Neerja studied economics at Cambridge University and after graduating worked as a banker in The City. An unquenched desire to act proved too strong however, as Neerja choose to trade in her career by going back to study, this time screen acting at Drama Centre London. Within two years she has successfully established herself as the new young ingЋnue in the Indian Film Industry and is starring in the film Life Goes On. Her passion and determination to fulfil her dreams and to make the most out of every opportunity is inspiring for all actors, young and old, as is her humility and desire to learn. Neerja Naik has the full package Р brains and beauty.
So how was hosting the gala night of the London Asian Film Festival earlier this month?
A lot of fun, I did it with Riz Ahmet. It's weird because we have similar paths; he went to Oxford and then to drama school and is now doing amazingly well as an actor and I went to Cambridge and then onto drama school and am just starting off. Riz was great to work with, he has a lot of energy.
I wanted to ask you about going to Cambridge, why did you go there and not to a drama school? Did you always want to act or was it something that grew?
Inside of me I have always wanted to act. I loved watching movies as a kid like Edward Scissorhands and learnt all of the lines. I was weird like that! But I come from a family of business people so the pressure was there for me to follow that path especially as I got good grades. So getting into Cambridge was really good because it offered me a lot of freedom to explore other things as well as studying. So I was on this track of studying economics and heading towards The City but the reality of the “day-in day-out 9 Р 5” made me realise that this isn't the world I actually want to live in for the rest of my life. For me, that was enough to decide to do something else.
That was extremely brave, especially in our current financial climate, to go from a secure job into a notoriously insecure industry. A real leap of faith…
You don't want to live with any regrets, you only live once and I flashed forward 10 years in my life thinking “was this the job to make me happy?” sitting at a computer all day and the answer was ‘no', so for me it was about taking responsibility for my own happiness. I wouldn't change anything; I have had so much fun in the last two years.
Yes, it has been less than two years since you left Drama Centre London, and you have achieved so much. How has your life changed?
It has changed a lot. It is just a lot more fun to be honest. I get to meet people that inspire me and I want to work with. I love losing myself in a character and going to drama school was amazing. Because at Cambridge you obviously use your mind but at drama school you start thinking about all the other things that you need to use as an actor, the things in your “toolbox”; your body, your sexuality, your feelings, so I think it has made me a better rounded human being.
It is definitely a full-rounded training. How else was Drama Centre useful to you?
It was really disciplined and there was a gruelling schedule which was exactly what I needed. They have a strong focus on movement which is brilliant for screen acting because you often don't have many words so you have to tell the story with a look, the way you walk or a movement.
You did the screen acting course at Drama Centre, do you feel that it prepared you for the film experiences you have had so far?
Yes I think it really did, it terms of getting practice in front of a camera it was brilliant for that but you also get the all-round training of a normal BA course so it really did prepare me for what I have done so far.
What about dance training? Have you needed to dance “Bollywood style” for any films?
(Laughs) There was a small amount, but when I say movement I meant mostly actor's movement. We focused on how to embody a character by changing your centre of gravity and changing your body. But yes, in terms of Bollywood and all that, you do need to shake it Bollywood style, but the film I did was actually more parallel cinema and art house style.
Ah yes your film, Life Goes On. It was shown at the Asian Film Festival, wasn't it?
Yes it has had its UK premiere and its premiere in New York which I went to and it is now going around the festival circuit. I worked with some really amazing actors on it, real Titans of Indian cinema, so it was really cool.
Was that at all intimidating working with such successful actors?
I wasn't intimidated as it was more of a learning experience for me. If you can trust in another actor's talent and ability it makes it so much easier, so I felt in the safest hands. When Om Puri first came onto set he had this amazing presence as a human being as well as an actor and that is the quality that he brings on screen. He was very encouraging and said not to be afraid of making mistakes. They were all lovely people so it was very inspiring.
It does sound inspiring and being a theatre actress it all seems terribly glamorous to me. Are all the films and awards ceremonies as glamorous as they seem or does it very quickly become part of your job?
Well the film Life Goes On was shot in Slough so make of that what you will!! But the film does look very beautiful on screen with the costumes etc, but like I said, I think it is the people who bring the glamour and star quality with them.
The story is inspired by a king lear-like tale about a grieving widower and his three daughters, did you film in india or the UK?
All my scenes were shot here in the UK. I play the middle sister of the three who is a sports journalist and we are all trying to deal with the grief of losing our mother but the flashback sections of my father and mother before they were married were filmed in India.
What are your future plans? Would you like to do some theatre?
Ah I would love to do some theatre. I just want to act as much and work as much as I can. I have some more short films coming up which should be fun and potentially some things in America which would be amazing, but I will just go where the work is! I am also learning Hindi because after working with everyone on Life Goes On I think any languages you can have that fits your casting will really help you and create opportunities.
That is useful advice. Do you have any other advice for drama school students or leavers?
In terms of screen acting you need to have an understanding of yourself. If you can get in front of a camera and force yourself to watch yourself back then you will see how you are coming across. All the little habits you have that you may not be aware of, no one likes to look at themselves, but you must force yourself to do it. It is a weird and surreal experience but get a little camera and record yourself before an audition so that you assess and adjust.
From your personal experience what could you suggest to people choosing between a university education and the pull of drama school?
At the end of the day all actors take a different path to get to where they want to be, so it is hard for me to give people advice on where to train as everything is a good experience. If you follow your heart and your instincts then you will be in a pretty good place and mostly… just enjoy yourself. Have fun with what you are doing because if you're having fun then chances are good things are going to come to you.
Photos: Vipul Sangoi – Courtesy: Stormglass Productions