Freida Pinto talks about some of the challenges of filming Julian Schnabel's Miral, which tackles the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as seen through the eyes of real-life novelist Rula Jebreal. She was speaking at a press conference held during the London Film Festival.
In taking on this role of Miral did you feel an extra pressure in having to portray someone who is very much alive and present in the world?
Freida Pinto: I would say pressure on one hand, but on the other hand I looked at it as an amazing opportunity to be able to breathe life into this character and make her this real person that she is. So, it was definitely a challenge. But having Julian [Schnabel, director] and Rula [Jebreal, writer] always present and always there when I needed them the most really helped.
What kind of research did you do?
Freida Pinto: Julian set me this little project, where he sent me to East Jerusalem and he asked me to stay at the orphanage where Rula grew up, and I stayed there. I also stayed with a Palestinian family in East Jerusalem as well... ate with them and learning more about the culture. So, the two of them really had me immersed into my character way before I even started and that really did help a lot.Julian also wanted me to walk around the old city of Jerusalem like I was one of them rather than a tourist, or a stranger, and that helped because I realised that when I went to the Al-Aqsa Mosque I wasn't stopped at the gates because people just thought I was a Palestinian and they let me walk right through.So, it was quite an intense preparation period but very fruitful for me because I think I learned a lot, not just about Rula but about all the people living in Israel and Palestine even today.
How did it affect you, emotionally and spiritually, being in east Jerusalem and living among the people there?
Freida Pinto: Well, I come from India which, culturally, is not very different from Palestine. We have a lot of foods that are in common, although we call them by different names, and we have a lot of words in Arabic that sound very much like Hindi. So, in terms of culturally I don't think I was very much shocked.Emotionally I was very shocked when I went to the refugee camps because that was another kind of project that Julian sent me on, in order to understand what the situation was in a refugee camp. So, yes I was really upset. I had this experience when I went into the refugee camp for the first time and there were these three boys who had little stones in their hands, and the group of people... the two or three young people that I went with kind of got a bit frightened and were walking away from the boys. I asked them why they were doing this and they said: "They're not very used to strangers. We are strangers, so I'm not sure we'll be welcome here."But then one of the girls also mentioned: "You know a little bit of Arabic, right? Because you learned a little bit of Arabic, so why don't you talk to them?" And that's when I said: "They're just children, so how can you be afraid of them?" So, I walked up to them and said [in Arabic]: "Hello, how are you?" And I think the moment I did that there was something that just calmed down within them and they put the stones down and they put out their hands and shook hands. It was as simple as showing them a little bit of love and affection... it wasn't... all their lives they've been shown hatred and violence, which is why they respond to it in a very similar fashion at times.
Freida Pinto: Spiritually, yes, it definitely changed me because I feel a lot is taken for granted. The fact that I'm educated, sometimes I don't really... I love the fact that I'm educated but I don't think about... it's kind of like a healthy ammunition that I have where I can stand up for myself, whereas a lot of kids, a lot of orphans in Israel and many parts of the world don't have that. So, I think it really made me appreciate what I have, much like Slumdog [Millionaire], where I really started learning more about my own country and appreciating the fact that I was born and brought up in a very well-to-do family.
Have you been surprised by some of the negative reactions to the movie?
Freida Pinto: Well, Rula said something beautiful when she and I were doing an interview together. It was something like: "Is it a problem that I talk about this conflict? Or is it a problem that this conflict actually exists?" And I think that really sums up the reaction so far.
Interview: Rob Carnevale