News Column

The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn., John Beifuss column

November 24, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 24--"Ender's Game" is the story of a teenager whose "tactical genius" marks him as Earth's potential savior in a war with an insectlike alien species.

"Tactical genius" may be too strong a term to apply to Suraj Partha at this point in his career. Nevertheless, the savvy 16-year-old Indian-American entertainer from Memphis this month emerged from the ever-crowded field of teen entertainment hopefuls to make his movie debut in "Ender's Game," a big-budget science-fiction spectacle with Harrison Ford and Sir Ben Kingsley in lead adult roles.

"I watched 'Star Wars,' I watched 'Gandhi,' so then years later waking up and standing next to them and working with them, that was something else," said Suraj, making a name for himself in more ways than one. ("Partha" is a shortening, for professional purposes, of his birth surname, "Parthasarathy.")

In "Ender's Game," Suraj plays Alai, a student at a futuristic "Battle School" who befriends the title recruit, Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, the star of Martin Scorsese's "Hugo").

The role of Alai is small but significant. Alai adds comedy to the film, when his sensitive stomach loses its battle with the effects of zero gravity, earning him the embarrassing nickname, "Captain of the Vomit Comet." Alai also utters the Arabic-Islamic phrase "As-Salam alaykum," a common greeting that takes on special meaning in the context of the story's anti-war message.

"It means 'peace to you,' so it becomes a major theme in the movie," said Suraj, whose next job is sure to please Memphians: He's set to sing the national anthem Monday at the Memphis Grizzlies game at FedExForum.

Suraj -- the Hindi name means "sun," and more or less rhymes with "courage" -- said he considers himself to be essentially a born entertainer.

"It's like I woke up one day and said, 'This is what I want to do.' It was almost like I didn't have a choice. It was truly a life-changing realization. I don't think I could call it anything else."

Suraj was born in Buffalo, N.Y., but was only about 2 when his family moved to Memphis when Suraj's father, Dr. Ranganathan Parthasarathy, became a partner in Mid-South Imaging & Therapeutics, a radiology practice.

Suraj was a chess champion and a good student, but he nevertheless was interested in performing at a young age. According to his father, Suraj could sing in Tamil, Hindi and Sanskrit by age 2, and was playing at least rudimentary drums and piano by age 5.

Suraj became a student of Germantown-based voice teacher Bob Westbrook, whose celebrity clients have included Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Memphis-born television stars Lucy Hale (ABC Family's "Pretty Little Liars") and Olivia Holt (Disney's "Kickin' It").

"Suraj could carry a tune at age 5, which a lot of kids can't," Westbrook said.

Suraj began writing songs and earning gigs: He sang the national anthem at a Redbirds game and "America the Beautiful" at the U.S. Open Tennis Championship in 2009. He also began performing on local stages: He was a kid Tevye in a production of "Fiddler on the Roof" at Collierville's Harrell Theatre.

Though his main interest was singing and songwriting, Westbrook suggested a kid of Suraj's age would have a better chance getting noticed as a singer if he entered music through acting.

"Selling recordings, as hard as it is these days, you've got to get people's attention," Westbrook said. "You've got to get those Twitter numbers up, you need recognition."

Westbrook took Suraj to iPop! Los Angeles, a convention that connects young talent with agents, managers, choreographers and so on. Suraj was noticed, and now is represented by the Clear Talent Group, a major talent agency based in Los Angeles.

Suraj's parents decided to support their son's career fully. Almost four years ago, Suraj and his mother, Rajasree Parthasarathy, and his two younger sisters moved to Los Angeles, so Suraj could pursue acting opportunities.

"Obviously, you have to be of some means to pull this off," said Dr. Parthasarathy, who remains in Memphis.

"It's difficult," Suraj said. "I only visit Memphis now on the holidays."

Suraj earned guest spots on Fox's "Glee" and Nickelodeon's "How to Rock," but none of those jobs prepared him for "Ender's Game," a $110 million production that required the actor and his young co-stars (including Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld of "True Grit") to participate in the "bonding" experience of Space Camp and a military-style boot camp before filming.

"It was a lot of fun, at the same time it was definitely hard work," Suraj said.

Directed by Gavin Hood ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine"), "Ender's Game" -- which opened Nov. 1 in 3,407 theaters nationwide -- mostly was shot in 2012 at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where Saturn rockets and Space Shuttle parts have been manufactured. "From February to June, me and my mom moved out to New Orleans and we just stayed there," Suraj said. "It was really nice because I got to see the whole process of shooting."

Huge warehouselike spaces at the NASA plant were converted into soundstages, where Suraj and others were outfitted with "really uncomfortable" harnesses attached to wires for the "zero gravity" action and training scenes. Stunt coordinators and Cirque du Soleil performers were hired to help the kids learn how to mimic the appearance of moving freely through space as they were pulled a dozen or so feet into the air, to perform in front of green screens; special effects artists added the backdrops later.

Especially fascinating to Suraj was the process of being fitted for his character's military-style uniform. "They took a laser and scanned us all from head to toe to create models of ourselves, and built the uniforms on those. So they form-fit very perfectly. The whole experience of getting fitted was even cooler than getting to wear the uniform."

Much of what Suraj calls the "learning experience" of the film involved observing the more experienced actors, young and old, including Ford, Kingsley, Viola Davis ("The Help") and Abigail Breslin ("Little Miss Sunshine").

"So much of what I learned was from just watching and listening," Suraj said. "Not so much from what people say as learning from example."

He said Ford and Kingsley "kept us focused. Both of them did not break character very often. When we cut they would maintain their character. They would stay subdued and that helped the kids stay focused as well."

He said he's proud that "Ender's Game" retains the thoughtful message of Orson Scott Card's 1985 novel, which runs counter to the us-vs.-them aggression of most alien invasion movies.

"It rides the perfect line between mainstream entertainment and art," he said. "It really gives you something to think about at the end. It doesn't give you all the answers. It lets you find the answers within yourself."

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