“[I knew] zero, zilch, nada,” the actor admits to EW. But after throwing himself headfirst into a role that required him to eat, sleep, and breathe — not to mention sing and dance — the Boss, he quickly became a convert.
“At our premiere the other night, we got the chance to meet Bruce,” Kalra says. “I was totally unaware he’d be there. I’d gone from nothing, barely even knowing this man’s name, to him being on our red carpet, and I almost passed out. I fell to the floor and started bowing to him.”
He continues, “When I [saw] him turn around the corner, I fell to my knees and started, like, hailing him… Then at the after-party, I went up to him to shake his hand, and he gave me a hug, and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, what’s going on?!’ But I just said, ‘Thank you very much for coming.’ He didn’t have to be there. He also didn’t have to give us the rights to his music for next to no money.”
Kalra portrays Javed, a young man living in England in 1987, who has dreams of becoming a writer and finds his life turned topsy-turvy when he discovers Springsteen’s music. Propelled by the lyrics of the songs he loves, Javed dares to claim a future for himself, outside of his family’s expectations. The film is inspired by by Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock ’n’ Roll, and Manzoor’s own upbringing and obsession with Springsteen’s music.
The obsession became Kalra’s as well. “I was religiously listening to Bruce every day during filming, and even after we’d stopped filming,” he says. “But there was a point where I was like, ‘I need to get out of this because I need to find me again.’ I was listening to Bruce so much. But there’s clearly a reason his words speak to so many people — that’s because they are poetry and he is this everyman figure to a lot of people.”
Ahead of the movie’s Aug. 16 release, we called up Kalra to talk about filming those intense musical sequences, learning to sing “Born to Run” for his audition, and what it was like rocking all that flannel and denim.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is your first feature film. You were pretty fresh out of drama school when you got it, so how did you end up involved, and what was it about Javed and the script that spoke to you?
VIVEIK KALRA: It was pretty nuts. I did a TV show over in the U.K. on ITV called Next of Kin, with a wonderful lady called Archie Punjabi, who you might know from The Good Wife as Kalinda. Going from watching her on TV in that show she was amazing in and then to be acting opposite her was mental. Then that show came out and Gurinder [Chadha], our director, saw me on the telly and then called me into audition. Three auditions later, my best version of “Born to Run” in the audition later, and I was on set. It was a whirlwind experience.
You had to sing “Born to Run” in your audition, then?
Yep. It was pretty bonkers. Gurinder was like, “Yeah, we’re gonna sing now.” She whips out a massive speaker, blasted it to full volume and was like, “Go on, then.” I didn’t realize at the time it was one of the most iconic songs ever, which I think maybe made it slightly less pressure, but it was still incredibly intimidating. The read-through was when it was [toughest], doing those things in the read-through and singing across a massive, long wooden table with 30 people around it in some room in London. To be singing those ballads, like “Thunder Road,” straight across the table to Nell [Williams, who plays love interest Eliza], it was something I had to get used to. But it was a beautiful thing.
This is inspired by Sarfraz’s story, and he co-wrote the screenplay. How much did you get to interact with and get insight into Javed from him? Did you really get into the nitty-gritty of his poems (which are seen on screen in the film) or anything like that?
Yes, actually. I spent quite a bit of time with Sarfraz before we started shooting. I remember we were going to meet at the British Library. He said, “Let’s meet at the British Library.” Later, he [said], “Actually, let’s go to Luton. I’ll show you around my home town.” And then he did. He walked me around the town. He showed me his first house where he grew up, his second house where he grew up, the spots he used to hang out. He showed me loads and loads of his original poems. And after a day of doing that, we ending up meeting with Aaron [Phagura], who plays Roops in the film, and Amolak, who is the real Roops. We sat down in a cafe called Greenfields at what was called the Arndale Centre — it’s now called the mall — in Luton, at this cafe they used to hang out when they were younger. We were around the same tables with the same laminated menus, and everything was exactly the same. We took a picture there, and a couple of weeks later we were filming there in exactly the same spot because nothing had changed. It was an amazing moment to have that.
You’ve chosen to become an actor, which is a similar nontraditional, creative career path as writing. Did you face similar resistance or struggles as your character? Was that something you could relate to?
Zero. None. No resistance. I was very lucky. I’ve got very supportive parents and family. What was amazing about this script was that it resonated with me more than anything else I’d ever read. However, the circumstances of the character, what he was going through, were totally different from my circumstances. So, for something to resonate with you, despite the fact that circumstances are so totally different, speaks volumes to the amount of heart it has interwoven in it. I didn’t really have to go to set and go, “Oh, right, what did Javed have for breakfast this morning?” and make up silly stuff like that because if I had a question, I just sent Saf a message and got an answer. There was no making stuff up; there was just this wonderful source material that was in the shape of a human being.
Some of the film’s most striking sequences are when you listen to Bruce’s music, and we see his words swirling around you and the effect of the lyrics on Javed’s soul. Those are really emotionally compelling moments, and your face says so much about what those lyrics mean to the character. Can you tell us about shooting those scenes? What was going through your mind?
Yeah, that’s mostly down to the filmmaking and the camerawork. I just had to sit there and imagine being this character in this circumstances where his life is pretty bleak and dire, and then he finds something that is a possibility that could propel him to new heights in a world in which he never thought existed.
Were they playing the songs for you while filming those sequences?
Yeah. The Walkman worked, so I was using that. I also had earpieces in from time to time, blasting up music. Sometimes it would play out loud as well, sometimes it was a combination of all of them. But it was really nice having the music there, so I didn’t really have to be imagining loads of stuff.
The film is also perhaps a bit more musical-theater-esque in some moments, asking you to sing “Thunder Road” to Eliza on the steps and then the actually choreographed “Born to Run” sequence. Was that something you had experience with, or was it daunting to tackle that aspect?
No, that was incredibly daunting. I had no experience of anything like that. That was something we did in the build-up to getting onto set in the rehearsals. It was me, Aaron, and Nell. It was just us being together for those periods of time, singing and dancing together in public places, which was incredibly embarrassing. I distinctly remember us being in the offices for the film, and they’re open offices, but we would just be blasting music out, singing at the top of our lungs. Our director Gurinder would think of a dance move and say it and then we’d all look at each other like we had no idea, so then she’d YouTube it. Then we’d start practicing these weird ’80s dance moves. It was a learning experience, very out of my comfort zone. It’s all well and good to do it when you’re in within the world, but when you’re in 2019 and you’re doing that stuff in a car park randomly, people give you some funny looks.
By the time we got into filming, I was used to the madness. Then it felt normal. It is not normal to be running up and down the streets of Luton screaming at the top of your lungs, which is what we did. You can see us running up and down the streets of Luton, next to people’s homes at silly, silly times in the morning. I don’t think the neighbors were particularly happy, but hopefully when they see Luton eternalized on screen in a semi-positive manner, it will make up for it.
Did you have a formal choreographer on set?
No, not really. For the big scenes and the dancing scenes where everyone else had to be more dancey, there were moments where a choreographer came on, but for us it was just “Let’s look at that, shove that in, do a mix of that.” It was a more organic process.
Was the “Born to Run” sequence a multiday shoot? Any particular memories from shooting it?
I just remember it being absolutely bonkers. That whole “Born to Run” sequence is about three minutes on film; it took about three weeks to film. So it was certainly a long time, but the results are pretty euphoric.
You wear some distinctive outfits, rocking Bruce’s flannel and denim. Then others in the film, like Matt [Dean Charles-Chapman], have very ’80s gear and hair of a different sort. Did you like your look? Or wish you could’ve tried out the other?
You know when I was in it, it was really cool because I didn’t have to imagine being in the ’80s. I shoved that costume on. They did my hair, everyone around me was in costume and hair, all the set was done, cameras called action, and I was in the ’80s. It was amazing for that period. It’s certainly a big old puddle of fashion travesty, wasn’t it? I don’t think I could go anywhere near denim again. Or those jeans. I tried them on and they felt a bit tight, but I also then had to tuck a white T-shirt and a flannel shirt and half a denim jacket into those jeans. On set I was untucking my stuff every three seconds. But I guess it’s nowhere near as bad as wearing something like a corset in a period drama.
This was an era before your time, so was it fun to dive into a different time?
Yeah, it was cool. What was funny was that I’ve been calling all these things costumes, but at that time that was just what people wore. That was something I’ve been continually realizing. They weren’t costumes back in the day. But yeah, totally different world for me. This film is set in ’87, which is 10 years before I was even born, so totally different world, but an experience.
Do you have an artist, whether it’s a musician or an actor or a writer, who speaks to you the way Bruce speaks to Sarfraz/Javed?
Uh, I don’t think so, no. Inspiration comes from lots of different places. Just the idea of seeing someone that looks like yourself reflected back within a TV screen is really cool. So the idea of when I was starting out, seeing Archie on a TV screen, and then working with her was the greatest privilege because that is something that subconsciously tells you you are worth something. Stuff like that, just seeing myself mirrored within popular culture.
Do you have a favorite Springsteen lyric, or one that speaks to you the most?
I’ve got a favorite song, and that is “Growin’ Up,” on Greetings From Asbury Park. I think there’s 19 Bruce songs in the film, and that one’s not in it, but if you were to listen a song that perfectly encapsulates it, that’s the one. It’s three minutes of joy, and it talks about the struggles of growing up.