NEW YORK — While Freida Pinto doesn't see herself as a role model, the 30-year-old actress understands there's a huge responsibility that goes with being in the public eye. That's why she regards every film role as a potential catalyst for change.
"One of the reasons I do a film like 'Desert Dancer' is that I hope it starts a global conversation," Pinto said.
The film is based on Iranian dancer Afshin Ghaffarian, who risked his life by simply forming an underground dance company. He eventually sought political asylum in France.
Pinto finds it hard to believe that people can be punished for making art, but is not entirely surprised by it.
"I never thought that six kids that make a music video to Pharrell's 'Happy' could get arrested, either," Pinto said, referring to an incident that happened last year in Iran.
In "Desert Dancer," which expands to additional theaters on Friday, Pinto plays a fellow dancer who escapes her oppression by smoking heroin. Ghaffarian has said in his memoir that heroin use is unofficially promoted by the Iranian regime to keep students docile.
Recently, Pinto sat down with The Associated Press to discuss the film, the kind of roles that are important to her, and her support for the banned documentary "India's Daughter," which tells the story of the brutal gang rape of Jyoti Singh. The remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Associated Press: Dance is something we take for granted, but in Iran, it can result in beatings and imprisonment. Were you surprised by the film?
Pinto: The relevance to making this film to what is happening today is something that I did not expect. ... I think the one thing that I took away from it was immense gratitude for the fact that I don't have to go through it every day. I don't have to think twice before I decide to do some kind of movement, or the clothes I choose to wear.
AP: How much did you dance to make it seem so natural?
Pinto: A lot of training. A lot of hard work and a lot of bruises. It was all very important and pivotal to get me to this stage where I was actually comfortable with putting myself on camera.
AP: The characters you play always seem to fight some form of oppression.
Pinto: I think protest is part of everybody's life. Whether it is on a political level, a social everyday level or on an economic level. The fact that women in our industry are fighting for equal pay is also a form of protest. I feel it's very representative of wanting to move to the next level. And in order to do that, you have to stand up against something.
AP: This time you play an Iranian.
Pinto: Every time I pick a character that is not my ethnicity, which everybody knows I'm Indian, they're probably expecting me to play the Indian, but I don't want to do that. Because when I wake up in the morning, the first word in my head does not pop up Indian. I feel I'm a girl, I'm a woman who belongs to this world, and if I can physically fit into some characters, I want to play them all.
AP: Shifting gears, you recently participated in a discussion for the documentary "India's Daughter," which was banned in India. What are your thoughts?
Pinto: The backlash actually benefited the marketing of the film. We did not know this film was going to get banned. As much as it saddened us, it got more people to watch the film.
AP: Do you think the film did its job?
Pinto: I think what it did was start the conversation. ... This is no longer just an India problem, this is a global problem, a world phenomenon. ... It's what we really want to start talking about, and take positive steps to work toward action. So I do really hope that 'India's Daughter' can be that tool where we don't let Jyoti's death go by the wayside.
AP: Last month, frustration led to a mob in India breaking into a prison and lynching a suspected rapist.
Pinto: The lynching was, in my opinion, very sad, because that's not what the film was trying to do. ... There's so much that needs to be done and there are so many amazing groups and organizations that are coming together to do it. So find the right way of doing it and do it as civilized as possible. In this sense, I sound very Gandhi, but non-violence is the way to go.