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On Acting In A Foreign Language And The Whiteness Of Hollywood

15 September 2015 | 5:03 pm | Stephanie Liew

"They already have their minds made up that they are not even gonna look at your tape."

Suraj Sharma and Tony Revolori in Umrika

Suraj Sharma and Tony Revolori in Umrika

When The Music calls up 19-year-old Tony Revolori — who you might recognise as Zero from The Grand Budapest Hotel or Jib from Dope — he's in a car in New York City en route to the Pershing Square Signature Center; he's been performing there as part of The New Group's production of Philip Ridley's Mercy Fur.                        

"This is something new — this is something I have no experience in but I'm going ahead and trying it," he explains of his interest in theatre.  

Perhaps acting onstage instead of onscreen seemed much less daunting after Revolori starred in Prashant Nair's film Umrika, alongside Life Of Pi's Suraj Sharma, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and won the World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award. It follows Sharma's character Ramakant as he embarks on a journey to find out what happened to his brother after he left their rural village of Jitvapur to travel to America. Revolori plays Ramakant's best friend Lalu.  

"I probably practiced my lines about eight hours every day to try and get them right, accent and all."

"It was really different," says Revolori of acting in an Indian film. "It was really an amazing experience; I had a lot of fun. But it was different, you know? It's a different rhythm that they do, it's a different type of style. How to capture that style was definitely a lot of hard work but I tried to manage — I hope I managed to encapsulate it. I'm really, really fortunate that I got the opportunity."

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It wasn't just a difference in production that proved a challenge — Umrika's dialogue is entirely in Hindi ('Umrika' being the Hindi word for America). Before landing the role, Revolori — born and raised in California and of Italian and Guatemalan heritage — couldn't speak a word of the language.  

"I probably practiced my lines about eight hours every day to try and get them right, accent and all. And it was a difficult, weird thing. A lot of hard work had to be put into it, and even on set, you know, take after take, to make sure I was doing it right. It was a lot of dedication... but other than that, it was fun!"

At its heart, Umrika is a film about American mythology, how different cultures perceive each other and what they consider 'exotic', and migration and belonging. These messages had an impact on Revolori. 

"It gave me a bit more cultural understanding of my family. I'm not Indian but I have parents from a different country so it gave me an understanding of how they view America in a different way than I do and it kind of gave me a closer understanding [of] what they mean and what they strived for... So that was something that I really took to heart after we finished the movie."

Revolori has been acting since he was two, and among his many roles has been cast as characters who are Maori, Hispanic (which he identifies as) and now Indian.

"I find it very refreshing. I think I am very, extremely fortunate to be allowed to play a lot of different roles and play a lot of different ethnicities and I'm just very happy to keep getting the opportunity."

While Revolori has also had roles where ethnicity is irrelevant to the characters, he has definitely noticed the pervasive whiteness of Hollywood — a topic that has been picking up steam in the last few years, with op-eds tackling issues of white-washing, structural racism in pop culture and media, and cultural appropriation. Making the rounds earlier this year was Dylan Marron's Every Single Word project, in which movies are cut and edited down to only the lines spoken by people of colour, resulting in some extremely short videos (some of which contain zero scenes).

"It's just something that needs to be changing," Revolori says of Hollywood's diversity problem. "It's something that definitely needs to happen. I don't want it to be something where people say, 'we need to do this', 'we have to do this', or anything like that, I just want people to understand that it should happen. It's just sad because you go in for [a role] and they already have their minds made up that they are not even gonna look at your tape… The only reason they had you come into the audition was so that way they could say 'look, a character a brown guy auditioned for' and now no one can complain... It should change. People should learn. We'll see whatever happens 20 years from now, 30 years from now, 50 years from now... We can only hope and knock on wood for the future."

Coming up, you'll be able to see Revolori in Ricardo de Montreuil's Low Riders, in the Duplass brothers' Table 19 alongside Anna Kendrick, and in the J Blake-directed sci-fi thriller The 5th Wave.