'Mean Girls' actor talks lessons learned from intensive role preparation


Rajiv Surendra wanted the lead role in 'Life of Pi'


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Rajiv Surendra, who played Kevin Gnapoor in 'Mean Girls,' spoke Monday on campus. 

Photo by Luke Chen


Next time you complain about how long your research is taking you, think about the 10 years that Rajiv Surendra spent researching a role that he didn’t even get.

Surendra, most known for playing Kevin G. in the 2004 modern classic “Mean Girls ,” spent 10 years preparing for the lead role in “Life of Pi” because he identified with the protagonist, Pi, so strongly. The Pan-Asian American Community House’s Promoting Enriching Experiences and Relationships Mentoring Program, along with the International Affairs Association and the South Asia Society, brought Surendra to Penn.

Surendra, today a calligrapher, opened by talking about acting in general and demonstrating different accents before delving into the story of how he traveled around the world for 10 years to fully prepare for “Life of Pi” .

He started preparing six months before the film was scheduled to be cast, after dropping out of school to prepare for the role. Because of changes in directors, the film was delayed for multiple years. During that time, Surendra traveled to India, spent seven years teaching himself to swim and visited a man who survived on a life raft for more than three months.

Out of the three weeks he spent in Pondicherry, a small town in southern India where “Life of Pi” takes place, Surendra’s most memorable experi ence was that of traveling with Father Antonysami to a small village for a sermon.

On the way back from the village, the police stopped their car and told them to take a man to the hospital in town. The man’s hand had been crushed by a car and he was bleeding badly, but Antonysami told Surendra to not touch the man because he was of a lower caste. With help from Surendra’s homemade tourniquet, doctors were able to save the man’s hand.

After returning from India, Surendra worked at a site in Toronto enacting historic trades. Around that time, he received word that casting for “Life of Pi” would be delayed again and contacted Steve Callahan, a man who survived on a raft for 76 days before being rescued near the Caribbean islands.

According to Surendra, both of these experiences helped him learn more about loss than about Pi’s character, even though he did not realize it until a year after he failed to be cast in the role. The film’s producers selected a local Tamil boy for the role instead.

At the end of his talk, Surendra encouraged students to ask themselves what they want to do in life.

“One of the hardest things to do in this life is figuring out what you want. That is something that people don’t ask themselves enough. You just say ... ‘I need to be OK ,’” he said. “Well, what does OK mean?”

Surendra wants students to realize whether what they’re working toward will actually add meaning to their lives. “If you don’t like what you’re studying, drop out of school and work at McDonald’s,” he said.

“You can go after everything you want in this world but if you fall flat on your face, the most important thing you need to learn how to do is to pick yourself up, brush yourself off and to be strong and to move on,” he said. “And that is something that Western society doesn’t teach you.”

A previous version of this article stated that Steve Callahan survived on a life raft in the Caribbean. Callahan was rescued near the Caribbean islands, but drifted through the Atlantic Ocean. A previous version also stated that Rajiv Surendra worked as a sheep shearer. Surendra demonstrated sheep shearing at a historic site. The Daily Pennsylvanian regrets the errors.

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