal experience and I did not like it at all, and the fact that I was listening to Kelly [Cutrone] rip my neck and my waistline and everything apart reminded me of how much I hated it. I wouldn’t go back. First of all, I can’t go back to it, even if I wanted to. If I said, “Oh, I want to go back to modeling,” it’s like now I’m the actor who’s going back to modeling, which is kind of strange so that’s not possible. But I feel now the kind of modeling that I do is based off of the acting job, the acting credibility that I have, which I actually do enjoy.

Have you had any bad experiences with outlets Photoshopping you?
Of course! And there’s a little control that I do have and a lot of control that I don’t. I’m very mindful, and I know that sometimes the fans out there get a little upset if, like, too whitewashed. And I wish I could explain to them that’s not what I want. In fact, I hate that. I love the color of my skin. I embrace it. I’m proud of it. Like, really, really proud of it. Especially when you have someone who comes up to you and they’re like, “Oh my God! Your skin tone! How do you tan? How do you get it?” and I’m like, “Actually, this is what I was born with.” So if you just learn how to love the things that you were given, and make your peace with yourself that “I am enough.” I think none of the expectations of a skinny waist and a perfect bottom and the right boobs and all of that matter.

This film portrays models in such a disposable way! Did you find that to be the case back when you were a part of the industry?
Yeah. So disposable. Like you’re standing there and someone says you have a short neck. You just accept it like, “Yeah, okay, fine I have a short neck. So what? Can’t you work around the short neck?”

And then you probably want to scream at them, “You cast me!”
Yeah, exactly! And I feel like sometimes we set ourselves up for verbal abuse, and that’s what I actually did hate. And the other thing that I hated, this one [client] who constantly was just like, “Yeah, put the model over there. And make her put her foot up there. And let her throw her hair back like that.” And I was like, “That hurts! I don’t wanna do that.” And the person was like, “You are a model and I am the captain of the ship. So you gotta do what I tell you to do.” And I was like, “Guess what? I’m not doing it.” And my standing up for myself cost me the job and they were really miffed. It didn’t make a difference, but in my mind I felt like I did the right thing, and I am going to stand up for myself, and that’s just been my personality ever since I can remember.

You modeled when you were first starting out in the entertainment industry. Did clients telling you that you had a short neck and things like that mess with your head and give you a bad body image to overcome?
I might have been self-conscious about a few things. But now I just love it. Now I’m like, “This is who I am.” I have no intention of changing myself ever. I stay fit, I work out, I eat well. And I feel like I am a 31-year-old who doesn’t give a fuck about what other people think about the way I look. And I’m a lot happier than I was when I was 22, that’s for sure. That was a different kind of happiness, and now I feel less pressure. And do you know what? I am okay with the fact that someone else doesn’t find me perfect for a certain role or in a certain type. It’s fine. Someone else will find me perfect elsewhere because that’s pretty much how I got the first job. For years, I tried and it didn’t work, and all of a sudden, someone said, “I think she’s perfect for this part,” and look what it gave me.