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Exclusive! RRR actor Edward Sonnenblick: I can't fathom how SS Rajamouli remembers so many details in his head

The actor talks about his role in RRR, working with SS Rajamouli and why he doesn't mind getting stereotyped as a white colonial guy

Exclusive! RRR actor Edward Sonnenblick: I can't fathom how SS Rajamouli remembers so many details in his head
Edward in RRR
  • Srivathsan Nadadhur

Last Updated: 04.32 PM, Mar 24, 2022

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San Francisco-born Edward Sonnenblick may be referred to as an American actor on paper, but he is a hardcore Mumbaikar and Bollywood freak at heart. His face lights up whenever we talk of Indian food, spices, Bollywood, film music and the retro era. He took a leap of faith when he was inspired by Aamir Khan's Lagaan and packed his bags to Mumbai, dreaming of a career in Bollywood. 

Fourteen years after he landed his first acting assignment Jhansi Ki Devi on the small screen, his heart burns with the same passion and fire and one can get a sneak peek of that in Indian cinema's biggest release this year, RRR. Edward has straddled multiple mediums with ease and has worked in a handful of high-profile projects including Veere Di Wedding, Kesari, Manikarnika, Bose Dead or Alive. 

In a chat with OTTplay.com, the actor remembers the time spent in the US, grappling with the realities of Bollywood, bagging RRR and getting stereotyped as the white colonial guy in every second assignment.

Life before Lagaan and being smitten by Bollywood

As a child, you could call me a nerd and I wasn't exactly socially skilled either. I was always minding my own business, a teacher's favourite and dabbled in a lot of aspects - sports, music, writing. My entire life has been a rollercoaster ride. I grew up in San Francisco, Bay Area, went to college in North California, studied all kinds of things and ended up with a degree in Botany because I had a love for science, reason and Math too. I tried my hand in a lot of subjects, philosophy, different scientific pursuits, including theatre. 

I lead a pretty normal life for a North Californian. I was always into acting from an early age and performed in plays regularly. By the time I got a degree, I was making a living as a cook already. I stayed with food, was a chef for about 15 years of my life and cooked all kinds of cuisines for retreats. Though I liked acting, I never dared to go to Hollywood and compete, because it takes a lot of luck and talent to succeed there. I thought food would take over the acting keeda in me, but the film bug never left. 

Edward
Edward

Observing people during the stint as a chef and treating it as an acting workshop

The milieu one finds oneself in the culinary world is unique, quirky and strange. You come across a wide variety of people who deserve a movie of their own. Given it's a creative field, you meet people with artistic temperaments. It's a high-stress field too, tempers flare high and there's a lot of drama happening. Being an acting enthusiast, the stint as a chef did feel like a theatre to observe the human condition.

Moving beyond the romanticised idea of 'Bollywood' and grappling with reality in Indian cinema

Before I came to India, I was obsessed with a lot of 60s-70s Bollywood movies and I just loved the vibe in those films. I did have this very idealised, dreamy perception of Bollywood and at the same time, I knew the reality was going to be different. So, I didn't let that stop me from living in the dreamy worlds of those films. When I came to India, it was everything I expected it to be. People here really love the industry and it's easy to make friends if you sing a Bollywood number. 

Everyone loves to talk about stars, films, film music, their favourites and this made it easy for me here because I shared a similar passion for cinema. When I came to India, I tried to experience as much as I could and travelled across the country, did a lot of meditation. I just wanted to put my feet here and feel what it felt like. I couldn't exactly point out what was exactly drawing me to India and once I got here, my feelings were validated. When I went back to the US, all that I was doing was to figure out a way to return to India permanently. I did that two years later and made a name for myself in Bollywood finally.

Edward
Edward

On understanding India better by hosting the television show Indipedia

The show creators were looking for a person who could give an outsider's perspective to the country and still have a basic understanding of what India was all about - it worked perfectly for me. Many fascinating things go on in India and people here don't even bat an eyelid to it. For instance, why are lemons and chillies hanging in front of the car? Sometimes, it takes an outsider to notice those things and ask the right questions. It helped that I already knew about Indian culture to an extent, could speak in Hindi. 

Overcoming the challenge of being stereotyped as the 'white foreigner' everyone loves to hate

I don't know if I can call it a big challenge because I love the roles I get. It's good fun to be a villain and be the guy everyone loves to hate. Imagine getting fan mails for being the bad guy on the screen? I wouldn't say I get frustrated doing those roles but I do look forward to playing roles with nuanced, layered personalities. It would be great to play a normal person, who's not evil, caricatured. It's also more difficult to be real, appear normal and still give a relatable performance. 

The challenge in such 'normal' roles is huge because you can't fall back on drama so easily. I recently did a wonderful film called Saving Chintu, it was also shortlisted for Oscars and also starred Adil Hussain. In the film, I play a homosexual who comes to India with his partner to adopt a child. I play a nice guy, not oppressing anybody or doing anything evil. I've got more of those roles coming and I'll be able to talk about it more in the future. 

It's good to be here in Indian cinema when the cultural makeup of this country is slowly starting to catch up with other parts of the world and become more pluralised. I've been here for 15 years and I consider myself an immigrant, but my daily life is like anyone else in Mumbai. It's a perfect time for Indian films to have white faces as protagonists, as a friend, as a father and a good coach. You can look at me like a male Kalki Koechlin.

Edward
Edward

On the effort that goes into making audiences empathise with the bad guy

It's a wonderful challenge to make one feel for your part when you play the bad guy. I believe no one in the world is 100% bad. As an actor, playing a villain and humanising him is my job. It may be compelling for a viewer to see a guy who's through and through evil, and it's even more compelling if you're able to lend a humane dimension to the character. The script may not always provide that opportunity or the backstory that would explain his behaviour but there's always some scope for the actor to dig into that human being and find out his vulnerabilities, play with that. Nobody thinks that they are the bad guy and it applies to the villain too. Anybody is doing what's best for their lives and that element needs to come out. On a lot of occasions, villains feel they're the victims and it's interesting to bring that to the fore.

His understanding of freedom

Freedom is more complicated than a film about a revolution or an independent struggle would try to portray. For example, the US had to fight the UK to gain independence and there are a lot of movies based on it and there's something similar in the case of Indian cinema too. In most instances, the story is about the natives fighting the oppressor, but what happens after that? It's like a 'meet cute' romance where the film ends with the guy and the girl uniting. How would they deal with being together later? That's a difficult question.

When you're finally freed from the oppressor, how do you build a free, equal, liberated society and uplift as many citizens as you can? Everyone is still pondering over the question. I loved that I moved from one democracy to the other and saw two versions of it. To put it simply, it's all a work in process. 

Edward
Edward

RRR, the story beyond the patriotic dimension and SS Rajamouli

It's a story of perseverance and standing up to the oppressor. It's about not accepting injustice, it's about revolution and has a lot of common themes integral to a revolutionary story. It'll take audiences to a world only Rajamouli is capable of creating. SS Rajamouli's genius lies in the detailing. I can't fathom how he remembers so many details in his head, with such a big vision while making the film. He is really in control of every moment and knows what he's doing and will accomplish what he wants to. 

In a close up shot too, he's particular about our movements every second and I just have to surrender completely to his vision. As an actor, it's a challenge for me and many of us but I consider that a part of the spectrum of acting. When you're working with Rajamouli, you understand a lot about surrendering your body and soul to a director. It's beautiful because you get to be part of a spectacle of a great scale and you have the confidence that the filmmaker will extract exactly what he needs from you. Be it a huge crowd scene, having to keep in mind about the CG that's going to come in later or a close-up shot, his focus, clarity remains the same.

What can one expect from Edward in RRR?

I play this ruthless British officer whose job is to hunt down Bheem, a character who represents the force of nature, played by Jr NTR. There's not much I can reveal at this point but my character's ambitions and profession puts him right at the centre of the conflict in the film. It's a character that's trying to keep the native population under control by whatever means necessary. It's funny that we share the same name.

Edward
Edward

Accepting the reality that he may not have a part to play in every second Indian film that gets made

Yes, Hollywood may have allowed me to bag more roles but not the chance to explore a country as lovely as India! Even beyond that, I have been incredibly blessed with great work ever since I started working in the industry with ZEE's serial Jhansi Ki Rani for a couple of years. It was an amazing experience to be a part of it. I used to get my lines in Devanagari script and have to do the scene immediately and I managed to do it. Daily soap work is exhausting, exhilarating and it's a great way to get meaty roles. Once I made a name for myself with the show, I steadily built my career to where it is now. Even though there are fewer opportunities for a foreigner to bag roles today, I enjoy the liberty of choosing, playing interesting characters. I just enjoy being on set, shooting, making a living out of it and it's a wonderful blessing to be part of Indian cinema.

Transitioning from playing a role for a couple of years in soaps to wrapping up his portions in days for films

Sometimes, work in films gets stretched out too. You may have to shoot for the same part even with a month/seven-month-long gap. The main difference is handling the lifestyle change, you get used to shooting for a role daily and it's not sustainable in the long run, doing it year after year. My first few years in television was perfect but I was being picky about doing roles that matter, which made sense. I have an amazing manager and it's because of her that I've come this far (I actually married her). We met in my very first job and she was a director; we got married in less than two years and she handles the business aspect way better than I ever could. It helps me focus on my acting better.

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