It’s endearing to see Vikram wear stardom lightly. He poses for selfies with fans and asks if they want more. It’s not something that a star does. The 50-something actor has been in the industry for more than two decades and continues to pick films that surprise himself and the audience. “My journey is like a ladder because, perhaps, all of this was self-taught,” he smiles.
Before I begin the interview, I ask Vikram what annoys him the most, so that I know what not to ask. “The moment someone asks uncomfortable questions, I trouble them in return. I am a prankster. Any question can be wrong— if framed wrongly or say I am not in a proper state of mind. But I manage pretty well,” he laughs.
Excerpts from a conversation:
The quality of films you pick is improving with age.
Is that your way of saying I am becoming old? (Laughs) As a performer, it is important to stay at the top—which is why I choose unconventional stories and challenge myself to do better roles. I want people to build conversations around my films. I should make them discuss cinema.
You are known to go that extra mile for any role.
That’s what keeps me going and I like it this way. As long as I am on fire and passionate about what I am doing, I am cool. The day I lose my excitement, I will quit.
It’s easier said than done, right?
Absolutely. Moviemaking, itself, is not easy. Every stage of the process is challenging—getting into the role, acting, doing stunts and dubbing. Even if you aren’t doing something extraordinary, it is still a task. It becomes more challenging, in case, you want to do something physically demanding or ‘different’.
You aren’t trained in acting, yet you are a method actor.
Definitely, I am. I have done plays in school. Over these years, I realise I have inculcated a particular trait that I don’t know how I developed. When I accept a film, I do it wholeheartedly. I made the decision and so I better give my 100 per cent. To be honest, I will be in that emotion while performing a scene, which happens on its own. It’s actually strange for someone who isn’t trained in acting. It feels good when my son (Dhruv) says, “Dad, in today’s class, they taught me what you did in Kasi or Pithamagan.” I went into specific zones for a few of my films— Krishna in Deiva Thirumagal, the beast character in I, Love in Iru Mugan and KK in Kadaram Kondan.
Who is cooler—Dhruv or you?
Dhruv is cooler. Dhruv studies at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, New York. That’s the ideal place for method acting and has produced stalwarts—Marilyn Monroe, Al Pacino, Paul Newman, Geraldine Page and so on. Dhruv has a father who could put him there, but unfortunately, it wasn’t the case with me. (Grins) I had to learn things the hard way and am still learning. No actor can say he knows it all and the day he says so—will be the end of his career. I always think I should have done better. It means I am evolving. Cinema isn’t what it used to be. During Sivaji (Ganesan) sir’s period, it was all dramatic. After that, it became subtle. Now, actors aren’t supposed to act. Within that, we need to show variations in characters and that’s how we score.
You become a different person altogether in front of the camera.
When I speak to a director, I get a hang of my role and know what he is expecting. Say, he wants the character to have a potbelly, I visualise the same. I work on it. I become that guy. Once I transform myself into that character, everything falls into place. I give a month’s time and let the role grow on me. Once I am on the sets sporting specific costumes and looks, I am there. Naturally, it will be unsettling on day one. So, we will shoot not-so-important scenes first. On the third day, I will get into the groove.
What’s with you and layered grey characters? Why do they interest you so much?
In films, I want to be far possible from the guy I am. I don’t want to be me. What is the fun in that? I don’t want to do any film that reflects me. I may not be the person I am talking to you. But hey, I am. Just kidding. (Laughs)
Let’s talk about your character in Kadaram Kondan. Who is KK?
He is unpredictable, swag and menacing. But on the sets, I was anything but these. I am forever this guy who plays pranks on people. That is my nature. KK is also grey. You can neither call him good nor bad. He is definitely not dark. What attracted me to the script is its pace. And it’s difficult for an Indian actor to be part of a regional film that resembles a Hollywood venture. We shot for 55 days and it was challenging to see that we had continuity in emotions and shots. Nowhere you would find me slip. The audience should forget they are watching Vikram and travel with my character. That’s what I aim for.
I had great satisfaction on the first day which continued till the last. Kadaram Kondan will be a milestone in my career and that’s what I had told during the audio launch. Because I strongly felt the film would fetch me a different set of audience. Kamal (Haasan) sir exactly told me the same. With Kadaram Kondan, I learned I could do an excellent film within a short span of time.
Do you read reviews?
I take constructive criticism but everyone is a reviewer now. Reviews can get confusing. Some swear by Dhool. Some swear by Kandasamy. Some swear by Anniyan. It’s weird. Whenever I visit villages, women still say Kasi is the best film I have done so far. What do I make of this? Ovvorutharuku oru padam pidikkum. Adhe padam innorutharukku pidikaadhu. Does it mean it was a bad film? I don’t think so. It’s subjective, right? What matters to me is the journey, not the destination. As an actor, I ask myself — did I enjoy the process? Did the role excite me enough?
It is too late to ask. But what made you do Saamy Square?
I know why you are asking. (Laughs) Nobody wants to do a bad film, intentionally. I was happy that I could recreate the same character I did 16 years ago without prosthetics. Additionally, I had to do the younger version of Saamy. I didn’t wear makeup yet pulled off the roles effortlessly. Nothing was easy. I was on a strict diet regimen, too. I hold the character (Saamy) very close to my heart.
Sometimes, the hard work you put in doesn’t pay off.
Nothing can rise above the bad script and it hurts when my films don’t do well. Because it’s all blood and sweat. For Rajapaattai, I remember I had 9 looks in a song and 13 looks in a scene. I worked nonstop for 36 hours without sleep. The make-up man and the sets were available only for two days, so we had to finish off everything quickly. When I was shooting, the make-up man would catch some sleep. It’s vice-versa.
Maybe, things have to do with some luck?
My career is summed up by the decisions I have made. Had Sethu not happened, I would be still slogging. It’s not luck. It’s about meeting the right people in the right place at the right time. I have learned to survive and I know everyone is dispensable. I neither let success go to my head nor failure affect me.
Shankar’s I is the toughest film of yours till date.
If I chance upon a great script like I, I don’t mind taking a risk again. I do crazy stuff for films. I don’t do it for the sake of impressing someone. It is for myself. I never take my work for granted.
It’s hard to reach you. Journalists meet you only if you think we can.
I am quite a private person and I enjoy that. Hey, I am shy, too. Sometimes, I don’t even have time for my family. I wake up at 5 am, go to the gym — I come back, I horse-ride. I have my physiotherapy sessions in between. I work out again and crash off by 11 pm. See, it has been days since my manager visited me. 24 hours isn’t enough at all. My wife says I should have 48 hours in a day. (Laughs)
Can we see you direct your son someday?
I want to give my son the best of things. I am not sure if I am good enough to direct him yet. I know I can be a good director. I prefer Dhruv to be in safer hands. I need a good script in the first place. I can’t write. I am too lazy. After proving myself as a director with six to seven hits, I will.
If you want to change something in you, what that would be?
I want everything to be perfect. That said, I expect others to be perfect as well. I should stop being hard on myself. How do I achieve that? Being a perfectionist, again. (Laughs)
What are your upcoming projects?
I am working with Mani Ratnam on Ponniyin Selvan. It has a terrific script. Besides, I have Mahavir Karna and Ajay Gnanamuthu’s next that has music by AR Rahman.