You’ve spoken about how your career as a director, producer, music director and distributor were all meant to support your dream career as an actor. Now, when you’ve become a coveted actor in films of some of our biggest directors, are you finally happy?
Kind of. I’m still not very happy but I’ve started finding that happiness now.
Is it really that difficult for an outsider to become an actor in our industry?
It’s not a tough job but to become famous through acting is very tough. And to become a star, it’s even more difficult. It is such a competitive world.
Has your acting career worked out as you’d planned?
I don’t bother about the net result but I will keep travelling towards my destination.
Monster, your next release, has a rat playing one of the main characters. How was it to act with an imaginary co-actor? Can you explain using a scene?
When there are two shots happening, there is a rat. But with close ups, even if its with a heroine, we usually shoot it alone. In those cases, I have to imagine that the rat is there. It’s like those scenes where we’re expected to be romantic, even though the heroine is not on the sets. That’s the fun of it.
Do you get used to it soon?
Yes of course. It’s a part of the job.
The last time we spoke, you spoke about how your films New and Anbe Aaruyire required a certain ‘wildness’ to it. But later when you acted in films of other directors, they used the same wildness in films that didn’t require it. Is Monster a film that needs that signature SJ Suryah performance?
In those later films, that’s where I lost my game. Monster has that wildness but its director, Nelson, has a very aesthetic taste. So he demands a wildness that remains in control. It should be within his parameter. If I overdo it, the performance will start looking cheap or cliched. He was very clear about the consistency. He treated me like a rat, thought I didn’t have a tail (laughs).
But fundamentally, do you think your performance is slightly over the top?
It has to be because I’m performing in front of rat. Even a CEO behaves differently in front of his baby. The same way, when I have to act for a rat, that too when you’re alone, there is a certain wildness to it. But Nelson kept me in check.
When people approach you with a certain role, have you noticed any pattern in what they want from you?
Not really. It’s completely different. In Spyder, I played Sudalai, a psycho killer. He’s someone who gets a high seeing other people crying. It’s a weird characterisation. Cut to Monster and I play such a sweet person, from Tanjore working in the EB office. He’s someone who doesn’t harm even an ant. But I was able to perform both. If Spyder was +100 degrees, this is -100 degrees.
Have you ever chosen to do a role, just because it is subtle?
I think Nelson has really pulled out a subtle performance from me this time.
The last time we spoke, you hesitated to call yourself a seasoned actor? Has that changed now?
I’ve started becoming seasoned now.
Yeah. Of course. I’ve reached a stage where I can convince big directors with my performance and I feel happy about it.
When you look back at certain roles, do you think you would have done it differently now?
I have no regrets. I guess I have no regrets starting from the films I did after Isai. But I’ve had some awful experiences in certain films I acted in post Anbe Aaruyire but before Isai. But I don’t blame the directors. I blame myself. It’s because I couldn’t give good performances in those roles.
So even if you’d done New or Anbe Aaruyire now, would you have done it the same way?
I’m fine with these two roles. It required a Jim Carrey-thanam. And if you’ve seen Toy Story and Tom Hanks’ character in it, I borrowed from that performance too fro New. So those films were a bit of Jim Carrey, the eye movements from Toy Story, bits from Sivaji Ganesan, Rajini and MGR with some of my own style made those performances.
But that wildness had to remain consistent throughout the film didn’t it?
If it is required, I can perform it like that. The same way, once I get the tone of a certain character, then it’s fine to remain in that.
Was that the same with Spyder?
It was. The director initially gave me a few references. Like Hannibal Lecter, and course Joker. These were the parameters. But this was basic, it’s like knowing Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da, Ni, Sa. I didn’t invent it.
And then what do you go through?
Then he gave me the scene. I had to wear a sack on my face, which meant that all I had was my lips and eyes to deliver the performance.
Was it trial and error after that?
It was fine actually. The best scenes were all that shot in under ten minutes, this includes the lighting and the setup. The same with the Iraivi railway station scene. It took just 15 minutes. Perhaps that pressure really helps. When I go through the lines, I just fix the high points in my brain because rehearsing too much might spoil the performance.
Is there some lesson from your direction years that you use in your acting?
Of course. When I was behind the camera, I shot many actors. And then when I go to the edit room, I go through a frame a million times. So now I got used to the camera. Now if you place a camera in front of me, I don’t have to see the monitor to see what I look like. I know which part of my face is being exposed.
And when you work with other directors, do they explain a scene to you like they do to another actor, or do they use technical terms?
They do but I switch off that part of my mind when I go to the sets. I never allow any directorial ideas to come when I’m on another director’s sets. Also, I work with really professional directors now. So I don’t have to. I feel everyone should stick to their designation.
How much would SJ Suryah the director, rate SJ Suryah the actor?
Actually SJ Suryah the actor, from my point of view…he is quite brilliant (laughs). But from the world’s point of view…‘why is he even acting?’. It is only now that people have accepted me as an actor. After Iraivi people were like, “so you do one movie as an actor and then do one movie as a director.” But after Spyder and Mersal, that part is gone. Now they admit I can act. But I’ve still not reached where my true potential, if you ask me.
You’ve seen success in so many different ways. But are you most happy when you succeed as an actor?
Yes of course. It has always been my dream.
But were you ready to face that criticism when you started out as an actor?
I believe in one thing. One’s life journey is to match what he thinks of himself with what others think of him. That journey is happening now.
You said something very interesting in your earlier interview. You spoke about how learning a new artform helped you understand your own artform better. Like how music helped you in acting and in direction…
Not only music, but installing any new artform will teach you great things in life. You might be a professional at your work, but to understand that better, you need to experience the learning of another artform. Now I’ve started learning Hindi for the Amitabh Bachchan film. But its all through short cuts. Learning Hindi taught me how little I knew Tamil.
Are you still learning music?
Now I’ve stopped. That too was through short cuts. To really learn music, you need more than one lifetime. I learnt enough to help me act as a music director for Isai.
But the songs were hits…
See when I do something, I do it sincerely. I just approach every artform with science and math. But my aim is to become a big star.
You had mentioned how you want to become a star as big as Shah Rukh Khan…
I want to become bigger than Shah Rukh Khan, because he doesn’t have a market in Tamil and Telugu. Whether it happens or not, my vision is have a Pan-Indian market for my film. That’s the goal but I don’t know when it’s going to happen.
Do you feel you’re in the right path?
I’m in the right path, but I feel I’m a bit late. If my destination is 100 km away, then I’ve only reached five or six kms.
But when people tell you that you’ve reached around 90 kms as a character actor, don’t you feel great?
I feel ok. That’s all.
Can you explain why or when this love for acting happened in you? So many people would have abandoned their dream to become an actor, had they been in your shoes. I don’t mean that because you’ve tasted failure, I meant that in terms of how much success you’ve tasted in other fields.
It’s been the same since childhood. My father was a huge fan of MGR. He used to run a music shop and watching films and listening to him talk about movies is some of the best moments of my life. This love for acting must have come from that period.
So when you were writing films for other actors, were you always the hero in your head?
When you’re an actor, you can think that, but as a writer one shouldn’t think like that. It’s like an orchestra…because I’m a guitarist, I shouldn’t give undue importance to the guitars, right? But when I write dialogues for the heroine, I become the heroine. The same way, when you write for the hero, you become the hero. There’s no partiality.
Coming back to Monster, what sets it apart from other similar films, at least from Hollywood?
In Monster, the rat does not behave like it’s a human being. It’s unlike Stuart Little or Eega. Because a rat remains a rat in this film. The crew spent 20 days shooing just the rat so it’s not easy at all. So the man who played a menacing villain to Mahesh Babu is now being troubled by a rat (laughs). It is also the first SJ Suryah film to not get an ‘A’ rating (laughs).