Over the course of Trishna, Pinto hacks away at wheat fields, scrubs the floor on her hands and knees, and balances large trays of glassware on her wrist—it’s all enough to make Ann Romney have a conniption. Pinto tells me, “We never had a solid script. It was all improv, just based on the director’s idea. I never knew how it was going to play out.” When she showed up each day to the set, Winterbottom would have her get right to work on the floors, physical movement being emphasized over dialogue. She holds up her right arm and says, “My right bicep was huge! It was unnatural!” The quiet film Trishna seems miles away from her breakthrough role in Danny Boyle’s fast-paced Slumdog Millionaire, but a recurring theme in her work, though, is female characters unable to make choices for themselves, which Pinto says is the exact opposite of her situation in life.
We enter the Ahmanson Building, and I lead her towards my favorite work, a handmade quilt depicting the geographic shape of the world with the stitched image of each country’s flag making up the body and borders of its corresponding nation. “That’s India’s flag!,” she exclaims pointing and lingering for a moment before the large photo beside the piece—two Afghan women sewing the quilt. She reaches out and touches the plaque. “Is this my friend’s organization? My friend has an organization called ‘Afghan Hands,’ giving women a purpose and helping them to make their own money.” She touches the plaque a second time, letting her whole palm wash over it, as though she’s reading it in braille. We walk away, and a woman in a blue museum coat approaches. I think she’s going to admonish Pinto for touching the plaque, but instead grabs my umbrella and hands me a laminated number to retrieve it when I leave. “Really?” Pinto says, as the woman walks away. “What are you going to do, beat someone with it?” Her tone is playful, but you can tell that Pinto is a woman who isn’t accustomed to obeying rules without explanations.
Pinto’s train of thought changes like the weather on this unusually balmy day in Southern California. Her face suddenly becomes serious. She’s skipped back to Trishna when she turns to me and says, “You think there aren’t people who are as desperate as her in the world still, but there are women all over who don’t have control over their lives.” In Trishna, Winterbottom, the 24 Hour Party People director and Steve Coogan wrangler, found in India a perfect setting to explore a helpless female heroine. Pinto’s character speaks Hindi, while her male co-star’s character, Jay (Riz Ahmed of Four Lions), identifies more closely as British and speaks English. In both unconscious and conscious ways, Jay controls Trishna, but Pinto is quick to point out that this dynamic isn’t exactly alien to the U.S. “In Utah, a man kept something like 60 wives. The children were all sexually abused.” She’s referring to the Warren Jeffs case, of course, in which a hoax 911 call actually led to the takedown of a serial rapist and polygamist.
The thought renders us silent for a moment, as we walk along, stopping at a grouping of slender, black statues, collecting the light in intricate iron folds. She leans in close to them and studies them, almost touching, then turns to me and whispers: “I hated Tess when I read it.” Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the British classic by Thomas Hardy is, of course, Winterbottom’s inspiration for Trishna. Hardy’s novel was most famously adapted by director Roman Polanski for Tess, the first film he made after his arrest for coercive sex with a minor.
I take Pinto to the next building, which houses an exhibition on California design. She gravitates towards three mannequins clad in delicate cotton fabrics and tells me she loves fabric, but could never sew correctly. “In sewing class, my sister would finish all my projects for me. Half of it would be neat, and the other half was sloppy, and that was mine. My teacher would look at me, and she would know.” Pinto is close to her sister and the rest of her family, but they’re now spread out all over the world, some in Toronto, some in London. When she talks to Indian media, though, she loves divulging that she has two cousins back in India, proudly serving in the army. I smile to myself imagining them loving to tell their comrades-at-arms that their cousin played a 3-D oracle in Immortals and the unwitting love interest in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Pinto has been living in Los Angeles while filming a project in Pasadena that she is tight-lipped about—except for the fact that she sustained a minor neck injury during shooting.
I ask her what other projects are in her horizon, “I think with Bridesmaids a lot of things changed,” she offers. “Now, It seems to me, even taking Indian cinema in consideration, I feel like this year, we’ve kind of experienced a shift in humanity…In India, actually, there has been a large disparity in how much a female and male actor gets paid…but this year, one actress changed all that.” She’s referring to Bollywood actress Kareena Kapoor’s record earnings for the film Heroine.
Spending time with Pinto, one can’t help but be struck by how close India remains to her heart—no matter how much the Indian press fixates on how far she’s strayed from her homeland. “When I was promoting this big-budget film, some Indian media reported that I was being a diva on set, and that’s the reason I did not want to come to India to promote the film. I’m like, ‘What? I’m in fucking America. That’s why I can’t promote the film in India.’ It’s not easy to be in two places at once. It’s just not true.” She shakes her head and purses her lips. For the first time, it doesn’t seem easy for her to find the words.
Pinto, however, has been known to get herself into trouble with words. As we continue walking through a large, maze-like sculptural installation by Richard Serra, she squinches up her nose, unenthused. She doesn’t like it. “Some people don’t like honesty, but I do.” She says she would never say anything rude to the artist, but she wouldn’t lie about her distaste for this sculpture.
She cites an encounter with a journalist, whom she had to force into being honest with her. “I could tell he didn’t like the movie I did, and he doesn’t have to, but you could tell he didn’t like the movie by his questions, and I just stopped him and said, ‘You didn’t like the movie, and that’s okay.’”
It’s an apt anecdote for someone who displays an impressive affinity for catching people off guard. She looks other museum-goers in the eye, questions security about why you’re not allowed to drink water inside, and when a guard points at her and dazedly says, “Haven’t I seen you in a movie recently?” she smiles wide and says genuinely, “Who, me? Maybe you have, but I won’t tell you. We’re going over here, and you think about it, and tell me when I come back, though.” Her tone is warm like a Sunday school teacher and the security guard nods happily and gets to thinking, while we mosey off into another corridor. “I usually just tell people they recognize me because I’m an agent,” she jokes, leaning in to my voice recorder.
Despite her penchant for whimsy, Pinto is still a careful interview subject, time and time again guiding the conversation back to Trishna, her skipped trains of thought sometimes seeming calculated. It sort of makes sense given the trouble she made as a child: “Even if I got caught, I could make them immediately forget.” She even once started a small riot in second grade, inciting her fellow students against the Catholic nuns at her school. “It was like, ‘We can’t go to the library, but we want to go to the library,’” she says, poking fun at how her Catholic education taught her some sneaky ways to rebel.
We circle a room full of two-tone abstracts, and she spins to meet me, saying, “We’ve got to get out of the colors,” referencing the paintings. We return to the guard, and he says, “I got it: Fast and the Furious 5!” Before I can even think about whether or not this was a real movie, Pinto gives him a high five, saying, “You got it! Thank you!” I can tell that she just made his month. When we walk away, I confirm with her that she was not in that movie. Pinto laughs and says, “That security guard is so color blind. I love him. I wish he was every casting agent in town.” In fact, Pinto refuses to accept that she must always play “the Indian woman” no matter how hard that might be. Both she and her boyfriend, Slumdog co-star Dev Patel, have been quoted as saying that breaking out of the Indian mold has been difficult. Perhaps Pinto’s tired of talking about it, or maybe her mere presence in high-budget action films like Rise of the Planet of the Apes have given her enough pause not to cause too much of a stir. “Just when you feel like you want to punch someone in the face is when you need to be on your best behavior,” she tells me.
We approach an open doorway that leads to a special exhibition of surrealist women artists. I know that we aren’t allowed entry into this area without special tickets, and a man the size of a linebacker in a blue blazer stands at the entrance. We’ve been through almost the whole museum at this point, and I could practically count on my fingers the female artists I’ve noticed represented, but here before us is a whole space devoted solely to their work. I watch Pinto approach the open doorway. The man takes a slight step forward, letting his weight slip casually toward the balls of his feet, and Pinto, too, takes a step forward to him.
It’s the most polite standoff I’ve ever seen. Neither speaks. She tests him, moves forward again, the room right there—we can even see a glimpse of a Frida Kahlo beyond, the familiar unibrow portraiture—then the blazer man looks Pinto in the eye, says, “How are you two,” but not as a question. Pinto lifts her chin and pivots on her foot. We file along, away from the restricted area, and she repeats him, laughing, “How are you two. That means you’re not allowed here.” I laugh, too, because it doesn’t matter that she’s walked away, because she got what she wanted anyhow. Like the library riot of second grade, she pushed someone to say something. Who knows what that next secret project will get people to say.
Photography: Yu Tsai for OpusReps.com.
Photography Assistants: Trever Swearingen and Gregory Brouillette.
Styling: Elizabeth Stewart for TheWallGroup.com.
Styling Assistant: Katie Bofshever.
Hair: Giannandrea for TheWallGroup.com.
Hair Assistant: Anna Lyles.
Makeup: Jillian Dempsey for TheWallGroup.com using L’Oréal Paris.
Makeup Assistant: Gia Harris.
Manicure: Emi Kudo for OpusBeauty.com using Chanel.
Digital Tech: Peter Phan.
Photographer’s Personal Assistants: Wilder Marroquin and Brent Weber.
Beauty Notes: Le Vernis Nail Colour in Pirate by Chanel. Elnett Satin Strong Hold Hair spray by L’Oréal Paris and Elixir Ultime by Kérastase Paris.