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The star of Life of Pi on his transatlantic journey with the award-winning play
Eight times a week, Hiran Abeysekera goes head-to-head with a Royal Bengal tiger. While he's not afraid of being harmed, there was a point when the Life of Pi star worried about being upstaged. Although the creature in question is clearly a puppet, it feels thrillingly real thanks to Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell's Tony-nominated design and the prowess of the handlers bringing it to breathtaking life. After portraying the show's title character in London and winning the 2022 Olivier Award for Best Actor, and now reprising the part on Broadway, Abeysekera is confident he can hold his own against puppet animals of all stripes.
"There's no phoning it in when I'm working with this beautiful creation—people's eyes are going to be glued to it," he acknowledges. "The only way I can keep up is to be incredibly truthful in how I negotiate this thing. I have to follow my instincts. It's like dancing to music."
Based on Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, Life of Pi centers on 16-year-old Piscine "Pi" Patel, the son of a zookeeper from India who recounts a harrowing tale of survival after a deadly Pacific Ocean shipwreck leaves him stranded on a life raft with a hungry tiger. Abeysekera—a Sri Lanka-born, London-based actor who looks decades younger than his 37 years—was director Max Webster's choice for the role from the get-go as he and playwright Lolita Chakrabarti adapted the saga for the stage.
"Pi is a very difficult role to bring to life," Webster admits. "Hiran is an amazing storyteller and has huge physical skill—he can be precise and detailed with simple gestures." Also, "he never does the same show twice. He plays it alive each night, which is really amazing."
After growing up during Sri Lanka's brutal civil war where theatre served as an emotional outlet, Abeysekera left his homeland at age 23 to attend London's prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art on a full scholarship. He landed his first job, in a Molière play, right after graduation, and then joined the Royal Shakespeare Company for several seasons playing a variety of classic roles. "I never felt that I was boxed in in any way" he says regarding his cultural background. His philosophy throughout his career has been, "If I believe I can play anything I want, I hope other people see that as well."
While making his Broadway debut in Life of Pi has been exciting, Abeysekera says his most cherished stage experience was working with the late theatre visionary Peter Brook on The Prisoner, which he performed in Europe and the US, including a brief 2018 run in Brooklyn. "I think as Peter got older, he became more of a philosopher than a director," the actor says, recalling an anecdote that changed his approach to acting. After nailing a particularly difficult scene, Abeysekera played it the exact same way the next day. Brook was puzzled. "He asked me, 'If you did what you did yesterday, what's in it for you?' I don't think it was necessarily repetition of action that he was talking about, it was more repetition of thought," Abeysekera says. "What gave Peter the most joy was to see moments that were alive and honest, and he kept pushing me until I was able to do that. Working with him easily changed the way I look at theatre. It also changed the way I look at life."
It's that aliveness that landed him the Life of Pi gig, and he says he draws from his own childhood in Sri Lanka to channel some of the character's curiosity, especially about religion and spirituality. "It's probably because of the war but, as a child, every religion really baffled me," Abeysekera admits. "I was quite confused as to why people living in the same country, who looked like each other, tried to kill each other. I thought it was because of religion." Abeysekera was born in 1985, two years into the devastating quarter-century-long conflict, so he belongs to a generation that never knew Sri Lanka before war. In due course, he learned that ethnic discrimination, not faith, sparked the turmoil.
"Thinking back, I've got so much respect for my parents because they brought me up knowing what was going on and somehow shielded me as best as they could," he says. "Obviously, little droplets of terror did seep through. But this play brought me back to that initial curiosity. I'm really glad it did because it's helping me to get through life in a much more interesting way."
Having been with Life of Pi since its 2019 premiere at The Crucible, a regional theatre in England, Abeysekera marvels that, just like the character he portrays, this show has taken him across an ocean. In his mind, "I'm still that same kid running about in my grandparents' house in Sri Lanka, climbing jambu fruit trees and all of that," he says with a grin. "And now here I am on Broadway and there are hundreds of people trusting in me and letting me control the way they breathe—whether it's laughter or sobs or gasps. It's quite exhilarating."
The extremely physical production, which requires Abeysekera's presence on stage for its entire two-hour duration, demands the actor's fullest focus and energy. But he wouldn't have it any other way. "Every day is truly a new journey for me, and that's not just because the puppet teams or the actors change. I read somewhere that it's not about going to a new place, but about changing your eyes," he says, paraphrasing Proust. "I think about what Peter said about living in those moments. Every time I come out in the opening scene, I see things with a different set of eyes."
Top image: Hiran Abeysekera, left, in Life of Pi. Photo by Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.