The interview took long. The wait, I mean. It took longer than any interview I have done in the past. We aren’t complaining though. Let’s understand, Varun Tej is a busy man. He is only 29. And he is focused. Well, he plays a gangster in his latest release, Gaddalakonda Ganesh. I was about to write Valmiki, but the title was changed by then —just one day before the film’s release, actually. That must be something to deal with!

However, by now, I had realized that Varun isn’t someone to be deterred by random twists of events. Remember, he comes from a family of well-known, well-established and well-paid actors. Yet, yes yet, he dared to make off-beat films his own and even take pay-cuts! Who does that? Well, Varun does. Also, at a time when he can cash-in on his hits and do hero-oriented roles, he chooses to play an antagonist. I doubt if any Tollywood A-lister would be game for that. Damn! I like him already.

Alright, moving on. Not only does Varun play an antagonist, he takes up a role, which is a challenge in itself, as it is laced with comedy. And let’s not forget, he steps into the character played by Bobby Simha in the original Tamil (Jigarthanda), for which Bobby Simha won the National Award. Living up to expectations is a tough job and who better than Varun would know that, with Chiranjeevi as his uncle. But this young man takes everything in his stride. His process to progression is marked by trial and error, but one he is proud of, for he believes it is all worth it.

Excerpts from the interview:

Let’s begin with your family lineage. Did you see it as a risk or a privilege, in terms of your entry into films?
Well, you have polished the meaning of nepotism by your question, I tell you! I think it’s a privilege to enter films with a film background. However, that’s just to kick-start your career. Once you have stepped into the industry, it is up to you to prove yourself and work hard to survive in the industry. As the saying goes, ‘only the fittest survive,’ I have always believed in my work and have strived towards making my own mark here. Honestly speaking, I am sure you will understand that having a family lineage also adds lot of pressure. For the responsibility is on us to make sure that we don’t spoil the image and meet the benchmark that our predecessors have set for us. So, it’s a privilege to belong to a family with film lineage, but there is as much pressure.

We actually asked that because of the off-beat films you have chosen to carve your career path. Was it deliberate?
I don’t think it was deliberate. I wanted to try different genres and selected subjects based on what I was offered. I am clear that I want every film of mine to be different than the previous one. This is what can enable me to grow as an actor and explore different characters. Also, I think the trend is changing these days and people like off-beat movies now. Nobody settles for old run-of-the-mill commercial cinema.

Beginning with Mukunda and Kanche to Fidaa and Antariksham 9000 KMPH, actors in the Telugu film history, who are known to play larger than life roles, would have thought twice before giving their nod to these films. What made you say yes to these?
Like I said, I like to try different genres, especially which are content-driven. When I hear a script, if I feel it’s unique, and I am able to see myself in the character, I go ahead with it. From there on, I give my 100% to that character. As far as larger-than-life roles are concerned, I believe in proving myself as an actor first before I do those roles. And that will happen only if I have tried different scripts and characters. With Gaddalakonda Ganesh, I tried an out-an-out mass commercial role for the first time. It has negative shades and a completely different characterization, something I have not attempted before. This is my way of learning and progressing.

Talking about scripts, and the way you go about choosing them, would you consider it your strength or your weakness (for good scripts irrespective of how they eventually fare at the box office)?
I consider it my strength. There is no certain formula in selecting my scripts, though. I just go with what I feel when I hear the story. It’s the heart and the gut instinct at play. Once I decide to do the movie, we try to make sure we deliver what we envisioned during the script narration stages. Now, sometimes the script or my selection of it works with the audience and sometimes it doesn’t. But I will still say picking up good scripts is my strength.

I, however, read somewhere that you said you would take a pay cut if the script is appealing. Have you done that yet?
Yes, I don’t mind taking a pay cut if necessary. I already did that for few of my movies when it was required. I wouldn’t have done so many experimental films if I thought otherwise. I always believe that the movie comes first, if it demands me to sacrifice my pay, I wouldn’t mind it at all, because it not only helps in bringing good content to the audience, but also gives me a personal level of satisfaction that I have done something different and have kept the audience engaged while setting standards for others to follow.

Again, the films that you have done have had the lead actresses taking equal space on screen. You haven’t shied away from playing roles that are not necessarily are all about you, or reserved yourself for hero-oriented roles only. Did this strike you at any point? Or, have you been apprehensive?
I strictly go by the story; story takes precedence over anything else. So, I never think about who is getting how much screen space. Whatever the story demands, I am all for it. Also, I don’t interfere in the script or the story once we start shooting. It’s totally up to the discretion of the director on how he wants to show his characters and for how long. All that matters to me is what impact I can make through my character and my screen space.

It is said that you are one actor who can be as convincing as a chocolate boy as an angry young man. How do you do that?
I try to look different for every movie; we sit with the director and the styling team to give a unique look to each of my character. The way you look makes a lot of impact when the audience watches you for the first time on-screen. For Gaddalakonda Ganesh, we wanted a rugged village gangster look, so I had to grow my beard for more than six months and have curly long hair. For my next movie again, I will be donning a completely different look. I guess that’s how I do it.

Most of your films have fetched appreciation; would you tell us what went wrong with Loafer and Mister? If you could go back in time, would you do these films again?
Success and failure are part of the journey. Every movie I did was an experience for me that I will always cherish. But I have to say that I learned more from my failure than success. I probably would have not been so careful and cautious in selecting the films I do, if all of my movies were hits. And, if I could go back in time, yes, I would do Loafer and Mister again, without a second thought.

What does feminism mean to you?
Well, feminism to me is respecting every individual, be it a woman or a man, equally without any discrimination. All of us should continuously support each other to advocate for equality and respect each other.

How has the industry changed (if it has) post #MeToo; and your thoughts on the #MeToo movement?
Guessing from the news I have seen, heard and read, I believe it’s created a more secure environment for women to work in. I am not quite sure how it was before. I mean, I wouldn’t be able to speak for anyone. As far as my thoughts on the movement, I always felt women have and have always had the right to speak up, and I am happy that some brave women did take a stand and I support their cause for a clean and secure environment to work in.

The LGBTQIA+ is another community that has been misrepresented in the film industry, often relegated to caricatures. What do you have to say about this? I really feel like asking you: Would you ever dare to play a gay character?
If I like the script and I believe the director can deliver as narrated, I wouldn’t mind playing a gay character, for it will also help me learn and view the world from their perspective. I have always supported LGBTQIA+ community and will continue to do so, because everyone has the right to make their own choices in life and we as humans need to respect another human’s privacy and choice.

You have surprised people with your look in Gaddalakonda Ganesh. You look unlike what you have looked so far. Tell us what went into the making of this character:
I play more of an antagonist turned protagonist towards the end of the movie. I always wanted do a role as an antagonist. After watching the original, Jigarthanda, I felt that this role has both negative shades laced with entertainment, which intrigued me a lot. Though it was challenging, I worked really hard to make this character as much my own, as was envisioned by the director, Harish. And I am glad and grateful to him for changing the character to fit my personality and image into it. A lot of work and effort went into getting the look of a gangster right for Gaddalakonda Ganesh; even the slang I use in the film is completely different from what I have done before. So, yeah, it’s been a challenging journey, but one that I have
thoroughly enjoyed.

You look unlike most Tollywood heroes. In the sense that you have a more ‘guy-next- door’ persona, someone who can be easily approached and talked to. Do you feel the same?
I think most Tollywood heroes are approachable and easy to talk to. But thanks to people, if they feel I have the ‘guy-next-door’ persona. Interestingly, I used to be this very reserved guy who wouldn’t socialize much. I liked to be on my own, but being in the industry and acting in movies has definitely changed me. It has made me more open, and now I can mingle with everyone easily. And, thank you for the comment. I will take it as a compliment.

I also discovered you are a fan of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Dexter. In each of these three shows, identify a character you would love to play and why?
In Dexter, I would like to play Dexter Morgan himself, as his character is very complex with lot of human emotions and tranquility. In Breaking Bad, it has to be Jessie Pink because I always wanted to play that kind of role which immediately connects with the audience. I find Jessie’s character very real and I believe there are lot people who can easily relate with the role. And in Game of Thrones, well, I am not sure — but definitely not the Starbucks Cup in the final season!

At 29, how do you look at life and your career?
I am at a good phase of my life right now; I am finally happy with what I am doing. I feel there is lot more to do and I am looking forward to it.

You have tasted both success and failure. Which of it is more encapsulating? And what have they taught you?
Success and failures have taught me to be more careful and cognizant at every stage. Take one step at a time and make sure you don’t repeat your mistakes. I know I won’t.

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