Archie Panjabi was in New York in anticipation of the release of A Mighty Heart, in which she plays Wall Street Journal-ist Asra Q. Nomani, who was both a friend and colleague to Daniel Pearl and who played a major role as a member of the team involved following the kidnapping in Karachi. Here is the first part of an interview with her:
Q: Did you go to Pakistan for the shooting?
A: No I didn’t. Most of our stuff was done in India.
Q: What was your experience making the film? What did you think of Michael Winterbottom as a director and how did it help you as an actor?
A: I knew Michael as I’d worked with him before. But that wasn’t such a big film. I love Michael; I think Michael is one of the best directors in the world. He’s really good because he really trusts his actors. When he casts his actors he puts a lot of hope into them and that makes you immediately feel so grateful, you want to give him so much back.
Normally when you’re sent a script you go home and you learn your lines and you come on stage and you recite them, but what’s really good with Michael is he says “Ok go live with that character then come on set and then incorporate that character’s perspective through improvisation on set, so in a way it’s like documentary, you just want so much of that character to turn up on set, you can do whatever you want in that scene, you have an idea what has happened in that scene but the way in which you go into these is entirely left up to you. As an actor that’s incredibly challenging, as opposed to just reciting lines robotically.
You don’t have to hit any marks on the floor, your lighting’s very natural and if you feel a certain emotion, or angry and you just want to let it out, you can, nobody’s gonna shout “cut! That’s not in the scene.” Filming can be quite scientific. It’s all about time and money and every scene is boiled down to we’re gonna spend two hours on this scene, we’re gonna do it from this angle, or that angle, it’s always written down and specified, but with Michael it’s never like that. You don’t have to worry about anything, you just have to totally immerse yourself in this role and just see where it takes you, and that’s very exciting for an actor. It’s very rewarding.
Q: So you actually got a chance to meet the character that you played?
A: Yes, I did. That was quite an incredible experience. The airline lost my baggage on the way out, which is not unusual these days, so I didn’t have any clothes and I met Asra Nomani and I had to literally step into her shoes and her clothes. It was very surreal. Just arriving and suddenly wearing her clothes and her shoes.
Q: Did they fit?
A: They did! I ended up there for a week so I really got to know her. Asra’s one of these people where there’s no halfway. If you’re coming there to meet her she will stop her entire life and give you a whole insight into everything about her, so for me it was really incredible to have someone who was willing to give up their life for a week and tell some very private and personal stories. It was quite emotional listening to all of those.
Q: In the movie, why did they omit the fact that she discovers she’s pregnant when all of this is happening?
A: I don’t know. Even when I saw it I was a little surprised, but one of the things you become immune to as an actress is that at times, really personal stuff that you’ve had to involve that you feel should be in there just ends up on the cutting room floor. I don’t think it was anything intentional. Every actor that was in it was surprised when they saw the first version and said “Oh my God! That’s gone, that’s gone, that’s gone!” And then you just say “Well, it’s a film. Til today I don’t know why they left it out; I haven’t asked why. But I think it was an important story, that’s why I bring it up in every interview. What happened to Asra Nomani had such a huge impact on her life and today that child doesn’t have a father because of the events.
Q: Have you heard any talk about making a movie about Asra’s life? Because I think though she’s still a young woman, she’s done so much already. Would you be interested in picking up the role again?
A: I’m a great believer when you’re on something pretty big “¦ My mother always says “When you’re enjoying yourself at a party, as soon as it’s great, leave.” And I think it’s the same with this. I think there’d be so much attention and focus on the girl, that if Asra did come up and do something, so soon, it wouldn’t work because it’d be compared and she’d probably be accused of trying to steal the limelight. But I think in time, by when she’d have done so much more in her life, definitely. I mean, now her life is like a film for what she stands for.
Q: And you visited with her here in the US?
A: Yes. I went to Washington and I was supposed to fly out to Pittsburg but because of my baggage she came to see me. I mean, that’s typical Asra: “No, no, I’m coming down, I’m coming right now.” We met in Washington and she took me to see her and Daniel Pearl’s Journal colleagues. She did sweet things like even take me to where they played volleyball, to touch the sand and it sounds silly but it was really emotional. And she had one of Daniel Pearl’s cards that she gave to me, to touch it. I really felt that I had some connection, in some way.
Q: And then you read the book for the first time?
Actually I read the script first. Reading the book gave me a whole visualization. It’s a very moving story. I think it’s a very important story to be told.