Manish Dayal plays an Indian chef with a talent for French cuisine in The Hundred Foot Journey, a Hollywood production by Steven Spielberg. The American actor talks about starring opposite stalwarts such as Helen Mirren and Om Puri, his first major role in a feature film, and learning to cook egg curry.
How did you bag a role in this film?
It started with a voice-over audition for a DreamWorks animated film. Then I was called back and asked to do a few scenes from something that had already been made, as a sample. I didn’t know what I was auditioning for, but knew it was important. A few days later I got a call to say Steven Spielberg was involved and he watched my tape. I’m told my tapes then went to Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake. Eventually, I met Lasse Hallstrom over lunch in New York, and next day I got a call saying, ‘Steven Spielberg wants to hire you.’
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How was it acting opposite Helen Mirren and what does it mean to you?
I might have done something right in the audition — other than that I don’t know yet. Helen is down to earth and has a good sense of humour. She treated me like an equal and playing opposite her definitely elevated my game. Her character opens my character’s world. The journey is about finding the balance while taking a risk to achieve something great.
And this was also your first time working with Om Puri and Juhi Chawla?
Om Puri is a legend and I learned non-stop. Not only did we work on the scenes but we had fun playing pranks on people. When we came to shoot in India, he showed me around Mumbai and took me around to eat good food. He played my Papa in this movie, but has become a lifelong friend. Juhi Chawla’s character helps my character to discover his gift.
Did you undertake any cooking lessons for your role?
My character, Hassan is an introverted prodigy, listener and silent leader. I observed other chefs during pre-production to see how they managed their kitchens. What I loved about playing this character was the span of 10+ years in the film. You follow his evolution from the hot kitchens in India to an acclaimed chef in Paris. It was cool to work on that shift over the course of the film — Hassan growing into his own, changing from a young boy with few complications
to a grown man with complicated responsibilities.
Were you familiar with Indian cooking at the start of this film?
Sure, my dad has a tandoor in our backyard. I grew up barbequing a lot. For the film, I was in cooking classes and training to understand the different facets of the kitchens. Specifically we needed to learn how to act in a kitchen, where to stand, how to chop and prepare. I can make egg curry.
You are most remembered for the TV series 90210. How would you rate Hassan’s character compared to the roles that you have played so far?
In 90210, Raj was a normal American teenager but suffered from a terminal illness, whereas Hassan has a rare gift but has to figure out how to go after his destiny. Both are complicated in their own way. That is why I can’t compare them. Technically though, in the film, I got to evolve the character slowly whereas on TV it happens fast.
Any memorable experiences from the shoot?
Working with director Hallstrom was particularly memorable. What makes him unmatched is his imagination; the way he observes life around him. He would watch a scene as we were rolling, then stop and yell something genius to me — that’s his special ability, his intuition. His vision wasn’t fixed, it was constantly evolving and he definitely trusted my instincts throughout the process.
How did you think of a career in acting and what are your ambitions?
I saw Jurassic Park and after that I wanted to make movies. I grew up in a small town in America where opportunities were limited. My mother encouraged me to take a film class when I was young. I wanted to work behind the camera maybe as a director/ producer, which I still want to do one day. While I was studying, I got an opportunity to be in front of the camera and it was a great experience because even though I didn’t know what I was doing, I had fun.