By Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY
Beauty, they say, is only skin deep.
But, in Freida Pinto's case, the skin in question is a sight to behold ? a smooth, flawless surface with a burnished caramel hue that shimmers warmly when caught on camera.
Add in a shiny raven mane, an inviting smile, bewitching brown eyes and a petite though shapely figure, and it is easy to see why the movie industry has been captivated by the 26-year-old Mumbai-born actress. The Cinderella story began with her debut in British director Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, the rags-to-riches fable that took the 2008 Oscar for best picture and became a global box-office hit.
Directors with an eye for ravishing women came calling, including Julian Schnabel, whose controversial Miral? a rare look at the Arab side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ? arrived in U.S. theaters last weekend and opens wider Friday. And Woody Allen sought out Pinto as a decorative lady-in-red muse for Josh Brolin's blocked novelist in last fall's ensemble comedy You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger.
A range of upcoming titles await, including the sci-fi thriller Rise of the Apes and the gods vs. man fantasy Immortals.
Says Allen of his choice: "I needed an exotic-looking beauty who could act, and she fit the bill perfectly. She was lovely to work with, seemingly very well brought up and elegant ... and she is certainly charismatic."
Few would deny Pinto's cover-girl-ready attributes and engaging personality. But the real question is one that has bedeviled many a pretty face who has sought fame on the big screen, from Clara Bow to Marilyn Monroe: Just how deep is her talent?
More than skin deep
Much like Slumdog, Stranger mainly capitalized on her gorgeous exterior. But the former model and TV travel-show host's emoting abilities are put to a more challenging test as the lead in Miral. Alas, reaction since opening overseas in the fall has been mostly mixed to negative, although it grossed a respectable $65,000 on just four screens in New York and Los Angeles.
As a Palestinian teen who becomes radicalized during the turmoil of Israeli occupation, she has taken her share of the critical hits. The London-based Guardian found her "uneasy and miscast," and Slant said her performance "creates a vacuum." Variety questioned the hiring of an Indian native "in the role of an Arab Everygirl."
But as the actress made clear during an interview at the film festival held each autumn in this movie-mad Canadian metropolis, where Miral and Stranger were shown and Slumdog began its ascent two years earlier, Pinto herself considers the politically charged epic her chance to showcase her dramatic chops.
"Slumdog Millionaire is always going to be that special film," she says, seated on a pillow near an open window, a blanket around her like a shawl to ward off the over-chilled air conditioning. "But I think it is important to be versatile and not play the same character over and over again. I will have other special films in the future."
Slumdog really belonged to her co-star ? and later real-life beau ?Dev Patel, 20, whose street urchin is inspired to rise above his lowly beginnings by memories of Pinto as his long-lost childhood sweetheart. "I think my name will always be attached to it," she says. "But for me, the next step was, 'Hire me, I'm ready to go.' "
But first she had to hunt down an agent. "I found this amazing one, actually. The moment I saw her I knew she was going to be the one to take my career forward. It is difficult to come from an ethnic film, being a minority in an English-speaking industry."
'I have to get this part'
Yet it didn't take long for the screenplay for Miral to land in her lap. "I had a problem reading scripts on airplanes because of the lack of oxygen," she says. "My agent said, 'Nothing doing. You have to read this script. You have 20 hours during your flight.' "
Instead of snoozing, she became riveted. "There was no way to put it down. I missed my dinner. I just kept reading and reading. I said, 'I don't care what happens, I have to get this part.' "
Schnabel, the Brooklyn-born iconoclast artist turned maverick filmmaker (Before Night Falls,The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), has never been one to pay much heed to the opinion of others. His reason for recruiting Pinto as his star was simple: "A friend of mine saw her in Slumdog Millionaire and said, 'There is a girl in it who looks just like Rula.' "
That would be Rula Jabreal, the current love of Schnabel's life and the screenwriter of Miral who based the script on her autobiographical novel. "They look like they could be twins."
Still, the director acknowledges that while Pinto was "excellent" in Slumdog, the role didn't require that much from her. An audition tape was requested, but she was in the middle of a press tour. Coming to the rescue was Boyle, who offered to shoot the video. Schnabel was duly impressed by the results.
"There was something fresh and honest about Freida," he says. "I love her, and she worked super hard. Her raw is a good raw. I couldn't believe this was only the second film she had made. She was totally present."
Boyle, who previously gave boosts to Ewan McGregor in Trainspottingand Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later, approves of how Pinto has taken charge of the course of her career
"When you have a big success like Slumdog Millionaire, you have to take advantage of the window of opportunity," he says. "She's already worked with interesting people on a number of projects. It's very smart of her. To start off with a success is tough to deal with. There are expectations and disappointments. You have to keep working, you have to keep positive."
In her disarmingly candid way, Pinto is the first one to say she is learning on the job. Although she describes Allen as "absolutely adorable" and "really naughty in the way he quips with his sense of humor," the idea of working with the 75-year-old legend as well as acting opposite a seasoned pro like Brolin made her nervous and star-struck.
"There were times when Josh was just delivering his lines and I would stare at him because I was so enamored by how natural he was," she says with a laugh. "Then, in my head, I would think, 'Oh, now you have to say your lines.' When that happens, it comes out mechanical and you have to do it again."
Pinto might be green, Brolin says, but she is ripening quickly. "It is extremely appropriate for her age and how many movies she has done that she would get a little shell-shocked," says the onetime child actor, 43, who got his start in such films as 1985's Goonies. "Woody would kind of snap her back into reality. She is challenging herself in a major way and really putting herself out there." As the actress notes, she not only has survived two highly eccentric filmmakers, but also "two New Yorkers."
She's staying busy
Besides, the lukewarm early response to Miral hasn't stopped Pinto from rapidly adding to her credits on locales that span the world.
This August, she plays a primatologist opposite James Franco's scientist who is seeking a cure for Alzheimer's through genetic testing in Rise of the Apes, the prequel to Planet of the Apes.
"I am loving the James Franco trajectory," says Pinto of the Oscar-nominated star of Boyle's 127 Hours whose furious multi-tasking as an actor, writer, artist and full-time student studying for his Ph.D. at Yale has mesmerized fans.
She also picked up handy first-aid tips during the shoot in Vancouver. "I learned to suture a chimpanzee. I will put that on my r�sum�. If there is emergency care required, I'm there."
Then, in November, she goes Greek as Phaedra, an oracle priestess and love interest of Henry "the next Superman" Cavill's Theseus in fellow India native Tarsem Singh's mythic fantasy Immortals, filmed in Montreal.
"Tarsem had faith in me that I could pull this character off," Pinto says of the director known for his wild visual style. "I have these amazing costumes. The corset was really tight, and they pulled in whatever they could."
She also just wrapped Black Gold in Tunisia opposite Antonio Banderas, with Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Name of the Rose) directing a tale set in the Arab states during the 1930s oil boom. And she is currently shooting Trishna, an update of Tess of the D'Urbervilles that unfolds in India and is directed by Michael Winterbottom (A Mighty Heart).
Given her workload, it is apparent that some of the best filmmakers from around the world can't wait to mold Pinto's budding talents.
That includes Singh. "Freida was quite great," he says of her performance in Immortals. "She had just come back off three films with three great directors. She was broken in right. I put her back together, and then I broke her again."