You’ve played a variety of characters in 2017. Was it a conscious decision to pick roles that were distinct?
People often ask me if a role like the one I play in [Hansal Mehta’s upcoming venture] Omerta is within my comfort zone, or I prefer a [light-hearted character like the one in] Bareilly Ki Barfi. The answer is that I don’t know. I don’t want to find my comfort zone. Because when you find it, you become complacent. I don’t want to feel comfortable when it comes to acting. I have always looked for different genres and characters. Otherwise this is a really boring job [laughs]. Sometimes, when I get similar roles, I have to do something that makes them distinct. For instance, my characters in Behen Hogi Teri and Bareilly Ki Barfi both belong to Lucknow. But, I tried to ensure there weren’t many similarities between them. I want to surprise viewers with my performance. That’s why I never compartmentalise films into genres. I merely look at the story.
A still from Omerta
What was the process of getting into the skin of the character, the terrorist Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, for Omerta?
For any film, I take out time to research, else there is no fun in doing any role. I prepared a lot for Omerta. I grew my beard. I was in London [Sheikh’s country of birth] for three weeks learning the British accent, roaming the streets, observing people and the culture. I had to pass off as a boy who was born and brought up there. I read on philosophies and extremist groups. I watched documentaries and hate speeches, because I wanted to generate anger in me, which I don’t normally harbour. The experience was satisfying, but exhausting too.
Not many people are aware that Sheikh had a normal life before he became a terrorist. Reportedly, his classmate was ex-England cricketer, Nasser Hussain. Did you meet anyone who was close to him?
We consciously didn’t because we didn’t want everyone to know about the film. Also, it’s a sensitive case, and we had to be careful because we knew we were entering dangerous waters. No one has made a film from a terrorist’s perspective. So, for me, I had to understand his psyche correctly.
You mentioned that this man is all shades of black, but he also had a side that was different. Did you fear that Omerta might not show his softer side?
The film starts on a human note. We have shown the circumstances that led to him becoming an extremist. From our perspective, we aren’t justifying anything. Of course, he is family guy, is married and has kids. But the things he does are inhuman.
There is a scene in your earlier film Shahid, where your character [lawyer Shahid Azmi] and that of Sheikh are seen playing chess together in jail. Was it then that Mehta decided to create a story on the latter?
Hansal had spoken about Omerta when we had only started shooting for Shahid. At that time, he wanted to make it with someone else; an international star. But, then we collaborated on a lot of projects and grew close. One day he said we should make it. In fact, while making Omerta, we wanted to have Shahid’s character in the film. We were toying with the idea of me playing both the roles, but then I’d have to shave my beard and lose weight [to look like Azmi]. We didn’t have that much time. It would have been interesting if we had done that.
After having a successful run at the box office how have things changed for you?
Success implies more work and big-budget films. The only thing that has changed is that now I have to pick from a bunch of stories that are all good.
You had mentioned that if three of your films were bad, no one would be ready to cast you again?
Now, maybe I can afford to give five bad films [laughs]. But, I still fear my films not doing well. There are new actors coming in every two weeks, so, competition is fierce. If I can’t bring in something different or deliver a successful film to the industry, no one would be interested [in casting me]. I have to be on my toes and keep pushing hard.
Do you ever turn down a film if it doesn’t suit your sensibilities? Or would you take a risk by doing it?
I think I can take risks with Hansal sir. I never request him to let me read the script before giving him an answer. I can do the same with Anurag [Kashyap] too. There are few people I can blindly trust.
Has anyone accused you of being pricey?
Not yet. I try to be as nice as possible when I am rejecting scripts, but if someone wants to be opinionated about me, it’s their choice.
You also enjoy the support of your fans, who even criticised a popular awards gala when it chose to keep you off the Best Actor list. Was it overwhelming to see the response?
We were shooting in a really small town called Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh where there was poor network. From there, I spoke to someone who told me I had no idea about what was going on on social media. The kind of love I’m getting online is immense. It makes me feel that people want to see my name on the list of best actors, and I try to push myself to work harder.