Freida Pinto discusses Showtime’s ‘Guerrilla,’ working with Oscar-winner John Ridley, and his depiction of the Black Panther movement.
Freida Pinto’s latest project finds her far away from the Mumbai slums of Slumdog Millionaire. She stars in Oscar-winner John Ridley (10 Years a Slave, American Crime) latest social-political project, Showtime’s Guerrilla. Guerrilla tackles the complex and incendiary subject of the British Immigration Act of 1971. That controversial legislation spawned multiple British black power movements, including the British Black Panthers. Pinto plays one half of a politically active couple who try to free a political prisoner in 1970s London. Babou Ceesay plays the other half of this powerhouse.
I caught up with actress and activist Freida Pinto to discuss the importance of her role in Guerrilla. Find out how the United Kingdom’s Black Panther movement of the 70’s still holds relevance not only in the U.K. but also across the globe.
It’s great to see a strong character like Jas on screen. What’s it like playing her?
It’s nice to hear a lot of people who watch the show say, “It’s so interesting to see you in this role.” I understand it because, for years, I struggled and said no to roles that were the stereotypical good girl, sunshine girl role. It was great to be able to embrace the true human nature, flaws and all. She’s not perfect. Perfection doesn’t exist in my opinion. We strive to be a certain person, but I don’t think that can be called perfect.
I want to be able to play a certain character that is more true to what we see in everyday life in terms of flaws, strong points, weaknesses, and conflict. She has both a conflict within her dynamics of her romantic relationship, she has her own inner conflict, and she has the conflict with her ex-lover. She’s very dynamic and unpredictable. It’s very interesting to play someone like that, and you come to the set every day and you don’t know what you’re going to do to bring out the certain aspects of that character. You can prepare as much as you want, but at the end of the day, you have to let instinct drive you. She’s a very fascinating character to embody, but also working with John Ridley and developing the character is a fun experience.
I was going to say, she’s not about being glamorous. She’s a very strong protagonist and stands toe to toe with the others. How did you get approached for this?
It was around March last year that a bunch of my team had seen an initial draft of the pilot script. They immediately wanted me to read it and set up a meeting. At that point, John [Ridley] hadn’t even thought about who he was going to cast as Jas and Marcus. At that point, only Idris [Elba] was attached as executive producer. John hadn’t even thought about his casting, and once he started that process, the makers thought it would be fair, and I thought it would be too, to audition. It doesn’t matter if you’re part of an Oscar-winning film. I loved the notion of winning the part fair and square. So, I put myself on tape and sent my audition, and I got the part.
What did John tell you about Jas?
He said a lot of things. First of all, I wanted to understand this era in U.K. history that really a lot of us don’t know about and for some reason wasn’t talked about. When we hear about the Civil Rights movement, all we think about is the American movement. So, many of us don’t know about the U.K. movement. Our first conversation was learning about the facts, and he shared light on what he had learned.
Jas was never changed to suit me. She was always an Asian immigrant. This will be an education for many to see how immigration and the populous were made up of Asians, Africans, immigrants from the Caribbean… From all over.
The character was always going to be Asian. We talked about how Jas was going to be the first of her kind and how it was going to be a big responsibility in telling the story for the first time. It was a privilege, and it’s going to be shocking because it’s unheard of.
We spent time discussing Jas’s strength and her unapologetic attitude towards her own passion which I thought was the best part about playing this character. She has her passion and her place. She knows what she wants to do, and she does not want to be the sidekick. It’s made very clear in the first episode.
We discussed some of the activism I’m involved in and felt, if there was any character I was going to play for the first time, it would have to be Jas.
You mentioned the British Black Panther movement, and I’m from the U.K. As a history student, it never came up. We’re not taught it. What did you do to learn about it?
Absolutely. As someone who grew up in India, we have a deep history even if it wasn’t pleasant. It surprised me that we know so much about the “once upon a time motherland” that we called it, and yet this part escaped all of us because there were still a lot of Indians in the fight.
I spoke to Farrukh Dhondy, Neil Kenlock, and Leila Howe. It was a privilege to speak to them, and I spent most of the time speaking to Farrukh and learning about the movement and what it stood for.
Also, making the differentiation that we were making a TV show called Guerrilla which uses the experiences of the real British Black Panther activists, but we are converting it to a drama and what if it got radicalized. In doing that research, it helped understand what happened in 1970s England but also to see how so much hasn’t changed in 2017.
History repeats itself over and over. The show is politically charged because of when it was set, but it’s so timely now given what’s going on in the whole world.
I’m looking at that too, not just the U.K. and the USA. There are war zones like Syria and Egypt, and I feel there are similarities and all these revolutions on whatever scale are radicalized. They’re not even a “What If” situation because they are already radicalized.
You sometimes wonder What if we listened to them and heard what they are actually saying before it turns into bloodshed and war. You’re right, it’s timely, but it’s also timeless. We haven’t learned from the 70’s, and it’s still repeating itself in 2017. It’s cyclical.
I’m glad to be a part of the show. The show isn’t going to heal the world, but the intention is for the show to start a conversation and to use this moment in this great golden age of TV to use the platform to tell something that is entertaining and thoughtful.
Did anything touch a nerve when doing your research?
The existence of the Black Power Desk and the fact that it was deeply embedded in the special branch. Again, I’m not sure how many people were aware of it. For me, that was one thing. I know a lot of events happened, and we don’t always know the extent of what’s happening, but now we’re talking about something within the special branch of the police force where their main purpose is to protect people. It feels that was a big revelation for me.
I’m grateful to John Ridley for not demonizing every white man in the TV show. I feel what he’s done is so much more meaningful. To give members of the Black power desk more than just perpetrators of crime. He’s written them as whole characters with their own inner conflicts. They have family and identity problems, as you’ll notice. The IRA history with England is captured beautifully, and to me, that was important.
The Black Power Desk was my biggest revelation and those activities.
You talked about your own activism. How did that help you Jas?
A lot of it helped. I don’t take up the same means as Jas, but there are frustrations I encounter when I work on issues such as women’s rights that lead to anger and rightfully so. I’m human and I can’t be listening to someone’s story about being raped, or hearing about an acid attack, and just sit there not affected. It leads to a lot of anger and frustration and makes me wonder whether the law is active when these women need it.
It makes me think that sometimes maybe the only solution is to be radical about it, and so I do understand Jas’ frustration when she’s trying to make a point, and it seems that no one is listening. She’s just screaming in a room full of people and no one listening. So, I do feel that, but thankfully, I don’t resort to what Jas is doing. It made me understand that this is what happens when we don’t listen and remain in denial.
It scares me when I think about what’s happening in parts of the world, and I wonder how long we’re going to continue until someone does something.
As you say, we never learn to listen. It goes across the board.
Also sometimes, it just becomes talk. You see that in Guerrilla with Omega (Zawe Ashton). There’s a lot of talk but are people listening to what’s being said? Are they going to believe that the big parties and fundraisers are going to get people’s attention? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have the fundraisers, but they need to land somewhere. They can’t just happen out of context and really not have its lasting effects show on the actual grassroots level. That’s another frustration where we have these parties, and very often I question, “What happens next?”
This amount of work requires a huge amount of dedication, now more than ever.
What does Jas want at the end of the day?
She’s a doer. She’s not just a talker. Sometimes, her talking lacks strategy, and that’s part of being in a revolution. You take on actions which can at times be impulsive. I think she wants to be heard more than anything. I think that’s what she wants the most and to be allowed to be British without someone imposing their rules and regulations on her. That’s the fight: her right to be British and live in England. Without giving away too much, she has her own conflicts. Is it coming from a place of her wanting to be heard, or is it coming from a slightly personal place knowing her dad is in prison? That’s something that will be nice for the audience to have revealed to them.
Guerrilla wraps this weekend on Showtime. The 2-part finale airs Sunday night at 9pm ET.