Antonythasan Jesuthasan is not like other leading actors. And those few words are very much an understatement. At 15 he was a child soldier in Tamil Eelam. At 25 he was living as a refugee in Thailand. At 35 he was leading a double life as a noted Tamil author and a Parisian bellboy. And at 45 Jesuthasan was the lead actor in a film that would go onto win the Palme d’Or.
Dheepan, directed by Jacques Audiard, tells the story of three Tamil refugees forced to pretend to be a family in order to flee civil war-ravaged Sri Lanka and escape to France, in the hope of reconstructing their lives. It’s a story the man in the title role knew all too well. Like Dheepan, Jesuthasan had also fled war-torn Sri Lanka as a Tamil refugee. He too had found a passage to France, and he too had to eek out a new life from the very foot of Paris’ social ladder.
Jesuthasan's story begins in Sri Lanka where, as a teenager, he witnessed first hand the severity and brutality of the 1983 Black July attacks on Tamil people by factions of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority. 'Sinhalese members of the Sri Lankan Army came to our village and executed people on our front yard, our sisters were raped and sexually assaulted by them. The [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] were resisting against these atrocities, and so I joined them with a great confidence; it was a time when, all over the world, lots of resistances were taking place, for emancipation from all kind of oppressions. By reading in newspapers about events in Vietnam, Palestine, Nicaragua, and the Indian Naxalites resistance, we were moved to believe in the armed resistance.'
When Jesuthasan joined the LTTE as a child soldier, he was becoming part of a guerilla group which resonated closely with his own beliefs. 'Self-determination of socialist Tamil Eelam was my dream at that time. LTTE proclaimed that they were fighting for a socialist country and I took up that call, as I was dreaming of a socialist nation which would be free of cast, gender and religious differences.'
However, the LTTE grew quickly, and soon became the dominant opposition group in the Civil War that would engulf Sri Lanka for more than a quarter of a century. As the LTTE’s power base and influence grew, Jesuthasan sensed a shift in their focus. 'The socialist discourse which they had previously claimed, turned into rhetoric of ethnocentric Tamil nationalism. The leadership of LTTE dismantled and destroyed all other alternative political factions with its weapon. I left the movement then, so did many others. All our dreams had been burned inside three years, but history has subsequently proven that my decision to leave at that movement was the right one.'
Leaving a group like the LTTE is not something one does easily. Jesuthasan’s decision to walk away from the organisation ensured that from that moment on his very existence in Sri Lanka would be under threat. And so in 1988 he left the country for Hong Kong - the only place it was possible for him to travel without a visa - and from there he moved onto Thailand. Here, under the auspices of the UN Refugee Agency, he would live as a refugee in a Bangkok suburb for a number of years. In 1993 the chance to move on to France, travelling on a fake passport, fell his way and he took it. Jesuthasan has lived in Paris ever since. 'I love Paris a lot; this is the city that made me a famous writer and a world known actor, after I arrived here initially as a refugee'
Does he still consider himself to be a refugee? 'Who wishes to be a refugee? Nobody wishes to inflict upon themselves the identity of a refugee, or an outsider. I consider Paris to be my home, but the French government keeps me as a refugee. Me considering Paris as my home bothers Madame Marine Le Pen; it is a big problem to her.'
Whilst Jesuthasan’s status as a resident remains locked in a status of flux; his life in France has seen him gradually gravitate back towards long-held passions, and the search for a means through which to tell important stories. He is something of a natural artist; whilst a member of the LTTE he wrote and acted in street dramas on the liberation of the Tamil people, which the organisation would deliver in local villages. But despite these early steps into the arts in his teens, to forge a career in literature or acting remained far from his thoughts.
'I wasn't a born artist, I was a child of war. War and the injustice which were imposed on my people inspired and pushed me forward in the first instance. I never considered Literature as a means to earn money. I studied until tenth grade, and the only language I can speak and write is Tamil. My knowledge of literature is also pretty small. But I always liked to resist, and I would always like to talk about the subjects others were reluctant to talk about. My stories are a medium by which to express my stance.'
With barely a handful of small film roles behind him, Jesuthasan initially auditioned for a minor part in Dheepan. But just weeks before the scheduled start of shooting Audiard learned of the actor’s backstory, and, after rushing him through classes took a chance on the inexperienced actor, casting him in the lead role. An incredibly bold move but, with the film going onto win the Miami Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize as well as the Palme d’Or, one that ultimately paid off.
So after the success of Dheepan, and with the film roles that have followed it, does Jesuthasan now consider himself to be an actor? 'Above everything I like to be identified as a left activist. To achieve, and to be identified as such I have needed to work hard, and to have lost a lot'.
And work hard he has. It was only in the late 1990s that Jesuthasan, encouraged by friends in the Revolutionary Communist Organization, first began to document his thoughts and experiences. Under the pseudonym Shobasakthi, he wrote short stories, essays and plays based on his experiences during the Sri Lankan Civil War, publishing his first novel Gorilla in 2001. But the transition from refugee to writer to actor was neither swift nor smooth. For more than two decades, right up to being cast in the role of Dheepan by Audiard, Jesuthasan trod a very ordinary life, earning a living as, amongst other things, a shelf-stacker, dishwasher and street-sweeper.
'It was hard, surviving with these lowly jobs. The time to stand up with my own theories and experiences didn’t arrive at my doorstep; I had to work hard to pull it towards me, so I could tell my stories'.
When I ask Jesuthasan whether the success of Dheepan has changed or altered his life, or expectations, it is the escape from the stress which these many jobs placed on his mind and body which he moves to acknowledge first. 'I have been emancipated; rescued from the torment of becoming disabled, mentally and physically, from being squeezed and sucked in the name of work at supermarkets and restaurant kitchens'.
But he is aware too, as any left activist would be, of the wider impact of the film’s success, and what it has meant not just for him, but for the people whose stories and voices he has long strived to represent. After the success of Dheepan prominent French directors have begun to give roles to Tamils in their movies; many other faces have now made their debut in French cinema'.
It is understandably difficult for anyone seeing Dheepan, and knowing Jesuthasan’s own history to avoid drawing parallels between the life of the actor and that of his character. But simply being able to resonate with a life, doesn’t mean portraying it comes easily. 'Yes, I was able to understand the screenplay clearly, since Dheepan and I had endured similar experiences. But Dheepan's mindset and mine are not the same at all; completely different from each other. Dheepan was a creation of the director, not me, and so I had to work hard to bring this created character through on screen. I had to keep my own emotions in control; losing that control would’ve been dangerous for the art’.
Though Jesuthasan had acted before Dheepan, this was by far his biggest role to date, his first title role, so how does it feel to make that step up, and to do so with a director as accomplished and revered as Audiard?
‘It felt really normal. If I had worked with a debut director then I think I would have felt greater pressure - after Dheepan, when I played two further lead roles, I had that sort of a pressure. But when I was working on Dheepan I fully submitted myself over to the great artist, director Jacques Audiard, and as a result I didn’t feel any tension or worry. I was happy, but worked very hard.’
Hard work, and a willingness to work hard to earn the right to tell his stories are evidently significant cogs in the machinery of Jesuthasan’s character. He is a man who is under no illusions of the struggles and fights an increasingly global community must face in order to make themselves heard. He is a leading man unlike any other, so what does being a man mean to him?
‘We are in the era of globalisation and the time of refugees, it’s a context which pushes me, and many of us, to the very edge of slavery. The establishment, laws, and the justice system have invented means to keep us as slaves forever. It is by standing up to this we find some sort of meaning for our very existence’.
Migrant to Moviestar: Dheepan’s Antonythasan Jesuthasan, a special screening of excerpts from the film Dheepan with contextual discussion from Jesuthasan took place in Royal Festival Hall as part of 2017's Being A Man festival. This annual festival explores what it means to be a man in the 21st century.
interview by Glen Wilson