The "Slumdog Millionaire" actress portrays a radical activist in Showtime's new limited series, which premieres Sunday.
In the midst of the bleakness and despair that flavored much of 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” Freida Pinto stood out.
The film, which won several Oscars, including best picture, marked Pinto’s breakthrough, and the lingering shot of her character, Latika, smiling radiantly from a train platform at her childhood friend and love of her life, Jamal (Dev Patel), was one of the drama’s most memorable images.
But smiles do not come easily for Jas Mitra, the radical activist portrayed by the Indian actress in Showtime’s new limited series “Guerrilla,” which premieres Sunday. In the fictional drama, which takes place in 1971 London against the backdrop of the British urban guerrilla movement, Jas is fueled by a fierceness that has little tolerance for those who do not share her all-consuming quest for justice.
Accompanied by her less impulsive black boyfriend, Marcus Hill (Babou Ceesay), Jas becomes even more uncompromising — and violent — as the couple head down a dangerous path.
“I’ve never been able to play somebody like this — I’ve never been given the chance,” Pinto said recently in a Pasadena hotel during a promotional stop for the six-episode drama, created by Oscar winner John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”).
“This is the kind of role that actors live for,” she added. “You can play characters that are good but don’t always show your range. I’ve always known that if you give me the chance, I’ll show you what I can do. I am so blessed that John saw in me the passion and the drive I have.”
“Guerrilla” is likely to be a revelation for those who know Pinto mostly for “Slumdog Millionaire” or as the glamorous face of cosmetics ads. The role has also provoked some controversy.
With a deliberate candor, Pinto was animated as she addressed the double-edged sword of her post-”Slumdog Millionaire” career.
“‘Slumdog’ was a film that I’m oh-so grateful for, but it also came with a stereotype, ‘Oh, she’s a sunshine girl, she never does anything wrong, she’s flawless,’” Pinto said. “Labels associated with beauty were getting assigned to me, and that gets stifling. When that becomes the public and industry perception, that’s all you get. And God knows it gets so damn boring, particularly when you don’t resonate with those kinds of labels.
“It was so frustrating, and I knew I was capable of doing more, so I made an active decision to go slow, deciding I was not going to do work that reinforced that stereotype, that I would only work with people who could see the different me. John Ridley was definitely the first in many, many years to see that.”
In a phone interview, Ridley said he was immediately impressed when he first met with Pinto about the role. Along with her identification with the character, Ridley said he was moved by Pinto’s off-camera charity work.
“In addition to being a very talented person, Freida is also very passionate,” Ridley said. “I knew she had spent time working with activist causes and working with underprivileged children all over the world. She had a way of speaking with passion but without anger. She’s a great actress and a great partner.”
He said he also understood how Pinto had been limited in her career options.
Said Ridley, “‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was a phenomenal first film, and it was a role based on her emotion and her God-given good looks. For actors of color, particularly female actors of color, it can be hard to move on to the next thing. I was lucky to have a very solid role, and she was available.”
Pinto said she felt a kinship with Jas despite the character’s fiery nature, which leads her to make rash decisions.
“I connect with her, I felt protected by her,” she said. “Jas has her passion in the right place, as well as this hunger to put everything that is within her out in the world. But she lacks strategy and direction. I come from a very authentic, but not harmful place, but I am also driven by extreme passion.”
Pinto’s performance in “Guerrilla” has already drawn accolades (“Pinto is exceptional,” writes Sonia Saraiya of Variety). But the character of Jas and Pinto’s casting has also provoked a bit of a stir.
At the premiere of the series in London in early April, some audience members questioned why an Asian character was the focal point of a project that centers on what was known as the British Black Power Movement.
One attendee reportedly said to Ridley: “My parents were a part of that movement. I want to understand why you decided (to make) an Asian woman the main protagonist.” Another audience member asked why there were no major black female characters shown as being part of the struggle.
The concerns momentarily caught the filmmakers off-guard, but Pinto and Ridley have both seized on the concerns by noting the historical facts about the movement, which did involve several races, including Asians.
“First of all, I am completely unapologetic about playing Jas,” Pinto declared in a telephone interview this week. “But at the same time, I don’t want to disrespect other people’s opinions.
“However, even though this is a ‘what if?’ story, people like Marcus and Jas really existed within the core groups of activists. John really did his research,” she added. “It was called a black power movement, but it was 3,000 members composed of Africans, people from the Caribbean and Asians as well. We’re talking here about what matters, which is the humanity of it all.”
Ridley was more pointed in his assessment of the criticism.
“I’m never surprised by people’s lack of awareness of history, because there were so many things I didn’t know,’ he said. “But to say there were no Asians in the struggle is just wrong. I know that these people exist.”