In The Gray Man, the Russo brothers’ Netflix spy thriller, Dhanush plays assassin Avik San, referred to by another character as “my sexy Tamil friend’. He talks about being convincing as an action hero despite not having a buff physique and when we can expect to hear news of Vada Chennai 2.
Dhanush, you’re a director yourself, and you’ve said that the way you became a director was to cobble together knowledge from many of your directors. What knowledge did you gain from the Russos?
Their meticulous planning. They are very particular about training, they are very precise, they are very patient. They take the time to get things done right, exactly how they want them. That’s something I learnt from them.
I was looking at all the media reports and clips of you at the premiere in LA, and you were walking with your lovely sons. I was thinking back to these interviews you’ve given about how you’ve come from such a humble background, how you never wanted to become an actor. And here you are, in this massive film, with these glorious superstars. I was just wondering what was going through your head. Did your sons say, ‘Well done, dad.’
They will like anything I do, they are my sons.
They are not critical yet?
No, they are. But they’ll find a way to say it like a compliment. I’m glad they were there. It meant the world to me. My purpose is my sons. There is nothing that could mean more to me than having them there.
What was walking that red carpet like?
In my head, I was like, ‘This is the first time (this is happening), there’s not going to be another first time.’ Because the first time is always the best experience. So I wanted to make sure to observe everything that was going on around me. To not just absorb this moment, but live it, take it all in. All I wanted to do was say the right things and walk. I am very comfortable in front of the camera, it’s like my home. But I’m absolutely uncomfortable away from the camera, doing promotions, walking the red carpet, giving interviews. I have stage fright. I dread having to go up and say a few words. But I just wanted to do it the right way.
But that’s incredible, because when the camera is on, the work you do is magical. Is that because you are playing a character?
I come from a very different background. I come from a very humble family. My father had to work really hard to provide us with three meals a day. So the world I come from is completely different from the world I’m in right now. So I look at things differently. Even after being in this industry for 22 years, things could be really overwhelming for me. I feel shy, and it may sometimes come across as arrogance, but it’s mostly because I’m an introvert. So for a person like me, when I go in front of the camera, I own that world. I am me in that world, I can completely be me. That’s why I feel so comfortable in front of the camera.
You are this big assassin in the movie. But you are not buffed in the way Ryan Gosling or Chris Evans are. You’re not bringing in danger with your body, you are bringing danger with your body language. How do you do that?
It’s about conviction. Be it romance, or sad scenes, or comedy, it’s all about conviction – how much you can do justice to the character you are playing. It was an issue I faced in the early stages of my career. I had to find a way — action is a very big part of Indian films and I had a lean physique. Now a protagonist can be thin and wiry, but back in 2000, it was not like that. There was a grammar, you needed to be big to beat up 4 to 5 guys. I was launched in 2002, I started filming in 2000. Around 2005 and 2006, I had to find a way to convince the audience that I could beat up four to five guys. I had to work on my body language and do it with conviction. So, it’s lot of training and experience. I would like to thank all the stunt choreographers who I worked with in the past 22 years. It’s because of what I’ve learnt from them that I’m doing stunts in a Hollywood film.
You said the only technique you have is ‘believe’. But you make it sound too simple.
I don’t know any other way. I was not brought up to be an actor. It just happened and then it was either do or die for me back in 2002. I was at that tender stage where you have to make a decision, and all the decisions were made for me. I was in a very tricky spot and I had to very quickly learn the techniques to deliver and become a good actor. So, the only method I could quickly find was to believe that this was happening to me, to believe that this character was me. Believe you are doing well. Believe you are good. What you believe is what you become is what they say. And that was my mantra and technique.
The 22 years have been an incredible journey. You are a National Award-winning actor. You have produced successful films, you are a lyricist, you are a singer, you are a writer. What is the next great ambition?
I like to keep my ambitions very close to my chest. I don’t share them because back then in 2002, if I’d told anyone that I would win four National Awards or star in a Hollywood film, they would have laughed at my face. So, I believe in doing and then talking, rather than talking about it before. And I don’t know how far I’m going to go or what’s going to happen to me. God has been very kind, He has been guiding me throughout my journey and it’s an absolute miracle that I have come this far. Without a superpower, without my mother’s prayers, I don’t believe I could have come this far. So, I have learnt to dream big and not tell people what I am dreaming about. I do have very big ambitions in my heart. So let’s see where God takes me.
Do these dreams include Vada Chennai 2? Because I am super excited.
I have been torturing (director) Vetrimaaran for Vada Chennai 2 for the past three years.
What does he say?
He is a very different filmmaker. You have to let him go with the flow. Sometimes he wants to tell one story, and then he changes his mind and wants to tell a different story. The original plan was to make Vada Chennai 2 – we have 45 to 50 minutes of footage ready. We shot so much for Vada Chennai, we got footage for the sequel too. But suddenly, Vetrimaaran wanted to take a break from that world and tell a different story. So he’s gone to explore another world. It’s my duty, as a brother, as a friend and as an actor to give him that space, to let him go and finish what he wants to do and then return whenever he wants to make Vada Chennai 2. We’re all there, the entire world is waiting for him.