'Blinded By The Light' Star Viveik Kalra On Taking A Crash Course In Bruce Springsteen [Interview]

Viveik Kalra is likely not a name you know, unless you happened to have seen the Sundance TV mini-series Next of Kin (he had a supporting role in it) or caught his other series Beecham House on PBS earlier this summer. But Kalra has been getting a great deal of acclaim since January when his film debut Blinded by the Light, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and quickly became a favorite among critics and audiences. 

The film concerns a young Pakistani-British boy named Javed (Kalra), living in the crap town of Luten in 1987, when Britain was under the brutal reign of Margaret Thatcher, whose leadership seemed to usher the return of highly racist ideas among the populace. But when young, synth-pop-loving would-be poet and writer is introduced to the music of Bruce Springsteen by a school friend, the world opens up to him as he begins to realize that the hard journey of a 30-something rock star from New Jersey is quite similar to his own struggles at home, in school, and in his changing country. It's an uplifting and unapologetically joyful coming-of-age film from director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham), based on the memoir by journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, both of whom collaborated on the screenplay, and made the film with Springsteen's blessing and quite a handful of his original songs.

Kalra is now filming writer/director Neil Burger's new sci-fi thrill Voyagers, co-starring Colin Farrell, Tye Sheridan, and Lily-Rose Depp. /Film caught up with him in May during his appearance at the Chicago Critics Film Festival to discuss his crash-course introduction to the music of Bruce Springsteen, how he got the role of Javed, and how this music and experience has altered the course of his life as well. Blinded by the Light is currently in theaters.

I should warn you, you're about to be interviewed by the biggest Bruce Springsteen fan in the city of Chicago. I don't want you be feel intimidated, but it's true.

Viveik: I'm ready. I was actually saying to Sarfraz, who's the writer of the book Greetings from Bury Park, and we were on the plane the other day, and I said, "That book is so wonderful. Now you should write an updated version called Greetings from Business Class, and it's just about you flying around the world promoting this wonderful film that's based on your life." I thought it was funny, and it seems like the natural progression.

It's not a straight adaptation of his book, starting with the fact that the name of the lead character has been changed. Was there a reason they did that?

Viveik: Sarfraz has talked about his before, and I think Gurinder let Sarfraz separate himself from the character. Initially the name was Sarfraz, but I believe Gurinder gave him the idea to change that so he could distance himself and he could be slightly less precious about how this story would work for this person. It's a story that's inspired by his life, and he wants to protect the people who inspired it and uplift them; it's very understandable why he'd feel that way.

It gave them a certain freedom if something needs to change to make it more cinematic. You don't have to feel like you're violating the truth, which means something to him since he's a journalist.

Viveik: Yeah, absolutely true.

I'm assuming you had to audition for this, and I think I read somewhere that you had to sing as part of your audition.

Viveik: Yeah, that was fun! Actually, it was no fun at all; it was terrible. I did audition. It was my second job—not just acting job but in life. My first job was on a TV show on ITV back home called Next of Kin, which had the lovely Archie Panjabi in it, from The Good Wife. I think Gurinder saw me in that and called me in to audition. I had three auditions, and somehow after that I was on this film set. It was crazy, really crazy. So we had to sing "Born To Run" in the audition, and little did we know that it's one of the most iconic songs of all time, I guess. [laughs] What's hilarious is that I thought we'd be singing it acapella, but Gurinder had a massive speaker, and she was like "Right, we're going to sing 'Born to Run' now," and she blasted the volume up to the point where she had to shout over it, which was hilarious but it was awesome to have that music backing you.

It's my understanding that you had zero knowledge of or connection to Springsteen's music at all.

Viveik: I literally had only heard his name, that was it.

So what was the education process like?

Viveik: That is definitely the right word for it: education. It was an education process. I realized I had to listen to his stuff after getting the script. There are 17 Bruce songs in the film, I believe, so I started listening to just those songs. Honestly, I just didn't think I'd like it, but I ended up not just liking it but loving the music. It's not faked in the film; it's genuine and real. I thought his words were wonderful, and he's a wonderful poet and musician, and you can understand why people would connect with it. He's releasing new stuff now [the album Western Stars], and I'm so excited to hear it. He is wonderful, and I eventually moved beyond the songs that are in the film; you have to get into the wider catalog of music, which I did.

Initially did you only listen to the music to through 1987, which is when the film is set?

Viveik: That's exactly what I did. Yeah, that was something that was important to me, because I didn't want a glimpse ahead to anything the character would have heard. The man brings an audience with him and a wonderful fan base, so I think it's important to be a fan if you're going to play a fan, otherwise what's the point? You're a fan; you understand. It's would be odd if I wasn't.

Do you think one of the reasons Gurinder chose you was because you were a blank slate when it came to Springsteen's music; you would be much like Javed. You could discovered it alongside the character.

Viveik: I think possibly, yes. She said that one of the reasons she chose me was because she could look at me and see me as someone who wrote poetry, which is a wonderful compliment. It was a really sweet reason, actually. I'm very grateful to her.

When you first got the script, what do you remember reacting to initially about Javed and his life?

Viveik: It sounds silly, but it was everything. It was the most relatable bit of writing. My life is not at all similar to Javed; we live totally different lives as people. But I related to it more than anything I'd ever read, fiction or non-fiction. So it was quite an amazing thing to sit there and think "I related to this so much," because it wasn't about just this thing or this thing. It was an amalgamation of so much that leads to rather sweet, wonderful and layered thing that was created by Gurinder.

I've been trying to let people know that you don't have to be a Bruce Springsteen fan to enjoy or understand this story. It's not about Bruce; it's about hearing the music that changes your life for the first time—it's almost a physical reaction. What's fascinating about the scenes where you can see the words on the screen is that it's not all of the words; you just see words that are landing and connecting with Javed. Tell me about playing someone who is having their eyes opened for the first time.

Viveik: I was having that moment simultaneously as a person, as was the character in the film, which is quite a lovely thing to have. It was nice that I hadn't heard any Bruce before, because I got to genuinely have the epiphany moment myself, to have it as the character and the actor.

Do you have a favorite song now?

Viveik: "Growin' Up." It's a special song that perfectly encapsulates the film, although it's not in the film. But for me, it perfectly captured it.

You have not met Bruce yet [he did finally did so at the film's recent Asbury Park Premiere].

Viveik: I have not. 

Have you seen him play or on Broadway? He opened with "Growin' Up" in the Broadway show.

Viveik: Does he? I think Gurinder and Sarfraz saw him on Broadway. I didn't get the chance to see that, but I'd love to see him at some point because he's a great talent and person.

blinded by the light featurette

The movie doesn't exist without Bruce signing off on the film using so much of his music, and he's notoriously protective of giving out the film rights to any of his music. Can you relate the process Gurinder went through to get him to agree to this?

Viveik: So what happened was...I should say that it's amazing for me to tell this story because I've been involved with this film for about a year as an actor, but Gurinder was involved with it for six or seven years before that and Sarfraz, it's his life [laughs]. So the years that have been put into this project is mental. Sarfraz has seen Bruce over 150 times in concert, and I believe what happened was the Bruce grew to recognize this Asian man with an Afro from the front row of so many concerts, because it's not his typical audience member. So it was at the London premiere of Bruce [Darkness on the Edge of Town] documentary The Promise, Gurinder was invited, she took Sarfraz with her, Bruce was coming along the red carpet and saw Sarfraz, and said something like "Hey man, I read your book." 

And if you've read the book, it's about Sarfraz and his relationship with his father, and how Bruce Springsteen helps him to live his life and the relationship with his father through that. So for the many himself to come up to him and say that he read and loved his book, Sarfraz lost his mind, Gurinder started pitching the film to Bruce on the red carpet, and Bruce said to send him the script, but basically agreed on the spot. It was about Bruce, but I didn't know where the audience would be from, or whether it would be very British film or American film, but what's wonderful is, we made this little film in England, and then we go to Sundance and then America seems to love it, so it's been a wonderful validation to have New Line/Warner Bros. back us—to see the same logo I've seen on the Harry Potter films as I've grown up on the front of a film that my face is on, it's quite something. And I don't mean that in an arrogant way; it's just totally surreal.

And Bruce has seen the film, and I know Gurinder was willing to listen to his notes. What did he say?

Viveik: I'm pretty sure he said that he liked it and don't change a thing, which is crazy, man. And it's so cool that he's watching this thing with this young kid, who is brown and obsessed with him. It's so meta in this world that we live in, that this person who inspired the story of someone's life to then be watching that eternalized on a movie screen.

I have to imagine the social justice storyline really appealed to him as well. He's said before that the town her grew up in was fairly racist as well.

Viveik: There are a lot of odd links. Sarfraz grew up in Bury Park; Bruce grew up in Asbury Park. It's all very weird, and these links that you find between them and their childhoods and families that are incredible.

The film feels like a distillation of Bruce's stories and philosophies; it's almost two perfect—like someone wrote it rather than lived it. Was that important to you, to make this a story not just about a guy who loves Springsteen, but also about a guy living in Bruce's universe?

Viveik: Yeah, it is a wonderfully sweet story. He's living thousands of miles away, but in his mental space, he's with Bruce, and Bruce is over in America. And I'm guessing Bruce in 1987 wasn't thinking about a young, Pakistani boy from this town just outside of London is listening to my music. I don't know the man, but in my idea of him, that would never have been something that would have sprung into his mind.

I love that all of the music is exchanged via cassettes. I don't know exactly how old you are, but I'm guessing that might have been your first dealings with cassettes.

Viveik: I think I've dealt with cassettes before or maybe CD players, but that's much later. But cassettes, that was probably my first time; record players, that was my first time. I couldn't put a record on a record player—there's a moment when I have to put a record on a record player and it was an original copy of The River, so it's expensive, and I'm jamming it on. I didn't know how to put the record on or put the needle on the record or any of that. I needed to learn a bit of delicateness when it came to these things. It's lovely, though, when you haven't ever seen these things to have a Walkman permanently slapped to the side of your jeans.

What is next for you? Where do you go from here?

Viveik: Well, Beecham House is coming up with Gurinder [one of the creators], and I've got some exciting things coming up that I cannot talk about [presumably the aforementioned Voyagers]. It's an exciting time for me. Beecham is in India but set in 1795, so it's a period of India that's never been seen before on screen; it's quite lovely, like an untouched version of India in which the British and French are merely visitors.

I'm assuming this film was actually shot in Luten. How bad is it?

Viveik: I thought it was alright; I quite like Luten. I think Sarfraz has said quite a few times that Luten was voted the crappiest place in the UK by its own people. But I had a lovely experience in Luten, and I think the film will hopefully eternalize Luten and put it on the map in a positive light.

What is the most important music to you? If you had this movie made about your life, what would the soundtrack consist of?

Viveik: Oh wow, it's all changing. I used to listen to loads of American music growing up, but now London and UK music is really popping off, so it's really exciting to hear people with an accent like my own sing songs in their own voices and not put an accent on to sing. I think even my character does in the film, sings songs in his own voice.

I'm a big Rob Brydon fan and "Thunder Road" is my favorite Bruce song, so that sequence that become a full-on musical number is the best. Tell me about shooting that sequence.

Viveik: That was probably my favorite song to sing, just because it's such a lovely, beautiful ballad. What's weird about it is, it's a scene of such scale, but I didn't feel any sense of "Someone's looking me" self-consciousness in that moment. I'm just looking at this girl and thinking "This is exactly what I think about you, and you're wonderful," and to have Bruce words back that. And Rob is hilarious, he's a funny man.

I also want to ask about the relationship Javed has with his teacher [played by Hayley Atwell], was that based on a real mentoring situation in his life?

Viveik: It's terrible, but I don't know actually. I don't think it was in the book, but it might have been real. You'd have to ask Saf. But that relationship does show that you could be in the worst school in the worst place in the UK and still have a teacher that really uplifts you and changes you so much.

We'll see you soon. Best of luck going forward.

Viveik: Thank you so much.