Toby Stephens

The Rising

Interviewed by Jaspreet Pandohar

“The fact that I'm playing a Scottish officer who would have spoken Hindi with a bad accent certainly helped! ”

He may be the son of Dame Maggie Smith, but Toby Stephens has proved he's an accomplished actor in his own right. In addition to a stint at The Royal Shakespeare Company, TV appearances have included Cambridge Spies, Perfect Strangers and The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. He made his movie debut in Sally Potter's Orlando in 1992 and since then has appeared in Onegin opposite Ralph Fiennes, in Possession with Gwyneth Paltrow and then became the Bond baddie in Die Another Day. His latest role sees him play a British army officer alongside Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan in The Rising - Ballad of Mangal Pandey, an epic musical about the Indian mutiny of 1857.

For someone with a background in British theatre and television, it's quite a brave move acting in a Bollywood film. What made you accept the project?

It happened really the same way as any other job happens. I got sent The Rising script by my agent, read it, and loved it. I then met with the director Ketan Mehta, auditioned on tape, and a month later he came back and offered it to me. I then met Aamir Khan who approved me. Next I waited nine months for the thing to get made. At one point I thought it wasn't going to happen. My American agent thought I was insane. I had just had the Bond film released and I knew I wanted to do something completely different and more challenging. I didn't want to end up playing baddies for the rest of my life, which was what Hollywood seemed to be offering at that time.

Are you glad it did happen?

God yeah! For me it was a real experience. To make a film in India, work with Indian actors and filmmakers, and to experience the culture was extraordinary. The fact it was a historical film about the British in India and what happened there was a real eye opener. I went to public school and grew up with a sense of Empire even in the 70s and 80s, and this gave me a different perspective. The idea of us, the British, being some sort of benign, educating force suddenly seemed to be a load of rubbish. It was a company running a country. I mean how twisted was that? It made me quite ashamed of our history.

Tell us more about your character Captain William Gordon.

Gordon is a complex moral character. He's seen as a working Scot and a captain but that's as far as he's going to go in the military hierarchy. There's also a sense of him being an outsider looking in and beginning to question what the British East Indian Company is all about through his friendship with Indian infantryman Mangal Pandey. Just like Mangal Pandey was a real life historical figure, there was a Scottish captain named William Gordon who during the mutiny went over to the other side and fought against the British. He ended up dying on the walls of Delhi fighting against his own army.

What message is The Rising trying to convey?

What's important about this film is that it's showing what happened in India. The veracity of whether there was any pig or cow fat on the kartoos (gun cartridges) is irrelevant (the Indian sepoys were forced to go against their religion and bite the casings of the cartridges, which later triggered the mutiny). What is relevant is that it shows that the British basically took over a country for commercial reasons and then rode rough shod over their belief system and culture. I think the Brits should look at it and say Christ, thousands of Indians and British died in the mutiny and its something we need to understand.

What kind of research did you do have to do for your role?

I had to go away and read a lot around the subject of the Indian mutiny of 1857, which I really enjoyed. I love doing projects that are educating as well. It's up to the script writer and director to get the historical facts as right as possible, but as an actor I needed to know what it would have been like to be a soldier during that time, what my daily routine would have been, and just a sense of what we were doing in India at the time.

Although 70 per cent of The Rising is in English, there's a fair amount of spoken Hindi. How did you cope having to learn a new language?

I learned tracts of Hindi and Urdu for my role. But the fact that I'm playing a Scottish officer who would have spoken the language with a bad accent certainly helped!

Did the fact that The Rising is a Bollywood film fascinate or frighten you?

It was something that kind of made me nervous in the beginning. When I read the script and really liked it, the casting director, who was a huge fan of Aamir's, told me to watch Lagaan to give me a sense of what his work and Indian films are like. I was just blown away by it. I have to say I was very disappointed by the English actors in it as the Indians were damn good. I thought the Brits were a bit weak but think it was down to the way the characters were written.

How did you get on with your Bollywood co-star Aamir Khan?

I learned a great deal working with Aamir. He's a real perfectionist and is very dogged in his approach. He's meticulous. Everything is studied and analysed. I remember this wonderful thing where he had his assistant bring over a mirror before every take in order to fix his moustache and look at himself. That's when you realise that he has the eyes of an entire nation on him when this film releases. The fact that he only makes one film every few years means it's a big deal. The Rising would not have been made without him. He's been so committed from filming it to editing it and making sure it's as good as it could possibly be. Aamir's great because he's trying to take what is a parochial movie industry and make it something that is global. Not all of Indian films have to be like that, but someone is saying why are we hiding what we do under a bushel?

Bollywood is notorious for being an unorganised and unregulated industry. As a British actor, how did you handle that?

It was a bit alarming at times but it made me realise how complacent we can be as actors in this country. We bitch and moan about not liking the food, not being happy about the size of our trailer etc. I was working at 125 degrees in a British army uniform made out of wool, sitting on a horse that was trained in a completely different way of riding that I was trained in. I did things on that film that I will never ever do again but I loved it. There would have been a lot of British actors who would have hated it. But I went out there with the attitude that I know this is going to be a different way of making films and I have to put my faith in it.

What differences did you note between working on a Bollywood film set compared to a Hollywood or British production?

Essentially it's the same process, but over here you have a tight crew. There's nobody extraneous on set and everyone knows what they are doing. In India there are hundreds of people hanging about. You also have to deal with the fact that Aamir is an enormous star and when people find out he's filming, they come from miles around just to look at him. So there are all these people who are kept at bay by security guards and policemen with batons. Also as a British actor it's very easy to go over to India and suddenly you are entrenched in this Raj attitude of you know better. I really fought against that because I was entering into a culture which was not my own and working with people of that culture.

Were there any similarities in filmmaking?

For an Indian movie The Rising was made in a very western way. We had a British first (director) on it, a bound script, call sheets and a proper schedule, which was stuck to. We also learned our dialogues meticulously beforehand. There was only a couple of occasions where I went nuts as they tried to give me some extra lines in Urdu which takes time to learn. I wanted Indians to go see this movie and for them to understand what I'm saying. I didn't want them to have to re-dub it. God knows we went through hell getting it just right.

With Rising being a musical, did you get involved in any song and dance sequences?

Not really. They didn't hire me for my singing and dancing skills. There's one Holi (festival of colour) sequence, which I come in at the end, but I didn't perform in it. That was one of the culture shock things for me when I first watched a Bollywood film, and what I think British people will find challenging about The Rising. It's a very serious movie with a serious message, but yet there are these sequences, which are essentially musical. However, in films like Lagaan, songs actually enhance and invigorate the film. I'm hoping the same thing will happen with this since it has the same composer (A R Rahman) and the music is tasteful.

What are your expectations for The Rising? Could it make its way to the Oscars like Aamir's previous film Lagaan?

I think that is the hope. But the problem with hype is that people have a sense of disappointment as they have such high hopes. I just want The Rising to be well received. I hope people see it as a sophisticated movie, which is couched in history, and that they like the work that has gone into it.

The Rising is released in UK cinemas on Friday 12th August 2005.