When actor Hiran Abeysekera was 18 years old, a tsunami hit his native country of Sri Lanka. Luckily, Abeysekera and his family were unharmed. But a friend, whom he had grown up doing theatre with, and her entire family perished in the storm that killed over 30,000 people. Abeysekera remembers looking for his friend, Tanya. He went down the coast, to the makeshift camps that had been created for people displaced by the tsunami. After being told that Tanya had died, he remembers lying at home, staring at the ceiling in shock.
At the time, Abeysekera was studying to be a doctor, and he had the following realization: “I don't want to do what I'm doing anymore. Because life can end at any second. I want to be doing something that I love.” What did he love? Theatre. Abeysekera wanted to be an actor. And now he’s currently starring as Pi in the epic play Life of Pi on Broadway. Adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti from the bestselling novel of the same name, Life of Pi is about an Indian boy who is trapped on a boat after a shipwreck. His only companion is a Bengal tiger.
The role of Pi has been a star-is-born moment for Abeysekera. He made his West End debut in the part, winning an Olivier Award for Best Actor in the process. Now he’s making his Broadway debut with it. And as a person who grew up in Sri Lanka during the country’s civil war, who lost a close friend to a tsunami, Abeysekera admits playing Pi (who loses his entire family in a shipwreck) is “triggering.” In order to conjure up the emotions of grief and sorrow that Pi feels, Abeysekera pulls up moments from his own life.
“Often I see images of my past,” he tells Playbill, waving his hand in front of his face to demonstrate. “Some of them are images that were quite hard to look at, back then. But now I feel, the more I visit them, it's quite cathartic. I'm letting them go.” He then adds, playfully with a laugh, “Maybe it's actually me being triggered that makes you believe me.”
Though he won an Olivier, Abeysekera has not received the same recognition on Broadway. He did not receive a Tony Award nomination, though he did receive Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award nominations (leading many Broadway fans to decry this omission a snub by the Tonys). But in speaking to Abeysekera, it is clear that awards recognition isn't a priority for him. He’s lived too much life to worry about things like gold statues. “I feel so humbled and privileged to be here. And grateful I'm having such an awesome experience. Like, Central Park is just around the corner!” he says, lounging in the Playbill office, with one leg over the armchair. “Everything else is a bonus.”
In Life of Pi, the main character begins the story of his wild journey with the phrase, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” The same can be said for Abeysekera’s story—though he’s Buddhist so it’s not completely apt. But it’s wondrous all the same. Abeysekera was born in the Sri Lankan capital city of Colombo in 1986. During his entire early life, Sri Lanka was in the middle of a civil war. Abeysekera remembers that every day on television, they would list the day’s death toll. And the sound of explosions was at once normal, and yet not.
“When I was in school, I heard a bomb go off,” he recalls. “And all of us kids were like… Whoa! That was a bomb! What are we going to do?’” His teacher’s response, “If the guys come, you're gonna jump out the window.” But within all the chaos, there was great creativity. Abeysekera stumbled into acting as part of an after-school detention program—a teacher put him into the theatre program because of his excess energy. There, he was introduced to Shakespeare. “It was amazing,” he recalls, with a wide smile. “We loved the rhythm of it. I remember us boys just chanting Shakespeare down the roads, not really understanding what we were saying, but just saying it because it felt really good.”
When he was a teenager, British director Willi Richards came to Sri Lanka to cast for his trilingual version of Romeo and Juliet. The play was performed in Sinhala, Tamil, and English. Abeysekera was cast as Romeo, and the play toured Sri Lanka. At the cast party, Richards told Abeysekera that he should go to drama school. Abeysekera’s response: “What’s drama school?” Richards, the British Council, and Abeysekera’s friends and family pooled some money, and in 2008 Abeysekera was on a plane for the first time to London to audition for colleges. He eventually attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art on a full scholarship.
Even now talking about it, Abeysekera’s eyes widen in wonder, as he remembers what it was like to see London for the first time. “I didn't know anything about how prestigious the schools were. I was just having the time of my life!” he exclaimed. “I was in London. And I was amazed by everything, like the size of the buildings, the cleanliness of the trains.” He also adds, in a phrase that makes more sense when you realize Abeysekera grew up during a civil war, that London is “less noisy, because nobody was tooting their horns all the time.”
Since graduating from RADA, Abeysekera has been booked and busy. He’s worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company—he played Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was filmed by the BBC. He flew as Peter Pan outside in a production for Regent's Park Open Air Theatre in London (a pitch perfect piece of casting considering how slim and sprite-like the actor is). He starred in Peter Brook’s The Prisoner (a show that played London, Paris, Edinburgh, Rome, and Brooklyn).
Despite his prolificness, Abeysekera is also aware of how rare his journey is, especially for an Asian actor with an accent (which is an elegant mix of Sri Lanken and British). Growing up in Sri Lanka, Abeysekera was confident that he could play any role. “When I came over to England, that’s when I kind of started realizing that, oh, everybody doesn't see me like I can be anything. You see me only as Asian,” he remarks.
So Abeysekera realizes that his career trajectory, where he’s gotten to work with directors who fully saw his potential and to win awards for it, is rare. “But I am hoping for a world where we see beyond each other's skin,” he says. “But at the moment, what's happening is so important and quite awesome for a play like Life of Pi with this mad diverse cast, to have a brown actor to be a lead in on Broadway. I guess it's quite huge.”
He didn’t quite realize how huge Life of Pi was until he won his Olivier Award last year. During his speech, he mentioned Sri Lanka’s ongoing economic crisis (which has left the country unable to pay for basic imports, like fuel): “I think of you and I wish I was there.” Soon after, he went home and witnessed firsthand the impact of his words, which “had touched Sri Lankans all over the world, especially the ones who are going through the economic crisis back home. A lot of people told me how I had made them feel.” Instead of feeling elated, or famous, Abeysekera only had more questions: “What is my responsibility now that I have a platform? I was confused. I was overwhelmed.”
He admitted that it led to something of a rough patch last year, as the scars from his early life, mixed with the new pressures of success, collided. It led him to finally seeing a therapist for the first time, and beginning a practice of journaling: writing poetry and expressing himself free of outside judgment or self-critique. Abeysekera also began to lean back into the Buddhist teachings he was raised with, which he had put aside when he moved to London. “I've read this book called The Heart of the Buddha. And in it, there's this one line that says, everybody is a wave, like on the ocean, and some waves are bigger than the others, and some are small,” Abeysekera explains. And the gist of that quote is that all waves will “come to an end. But what we shouldn't forget is that we are all water.” To Abeysekera, it’s comforting to know he’s part of “the old universe” and that it’s OK to not have the answers, and to do your best.
So now in NYC, when he is greeted after the play by Sri Lankens, who have been coming in droves—they wait at the stage door to meet him. Abeysekera has processed all that energy, and expectations, in a healthier way. “There was this sweet Sri Lankan boy who came and saw me. And he said, ‘I'm so thrilled to see somebody like me, leading a play on Broadway,’” he says, with a joyful chuckle. He’s also gotten dinner invites from Sri Lankans.
“I realized that I was taking too much responsibility,” he says. “But actually, all I had to do was continue what I was doing. That's the best thing I can do for everyone—like my friends, my people. That's the best I can do for the world is to do my art.”
With his characteristic humility, Abeysekera calls his career so far “a journey of novelty that started in 2008 when I got on a plane to come to England. And since then, I've been riding this wave of fortune. And people have just believed in me and loved me. And there's so much that I'm receiving that at times, I can't really make sense of it all. All I know is that I need to be true to how I feel and what I am. And keep discovering. And as long as I do that, I will make those people who believe in me proud.”