An Interview with Ajay Naidu
Ajay Naidu is an award-winning actor. Having appeared in his first feature film at the age of 14, Ajay has worked extensively across the board in theatre, film and television. Collaborating with acclaimed directors such as Darren Aronofsky, Mike Judge, Ridley Scott, and Richard Linklater, Ajay’s credits include Requiem for a Dream, Pi, The Wrestler, SubUrbia, Hannibal, and Office Space. I spoke with Ajay about his collaborations with Darren Aronofsky, landing his first acting role, his work on stage, and portraying Samir in Office Space.
You’ve collaborated with Darren Aronofsky on several films. What’s the process like working with him?
Darren is very exacting and the window he is looking through is very powerful and can be very strange. The prism in which he is seeing characters in cinema is very much his own, more so than most people I know. It’s not always a friendly world, but it’s always in service of the story. He is very much in it 100%. On lunch he’ll be in there looking at things, setting up things and working hard. The way he relates to people can be intense. I don’t mean this in a mean way, he is a very unique person. Sometimes he’s also unpredictable. While that is okay with me, I don’t know in the process if that is okay with everyone. We share the same birthday so we always write to each other on our birthday. When he was making Pi that was very early days and when I first met him and started working with him. He was a very nuts and bolts person and had incredible respect for the acting and wanted to build sort of an ensemble in the Kubrickian sense. I went along with that and ended up in his other pictures in that vain because he was continuing with that idea of working with people who could fill out around his needs. He uses very specific people, in and around his leading characters.
I ended up in The Wrestler, I think because he thought I was sensitive and this sounds strange, but I think he feels I’m somewhat shy. I’m not shy. To Darren I’m shy because I am shy of him. Mickey Rourke was very cagey about his face and I played a medic. It wasn’t a very big part, I know no small parts, small actors but there are small parts sometimes. In a way they are meant to be small because they have to be. Sometimes it is good to just be called Man 1 or Man 3, but in this case I was The Medic. In this case he brought me into that because I was very nervous about dealing with Mickey Rourke. Mickey Rourke is very sensitive about his face, and I had to touch him. That was not something that he was very cool with in general, but he was okay with me once I got near him.
I was a very aggressive character in Pi, one of the most irascible and dudeish guys. In Requiem for a Dream, I was playing the postman and I remember him talking to me about the mythological aspects of the character. I think as a result of those discussions as a messenger and a symbol of hope in that. Those kind of discussion and directions sediment themselves and become layers and I can see in my own playing when I do that and not forced but kept in. That is a tricky thing to do, or to get your actors to get to. That’s what I would have to say about Darren. Away from the fact he keeps his filmmaking quite mysterious, I would think he’d say the opposite and say he is very nuts and bolts.
Pi was an act of desperation and love and everyone there was basically paying to make the movie by being or playing in it. Requiem for a Dream was a massive undertaking that he was then moved onto. I was working with Ellen Burstyn, a legend. I ended up working with her later on, being directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in a play several years later. She remembered our time together in Coney Island, even that one little day that we had together. She remembered it vividly and that’s a testament to Darren and to the kind of story we were telling. That was very different and then The Wrestler was so rough. It was more uncomfortable than even Pi to work on because I think the world that we were in and that underground wrestling world is just horrible, viscerally and mentally. Darren was committing to creating that kind of environment for Mickey to rebel against continuously. I was also only there for a day on that one, but it was very disturbing and very effective.
You were very young when you landed your first role. How did that come about?
Thanks for asking. I was read to all the time as a young kid. I used to wander around talking to myself and playing to myself. In my fifth grade class, my teacher’s son was a very celebrated young actor at the time. In Chicago there was a film renaissance in the 80s. John Hughes, The Blues Brothers and all of these kind of films being made. Her son was at the forefront of all of that, a tremendous actor called Adam Baldwin who has been in things with Stanley Kubrick. He was in Full Metal Jacket and he was in a great movie at the time called My Bodyguard, which really kicked him off.
One day in school, we were doing current events and my teacher saw that there was an open call for a movie starring Michael Keaton. The open call was: “Ethnic boy wanted between ages 11 and 14 to play lead”. She took me in after school and then told my mother. It was right down where my mother was working in the city and there was like 5000 kids there. They went down the line and said, ‘you leave, you leave, you stay and you leave.’ We did nothing that first day and they said come back the next day. This was even before we had a word to say. They finally boiled it down to about 100 guys and we had to step forward and say one line which was, ‘let go of me, I didn’t do nothing!’ Then they boiled it down again. Then they gave us a scene at the end of that week. My mother was just taking me there after work and they gave me a scene and they said learn this and come back.
About five or ten call backs later they asked me to go to Los Angeles to meet Michael Keaton and have a vibe with him to see how we did. We went for ice cream and he was very nice and we had a good time. I came back home and was pretty sure I was going to get this because it felt like that. They brought me in and it was Michael Keaton, the writer, the producer and the director and they said to me, ‘we think you’re a great actor, but we are thinking of using Sissy Spacek to play the mother.’ I said that’s great but I didn’t know what I was talking about. But then they said, ‘well that means that we can’t use you.’ So I didn’t know what to say so I just started crying. They were all really taken aback. The producer said to me, ‘well you are very, very talented. You should tell your mother that…’ I said that my Mother told me not to get my hopes up and that I shouldn’t come. My mother has never been through anything like this. They said to tell my agent instead. I didn’t even know what an agent was. Something overcame me and I said, ‘well if I’m so talented then you find a new Mom!’ And I stormed out of there. I walked down the hall, past my mother and I was standing at the elevator in tears and I didn’t know what to do. I felt these hands on my shoulders and I turned around and it was the producer who said, ‘I think you’re terrific and I want to find a new Mom because I want you to have the part.’ And so I got a lead in the movie opposite Michael Keaton and they got Maria Conchita Alonso to play the mother and that was my first film.
I worked in film for a bit and stopped when I was about 14, wanting to be with people and be punk and be a normal kid. The last thing I was offered before I stopped was to play Cockroach on The Cosby Show and I turned it down. I went back to school and by the time I was 16 I was getting ready to drop out high school .My father spoke to the theatre director at my High School who was a very ambitious theatre director and he came and got me out of class and was like, ‘I’ve heard that you are thinking of dropping out. You haven’t been in our theatre yet, you haven’t come and played here. You haven’t come and auditioned for anything. Listen we are going to Stratford next month. There are 4 boys and 26 girls going on the trip. Do you want to come with us?’ I said okay and I went there
He was a very interesting and engaging man. He took me out the way of the rest of the group and we smoked some cigarettes and had wine. That’s not good you shouldn’t do that, but we did and then took me into the theatre and all the other kids were ready to watch this play. The lights went down, you could hear the backstage door slam and there was a little bell and this actor, incredible actor named Colm Feore came on stage doing Richard III. I sort of slowly stood up in my chair and my teacher put his hand on my shoulder to sit me back down. If there was a moment I knew I wanted to be an actor, that was it. And then I stayed in school. I only wanted to study Shakespeare and I only wanted to be in theatre from there on.
I saved my money every year and went back to the Stratford Festival and started memorising Shakespeare and reading relentlessly. When I got out of school, I went to a conservatory audition for RADA. I got a call back, but they sent me a letter saying they already had an Indian guy in London for that class. They said we can’t have an American who is also Indian coming for this. I auditioned to Julliard and I didn’t get in. Then I started working in theatre around Chicago and I was working in real theatre and started going to Columbia College. The teachers there were all directors. I didn’t see what the point was of not asking them if I could audition for their plays. They said ‘yeah you can!’ So I started doing plays in town. I still really wanted to go to conservatory and I was two years out of high school but things were going on with my family where I couldn’t leave. My sister was ill and my father was ill too and I couldn’t get out of town.
I was in a play called The Good Person of Setzuan in The Goodman Theatre. Cherry Jones was starring and I talked to her and said I really wanted to train. She said, ‘well what do you want to do? You should think about ART at Harvard because all they need for entry are an essay and an audition. Not SAT’s or tests So I auditioned and then I needed to write an essay and about two days before it was due it came to me. It was the days of federal express and the question was: Why do you want to be an actor? It came to me finally. I hand wrote it and sent it and then I got in. Then I started training and when I finished training I came to New York. After I got to New York, I did my first film after ten years since having worked in film. That was SubUrbia which Richard Linklater directed and written by Eric Bogosian. I was originally meant to be in the play before I had gone to school. I got an Independent Spirit Award nomination for that film. Then I started working pretty consistently thereafter.
Do you still do a lot a theatre?
I do. I work very closely with Complicité which is Simon McBurney’s company in London. I was just there a couple of years back doing a stage production of The Kid Stays in the Picture, the book by Robert Evans. We made a stage play of his life. Simon McBurney also directed that one. I do theatre whenever I’m in love with whatever it is because you really have to like it to do it because it’s very difficult to feel rewarded, at least monetarily. Often at times it’s very difficult to feel good even in the art because there has to be a real need to be wanting to do a play, a real need. I do work quite a bit in theatre, but again on things that I really want to do.
Do you prefer acting on stage to acting on screen?
No, I don’t. I try to say whatever I’m working on is my favourite thing. Story is my favourite thing. I’ve done many different things, but I’ve always been an actor by trade and the reason for that is because as an actor you are acting, the full story body, you should be able to create your own style by yourself. You should only be able to have your instrument and you should be able to tell any story and play any part and not be afraid to do that by yourself. Being an actor is being able to release yourself. The story is freedom to do anything, to see what’s on the darker side of the moon, to be despised, to be loved, all of these things are part of it. I feel there’s not one thing I prefer doing, it’s the kind of thing that I prefer doing as opposed to I like film more, I like theatre, or I like that. It is whatever the story is. Sometimes you could be in the worst situation and the story is far surpassing anything and you could ignore all of it because of what’s actually happening.
How have the roles you’ve been offered changed since you first started out?
That’s a very interesting question too. When I was young I could play Latino and I was allowed to play Latino and non-descript ethnic. The Latino anti-defamation league marched against me when I was thirteen years old because I got a part that should have gone to a Latino. Since then as I got older I went through a period of being quite typecast and not typecast. Big movies were typecasting me and indies were letting me play very beautifully. That got reversed for a while too. Now there is this thing where it feels like they have to get the guy from the place to do that. I think it does a big disservice to a lot of actors, but it also is good. There is a big dichotomy there. The roles I’ve been offered now, I’ve been doing so many different kind of things and type of things that I can’t boil down. I’m really an actor’s actor in whatever it is I get, I try to go into it as far as possible, or bring it to me as much as possible. I don’t think I have been satisfied ever really, but I’m trying to be satisfied. Things changed significantly for me in the last ten years I’d say.
As I grew older, it’s getting busier again, whether or not that is to do with my looks. I made my own film and after that I was done, it almost made me quit. I don’t recommend it to the faint of heart. My investors backed out on me a week before we shot, so I paid for it on my credit cards and I had to pay it back by doing theatre. I lost my agent and all of this kind of stuff happened. It was a very good learning experience. I got raked over the coals but I also got some awards and really good criticism. Since that time I think I’ve been coming back to my life as a simple actor. It took a lot out of me.
So directing isn’t something you’d like to do again?
It is something I’d like to do again, absolutely. Just not on my own. That’s the real lesson. And I now know how to fight my corner which I didn’t know how to do during making mine because I didn’t have the gumption to fight against things which people were advising me towards. I was never aware of how to do that, but I do now.
You portrayed Samir in Office Space. What was the experience like working with Mike Judge, and working in comedy?
That is a dream! Mike Judge is a dream boat. He is one of the funniest, most incisive, kind, brilliant, astute, generous and brave people I’ve ever met. He’s like a real cowboy, like the definition of a real cowboy. Working with him was equally all of those things. Every time I went to work, on any day I was going to work with him, I was thrilled and excited and couldn’t wait to get to work because what I knew would happen when we got there. The kind of care and respect and all-inclusive kind of way that he works and the safety he creates. The sort of bubble that he makes for actors to work in and to experiment. All this stuff really came off for me in Office Space was stuff that came out of the fact that he let me do that. He allowed me to do that. He didn’t say do this, it was more of a question and allowing than this is how it has to go. As a result the work is extraordinary.
That movie was pulled from the theatres and they said it wasn’t funny and everyone was ugly and that it was not a good movie. That was all news to Mike because I think that with good reason he believed in it. As a result of the story and the commiseration of the generation of people that were forced to deal with that kind of dehumanisation in the workplace they spoke up for it. They came for that. Mike Judge is prophetic. The English Office was around the same time, but Office Space predates most of these things. It didn’t get seen until later. That’s the kind of success and the scandal of the whole project. But working with him? He’s an angel. I can’t tell you how good it is. It really boils down to the goodness that is inherent in him. He is a kind man and a brilliant man. He was a gear inventor at MIT before he was a filmmaker. That kind of intellect and perspective and diamond mind that he has, balanced with his vulnerability and his fearlessness make him a formidable director of no small import. Even though he’s comedically pigeonholed you’ll be laughing and he’ll stuff the message down your throat.
Was working in comedy more of a challenge for you as an actor?
It will sound so cheesy, but my favourite kind of style of acting is like a vulnerable French clown. Most people have pretences to enjoying that kind of style but I in my heart of hearts think that is the essence of drama. We love to laugh at that which is painful and we love to cry at that which is hilarious sometimes. I would say that comedy is not more difficult for me, I don’t find it that way. To make it good is much more difficult. Comedy as a thing is not difficult. It’s timing and the joke is to be in the words too and certain rhythms. That’s happening in the actor quite a bit, whereas with something tragic, dramatic or sad, the theatre or the experience is happening outside of yourself. You are just trying to make them feel that. Whereas in comedy you are also trying to have a laugh, you have to be, or you are having a cry and they are laughing at it. I would say that I don’t think it is harder, it’s just very different. The bargain that you make with yourself with comedy is how much blood of your own are you letting out for the comedy and with the other one, you know very well how much blood, the contract is very clear when you do a drama. With drama something is going to have to kick off inside to get there.
Are there any projects you are currently working on?
I’ve had a strangely busy year. I did a series called Social Distance. They sent all the cameras and everything and all the computers and lights and we had a tutorial. We shot it in our house. They were looking for actors quarantining together. My wife is also an actor, we were quarantining together and my son ended up being in it too.
I did another show with Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater called Dr. Death, and I just finished shooting on a film directed by Tobias Lindholm with Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne. A lot of online plays too that are meant to be done later, so it was a good year (workwise).
What’s the most memorable piece of advice you have received?
I’ve heard so many good things. I think the most formative one was if you can think of something else that you can do, then you should by all means do that. If there is something else that you think you know you can do, do that. I’ve never met a person that had a fall back plan in my world that didn’t fall back on it. ‘There is no other hand!’ as Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof.