Freida Pinto on the Life-Changing Magic of Saying "No"

Frieda Pinto
Photo: Isabel Marant lamb-leather top & skirt; Maya Brenner 14kt gold & 14kt rose gold bracelets; Lena Skadegard at Love Adorned silk & pearl bracelet; Planet Cowboy vintage leather boots from Space Cowboy Boots; Studs, her own. Photographed by Horst Diekgerdes

Can someone in Hollywood please find a funny role for Freida Pinto? Her sister, Sharon, is begging you.

When the 32-year-old actress told her sibling she’d signed on to make Showtime’s ’70s underground activist drama Guerrilla, Sharon had some concerns: “Do you get raped? Do you get killed? What happens?”

Understandable. Since Pinto hip-swiveled and thumka’d off the screen of 2009’s Oscar-winning Slum-dog Millionaire and into fashion magazine pages everywhere, she’s appeared in a host of serious-issue films. Movies like Miral, directed by Julian Schnabel, about a Palestinian girl caught in the Arab-Israeli conflict; Desert Dancer, about a young Iranian who risks his life to work for his art; and the upcoming Love Sonia, a drug-trafficking drama in which Pinto stars as the owner of a brothel.

VIDEO: How to Drive Your Life: Tips from Frieda Pinto a Pinto

Now, in Guerrilla, written and produced by John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) and co-starring Idris Elba, Pinto plays a nurse radicalized by an underground cell in London in the early 1970s. Pinto describes the six-episode series as “my dream television gig”—i.e., “six heavy, intense, juicy, entertaining episodes of something that will get people talking.

Frieda Pinto
Coach 1941 cashmere sweater, silk pants, and plastic sunglasses. Cartier 18kt gold necklace. Jennifer Meyer diamond & 18kt gold cuff; Hearts on Fire diamond & 18kt white gold bracelet. Photographed by Horst Diekgerdes.

But Pinto is also ready for an upbeat turn, and she promises she’s not as dark as some of her roles suggest. “I’m very bright on life in general,” she says, sipping a turmeric latte with almond milk, no sweetener, at Bardonna, a coffee-house in Larchmont, near her Los Angeles home. “But in performances, I like getting out of myself.” Plus Guerrilla, she says, has at least a few moments of lightness and levity. (Sharon apparently responded to this by saying Pinto had “a very f—ed-up sense of ‘light.’ ”)

Born in Mumbai, Pinto was interested in acting from a young age. She broke into the business through modeling for Elite Model Management in India when she was scouted to host a local travel show. But her career wasn’t really taking off, and she nearly quit performing for event management before she was cast by director Danny Boyle in the rags-to-riches drama Slumdog. It was in the midst of the global success of Slumdog that the actress, then 25, gained a deeper understanding of the value of balancing activism and entertainment.

Frieda Pinto
Dior calfskin coat; Paco Rabanne metal mesh top; J Brand denim jeans; Lena Skadegard at Love Adorned silk & pearl bracelet. Photographed by Horst Diekgerdes.

In 2009 she showed up to the Oscar red carpet wearing a one-shouldered blue lace John Galliano gown. “I just thought I was wearing a pretty dress,” she says now, her light brown eyes wide. “But all of a sudden what I was wearing was the trend. And the amount of attention made me think, ‘What if I used even a tenth of the publicity I receive as an actress to do something that I felt passionate about?’ ”

Ever since, she’s vocally supported causes like world hunger relief and the education of young women. Last year she traveled with Michelle Obama to promote the Let Girls Learn initiative in Morocco and Liberia. She has fought for gender equality with Chime for Change and Girls Rising. This past February she teamed up with food-recovery nonprofit Copia to collect uneaten meals from the major Oscar weekend parties and donate them to more than a thousand people in need. “All of us can be change-makers,” she says. “Now is not the time to be neutral and passive.”

Frieda Pinto
Acne Studios velvet jacket, viscose shirt, cotton jersey top, and viscose-blend pants; Steven Alan Optical stainless-steel sunglasses. Sarah and Sebastian 14kt gold necklace. Photographed by Horst Diekgerdes.

Pinto’s humanitarian work sometimes means the movie projects are fewer and farther between. So her résumé might be shorter than that of other actresses her age, but that’s by choice. “There’s stuff I had to do at the start of my career because I was new, a fish out of water. But now I’m so selective about what I do workwise,” she says. “I don’t want to be in anything and everything. I don’t want to make forgettable things. So I can be patient. Because I will now say no to things.”

That’s equally true in her personal life. On one end of the spectrum, she’s cutting out sugar—an attempt to try something new (so far, she’s only lapsed once, due to an accidental honey-roasted cashew on a British Airways flight). On the other, she says she’s also jettisoning “people who don’t add value to my life.” That means she’s happily single; when it’s time for a new relationship, “it’ll find me,” she adds.

“I’m soon going to be 33. I should not be pretend or fake. Or even feel the burden of being cordial,” Pinto says. “I just want to be truthful. I think that’s what’s important.”

For more stories like this, pick up InStyle's May issue, on newsstands and available for digital download Apr. 14.

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