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Freida Pinto on what on earth it's like to act in a Terrence Malick film

The actress, who did make the cut for the director's new "Knight of Cups," talks about the thrill of his chaotic style, and the short life of a Hollywood "It" girl.

“I’m sad you don’t get to act in a Terrence Malick film,” Freida Pinto tells me.

As Malick’s latest, the Hollywood-set “Knight of Cups,” comes out, some of the actors have been revealing crazy stories of the set. Thomas Lennon, who pops up for about a minute of screentime at a swanky party, has one; ditto Joel Kinnaman, who didn’t make the cut. (Malick is famous for filming actors and then never putting them in the finished film. Just ask Mickey Rourke, who was elided from "The Thin Red Line," plus these others.)

Pinto, however, did make the cut. The Indian actress, now 31, plays one of the six women Christian Bale’s Hollywood player Rick brushes shoulders with through the movie. In part because of the prominence of her role, she knew early on she wouldn’t be on the editing room floor.

“I would tell people, ‘I’m going to be in the Terrence Malick movie!’ And they’d say, ‘Um, I’ve actually been cut out of the film,” Pinto recalls.

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Reports about acting for the director — of such quasi-experimental mood pieces as “Badlands,” “Days of Heaven,” “The New World” and “The Tree of Life” — tend to include showing up on set with no clear notion of what you’re doing, and maybe even why you’re there at all. Even with an actual character to play, for Pinto it was no different.

When asked how he described the character to her, Pinto replies, “He didn’t describe her. He just asked me to describe experiences that have shaped me.” What information he gave her was essentially quotes from philosophers that inspired him. She can’t even remember when her character became a model, or when she suddenly started doing yoga. She didn’t even know why Christian Bale’s character wouldn’t speak to her in the film. “They were just things that happened on set. And now they’re in the film.”

She wasn’t even sure what her character was supposed to be like. “I remember when we were filming I said a few things [to Rick] that were harsh and mean,” she explains. “Then Terry — very sweetly, with a smile across his face — said, ‘That’s very out of character, don’t you think?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know! I don’t know what this character thinks!’ Having seen the final cut it makes sense.”

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This sounds like a chaotic way to work, even for a film with an experimental narrative being partly made up as it’s shot (and then later, in the two years it took to edit). But Pinto found it close to a spiritual experience.

“You go on set and you’re fully surprised,” she says. “That’s what life is. It throws you a curveball and you’ve got to act as soon as it’s thrown at you. When doing a Terrence Malick film you have to be ever-present and just go with the flow.”

She didn’t realize until doing press and having to articulate her experiences on set that it made her think about how difficult this industry is.

“You want to be an actor who’s in every film. You want to have confidence,” Pinto explains. “I wondered, ‘Is this really going to give me happiness? Or is happiness going to come from being who I am? This film is exactly about that exploration. Rick’s character is going through so much chaos. It’s reflective of our own life.

“But [Malick] didn’t really explain that to me, per se,” she adds.

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It made Pinto think about her own career, which took off with “Slumdog Millionaire,” followed by a rash of roles in big Hollywood films, like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Immortals,” both of which mainly regulated her to the pretty girl. (She also appeared in smaller fare, like Woody Allen’s “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” Julian Schnabel’s “Miral” and Michael Winterbottom’s “Trishna.”) She then found she was a flavor of the month, “replaced” by fresh starlets.

“There’s always going to be a new one. There’s always going to be a new best thing. Sometimes you learn that the harsh way,” Pinto says. “The lesson I can extrapolate from this is nothing is permanent. There’s a feeling of attachment to material, to accolades. That can be very destructive.”

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She says that inspired her to change how she searched for parts. “I decided I wasn’t going to play the Indian girl who’s looking to get married,” she says. “I look for roles that are not written for me, that really stretch me as an actor.”

And so she’s wound up mostly in the independent world. “There, diversity is not a question. It doesn’t even come up. It’s the most organic thing for them to cast as diversely as possible,” she says. She is excited that diversity in Hollywood is finally being talked about. “The fact that it’s already been put into motion is a very good thing. The next 10 to 20 years will be very important, to see if it happens or disappears into thin air. If it did that would be very disappointing.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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