STORIES | House of Waris Designer-Actor-Writer-Artist Waris Ahluwalia… & His Rabbi

Actor Waris Ahluwalia, poses for photo shoot.Waris Ahluwalia walks into the suite at the Intercontinental Hotel on Front Street where his press lineup is scheduled for this year’s TIFF. We’re here for the gala opening of his new film, Deepa Mehta’s Beeba Boys. Ahluwalia, known for his stupendous aesthetic sensibility, is casually wearing the hell out of a sky blue suit, briefly paired with the loafers that are quickly relocated to the floor at the foot of the sofa he falls into. He’s relaxed, generous with a smile and an easy conversationalist. This was the first time we talked, but later that afternoon in the studio, he would knock me dead with his utterly awesome personality and genius capacity for style at our editorial shoot (to which he brought along the astoundingly cool Michael Phillips Moskowitz, who he introduced as “my rabbi”.)


Lonelle: Let’s start by talking about your time working on Wes’ 2004 film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Was it as surreal to make that movie as it is to watch it?

Waris: It was more. I remember landing there, checking in, dropping my bags off at a place called the Aleph Rome Hotel (which had the theme of ‘heaven and hell’ throughout the whole hotel…so everything was either red or blue everywhere). I immediately went out for a walk and around Piazza Barberini. That was before Google Maps, so I just did a quick look around and walked back. And there was a note from Wes saying ‘Dinner with Bill by Piazza Di Spagna’, you know, by the steps, and I was like, ‘This is crazy’. That was my first film to give a little background, so I couldn’t believe it actually. I’d been in Rome as a college student travelling through Europe, but this time I was there to make a film with Wes. It was surreal, yes. And the rest just kept getting better and more beautiful and more unreal as we went.

Actor Waris Ahluwalia, poses for photo shoot.L: So you knew Wes from before the film. How did you meet? 

W: Mutual friends. The other night we were talking about it again and trying to remember. We were at a peace rally in the UN. It was winter and then we went to a pub nearby. It was freezing cold. It was one of those rallies where the police was always guiding you left just to break up the group, you know? Crowd control. Anyway, since then we’ve spent some time together. Many dinners, and then he kind of just asked me to read this script. He was very sly and he didn’t say anything more. It was just ‘Come read this script.’ and I was like ‘Yeah? Okay. Of course I’ll read the script, are you kidding?’ I didn’t expect anything to come from it.

L: And the rest was history?

W: Yeah! We were filming for five months in Rome and I think that was too long for some—everyone had a family—but I don’t have any kids, I didn’t have anywhere to be, so I was like ‘This is amazing’.

L: So that’s where your acting career began.

W: Yeah! But it was a complete experience when we finished. There was no part of me that expected for this to go on and it didn’t leave me wanting. It was a beautiful experience spending time with Wes and, you know, Anjelica and Bill. It was just like this beautiful thing and I thought ‘Great. I don’t need anything more’, and then it just continued and it keeps going…

Actor Waris Ahluwalia, poses for photo shoot.L: And that brings us here. After Life Aquatic, you were in Inside Man, more Wes Anderson classics, and a few other projects—which brings us to Beeba Boys. Looking back at the breadth of your work, you play a broad range of characters. You could be typecast because you’re a Sikh guy with a turban, but instead your roles are complex and diverse. Do you audition?

W: Generally, most of these [roles] have come out of a direct conversation with the director, rather than casting and auditions. A few Oscar winning directors later and I still don’t have an agent, which I think is hilarious because they say ‘We’re worried you’ll be typecast’, and I go ‘That’s fine. You guys worry and in the meanwhile, I’m just gonna keep working.’ I feel like when you leave it to a director to find you, they’re envisioning something, so I trust the director to guide me.

Going back to Life Aquatic, I’d never acted and it was a major motion film—not like a buddy who’s doing his thing and he’s got a camera and it’s his first film—this was a $60 million production in another country. And I know Wes, but beyond that, I’ve admired his work, I trust his work—I trust his ability. He didn’t ask me if I could do it. He never once asked me ‘if’, he just said ‘Will you come with us?’ So I thought, ‘Who am I to question that judgment? He’s obviously seeing something and I’m going to go with it.

That’s been the sort of guiding principle [for my acting career]. Talking to the director and they go ‘Will you do this?’ and we talk through the character and what they want… and that’s it.

L: Then let’s talk about your character in Deepa Mehta’s Beeba Boys—Manny. He’s presented as the joker of the crew, but there is something inherently frightening about him.

W: It was definitely directed that way, so you picked up what Deepa wanted you to pick up. She was just saying ‘sociopath’. It’s a bunch of boys you know…why does one join a gang? We all had our background stories, we all had our places, and how we got initiated. For Manny it was more about the comradery, like doing anything for my brothers and keeping that brotherhood together. The rest of the stuff was almost like ‘Yeah we killed somebody, but like then we went afterwards and we had a great time’.

Actor Waris Ahluwalia, poses for photo shoot.L: Beeba Boys is based off a true story and, weirdly, it feels very Canadian. I was wondering on a personal level how do you feel about it—does it ring true, you know, as an American?

W: I think it’s a very interesting story because it’s very Canadian. I don’t know how American audiences would relate because of Punjabi being a language, there might be pockets in New York and LA, but definitely not the suburbs. I mean, you do hockey broadcast in Punjabi here (that blew my mind), but it’s not that way in The States. I had never even heard about these gangsters in Vancouver before this.

L: How was it working with Deepa? Have you met her before?

W: We had emailed. I actually ended up being here for a project that I did with Holt Renfrew and had invited her to come. We had a dinner and a big night, so I invited her to the dinner so we could actually meet and that’s how it started. She has so much care and love for storytelling, love for her cast. This was my first time working with a female director, but the first time you finished a take and it went well she came over and gave you a hug. It was genuine and it was a quality about her. It’s not that she’s soft or a pushover, and it’s not a character she’s playing, because it’s her. She’s nailed a way of being, which is strong and feminine. She knows what she wants and when you are doing it wrong, she lets you know and she’s firm. There’s a strength and sensitivity to her that I completely admire. I’ve grown up with it, I mean my mother is that way so…

L: …so, you innately responded to it!

W: Yeah! And we’re from the same town in India, you know we’re both from the same city and same town so there is definitely beyond just like a director-cast sort of appreciation. I just love watching her work and her presence in a room. She’s like the gentle giant.

L: That sentiment seems to be echoed by many, she’s well loved and respected in this community.

W: And it’s amazing how well loved and how respected she is. And when I first came in I was going through customs with my working papers and they were like ‘Who are you working with?’ And it wasn’t like it was an Indian person, it was like Deepa Mehta, they fell off their seats.

L: Reading about all of your collaborations—from fashion to photography to film, I was astounded at how much work you do. How do you turn off? Do you turn off?

W: I don’t know if I slept last night, but I love to sleep and I love turning off. I meditate and I find a lot of quiet time for myself and—it sounds crazy—but I don’t take any calls before 11am. So, I’m up at 7am, but I don’t speak to anyone and when you find that silent space, that’s when your inner being speaks. If you’re speaking, then your inner being is not speaking, and the absurd life that I am living has not existed on faith, but by instinct—so I need to meditate and find time for it. I don’t keep a computer at home and my phone is always on silent, so it never rings or buzzes and—I think the craziest thing—is that I’m not on social media. All these things add to the ability for finding clarity.

L: You’ve written for the Paris review and, for me, that’s like the pinnacle of a writer’s achievement, but from your perspective, what’s the most meaningful thing you’ve accomplished so far? What will be your legacy?

W: I started spending more and more time with non-profits and organizations. One of my favourite projects was the book To India with Love on Assouline. Bombay had been attacked and in my mind, as a New Yorker, we had been attacked and when it happened we felt love pour in from around the world. I just wanted to share that love—to pay it forward. We decided to raise money ourselves and the proceeds of the book—now in its third edition—still go to the charity organization. This project was really about the milkman who read in his paper that people on the other side of the world wrote a love letter to him and his country. To be a part of that…you know, there will be darkness everywhere, but to be able to shed some light in a place where the lights been removed, that’s where I would like to keep my focus.

Lonelle Selbo and Waris Ahluwalia pose for a candid photo
EIC Lonelle Selbo and Actor Waris Ahluwalia

Originally published in YYZLIVING Magazine
Writer: Lonelle Selbo
Photographer: Gabor Jurina
Fashion Director: Alexandra Loeb
Styling: Corey Ng
HMU: Tami El Sombati
Art Direction: Chris Vallee

Lonelle Selbo

Writer, Designer, Editor. Publisher + Editor of auLAIT Magazine. Creative Director at auLAIT Media. Mama of Sebastian + Partner to Mark. Lover of Prince Edward County, my beautiful home. Most often, a very happy human.

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