- Hiran Abeysekera on his recent award win and more
In the midst of all our troubles, Sri Lanka was afforded a bright spot when one of our own, actor Hiran Abeysekera was awarded one of the world’s most prestigious theatre awards.
Presently based in London performing the title role of Pi in the famous book turned play turned movie ‘Life of Pi,’ Hiran surprised everyone (including himself) when he won Best Actor at the prestigious Olivier Awards 2022 at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
The Laurence Olivier Awards, or simply the Olivier Awards, are presented annually by the Society of London Theatre to recognise excellence in professional theatre in London.
In his acceptance speech, Hiran famously paid tribute to Sri Lanka, acknowledging its present struggles, and saying: “I think of you and wish I was there with you.”
Hiran also surprised everyone a few days later when he landed in Sri Lanka for a short visit and headed (almost) straight to what is now commonly called GotaGoGama to add his voice to the peaceful protest calling for change.
Ahead of his departure back to the UK to continue playing Pi on London’s West End (the production runs till September), Brunch caught up with Hiran for a quick chat on winning an Olivier, his role as Pi, and his recent visit to Sri Lanka.
Winning an Olivier
Winning an Olivier is something all theatre actors in the UK aspire to, but it wasn’t necessarily something Hiran was working towards or expecting. To his knowledge, no other Sri Lankan or South Asian actor has won an Olivier for Best Actor before.
The Olivier Awards is a huge deal for actors in Britain and is paralleled only by the Tony Awards in the US. Incidentally, this particular production of ‘Life of Pi’ is tentatively set to travel to the US and perform on Broadway (New York City and the United States’ ultimate theatre hub), which would give Hiran the chance to perform the role on both sides of the pond, and, possibly, one day also be recognised at the Tony Awards too.
Sharing his thoughts on winning Best Actor, Hiran said: “I was very happy. At first, when I was nominated, that alone was enough for me. I didn’t put too much thought into it and I didn’t think about winning it until some friends asked me if I’d made an acceptance speech.” He added that when he did win, he was overwhelmed with a rush of many different emotions, and it was hard to figure out just what he was feeling at that point.
Commenting on his now-famous acceptance speech which blended Sinhala and expressed his solidarity for Sri Lanka and the crisis it’s currently trying to push through, Hiran said: “I thought of my parents and country. My Sri Lanka. And at that moment, I was overwhelmed, and with that, the words just came out. Because of my love for my country, and because of the times we’re going through, and because I couldn’t be a part of it.”
Hiran’s big break into theatre came when he played the lead role in a British Council production of Peter Shaffer’s ‘Equus’ in 2007 and was encouraged to audition for drama schools in the UK, following which he secured a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and graduated in 2011 (he is only the second Sri Lankan to have done so).
His professional acting career in the UK began with the English Touring Theatre in 2011, playing Valere in ‘Tartuffe,’ following which he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon while also taking on independent roles. In 2016, with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he played Puck in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ which was adapted for TV film and screened by the BBC.
In 2018, Abeysekera began appearing in the Hulu series ‘Find Me in Paris,’ portraying the role of Dash Khan until 2019, before going on to portray Pi for the first time in 2019 in Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaption of ‘Life of Pi’ at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, for which he won a UK Theatre Award. The year 2019 also saw him play roles in ‘Botticelli in the Fire’ staged by the Hampstead Theatre, London and the play ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ at the Royal National Theatre.
In 2021 Hiran reprised the role of Pi when the 2019 Sheffield production transferred to the Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End. It was this role for which Hiran won the Olivier Award.
So was theatre and the arts always on the brain for this seasoned actor? Surprisingly not, he revealed. “I first thought of being a doctor,” Hiran shared. “My parents were very happy too. But then I failed my A/Levels and had to take them a second time, sitting for them again in 2005.”
Hiran’s first steps to theatre and the arts came in 2004, and was brought about by tragedy when he lost a very good friend to the 2004 tsunami. “When we got the news, a group of us friends got into a car and went looking for her. Eventually, we found out they’d got a new car and had been on their way to Kataragama when the tsunami struck,” Hiran explained. “That experience taught me how short life was and I realised I didn’t want to do medicine. I wanted to do something I liked. My parents weren’t initially on board, but they were supportive.”
‘Life of Pi’ is, for the moment at least, Hiran’s defining acting role, and one he will continue to play until September which is when the production will cease at the West End. There are discussions underway to take the production to New York’s Broadway, and if this comes to pass, we will see Hiran take the stage on Broadway and fly Sri Lanka’s flag in the globally acclaimed Broadway theatre circle.
‘Life of Pi,’ as many will know, is a play based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Yann Martel, and tells the story of Pi Patel, an Indian boy from Pondicherry who explores issues of spirituality and metaphysics while being stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger following a shipwreck. A 2012 film adaptation of the same book directed by Ang Lee won four awards from eleven nominations, including Best Director at the 2012 Oscars.
The role is iconic and places an immense amount of pressure on its lead, since for the vast majority of its run time, Pi is the only human character on stage. It is vital that the actor be skilled and at the top of his game for the role to be believable and the production well-received.
So what did Hiran find most challenging about playing the Life of Pi? “It was the physical aspect of it, really,” Hiran said, “it was like a marathon. When I go on stage, I don’t leave. There are a few scene changes and location changes but it happens very fluidly. I’m always there on stage and lifted or thrown around on a boat. The other challenge is the vocal challenge. The soreness is quite powerful and I have to fight against that.”
Playing Pi means quite a lot of warming up both physically and vocally, and keeping up stamina is also something that can be challenging. As always, there is much, much more to being an actor than the final performance that you see.
Having played Pi before, we also asked Hiran if he approached any part of his portrayal differently this time around than he did during his first performance in 2019. The reason for the two-year hiatus was the pandemic, and in a way, Hiran explained that the pandemic and the isolation it brought with it helped him strengthen his performance – after all, the major premise of ‘Life of Pi’ is that Pi is isolated and stuck on a boat for over 250 days with a Bengal tiger. The phenomenon is something many people in lockdown would have found themselves relating to. “Going through lockdown helped me make the role much fuller in a way, and helped me be more truthful,” Hiran said, adding that the pandemic could also have helped audiences resonate with Pi’s experience.
A somewhat inadvertent activist
Hiran’s surprise arrival in Sri Lanka and his subsequent appearances at the peaceful protests calling for change have seen many look to him for his views and thoughts on the political and economic crisis, and on the peaceful protests.
Speaking on the phenomenon that is GotaGoGama – a protest village with a library and infrastructure that encourages education and peaceful activism, Hiran said it was very impressive to see this kind of phenomenon taking place driven by people’s love for their country and each other.
“I came home and went to protest because we need to make that change. We all know and understand that there is a need for this change,” Hiran said, “The ‘aragalaya’ has its different slogans, but the key underlying thing is that we used to have a way of life and we don’t want that way of life anymore. We want something deeper, and we don’t want to wait anymore for other people and the powers-that-be to save us.”
On direct and practical solutions to our economic crisis and the way forward, Hiran declined to comment, saying: “I don’t have an answer for what to do or who should take over. I’m not an economist and I don’t have the details of knowledge to give an answer. But from what I do know, there needs to be change, and that change is happening. People’s duties are changing. When has there ever been a library at a protest to educate people? In that way alone, we have made a huge change to how we call for change.”
For Hiran, the future is uncharted territory. For the moment, his mind is on completing the West End production of ‘Life of Pi’ and then, if the Broadway production is to happen, taking Pi Patel to Broadway. It’s likely to be an entirely new experience, and being in New York would come with the chance to meet so many cool filmmakers, directors, and producers. “The possibilities are limitless, and it’s still unreal. I’d love to film next or be in a complex TV series like ‘The Wire’ or ‘Breaking Bad,’” Hiran said, before adding: “You know, I’d also love to be in a romcom some day, (playing the lead). It would be a wonderful call for diversity.”