Actor Vijay Deverakonda is learning new things about fame every day. It allows him to work on his own terms, back young talent with his production house, and buy his friends expensive gifts. It's a privilege not many enjoy, and he knows that. Yet, at times, the actor appears befuddled with his stardom. As he gets bigger, and therefore more powerful, he finds that being a good actor is not the only he needs to work at. There are other demands of him too.
When we meet at a Mumbai hotel, he speaks about some of these conundrums. The Arjun Reddy and Dear Comrade actor is a thoughtful interviewee. He takes long pauses to search for answers. He also has deep concerns for his generation that go beyond his work and cinema – the main one being the rise of fake news on the internet.
Excerpts from the interview:
You've often spoken about coming from a world that's far removed from films. Are there things about being an actor that your family and friends just don't get?
Yes, there are so many things they don't get. I also didn't get what an actor does when I wasn't one. We go to the movies on a Friday, buy a ticket and enjoy it. But behind the scenes there is language, region, and so much politics at play while making a film. It's not as clean as art. There's money, business, power play, caste, creed… it's like a battle for me. It's a fight to do what I want on my terms. What people don't know is that acting is just 30 percent of my job. There is the other 70 percent that only people extremely close to me get to see. There are multiple people making a film and you need to ensure that everything comes together to give people the best version of a film. So I have to do a lot more than just acting to pull off my work. And it's much more for me because I work a lot with newcomers. I have to go a 100 extra miles to get the film made and promote it.
So yes, people don't get all this. I've had this conversation many times with people really close to me and they always say, 'I thought you were a star and people only shout your name'. If only people knew the amount of work that goes behind being this person'. I think only if I write a book or keep a journal about what I go through everyday will people get it. That's probably why not everyone makes it as an actor. Because there are so many other things to do.
There's so much misinformation it's scary. Almost 80 percent of what I read about myself is completely false.
How long has it been since you had to audition for a part?
The last film I auditioned for was Yevade Subramanyam (2015). I did three auditions before Pelli Choopulu that ended up becoming films. I also did a lot of auditions that never went anywhere. Then I did a film called Nuvilla and Life is Beautiful which I got through auditions. For Yevade, I did a host of auditions, and that was the last.
I didn't mind auditions but I didn't like the process of going to an office and waiting with a bunch of people. Everyone is hopeful and I need to outdo them. So many times you know you were the best, but you didn't get picked. Also, because of where I was in life when I was giving auditions, I have a bitter feeling towards it. It's a phase I never want to be in again.
How much of a role does money play in your career decisions?
Now it is zero. Now I work only if the content stimulates me and excites me. I've done lots of things for money in the past. There were movies that I did for money. There were small gigs where I had to make some sort of appearance. There's a music video I did purely because I was planning to buy a house and I fell short of money. There was a time when I hustled and did anything that gave me Rs 10,000 and above. I was ready to do it because it was a necessity. Now money doesn't excite me. It's still important because I need to be paid for what I do. I know what I deserve and only if that is paid will I work. But it's not a factor in decision making. Even if you show me obscene amounts of money I will not do something I don't like.
I am receptive to newcomers but I take a call based on their skill. I need to see some work. I don't work with just dreamers who say things like 'I will make a kickass film'.
An actor is always surrounded by people advising them on what roles to do, how to build their brand… Are there advisors you rely on to make decisions?
None. (Takes a long pause) I'm trying to think why I don't take advice. I don't know any other way of functioning. I guess I don't trust anyone as much as I trust myself.
You've said you like working with new talent. How easy is it for a new writer/director to reach you?
They can pitch to me directly but now they have to come through a really good source because if I listen to everyone that wants to pitch to me then I'll get nowhere. My brain cells will die. There are so many directors and only a bunch of actors. There are so many scripts that need an actor. Because I work a lot with newcomers, there are so many aspiring people who are like let's reach out and maybe something will happen. I am receptive to newcomers but I take a call based on their skill. I need to see some work. I don't work with just dreamers who say things like 'I will make a kickass film'. You have to show me a short film or an ad film and only then will I listen to a script.
When was the last time you truly panicked before a scene?
Before I go into every film, I'm in panic mode. I think 'how am I ever going to do this'. I'm going into Fighter and I'm thinking how the hell am I ever going to pull this off. No one knows I'm going through this. My director thinks this fellow is sorted. Everyone is confident that I'm going to take my performance to a new level with every film but in my head I'm freaking out. But then the fear also drives me. I remember during Dear Comrade too there were multiple scenes where I thought I can't do this. But somehow on that day I make it happen.
Do you remember the first time you performed in public?
When I was in school I would try and get myself into all the competitions. There would be Just a Minute or Mono Acting in which you're given a topic, you need to figure a small skit on it and then you play all the characters and tell a story. I was so bad… there was no hope. Somehow I've got this far so anything is possible.
I had unbelievable stage fright. I remember there was a Just a Minute contest and everyone got really complicated topics – things to do with morals, ethics, current affairs. I got 'Who is your favourite cricketer'. Everyone who was competing kept saying 'Damn. Why did this guy get such an easy topic'. I went on stage and I couldn't utter a word with 600 kids looking at me. I was so nervous. I just said 'Good morning, everyone. My favourite cricketer is Sachin Tendulkar. Thank you' and I left. This was in the 8th grade. Fear just jammed my flow but then I kept doing these competitions even though it was humiliating. Slowly, I got better.
What's the best acting tip you've ever got?
No one should ever feel the pressure to act… to do something. Sometimes the best thing is to just be. You'll see in a lot of films that if the lead actor is talking and you're the friend and you just have to listen, they won't listen normally. It won't be like how you are listening to me right now. They will feel like doing something. A lot of time you don't need to do anything in a scene.
Have you been guilty of that yourself?
I was forced into doing it in some of my early films. I was aware of what I was doing but the director would say why don't you use your hands more. Why is your left hand still? Why are you in one place? You should move more. This was the time I was taking whatever work I got. There was a school of acting that was about doing more and I didn't come from that school of thought because of the cinema I watched, the books I read and the person I am.
What people don't know is that acting is just 30 percent of my job. There is the other 70 percent that only people extremely close to me get to see.
What are you bingeing on right now?
I'm watching a series called Fauda on Netflix which is really well made. Just today my news feed says rockets have been fired from the Palestine side into Israel and I was watching a similar episode. So it's really relevant.
I don't get enough time and now all my watching is restricted to when I'm on flights. I always keep my phone loaded with a bunch of things. Recently, for the first time I took a break so I have the month of December off. I'm prepping for a role and I needed some time off set. Now I'm going to watch some nice stuff.
I recently finished You on Netflix. I thought it was well made although it got a little uncomfortable in parts. Some of these shows we watch can't even be called content. It's philosophy on screen being told through characters. They are speaking such profound stuff that I'm like 'Damn. Who is writing this deep stuff'.
There's so much being written about you. People are deconstructing your success story. When you read about yourself is there something that makes you go 'that's not me at all'?
There will be a section that adores you and a section that doesn't get anything you do. I think people should have their opinions, but there are lots of misconceptions. The one thing I want to tell all people is that they should never believe what's on the internet and social media.
Do you mean they shouldn't believe what's written about you?
No, not just me. Don't believe anything. We are all vulnerable to propaganda. Maybe my film is very average but people who love you will write 'Wow. It's amazing'. Don't believe that. We all need to make our own opinions. You can create perception and it gets traction and everyone believes it. It's not about me or cinema – it's about everything in the world. There's so much misinformation it's scary. Almost 80 percent of what I read about myself is completely false.
Let me give you an example. There's this picture of Prince Harry or William, I don't remember for sure. Basically he's signalling the number three to someone with his fingers. But the picture is taken from the side and it looks like he's giving you the middle finger. And people believed it.
Earlier our source of information was journalism. The journalist needed a degree, there were rules of reporting, and the work was overseen by an editor who felt responsible. Now everyone can report. I can also be a journalist. I can say anything, my followers will retweet and it becomes news. This is my serious concern for the generation and times we are in.
What's the most exciting thing about being a young actor today?
We all want certain things but it doesn't always happen. But I wanted to be an actor and I got to be one. And I get to do the movies I want. I also get to do a lot of things beyond movies; being an actor enables that. I know I am privileged. I get to buy all my friends expensive gifts when they get married. I get to buy my family a home. I get to produce films. It's a power. It's a gift. And it takes a mad amount of work to keep it this way.