Fans are always surprised when they learn Rajiv Surendra isn’t particularly good at math.
After all, Surendra first made a name for himself portraying Kevin Gnapoor, the scene-stealing mathlete and self-described “badass emcee Kevin G” in the 2004 cult classic “Mean Girls.” But Surendra told NBC News his actual academic career was much rockier.
“I tried. I really did try to work hard in school and get results but math and I didn’t want to be friends with each other,” Surendra said. “I was getting 13 percent on tests. That was actually my grade in high school calculus before I decided to drop the class and take something else.”
Surendra said he’s regularly stopped by fans of Kevin G to talk about “Mean Girls” or his memorable rap scene to this day. “Young actors dream of getting a role that people love and remember,” he said. “I thought Kevin G reminded me of guys I went to high school with and when I was reading the script through, ‘Wow, I like this character.’”
While Kevin G was a life changing role for Surendra, another important moment of his life happened when a camera operator working on the film insisted on giving him a copy of Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi.” The cameraman repeatedly told Surendra that he exemplified the enigmatic main character and continually asked if he liked the book.
Surendra was skeptical of the cameraman’s insistence. “You know when people guess things about you and say things like, ‘Oh my God, you’re from India? We love this Indian restaurant!’ and then you’re like ‘whatever,’” Surendra said. “When this guy said, ‘You are in this book,’ I didn’t believe him at first. But he was persistent.”
When Surendra finally did begin reading the book, he was immediately enthralled. “It felt that some strange way the stars had aligned above me,” he said. “It was almost as if someone had observed many things about my life and decided to write a book about it.”
Like Pi, Surendra is of Tamil descent and was also fascinated by different religions and cultural traditions growing up. He and the fictional Pi also both grew up around zoos; in Surendra’s case his childhood home overlooked the one in Toronto. They were even the same height (5 feet and 5 inches tall). All of the similarities convinced Surendra that whoever portrayed Pi Patel would get the role of a lifetime — and that he was born to play him.
In his new book “The Elephants in My Backyard,” Surendra details the extreme lengths he took over the course of six years to embody his favorite book and get cast in his dream movie. What followed was a long personal journey that included a life changing trip to the South Indian city of Pondicherry, a visit to the survivor of an actual shipwreck, and a long email friendship with author Yann Martel.
Surendra said the journey turned out to be much easier than it sounds. Martel, a fellow Canadian, was doing a writer’s residency at the Saskatoon Public Library when it was announced that the book was being made into a film. A phone call to the library lead to an in-depth correspondence between Surendra and Martel, which lasted the better part of a decade. Many of the chapters of “The Elephants in my Backyard” begin with Martel’s encouraging notes as Surendra updates him on his progress.
In order to immerse himself in Pi’s world, Surendra took a break from his studies at the University of Toronto to head to a small Catholic school in India to volunteer and observe, Surendra said that part of what made his story unique was that South Asians don’t often write stories about going to India to find themselves.
“You usually hear about stories like Julia Roberts’ in ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’” he said. “The connection I wanted to make was that as a brown guy in North America, I was often conflicted and aware that I was born somewhere else from where my parents were. It wasn’t until I really started delving into my Sri Lankan heritage that I really began to understand and appreciate that part of my identity.”
While Surendra personally got a lot out of his quest to embody the life of Pi, one thing he did not receive was the role he coveted. When he was informed that the role in the 2012 film would go to the Indian actor Suraj Sharma, he was devastated. But Surendra said learning to overcome that disappointment had ultimately made him a better person.
“I think Yann said it best: Failure and loss is something every single person will encounter in life,” Surendra said. “Struggling with difficulties in life things might be difficult and things might be hard, but we need use that to bring ourselves to a better place.”
These days, Surendra is focusing on his art and calligraphy business. “It was only after I didn’t get Pi that it became a business,” he said. “When I was a teen, someone gave me some very old letters from the 1800s and they were so beautiful. So whenever we had to write something for an assignment in school, I would try to imitate that script and eventually over a couple of years, that became my handwriting. So I had this skill in my back pocket.”
But Surendra said that fans shouldn’t completely rule out his return to the silver screen. “Some directors are reading the book and talking about maybe getting the film rights,” he revealed. “So it would be a movie about a book about a movie about a book that started on the set of the movie. It’s very meta. But, we’ll see.”