A chat with Dileep Rao, Dileep Rao interview, Inception, Avatar, Drag Me To Hell
Dileep Rao

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When we last left our old friend Dileep Rao, he was just coming off the success of his role as the beard-rific Rham Jas in Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me To Hell,” desperately dancing around telling me too much about his work as Dr. Max Patel in the then-still-upcoming “Avatar,” and unabashedly avoiding revealing what film he was about to begin.

That film, as we now know, was Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” Seriously, how many actors have that kind of run with their first three motion pictures? Clearly, Dileep Rao is awesome…and if you doubt this, then consider that, as the release date of “Inception” became imminent, he approached me and asked, “Hey, are we going to do another interview?”

Why, yes. Yes, we are. Now if we could just do something about that cell phone reception…

 

Dileep Rao: Hello, sir!

Bullz-Eye: Hello to you as well, sir! How are you?

DR: I’m really good. What’s going on?

BE: Have you just woken up and found yourself with a post-premiere hangover?

DR: (Laughs) No, I’m up…and no post-premiere hangover, thank God!

BE: So how was the grand premiere? I got the impression from your Facebook status update that it must’ve been something else.

"Leonardo (DiCaprio)…yeah, of course, he’s one of the greatest fucking actors of our generation, and he proved it every day at work. That guy is flat-out awesome. But, you know, there were people I just went to go see work sometimes, that I didn’t work with that much. Like, I don’t have that much direct interaction with Michael Caine, but I went down to see him work. I’m, like, 'I know I’m not supposed to be here right now, but…it’s Michael Caine!'"

DR: It was fucking rad, man. (Laughs) It was so cool, dude. It was a great night, and there was some crazy shit. After we started eating and having some drinks, sitting around chatting with everybody, the stage parted, and…they’d had a woman up there singing Edith Piaf songs, because some of her songs are in the movie, but then the curtain parted, and there’s probably a 20-piece orchestra up there, and there’s Johnny Marr on guitar and Hans Zimmer on the keyboard, and they performed selections from the score for something like 25 or 30 minutes.

BE: Holy shit!

DR: (Laughs) Yeah! That’s what I said! I’m, like, “Holy shit, that’s Johnny fucking Marr!” So I walk over there, and I’m shaking his hand and saying, “You know, your music had a huge influence of me.” And he’s excited to meet me! He’s, like, “Congratulations, the movie’s so good,” and I’m, “Uh, okay, but you’re Johnny fucking Marr.” (Laughs) That was totally crazy. How do you even talk about stuff like this, you know?

BE: Well, as you know, Jenn and I both loved “Inception.

DR: Yes, clearly, you’re among the people who like the movie. (Laughs) Which is great! I mean, most people do like it, I think. Some people are a little… (Hesitates) I was hearing last night from some of the journalists who were covering it, “No, it’s too smart.” I’m, like, “Dude, what the fuck kind of definition is that?” It’s like saying, “Oh, that girl is too beautiful!”

BE: I’ll go ahead with the obligatory kick-off question: how did you get involved with “Inception” in the first place?

Dileep RaoDR: Well, I auditioned. I was in New York reading a movie that was going to go to Sundance, and they were kind of testing it in a focus group, a bunch of people sitting in a room work-shopping this picture that was going to go to the Sundance Institute to shoot. And I got word…I mean, I’d said that I really wanted to be in the next Chris Nolan picture, and I knew he was doing something, but nobody really knew anything about it. It was so top-secret that I don’t even think anyone knew that Chris had sold the film at that point! I tried pitching myself to the casting director, and I was told, “Look, this is not a film where we want ideas from anybody about who we cast.” (Laughs) But when I was in New York, they called my agent and said they were auditioning for the picture, so I flew myself back, I read for Chris once, and I left. And I heard…I think it was later that day that I heard from my agent, saying, “They’ve cut everyone except you. Now, they’re going to go to London to see some people, and then we’ll know more after that. So don’t get your hopes up, but…this is great!” I said, “Cool!” Then I came back and read again, and I got the job. And then, as you might expect, I freaked out completely. (Laughs)

BE: Dude, you’ve got a serious trifecta on your hands: “Drag Me To Hell,” “Avatar,” and now “Inception.”

DR: Dude, it’s, like, this is the great lesson I think I’ve learned: for all of the disappointments I’ve suffered in my life, for all the unfairnesses that have come my way…which were all so myopic, anyway, when you look back at them…I have been more than fairly compensated. (Laughs)

BE: Okay, so about the film. You knew this question was coming, I realize, but as soon as I saw you do this in the movie, I knew I had to ask you about it: how much did you enjoy pushing Joseph Gordon Levitt backwards in his chair?

DR: (Laughs) You know, I’ve got to say that the funniest part of that is that me and Tom Hardy were cracking up, because Joseph had to keep a straight face and do the stunt, and he’s impeccably good at it, but we were just having so much fun. I’m knocking him over, and Tom’s sitting there watching me doing it, and the fact that he couldn’t participate in the fun of knocking him over somehow made it even funnier to both of us. We had a real blast doing that. And I got to slap his face! And I was, like, “Okay, this is a movie, not a play, so I’m going to have to actually slap him.” So we just kind of went back and forth, and Chris showed me what he wanted, so I got to slap Joseph a couple of times. I’m, like, “Dude, are you okay?” “Yeah, of course I am.” “All right, just wanted to make sure.” (Laughs)

BE: By the way, I thought it was great that the rainy conditions in one of the dreams only came about because you had to pee.

DR: Yeah! (Laughs) I think it’s because I took a quick swig of something before we went under. I thought that joke was so funny when they put that in there. That’s kind of Chris’s humor. It’s, like, “Look, let’s actually play this out, and let’s go see what would happen.” And it was hilarious when we saw it put together.

BE: So tell me the saga of shooting the van sequence. I’ve heard it took a month of work, off and on, to finish it all.

On the "Inception" premiere: "The curtain parted, and there’s probably a 20-piece orchestra up there, and there’s Johnny Marr on guitar and Hans Zimmer on the keyboard, and they performed selections from the score for something like 25 or 30 minutes. So I walk over there, and I’m shaking (Johnny Marr's) hand and saying, 'You know, your music had a huge influence of me.' And he’s excited to meet me! He’s, like, 'Congratulations, the movie’s so good,' and I’m, 'Uh, okay, but you’re Johnny fucking Marr!'"

DR: Yeah, man, it was one of those things where…I couldn’t believe how many times we walked in, and it was, like, “We’re going to the van,” or, “We’re back in the van,” or, “I believe we’re doing the van again.” (Laughs) There were something like 11 vans. I’m not kidding. Okay, maybe it was nine vans. But they each had different things: some with different glass, some with these huge rigs on them so they could rain over the van, shoot on the van, light the van, shoot the interior and exterior. One had this crazy motorcycle rig on it, where I knock the motorcyclist with the shotgun off. I mean, this sequence went on and on and on. (Laughs) And I never realized how involved it was going to be, because in the description in the script, it’s, like, “Okay, this makes sense, we’ll shoot this thing, it’ll take a week, maybe two, and I’ll be driving around…” But we just kept going back to it. We had the sequence down by the bridge, and, y’know, a lot of the movie was about that. We spent two weeks, I think, down in San Pedro, shooting on this amazing rising bridge, and it was beautiful. But, you know, we’re raining every day, the light would need to change, and Chris would change it. He’s such a genius. But I just couldn’t believe the number of days it took to do it. It was crazy. There were days where…well, there was one really weird day where it was me, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Ellen Page, Cillan Murphy, and Ken Watanabe, with me driving. Literally, me driving them. Chris Nolan’s there, and, basically, we’re just driving around for the bulk of the day. It was like camp, actually. (Laughs) It was kind of fun, and it really underlined what a special experience it was and what a cool group it was.

BE: So I can’t remember: did you get to work with Tom Berenger at all?

DR: A little bit, yeah. I think we shot at least two days. Maybe two or three days.

BE: I couldn’t believe he was in there. I saw him, and I wasn’t expecting it, so I’m, like, “Holy crap, it’s Tom Berenger!” (Laughs)

DR: Yeah, I think Chris has really been a fan of his for a long time. I think when he gets someone like that…it’s like how he had Eric Roberts in “The Dark Knight.” He’s, like, “Look, I really like this guy, let’s see if he wants to be in that.” And, of course, if that actor has any kind of sense, he says, “Absolutely, yes!” (Laughs) Tom’s a very good actor, and he’s obviously been one for a long time, so I don’t think it’s any kind of stretch that Chris would want to use him.

BE: Absolutely not. So how much of the stunt driving of the van did you yourself end up doing?

Dileep RaoDR: Uh, you know, more than I thought I was going to do. (Laughs) I was just kind of, like, “Okay, whatever,” and…of course, I had these great doubles who all had my wig on. One was Greek-British, and one guy was Arab, I think. There were so many different guys who looked like me who were all stunt dudes, and they handled all the heavy lifting, like, when the vehicle was out of control at high speeds or did a roll or something. But I had to do all of that stuff on the bridge at high speeds, with the camera coming by my face. That was me. I wasn’t CGI’ed or anything, that was actually me. I had to do all of the stuff where the van is speeding through traffic. I had to kind of drive up these causeways and stuff and down the bridges. Sometimes the rain was coming down so thick that I was, like, “I am so glad there’s no traffic, because I can’t see anything!” (Laughs) And I had to repeat stuff, as far as driving in a loop and shooting the same piece over and over again. We did that a lot. First, though, I had to pass a test. They were, like, “Uh, you know, first let’s see if you can actually drive!” So I did that, and then they trusted me to do my part. But the dangerous stuff…that wasn’t me. I mean, no one wants to die, right?

BE: So what you’re saying is that you yourself did not actually drive the van off the bridge.

DR: (Laughs) That is correct. They actually shot the van out of a cannon, from what I understand…or what I remember. They shot it directly out of this massive cannon, straight into the air at a very high speed, and then, of course, they had to run it back at that super slow motion rate. And I love that sequence, but…it’s going down for, like, the better part of 20 minutes. (Laughs) It’s kind of amazing.

BE: The shot with all of you guys standing in the middle of an empty street: real or special effects?

DR: Real. It was at 7th and Hope in downtown Los Angeles. Traffic was shut down for, like, three or four blocks around us. And it was one of those moments where you’re, like, “Only in a movie would you ever get to experience something like this.”

BE: You actually got several really big laughs during the course of the movie. I think my favorite, though, was when you performed your kick-ass driving maneuvers, whipped around excitedly as if to say “Did you see that?” and then realized, “Oh, right, everybody’s asleep.”

DR: The funny thing about that…

(At this moment, Dileep’s cell phone reception suddenly crapped out on him…or, at least, it did as far my being able to hear him. He could clearly hear me, though, because when I said, “I’m losing you,” he rearranged himself to find a better signal.)

BE: Okay, so what was the funny thing?

DR: The funny thing… (Laughs) …was that it wasn’t indicated in the script, if I’m remembering correctly, that I actually did anything. I was just thinking, “I feel like he should react somehow afterward,” and Chris said, “I think maybe you should do something kind of funny here.” And I’m, like, “Yeah!” So right after that, he said, “Roll it!” So I just came up with something on the fly, and after he yelled, “Cut,” I looked over at him, and he was nodding happily, so I was just, like, “Okay!” I think he knew that it was going to work if I did something funny. I think we only did maybe one other take, and that was it…which was very much a one-off kind of think, so that was cool. But I remember the morning we shot that, because it was so funny. They’d been rolling the van…without me, obviously, because I was in my trailer…for hours and hours and hours, and then I came up, and they rocked the thing with me in it, lit it, and shot it. It was, like, done and over faster than you can even think. I was, like, “Wow…” But it was really great.

BE: I made the comment to you about the comparisons between you and John Cazale. Obviously, I was joking, but not entirely. You really do have an incredible run going. Are people actively pitching you stuff and you’re just being selective?

DR: I’m being selective. I'm getting scripts, but they're not the stuff I want to be doing. There's all kinds of silliness that's out there, and I'm just waiting for the few bits of quality. It takes patience to sift through the unappealing to get to the exciting, well-thought-through, well-written work, so in proportion, I'm trying to wade through what's come my way, and what's left that's good isn't very much. But just like with Jim, with Sam (Raimi), and with Chris, the good stuff is out there, and it will reach out to me. I have that faith. But I’ll tell you the truth: you don’t want to sit around thinking, “Stuff should be coming to me now,” because all that’s going to lead to is disappointment…and I don’t want to disappoint myself, y’know? (Laughs) So I’m just trying to take it a day at a time, seeing what’s out there that’s worth doing, and if it’s worth doing, then I certainly want to be considered. And I'm sure that, as time goes by, people will start reaching out a little bit more. I'm sure that'll happen. All in due time, sir. (Laughs)

BE: Okay, since it has to be asked, I’ll ask it: what do you hear about an “Avatar” sequel?

DR: (Unintelligible)

BE: Dude, I’m losing you again.

DR: (Finds a spot with a better signal) Jesus! What the fuck, man? It’s not like I’m in some weird area. I’m not in Podunk, Iowa. I’m in Los Angeles! (Laughs) As far as an “Avatar” sequel, I basically know what you know. Well, not exactly. I may know a little bit more. As far as I know, Jim (Cameron) hasn’t written it, but he will, and we’ll start work on it at some point. But, you know, I’m just going to let him do his thing, and when he’s ready to make it, we’ll reconvene and start the whole thing again. I don’t doubt that we’re going to do one. In fact, I have a very strong feeling that we are going to do one. But any more than that, I have zero idea.

Dileep Rao

BE: I must tell you that, at the end of the movie, Jenn and I turned to each other, and we’re, like, “If there’s a sequel, Dileep’s gonna be in it!”

DR: (Laughs) You know, he told me that when we were shooting it, and I was, like, “Cool, man!” But, I mean, I was so blown away while we were making it, I was just kind of, “There’s going to be another one…?” But now I see that he…as usual, as always…was 100% right.

BE: And not to give anything away, but one could argue that, should Chris choose to do one, the potential is certainly there for an “Inception” sequel as well…although, with that said, it ends so perfectly that I’d almost rather than it’s a closed-ended story.

DR: Yeah, I almost feel like that would make the movie…well, actually, knowing Chris, he’d find some ingenious, brilliant way to capitalize even on that. But I don’t know that Chris wants to do another one of these, at least not in this exact universe. He likes it a lot, obviously, he has really good taste about that kind of stuff, so he might leave well enough alone. But, then again, he’s also a guy who, when he comes up with a good idea, wants to see it out. So if he came up with something, then maybe. I mean, I would love to do it just to work with everyone again. It was really a lot of fun. But I don’t know. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that.

BE: By the way, I didn’t mention it earlier, but I really dug the whole putting-the-team-together aspect of the film.

DR: Yeah, and it’s also a pleasure when the team’s as strong as that one!

BE: Who was the person who you were most excited to be able to work with?

DR: You know, the answer I have for that, actually, is everybody. But Leonardo…yeah, of course, he’s one of the greatest fucking actors of our generation, and he proved it every day at work. (Laughs) That guy is flat-out awesome. But, you know, there were people I just went to go see work sometimes, that I didn’t work with that much. Like, I don’t have that much direct interaction with Michael Caine, but I went down to see him work. I’m, like, “I know I’m not supposed to be here right now, but…it’s Michael Caine!” (Laughs)

BE: Were you actually in any scenes with him?

DR: Well, we were shooting the same sequence, at least. In the airport, we were together when we shot that, so that was really, really cool. I mean, he’s just a fucking legend, as you know. He’s the real deal and a big, big deal. I just really enjoyed working on the same picture as him.

BE: Now, I think we touched on this the last time I interviewed you, but…I still think it’s nuts that you were on all of two TV episodes, and then suddenly you’re in these three massive movies. What were you doing between those episodes and working on the films? Were you doing theaters, or were you just going to auditions?

Dileep RaoDR: Well, you know, the funny thing about those TV appearances is that I’d only done one of them (Fox’s “Standoff”) before I made my first two pictures…and I only had one line! (Laughs) So it really wasn’t much of an experience, except that I can say that I’ve done it and know what it’s like. But it was kind of, like, “Okay, that was one day’s work.” Strangely, though, I still get the tiniest, most ridiculously small residuals from that one line, which is hilarious to me. (Laughs) And then I did a day on “Brothers and Sisters,” which was really fun. But I think that, from my experience, the movie thing was more right for me, because it’s more like plays. Yeah, I’ve been doing theater my entire adult life, and I’m a dedicated theater guy. In fact, I’m going to be doing a play at the end of this month. I’m going to New York City for two months to do a play. So it’s not new to me to do theater. I love theater. And moviemaking, to me, is closer to doing plays than television is. Obviously, part of that is because movies are more verbal, but I also like the purposeful process of making movies. You make a set, you use it, that’s it. (Pauses) You still there?

BE: (Laughs) Yeah, but your senses were on target: you were just starting to fade out again at the end of your answer.

DR: (Laughs) You’re, like, “Oh, great, the guy’s gone again…”

BE: Oh, yeah, I was pissed. I’m sitting here going, “Goddammit, this son of a bitch has been in three big movies and he can’t even get decent cell phone reception…”

DR: I know, right? It’s, like, what the fuck? What can I do? There is no act of will that I can perform to make it better or worse. I am at the fucking behest of AT&T.

BE: “Dammit, I worked with Cameron! I worked with Nolan!”

DR: Exactly. “Can’t you get me a fucking phone with decent reception?” (Laughs) And they’re, like, “Our advice is not to live in Santa Monica.” Amazing. Thanks a lot for that.

BE: (Laughs) Oh, so I saw your interview online with the Hindustan Times…

DR: Yeah!

(At this point, Dileep’s reception drops to the point where he is completely off the line. Moments later, he calls back. He is not pleased.)

DR: Okay, I’m going to try moving to a completely different part of my house and try sitting somewhere else. I’m going to sit by this big window and see what happens.

BE: The signal does sound better. Well, you know, comparatively speaking, anyway.

DR: (Laughs) Compared to me not being there at all? I’m sure it’s much better!

BE: It’s better than hearing a fast-busy signal in my ear.

DR: Yeah, I am more pleasant than a busy signal, thank you. (Laughs) Uh, what were we just talking about?

BE: My God, I’ve lost my train of thought entirely. Oh, hell, what were we talking about? Oh, right, I’d brought up The Hindustan Times. So I understand you’re of a mind to take a crash course in Bollywood…

DR: Yeah, man, because I saw some films when I was a kid and enjoyed them, but I really haven’t seen any since I’ve been an adult, so I didn’t want to start throwing around favorites. It’d be like someone asking you what you think of Hollywood and you saying, “Well, ‘Avatar’ is cool,” and that’s it. And they’re, like, “Okay, so, clearly, you don’t know anything.” (Laughs) I was in danger of that, so I had to be careful.

BE: “You’re betraying your heritage,” that’s what they’ll say.

DR: (Laughs) That’s what they’d say, yeah. And I’d say, “Uh, not really…”

BE: Is it weird, though, that people see your name and are, like, “Oh, well, surely he’s from India”? Well, no, actually, he’s an American-born dude.

DR: Yeah, but the thing that’s interesting is how many people from India think that I’m suddenly going to do Bollywood movies now. (Laughs) I’m, like, “Uh, I have no such offers and, at the moment, no real concrete interest in that.”

BE: Plus, my understanding is that you’d have a bit of a struggle with the language.

DR: Uh, yeah, considering I don’t speak Hindi, I’d probably be pretty bad. I’d, be, like, “What?” Critics would say, “His consistently confusing performances in every movie are amazing.”

BE: “As he does not speak in his Bollywood films, it’s remarkable how much Rao can emote with only a grin and a thumbs-up.”

DR: (Laughs) “He is the go-to mime for Bollywood films.” That’s what my level of achievement will be.

BE: You, sir, are destined to be the Marcel Marceau of Bollywood.

DR: Exactly.

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