How did you become part of Viduthalai?
I got this offer over two-and-a-half years ago. I got a call from Vetri Maaran annan’s side saying that he was looking to cast me in a film he was planning to direct. I had been getting a few offers to play the lead in the last five to six years, but I did not take them up. I felt I did not have to play a lead role just for the sake of playing one, and if I did act as a lead, it should be the right film. Plus, I was acting as a comedian in so many films with hardly a break. I felt the film should be much more than an out-and-out comedy. So, when I did get this call from Vetri Maaran annan’s office, I did not hesitate even for a second. They say that God will give us an opportunity and we should grab it with both hands. And I felt this was the opportunity that I was being given.
What was your reaction when Vetri Maaran wanted you to play the lead in the film?
When I went to meet him, I thought I might be playing a major role, but he told me I’d be the protagonist! I just told him, ‘I’m extremely happy to do it. What do you want me to do? When would you want me to start shooting for it?’ I never told about this offer to anyone — not even my manager! Only Vetri Maaran annan, cameraman Velraj sir and I knew about it. And I maintained this secret for close to two years. He would plan something, but then, he’d get some other film to direct. When Asuran became a blockbuster, I realised the chances of me playing a lead in his film were slim because he’d gotten to a position where he could pick any hero he wanted for his next film. But he shocked me saying he was going to direct me next, and handed me a cheque as an advance! I was over the moon. Only after this meeting, I went home and told my wife. Next, I told my thambi Sivakarthikeyan. He told me this was no ordinary opportunity for me and urged me to put in as much effort as possible. And finally, I told my manager. This is how it all started. And today, it has become a film that has been made at a budget that might be as much as that of a star movie. I am at a loss for words. I feel like folding my hands in front of Vetri Maaran annan and worshipping him. I should also thank producer Elred Kumar sir, who trusted that I’d be able to carry a film as the protagonist.
Let’s rewind a bit… When you decided to become an actor, was your goal to become a comedian or did you have any dream of turning a hero?
Actually, I just wanted to act. Going by my appearance and financial status at that time, the only aspiration was to become an actor somehow. Comedy is in my genes, thanks to my father. He had a great sense of humour. Even today, when I go to my native — Rajakoor on the outskirts of Madurai — people there tell me that I’m just 20 per cent of a funny guy compared to my father. When I used to visit production offices asking for roles, I’d be more natural while enacting comic roles rather than that of a hero or a villain. Seeing the responses, I realised that I have the gift of comic timing. That’s how I decided to focus on becoming a comedian. I entered the industry in 1996, and did all kinds of odd jobs. It is the usual struggle that many have had to endure. The first time I spoke a dialogue in films was in Sundar C’s Kannan Varuvaan (2000), while sharing screen space with Goundamani sir. Then, after Kaadhal (2004) and Ajith sir’s Ji (2005), I got noticed in Vennila Kabadi Kuzhu (2009), thanks to the parotta scene.
Coming back to this film, what kind of preparation did Vetri Maaran ask you to do for this role?
Actually, this is the third story that he developed for me. Since we are amidst the pandemic, he couldn’t do the other two scripts. The only thing that he asked me was to keep myself fit. In fact, my current look was decided just before we went to shoot. He told me I’d be playing a policeman. The six-pack that I developed a few years ago came in handy.
Did you ask Vetri Maaran why he chose you for this project?
The story required someone like me. Someone who looks simple and innocent, someone who looks real.
How was your experience playing a protagonist? Did you have to alter your acting process to play this role?
Definitely! People know me as a comedian, but while acting in this film, even I myself am amazed that I have an actor like this inside me. I should thank Vetri Maaran annan for bringing this facet of mine out. He has changed me totally, and I do not just mean in terms of look. He does not burden me with so many inputs. He just comes and makes minute adjustments in my performance — from my body language to the way I look at something with my eyes — and that makes me look like a completely different actor. Generally, we, comedians, tend to go loud while acting. On the very first day, I had my own idea of what I needed to do and landed on the set. But after the first shot, he told me, ‘Soori, do not try to act out anything. Just blindly do what I ask you to do. Do not think as an actor. Look, speak and behave just like how you do off camera. The Soori who I’m seeing in real life is who I want for this protagonist.’ From then on, I just did what he asked me to do. He observed me for a couple of days. Obviously, he had doubts if I’d be able to pull it off, but then, realised I’d got it. Vetri Maaran is a huge ground in which a National Award-winning actor like Dhanush plays. Initially, what scared me was that whatever I do would pale before what Dhanush has done with him. Gradually, I realised that I’ve become an actor without actually acting by playing on this ground.
Did you feel insecure when they roped in a star like Vijay Sethupathi to play a role?
Not at all. My role did not diminish because a star had been brought on board. Firstly, I’m just an actor in the film, and my role will be as it is even when other actors are roped in for the other roles. Secondly, I should be grateful that a big star like Vijay Sethupathi is part of this film. We also have a hero of 45 years in Raaja sir on this project. How luckier can I get than to be to be playing the protagonist of a Vetri Maaran film that has Raaja sir doing the music, Vijay Sethupathi making a cameo and other actors contributing to it in other ways? Thanks to all these people, the scale of the film has only grown bigger. I should actually be happy for that. First and foremost, this is a Vetri Maaran film. He is the hero. Vijay Sethupathi is another hero. And Raaja sir is an even bigger hero.
Does acting in this film influence your performance in the other films that you are part of?
Actually, it is a bit difficult for me to switch on and switch off. When I move to another set from this film’s, I have to do what I regularly do. I have to be over-the-top. When I try to do something that I’ve attempted here, it feels wrong. I have to be actor Soori there. What Vetri Maaran annan has taught me is how to be a character. For example, if there is an emotional scene, I try and use what I’m doing here, and that enhances my performance in that scene. But in the comic scenes, I cannot be too subtle. But I have started to take care that I don’t go too loud.
You are now part of another big project, Rajinikanth’s Annaatthe. How is the experience acting alongside the Superstar?
Anyone who enters the industry will have this dream of working in a Superstar film. Having been in the industry as a comedian for 12 years, I was actually longing to act with him. I have now realised that dream. In the first few days, I’d just observe him while on the set. Memories came flooding by — of me whistling and clapping like crazy for his films; of bunking classes to watch his films, and getting beaten up for that at home; making a hole in a newly bought Deepavali dress trying to imprint his image onto it and getting thrashed for it; starting a fan club for him; travelling on top of a tempo traveller to catch his films! I was a verithanamana Rajini fan. Despite his larger-than-life image on screen, he remains such a simple person in real. He gets up from his chair to greet you, asks your opinion on how a scene has come out, and like an actor who is doing his second film, he is still excited about acting in films. And Thalaivar turns into 100 Rajinis when he does comedy scenes. I do not know from where he gets that energy and exuberance from when he does these scenes. He becomes a child. This is why everyone from a kid to an elderly person loves him. Many of us would have become his fans in childhood, and I realised the reason for it. We were returning to Chennai from Hyderabad after a schedule and his assistant told me that they had booked me in the seat next to his. I asked him why they did so as Thalaivar might need his personal space, and was told it was Rajini sir who asked them to book so. During our flight, he asked me, ‘Do you feel comfortable acting with me? I hope there is no discomfort.’ That is Superstar.
Now, after Vetri Maaran, you are going to act in Ram’s film? Will we see you as a comedian in it or as a character artiste?
Actually, it is an emotion-packed role. For the audiences, it will be funny, but for the character, it will be emotional. Just like how Viduthalai will showcase me as an actor, this film, too, will make people wonder if it is comedian Soori who they are watching. I have been wanting to act in Ram annan’s film as I’m a fan of his films. We are going to shoot in October.