Blinded by the Light Trailer

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.

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