Feb 8, 2012

Ray of Light

It's a windy lunch hour in Toronto, the kind of day when even the trees seem to be shivering, but somehow it doesn't feel that cold. Perhaps it's because Lisa Ray and I are talking about lovers.

"India is my complex lover," she says. "It's the place where I feel most at home, but it's also the place that vexes me the most. It's a very honest place - it's life lived out in all of its glory and misery in front of you, unapologetically."

We often love (or loathe) what we recognize in ourselves, and Ray, like India, is disarmingly honest. "Unapologetic," along with its partner in crime, "unabashed," seems to be one of Ray's favourite words, turning up in conversation every few minutes, serving as both adjectival tic and life dictum. In fact, what strikes me most about Ray - beyond the fact that she is almost preposterously, objectionably beautiful - is her candour. The model and actress, who is best known in Canada for her starring role in Deepa Mehta’s Water, dispenses with the typical starlet’s I-don’t-talk-to-the-press-about-myprivate-life routine. She speaks happily about Jason Dehni, her soulmate of the human variety. They met through Artbound, a non-profit he co-founded in support of Free The Children, which helps kids in developing countries. As she shares their how-we-met story, her eyes kindle with mischief and she notes, “I’m deeply in love.” Tomorrow, the couple is heading to Turks and Caicos for a much-needed mini-break: “I’m hugely excited!”

Ray has more than the Caribbean sojourn to be excited about: After a very public battle with multiple yeloma
and a stem cell transplant in January 2010, Ray is in remission. She plans to launch a fundraising drive in support of stem cell technology and regenerative medicine; she has partnered with two women to open Moksha Yoga Brampton; and she is hosting the new season of Top Chef Canada, which premieres March 12 on Food Network Canada. About what attracted her to Top Chef, she says, “Initially, I was skeptical of reality TV . But food has been really significant in my life,” she tells me over tartar di tonno at Terroni Bar Centrale, “and I’ve had a complex relationship with it.

“On the one hand, it’s been a source of comfort, but I’ve been in a business where it’s also about denial. If you’re a model or an actress, you’re expected to deny yourself.” For her, taking on this project stems from an appetite to deny denial. The show “is a celebration for me. I love food — I’m unapologetic about that.”

Mark Lysakowski, supervising producer of Top Chef Canada, explains why he sought out Ray: “Lisa has the ability to go from being the grand, impressive host to being this complete gal. That’s a rare quality: to have someone who can command a room and be your best friend. The other thing is she would dig right in to the food. You know those beautiful models who don’t eat anything? No, no. She gets in and she eats! We’ve had 16-course meals, and she’d try it all and just say, ‘Bring out the next course!’ ”

With her now gleaming plate as Exhibit A, I suggest to Ray that she doesn’t appear to be in a denial phase
anymore. She curls her hands around a cup of tea to reveal nails dressed in racy red polish and enjoys a slow sip.

“Not at all! It’s like, bring it on!” she says with a coy smile, looking suddenly like the cat who got the cream.

There is, indeed, something distinctly catlike about Lisa Ray. Apart from those green, almond-shaped eyes, she emanates wilfulness, dignity and fierce independence, all at once. A half-hour after I met Ray for the first time at the downtown loft she shares with Dheni, she was quick to share an anecdote about French actress Isabelle Adjani — something she recalls reading in a magazine when she was 11 or 12. “A friend of
Adjani’s said, ‘Isabelle is like a cat. She comes and she goes. She has a corner in my house where she can stay, and you’ll wake up and she’ll be gone. You cannot control her. She’s a cat.’ I thought, I want that life!”

That kind of restlessness, a longing for the next adventure and an intense allergy to routine, has pursued Ray for most of her life. As a child, although she never wanted to be a performer (“I was as shy and retiring
as they come,” she says), she craved the theatre and melodrama of experience itself. “My friends wanted this conventional lifestyle,” she recalls without taking a breath, as if reliving the claustrophobia. “I would just
shrink inside. Something inside me would contract. I wanted to be free spirited, an artist. I didn’t want to be
tied down — to a job, a mortgage, a structure that felt suffocating.”

Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast, offered her a road map to the adult life she coveted. Ray tells me
about a reference Hemingway makes to Ralph Cheever Dunning, an opiumaddicted poet in Paris’s années folles. Dunning’s concierge tells Hemingway: “ ‘Monsieur Dunning est monté sur le toit et refuse catégoriquement de descendre,’ ” she says excitedly in French. “I loved that phrase! It became a trademark of how I wanted to live my life. I wanted to be on the roof! And if that’s what I wanted, I’d damn well go on the roof!”

Arguably, Lisa Ray didn’t just learn this convention-bucking gumption from Hemingway, but from her parents. Her father, born in Calcutta, met her mother while on a cultural exchange in Warsaw. He claimed to be visiting Poland because he admired the country’s communist ideologies. “I’m like, ‘Dad, bullshit! You were there to meet blond women,’ ” says Ray. Which is precisely what he did. While his family chose a bride for him in India, he was busy getting married in England. (Punished for their romantic choices, both of Ray’s parents were, for a time, excommunicated from their families.)

With a PhD in chemistry, Ray’s father landed a job in the Canadian petroleum industry and the couple moved to Toronto, where Lisa was born and raised with a strong awareness of both her cultural heritages.
While her first language was Polish, and she has fond memories of eating kielbasa and perogies with her
maternal grandmother, she also remembers playing with her Indian cousins on the hot, mosquito-ridden
banks of the Ganges. “I loved the chaos. I loved the warmth. I loved the unpredictability of India,” she recalls.

Unpredictability did accompany her to India: On one of those family trips, Ray, at a party in a Holiday Inn in Bombay, was scouted to be a model. “I thought, Okay, I’m bored, let’s try it.” Despite her introversion, she felt modelling granted her access to the dramatic, colourful world she had fantasized about. Soon a photograph of a teenaged Ray in a red swimsuit graced the cover of Indian fashion magazine Gladrags. The picture of India’s answer to Farrah Fawcett found its way into teenage boys’ bedrooms from Delhi to Goa, exalting her to mega celebrity.

About those early professional victories, Ray says: “I have found that, in life, periods of great professional
success mask times of great personal tragedy.” Just as Ray was being launched to stardom at 16, she and
her parents were involved in a serious car crash. The family was heading back to Toronto after a picnic
outside of the city; they were struck, head-on, by another car on a twolane highway. “By pure serendipity,
or karma, or whatever you want to call it, I was sitting in the front seat — where I never, ever sat. My mom
was in the back seat,” Ray tells me quietly. Her mother, then in her late forties, became a quadriplegic. “I
shut down emotionally,” says Ray. “There were a lot of things I suppressed. I had to.”

After the accident, at the behest of her parents who didn’t want her to miss any opportunities, Ray moved
to Bombay to continue modelling. She thought she might stay a year or two, and stayed 10.

“That was my Bombay Princess phase,” Ray says, not bothering with false modesty. “I was as big in India
as, say, Linda Evangelista.” She lived in a penthouse (“with two Persian cats,” she laughs, “of course!”), had a chauffeur and, in 2001, starred in the offbeat film Kasoor, a performance that captured the attention of Canadian director Deepa Mehta, who was casting her upcoming film Bollywood/Hollywood. Mehta met with
Ray in Bombay: “She fished three cellphones out of her bag and lined them up on the table,” recalls Mehta.
“They were all ringing at the same time. That didn’t do too well for her.”

Ray, too, remembers that first encounter: “Deepa said to me, ‘Will you turn off those fucking phones?!’ and I said, ‘I can turn off this one and this one — but never this one. That is my red hotline.’ We came to an uneasy compromise.” Despite the tension, Ray got the role. “To be honest, I didn’t know what acting was,
I didn’t know what I was doing, but that experience whetted my appetite.” Performing, she realized, provided
her with an emotional outlet for the trauma she had endured, and tamped down, as a teen.

But as overwhelming as her success in India was Ray’s resistance to the stardom others sought to bestow
on her. If so many actors spent their lives in pursuit of celebrity, Ray felt she had been granted a notoriety that wasn’t deserved. “I felt like I was living someone else’s dream.” When Bollywood/Hollywood was chased
with a slew of bank account-glutting film offers, Ray responded by leaving the country, moving to London, learning to do things she’d never done before (like laundry) and enrolling in poetry classes and acting school.

“London was about finally doing everything that had been building up in me. I knew I had to be hard on myself. My life in India had become too comfortable.” For Ray, comfort was generally paired with a measure of discomfort, an instinctual resistance to the stasis of ease. “Every time there’s a peak in my professional life, I tend to bail and go somewhere else.”

It was then that Mehta considered casting her as Kalyani in Water: “Contrary to what some people said,
I thought she would be the best person for the role. The choice of Lisa was out of the box.... I took the chance on her because of her ability to bring something to Kalyani — which were her feelings of uncertainty
and resolve. I thought Lisa could do that because of her own life.”

Indeed, Ray’s life, like Kalyani’s, has been marked by uncertainty (that she deserved the attention) and resolve (to slip, unseen and catlike, out the back door). If the actress was compelled by an appetite for the glamour of intense experience, she was simultaneously driven to evade it. When Water was nominated for an Oscar in 2006, Ray found herself fielding offers from studio heads in Los Angeles and screen testing with Daniel Craig to be the next Bond girl in Quantum of Solace. “It was exciting, but at the same time, I was overwhelmed. It freaked me out. Again, I felt, I never aspired to do this, what am I doing here? I always felt like a fraud.”

Instead of cashing in on her new Hollywood It-girl status, Ray took a role in an indie film in South Africa,
then embarked on a six-month meditation retreat in the mountains of northern India. “Superficially, everything was perfect, but inside there was churning. I felt extremely restless. Anaïs Nin said, ‘I must be a
mermaid.... I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.’ Not to make myself sound more profound than anyone else, but I’ve always felt a yearning to go beneath the surface of things.”

Then, in 2009, Ray was diagnosed with cancer. “I had a different reaction from what I hear is normal,” she says. “The first thing was relief. I knew something was wrong with me.” Ray had just lost her mother, and was both emotionally and physically depleted. The diagnosis, she says, at least provided a scientific explanation. But, in many ways, she had long rationalized her fatigue, assuming ( justifiably) that she had good reason to be tired. “Everyone’s tired. We wear it like a badge of honour: I’m more exhausted than you! Meaning, I work harder than you!” Multiple myeloma is essentially bone marrow cancer, and part of that diagnosis also held symbolic significance for Ray. “The marrow is the deepest core of you. It was about core, core, core issues about who I was — that’s what I needed to confront,” she says. “The universe kept sending me messages, but I wouldn’t listen. I had to stop and look at this stuff, and cancer gave me an opportunity.”

Ray sprinkles her conversation — and her blog, The Yellow Diaries — with quotes from authors, poets and
philosophers. One from e.e. cummings seemed to moonlight as a sort of battle cry during her illness: “To
be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means
to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

How did Ray manage to “never stop fighting” while facing a devastating disease? Deepa Mehta has a theory: “Lisa is so brave.... She was always underplaying her own discomfort, her fear, her pain. It’s something
maybe Lisa learned from her mother — that dignity when you’re going through personal, physical trauma.”

We’re sipping Darjeeling tea in her loft when Lisa Ray springs up suddenly to show off a richly jewel-toned rug she and Dehni bought on a recent trip to India. “I’m very passionate about this rug,” she says. She seems to be feeling affectionate toward many things today: her cat, Loulou, which she’s just learned
is the same breed that French author Colette had (“Ooooh, I love my cat!”); the new colourful toss cushions she’s cuddling up to on the couch (“I love these pillows!); and even turning 40 (“I love getting older!”). About this last profession of love, she explains, “I love myself so much more.”

This, she states, is Lisa 2.0. “I really do feel like this is my second act. It’s a rebirth, literally and metaphorically. The stem cell transplant is a complete regeneration from the inside out.” I suggest that Lisa 2.0, the one equally excited to talk about Monsieur Dunning and home decor, may be ready for the rootedness she’s spent most of her life avoiding. “We build up belief systems about ourselves. But we need
to keep revisiting them, refreshing them,” she says. “Maybe I needed to shred those beliefs about myself and create new ones.” Smiling broadly, she adds, “The cat’s come home and isn’t going out for a wander anymore.”

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