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Hey all, what a pleasure to meet the cast of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the witty and heartwarming story of a group of British OAPs who trade in their bus passes for a retirement home in India.  The movieís loaded with some of the UKís finest actors, like Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, as well as Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson, amongst others.  We had exclusive chats with director John Madden, newcomer Tena Desae, and star Penelope Wilton, whoís recently all the rage for her role on Downton Abbey.

Dig it!

 

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Tena Desae

 

The Lady Miz Diva:  Congratulations on your first English-language film. Youíve been given a wonderful character in Sunaina, who is very different to the way weíve seen Indian women portrayed onscreen before.

Tena Desae:  My character doesnít exist in the book {These Foolish Things, by Deborah Moggach}.  The screenwriter, Ol Parker, added her in the film, so I blessed him for that. {Laughs} Very clearly, when you watch the film, thereís a very good understanding of India.  My character, Iím the regular Indian girl right now; the one whoís ambitious, who goes out and works, who has a mind of her own, but at the same time, still respects the elders, is still supportive of her man and all of those things. I think you have to have spent some time in India to know how things work and itís exactly as is, so that was really great.

 

LMD:  I wondered if as a newcomer who also does films in India, if you had any hesitation about playing this modern, self-reliant young woman who makes more money than her boyfriend and is sexually independent?

TD:  I love that!  Itís like they canít stay away from each other.  Theyíre just dying to go at it all the time.  They meet at the call center, on the street.  Because thatís not common in India, thereís no public display of affection.

 

LMD:  Exactly!  Itís my understanding that the press and public is very hands-off about a sexually aggressive female character and Sunaina takes matters into her own hands by getting naked and sneaking into her boyfriendís bed.  Did you worry about how that scene might affect your career in India?

TD:  Yes, hugely!  Itís funny, before I knew anything about the film, two or three scenes were emailed to me and this was one of them, and I didnít know it was a Hollywood film.  I didnít know it was John Madden, I did not know about the cast, I knew nothing -- they donít tell you at the preliminary stage.  So, I just read the scene and thought, ĎI donít know about this audition or about this film, but the scene is really funny. If the film is anything like it, then itís fine, but I donít know anything about it yet,í so I was really quite worried.  But I have this policy of at least doing an audition really well; I can always say yes or no later, but the audition you must do well.  So I went and auditioned for it and I enjoyed myself at the audition.  I enjoyed playing it and the excitement and the screaming and the yelling {in the scene} and I loved it.  Then I found out more about the film and I was like, ďOh my God, now I have to be a part of this film.Ē So they emailed the entire script to me for the second round and then it was like, itís not a hugely sexual scene, itís a funny scene, so there was no reason for me to have to stress about it.  Also very sweetly, the casting director, Seher Latif, was like, ďDonít worry, Johnís very sensitive about everything. You can have a chat with him about it, but once youíre confirmed.Ē  So when I was confirmed for the film, he came and asked me about the scene and asked, ďWhat do you think?Ē  And I said, ďWell, I am a little worried about it, because of how India is, but I have complete faith in you, so whatever you say.Ē  He said, ďThereís no frontal nudity or anything of the sort. Itís just going to be a Ďcheatí.Ē  So, I was like, ďI know that now and beyond that, itís up to you.Ē  For me, itís my biggest scene; itís my most important scene, cos thatís a turning point. That was the first scene I ended up shooting, so that was a great way to start.  I just jumped into it head-on.  But what he did was he made it a closed set for me cos he knew I was concerned.  I know thatís difficult because it was a huge unit.  In the room that I was shooting there was just John, the sound guy and the cameraman, just so that I would be extremely comfortable, and I thought that was really sweet.  Every time before we did any take, he would show me the frame so Iíd know exactly how much was seen, so he was very sensitive about it.

 

LMD:  A few years ago I was part of the first press junket for a young English fellow called Dev for a little movie called Slumdog Millionaire.  Now I think believe this is your first press junket, as well?

TD:  Yes, this is my first press. {Laughs}

 

LMD:  You and Dev Patel have wonderful chemistry onscreen.  Now that heís kind of a veteran and youíre a newcomer, did he have any words of advice for you?  What was it like to work together?

TD:  Youíve met him; you donít need to know him too long.  Heís just full-on entertainment, but work-wise, I think he was really great because what he did was we had many rehearsals with Seher and weíd just keep the dialogue going.  So whatever he wanted me to do, heíd tell me and if I thought I should do it as well, then we would do it, and if I wanted him to do something differently, then I could tell him.  So we just kept talking, so whatever we were comfortable with by the end of it is what you would do.  So when youíre so comfortable, you can voice your  opinion.  I mean heís relaxed; you donít have to really be all formal with him, so when youíre able to voice your opinion so easily, then automatically you can play with the scene, tweak it, do whatever you think works best, and then what comes out in the end is really great.  So we went in very prepared, and of course John would give us his notes on the day.  So I think thatís what worked well; even though heís done work, he didnít impose himself.  He was like, ďLetís play, letís play letís play.Ē

 

LMD:  It sounds like such a warm set.

TD:  Actually it was.  In the end, when we were all leaving and there was the farewell party, Johnís wife was saying she had talked to everyone on the set and everyone was saying that this film was personally very satisfying for everyone because everyone just got along with everybody and it just worked great.

 

LMD:  Of course, I must ask about the amazing cast of British actors.  Did you hang about and watch what they were doing and pick up things or look to them for guidance or advice?

TD:  Yes, whenever I could, I chose to stay back on the set to watch them in their scenes.  Luckily, the first scene I saw was when Devís welcoming all of them to the hotel and he says, ďBritish roast goat curry.Ē {Laughs}  That was a brilliant scene cos all of the actors were together in it.  I stood in a little corner so Iíd get in nobodyís way, but I was watching and thatís a scene where Devís doing all the talking and these actors are just listening. They have no lines, but just entering the room, sitting down and listening; they were doing so much with their characters.  Like Pep {Penelope Wilton} was sitting at the table and the waiter comes in and gives her the plate, so sheís watching him and sheís checking the plate cos she doesnít believe him . Maggie comes in and sheís upset cos someone with brown skin is pushing her and then sheís looking around.  Bill Nighyís completely enjoying himself; heís making sure that Pepís all right.  So, even though thereís no lines theyíre all doing so much with their characters and I thought, ĎOh my God, I didnít think of this much.í  So, yes, I made the most of it and I watched them as much as I can.  And I think itís brilliant to be able to work with all of these guys and theyíre all so supportive: In the scene Iím doing with Dev, Celia Imrie was lying in the bed the entire time.  The thing is, right until I get into bed, sheís covered up, but sheís doing the scene right through.  Normally, you would have a stand-in because sheís covered, but she stayed the entire time and she was really hot because sheís under the blankets and there are lights on her, but that didnít stop her.  She stayed there anyway.  And every now and again she would pop out of the blanket and say, ďYou are doing really well,Ē and then cover herself.  And thatís really encouraging, these big actors.  Bill did the same thing; all Iím doing is walking out of the doorway and heís like, ďYouíre doing very well.Ē So, I just love how supportive they are.

 

LMD:  What is next for you?

TD:  Itís very complicated because in India, itís not so simple.  It works differently in the west, so here you can just do a film if itís got a good script.  In India, you canít:  It has to have lots of names and backing and you have to check whoís releasing it, and itís very complicated.  So I went into it a little more innocently when I joined and I did two Hindi films that had really brilliant scripts, but they didnít have great backing, so it was not noticed at all in India.  So I cannot possibly do any more of that kind, however great the script is, cos it just works differently there.  Iíve learnt my lesson, so Iím being very particular what film Iíll be a part of next.

 

LMD:  But you are still willing to work in India as well as in the west?

TD:  Definitely!  I have to do my Hindi films. I havenít done my song and dance routine yet! {Laughs} I still have to do that.  I canít wait, especially in the rain!  Typically, in Indian films you get to have one scene where you get to sing and dance in the rain.  But yeah, I love this Hollywood experience and I hope I can do more.

 

LMD:  What would you like for people to take away from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?

TD:  I hope that they go back wanting to visit India if they havenít already and if they have visited India, I hope that theyíd want to come back.  I think thereís so much in the film, just amazing performances from all of the actors.  A total taste of India just as it is, not tweaked, not changed for the film, but exactly as is.  And itís got this brilliant message of hope at the end, so you go home feeling good.  There are so many things.  Also, I love the fact that theyíre older, but theyíre not dependent and theyíre not like ĎOhí I have arthritisí and everything.  They are still living their lives; they still want to make the most of what timeís left, so I love that.  There are so many messages, but I love the line, ďIn India, we believe everythingís gonna be all right in the end. If itís not all right, itís not yet the end.Ē  You go home knowing itís going to be a happy ending  and I love that, so I hope thatís what everyone takes back.

 

Penelope Wilton

 

The Lady Miz Diva:  I started calling your character, Jean, the girl with no Gaydar after she falls for Tom Wilkinsonís character.  Although with Mr. Wilkinson she really canít be blamed.

Penelope Wilton:  Who could be blamed?  And he doesnít exactly come over as effete.

 

LMD:  One of the refreshing things about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was watching his performance because that character was so wonderfully written.

PW:  I know gay people who are like Tomís character at home, who you donít immediately thinkÖ  I mean, {there are} friends of mine and the first thing you think about them isnít, ĎOh, theyíre gay.í  Itís not until later on that you discover it.

 

LMD:  Of all the characters, I think Jean is the most complex and in embodying this person you probably had a lot of the heavy-lifting in the script.  What did you think when you read Jean on the page and how did you keep her from becoming the baddie of the piece?

PW:  Well, thatís very true, because I think I stopped her from being the baddie of the piece because Ol {Parker} wrote a very good script.  I mean, I have to inhabit the script, thatís true, but I was given the tools by Ol and also John {Madden}.  Also, I donít believe she is a baddie.  She is a very unhappy woman because sheís in a relationship that was something and is now not -- is obviously diminishing.  Itís not working out.  And the dreams she had, I think the sort of life that she expected to have is not the life that sheís finding herself with.  So, from all those things, she thinks going to India might be a good idea and then forgetting that actually you take yourself with you when you go away.  You donít just turn into another person.  You take all your baggage with you.  And if things arenít working out and you find yourself adrift with the person that youíre not getting on with and all your points of reference have disappeared; the ones that youíre used to and you have a lot of other thing to deal with, it makes life very intense and you donít see.  It makes you frightened.  I think sheís a very frightened woman.  

 

LMD:  You start to see the cracks developing with Jean as time passes and sheís coming more unglued and it hurts sometimes to watch her.

PW:  I hope so, because I think she clings on to things.  In a way, sheís a very needy person whoís not getting it from her husband, really.  He seems to be very at ease with the world, which is hard.

 

LMD:  One could easily suppose that in India, it would be very easy to have Bill Nighyís characterís reaction and just go with the flow and allow the experience to transform you.

PW:  I think itís more true to life that there are people who will never be able to manage.  Not everyone suddenly goes and has to deal with this sort of other life.  Some people find it very, very difficult to change and especially when theyíre not eighteen anymore and theyíre used to one way of life and then theyíre thrown into something completely different.  They donít have the equipment to deal with it, so I think thatís what it is.  Itís quite hard.

 

LMD:  This is not the first time youíve been married to Bill Nighy on the screen.

PW:  No.  Not on the screen... I think itís about the third time Iíve been married to him. There was Shaun of the Dead and then I did a radio play with him, then he played a doctor who woke me up in a play called A Kind of Alaska by Harold Pinter.  So, weíve worked together a lot.  Weíve worked together quite a few times.

 

LMD:  In Best Exotic Marigold Hotel youíre on one side of a rather juicy triangle for Mr. Nighyís affections.  What was it like to go up against Miss Dench?

PW:  Miss Dench!  Well, itís tough, isnít it? {Laughs} Sheís a dear and weíve worked together, too, so we all know each other.  It was very well-put-together.  Itís so understated, those relationships, and itís left a bit in the air and you wonder what the relationship will be when Jean goes home?  What it didnít do and the reason I liked the script is that it didnít patronise the audience.  It was a grown up script.  I hate it when people say that, but what I really mean by that is it was a script that allowed for a sensibility to take from it what they wanted and not lead them, to show them what they had to do.  John was talking about music scores that tell you how to feel; sort of in case you donít know, this is going to be dangerous, or in case you donít know, this is the love scene, and then they have the music.  Itís so patronising.  Also, I liked the lack of sentimentality, so for all those reasons I liked those things, in a general way about the script.  Those are sort of generalities, but when you do something you have to be fantastically specific and thatís what John Maddenís very good at. 

 

LMD:  I wonder if you were at all drawn to or had a sense of the scriptís underlying message about the way our older people are treated in our relatively wealthy society?  The seniors in this film have either no financial alternative or any familial support and decide to leave their country to retire in India.

PW:  I did and I think itís true.  In fact, I got roundly ticked off in England when I gave an interview and I said, ďThe Indian people seem to understand about looking after their own much better.Ē  And then this woman wrote me a letter saying, ďThatís not true, they donít.Ē  But I think in as far as they have a life where people live together more; thereís a more communal lifestyle.  I think in a lot of homes -- not everywhere Iím sure, and in the very poverty-stricken areas, Iím sure thatís not so -- but in a lot of homes, the family is included; cos the aunties and the uncles and everyone lives together or live very near one another.  So, thereís a more of a community, whereas in big cities in England and here and in the west and Europe, too, they donít look after their old people in quite the same way.  Actually, also nowadays, people have a much longer retirement and theyíre much more active far longer and they donít want to just be a second fiddle to a bigger story going on in their childrenís lives, which is pointed out by Celia Imrieís character, who says, ďI just donít want to always be the one looking after the children while you have the life.  I want to have a life, as well.Ē

 

LMD:  I think one of the big statements the film makes is in saying this is not the end, just because someoneís reached fifty or sixty years old.

PW:  No, it certainly isnít the end, because people go on living for thirty-five years {more} and thatís why theyíre changing the laws at home.  Eventually, you wonít be able to pick up your state pension till youíre seventy because people live much longer and theyíre much healthier.  And I think this film sort of addresses all that, really, in such a light way.  This isnít a documentary about where to go for your retirement, itís a story.

 

LMD:  Have you ever filmed in India before?

PW:  No, Iíve never been to India and Iíve never filmed there and I was fascinated by it and I really enjoyed going.  Iíd love to go back and go to the south to Kerala, cos thatís apparently very beautiful, as well, and on the coast is apparently wonderful.  Rajasthan was fascinating; it was a lot of forts there and the countryside was very arable and rural.  Thereís a lot of very beautiful countryside and then these little towns you come across teeming with people, and then these big towns, like Jaipur.  And Udaipur, where we were, is a much smaller place and it was easier to get about.  Jaipur is a great big place; a big urban sprawl and quite daunting if youíre not used to it.  I found it very daunting to go out; youíd have to know who was driving the car or driving the tuk-tuk and have him for the day because youíre sort of set upon if youíre not careful.  Not in a horrible way, but itís just that there are a lot of people with very little and you look different.    

 

LMD:  Can you talk about John Maddenís direction?  Did he allow all of you to interpret as you saw fit or did he have a very set idea as to how you should play your roles?

PW:  Of course, one was saying everything that was written down, but he was very flexible.  There were strictures cos youíre filming in a certain area, so you wonít be walking off there.  So, he makes and gives you the environment into which you can then perform.  But heís a wonderful person to work with.  Iíd love to work with him many more times. {Laughs}

 

LMD:  This film is very much about new beginnings at an unexpected age, but thereís a little parallel with yourself here, as well.  What is it like for you to suddenly become a rock star at this stage of your career with the amazing worldwide popularity of Downton Abbey?

PW:  Well, I never met it before.  And I didnít know about it until I came here on Friday.  Thatís silly, of course I knew about it, but you donít think, ĎOh, thatís me.í  Iím absolutely delighted.  Iím thrilled that itís done so well.  I think Julian {Fellowes}ís a very clever writer; heís juggling eighteen characters most of the time.  Theyíre not just minor characters; theyíve all got their own lives.  So, I think thatís part of the success, nobody is brought on for too long; you just follow all these stories all the time.  And in the end it comes to some sort of fruition, either by Mr. Bates going into prison, thereís a storyline that sort of takes us all finally towards something and thatís very fascinating.

 

LMD:  I understand youíre working on season three, now.  Is the series meant to go on or is there an end in sight?

PW:  I think it might go on well after three.  I think they might. I think it depends on how it goes, but certainly weíre just doing three now.  So, Iím going back on Monday cos Iím shooting on Tuesday and that goes on till August.  

 

LMD:  What would you like for audiences to take away from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?

PW:  I would like them to take away the fact that life isnít over when you reach a certain age, whatever age that might be; fifty, sixty, seventy.  And I hope people will take away the compassion people have to have for one another, really.

 

Director John Madden

 

The Lady Miz Diva:  How did The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel come to you?

John Madden:  Well, in simple terms, it was offered to me as a project by Graham Broadbent, who was the producer of the project, but I knew Deborah Moggach, as well, because I was going to do an adaptation of another book of hers that fell through.  So I knew of the book and I thought the premise could be promising.  I offered to develop the thing with Graham, but I couldnít do it cos I was working on another film, so I said, ďIf youíll wait, Iíll develop it with you, but I bet you canít afford to wait,Ē cos he has a small company.  I knew he would need to make it and he was gonna have to wait two years or something and that was unreasonable.  But, as the way these things sometimes work out, I finished my film and was supposed to do another one that got pushed back and the project was open again, and so it came back to me.  And the script had developed a lot and Ol Parker, the writer, had come on to it and so I could see a way of taking it further.

 

LMD:  The story has many layers, including the relationships between the characters, but the message of the westís treatment of its elderly is very present.

JM:  I think what intrigued me about it is weíre all guilty of looking at the old in a certain way.  At its best, we tend to treat them like an obligation or a problem because we think of them as not being like us and though of course we will end up being exactly like them.  I think that fact is what makes us not want to empathise and identify too much.  And the besetting problems of age; infirmity, financial insecurity, isolation, bereavement, depression are all of the things that beset all of the characters at the start of the story and theyíre very real concerns.  And obviously, theyíre plunged into a kind of fairy tale that releases and unlocks them and reorients them, which seemed a very interesting way of being able to deal with those issues in a way that wasnít earnest and heavy-handed and didactic.  Humour, if you can access it, is a great leveler.  And they collide with a very, very optimistic culture, which eventually transforms them all in some way or another -- not always in ways that you might expect, perhaps.  So it seemed a very rich idea.

 

LMD:  You canít talk about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel without mentioning its amazing cast of great British actors.  When you have an ensemble like this, how closely do you structure their performances?  Do you just let them go? And how do you know where to cut?

JM:  What youíve just said is not so far from the truth; meaning that there are various things in this situation.  We had like nine or ten storylines that are all interweaving; not just the British characters, but the Indian ones, as well, at the hotel.  Itís an unusually democratic story in the sense of all of those stories are more or less given equal weight. They all bounce off and intertwine with one another.  We had a very unusual thing, because I knew who all the actors were to the point where we were sort of reconceiving the script. And after having dismantled it and put it back together again and by then I not only knew the actors, I knew the world because I knew India and I knew specifically the hotel, which is a massive part of the way the whole film unfolds.  So, we were able to write for those voices completely and for those actors cos we all know them and theyíre very individual and unique.  Bill Nighy has one of the most idiosyncratic voices and manners in the world and you were able to see that, likewise, Penelope and Maggie.  Dev {Patel}, we completely reconceived that part around him, really.  That means that you can calibrate the material to a point where you can essentially leave the actor free and someone like Tom Wilkinson Iíve worked with four times, and heís a self-directing actor, largely.  I mean all I need to do is make sure he understands the pace issues or where it comes in the story, and heís a marvelous actor because heís very instinctive and he simply responds to the material as it happens to him.  I had no idea how he was going to play that scene with Judi until heíd done it, and we felt very light after it, because he said to me, literally, ďI didnít know what I was gonna do or how I was gonna do it.Ē So I simply show him the shot and tell him whether Iím going to have to cut or however many pieces of coverage Iím gonna need, but generally speaking with something like that, Iíll just make sure I can get it in one go.  And so, some scenes needed more orchestration than others, of course, but no, by and large, your best possible option or the way itís mandated to me is to give them the maximum freedom because these are people who have very, very well-developed skills, brilliant comic sense and a sort of judgment thatís matured over a long period of time and a complete trust amongst the people theyíre playing with, which actually extended to all the Indian actors, as well.  Not by accident, I cast from very similar backgrounds; theyíre almost all theatre actors even down to the characters who donít say very much, like Manoj and his wife {Rajendra Gupta and Neena Kulkarni}, who are both very, very distinguished theatre actors, which is why they have a presence in the film which you can feel.  So thatís what you do.  You know, a director gets a lot of credit for a movie and itís true that everything has to be fashioned in terms of one pair of eyes and one sensibility and one point of view, but people ask me, ďHow did you coax that performance out of somebody?Ē  The answer is your job is to unlock an actor just so that theyíre free to respond to the material instinctively, because actors will always show you colours that you hadnít spotted or hadnít guessed at -- particularly those actors.

 

LMD:  I understand you were careful about causing any cultural offense, even up to placing bindis on the actorsí foreheads.  Can you talk about observing that aspect of the Indian shoot?

JM:  We were very careful.  I would be very upset and demoralised if I thought I had in any way diminished or reduced India to a simplified version of what it is, and clearly that danger was there in the story because youíre taking a group of former colonial denizens and dumping them in India with obviously comic results quite frequently.  So I was very concerned to make sure that Iíd made no assumptions.  My kind of shield in these situations actually was the Indian cast and crew, because I measured the script against their reactions all the time and we all felt our obligation to go in and embrace the culture that we were working with, and so we didnít do anything before the set had been blessed.  And they are such an incredibly festive culture; we went in at a time when there were four festivals -- and they do know how to celebrate, those people -- so that was all great.  And I felt reassured because the script was completely embraced and where it wasnít, we got advice about things and responded.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

April 21st, 2012

 

 

 

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