When Vijay Sethupathi was a child, his civil engineer father would repeatedly ask him to tame his wandering mind and focus on his studies. Sethupathi had classmates who moved on to the next year’s curriculum as soon as their current year was done. They knew what they wanted to be, but Sethupathi had a different response: “What if my approach is to drift through life?”

Sethupathi did just that. He moved to Dubai to help pay off family loans. He fell in love, came back to India and became an accountant for a theatre group. He finally stopped drifting when he decided to become an actor. The risk has paid off tremendously. Sethupathi is now counted as one of Tamil cinema’s most exciting actors.

After appearing on television and in supporting roles in films, Sethupathi played the lead in Seenu Ramasamy’s Thenmerku Paruvakatru in 2010. He has since racked up numerous acclaimed and diverse roles. Whether it is a delivery boy in Pizza (2012), a kidnapper in Soodhu Kauvvam (2013), an old man in Orange Mittai (2015) or a rural accountant in Aandavan Kattalai (2016), Sethupathi has built up a reputation for playing any role given to him with ease and fealty. In his latest role, the 38-year-old actor plays a fictionalised version of the mythical ghost Betaal, who poses a series of riddles to the king Vikramaditya. In Gayatri-Pushkar’s Vikram Vedha, which is being released on July 21, Sethupathi faces off with R Madhavan’s police officer character.

Sethupathi’s upcoming projects include R Pannerselvan’s Karuppan, Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Aneethi Kathaigal, Prem Kumar’s 96 and Arumugakumar’s Oru Nalla Naal Paathu Solren. And the flow of scripts simply doesn’t stop. “I have no choice – I try to tell them to not wait for my schedule to clear up, but I try not to disappoint those who come with scripts,” he told Scroll.in in an interview.

How will audiences react to ‘Vikram Vedha’?
I am scared. It is not a regular format film. People may come to see how Vikram Betal has been adapted. But does today’s generation know Vikram-Betal at all?

What drew you to the story?
When I heard that the story of Vikram and Betal was being adapted into a film, I was immediately in awe. Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before? In Gayatri and Pushkar’s modern retelling, all the essential elements of the original stories are there – the back and forth questions and answers, Vikram going back to find Betaal after every answer. That this could be adapted so well was a huge surprise for me. I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity.

Vikram Vedha.

You were sure you wanted to play Betaal, known as Vedhalam in the movie? Not Vikam?
No, it was always going to be Vedhalam for me. The wisdom of Vedhalam emerges from life itself. He views life so beautifully. I feel I’m more close to him.

I’m not a big reader of books or avid consumer of movies. It is my life, the experiences that I’ve had and the people that I’ve met, that have taught me what I know. Many times, truths have been shattered and the masks have come off, and I have learnt to face life in all its ugliness. But that too has been an enlightening experience.

I feel I can divide my journey age-wise. In my twenties, I asked a lot of questions. The answers began coming to me in my thirties. I’m now 38 and I feel I’m inching closer towards equilibrium, a space in which I’m able to accept the good and bad in life in equal measure.

How have your roles affected your outlook?
Playing a character doesn’t mean just saying a bunch of dialogues. A character journeys inside me before he comes out of me. And in doing so, he unearths something I’ve been thinking. Out of every character I’ve played, a facet of me has surfaced. Conversely, the roles too leave behind remnants of themselves inside me. What they’ve left behind isn’t clear or known to me all the time. Over a period of time, the characters I’ve played have made me more mature.

What draws you to a script?
I really don’t tick off boxes or have a fixed list of criteria. The story is important and is what attracts me first. Its characters, their individuality. Once I’m engrossed in the story, I start thinking about the characters more. I start asking questions about things I don’t understand about them.

My approach is simple. I don’t like to fix things in my mind or plan my career or roles. I keep the doors open and let life happen to me.

What then makes you turn down a role?
Sometimes the characters are good, but their strength does not extend to the overall story.

Soodhu Kavvum (2013).

The filmmaker must also influence your choices.
I can make out from the manner in which he or she is narrating the story or answering my questions. The story will tell me about its teller as it is a reflection of his or her thoughts. Of course, there have been times when these first impressions have changed once the shoot began. But the hope is generally that it all comes together.

But I do give my suggestions to the filmmaker and even tell him or her that if we need to work together, it will have to be a process of give and take.

The unconventional and offbeat roles in Tamil cinema tend to fall into your lap. Is this an outcome of your initial phase of struggle?
Please don’t use the word struggle. I could not have expected to become a star or even an actor in my first film. My friend once said that I was born an actor. I disagreed with him and said that I had no relationship with acting, and that I didn’t even watch films. So it could not have been preordained.

I only wanted to pay up my loans, get married and build a house of my own. A career in films happened in the strangest way when I was trying to find myself. My friend turned around and said that the years before my entry into films prepared me to become an actor by giving me a wealth of experiences.

A phase of learning should not be called a struggle. The key to cracking a difficult test or task is to grasp the core philosophy governing it. I knew I could do it with acting too.

And yet, the fact remains that you have a diverse and unusual bunch of credits to your name.
I cannot attribute the roles I’m getting to luck either. I’d be cheating the next generation by giving them the wrong picture. Maybe I chose and met the right people throughout – whether it was filmmakers like Manikandan or the television serial I worked in, for instance. I didn’t know what to do in front of the camera back then. I would just be staring blank-faced waiting very obviously for the cue.

The television channel had asked the serial makers to fire me. That’s when the director, CJ Bhaskar, said, “He has very expressive eyes. The minute he realises and understands his potential, he will become a fantastic actor.” He then went on to write episodes centered on me to encourage me to realise my potential.

Then one fine day, I finally acted. There was a scene in which I begged and cried for my child. The light men came to see the shot. They had come to see who the actor on their set was.

Directors do not usually bother to discuss the script in detail with a debutant actor. But Seenu Sir [Seenu Ramaswamy, director of Thenmerku Paruvakatru] did so, and even took inputs from me. I think all of this has contributed to the actor that I am today.

Pizza (2012).

Would you say that you now have a complete grasp of the medium?
Initially, I’d chalk out the scenes in my head in great detail and then execute them to arrive at the core idea holding them together. Then there was a phase where I felt I could identify the rhythm running through the different scenes.

Now, none of this happens. I read the script and go on the sets. I don’t plan, I don’t think. I just act and respond to the situation in front of me. I attempt to grasp the soul of the story and let it guide me. I ask ample questions and even request additional scenes if there are gaps in my mind.

Is getting out of a role hard?
No. That’s all just drama. As soon as the director says cut, I’ve exited the character.

Do you watch your own films?
On the first day. But not the first show. I’m a little scared, so I wait for the initial reaction and watch the second show.

How do you react to the adulation you get from fans?
It scares me. These are people who know and like the screen version of me. They have no idea about who I am, the petty, weird, normal and abnormal thoughts I have as a person. I want to tell them that fandom should be within its limits. A fan who does not hurt himself fawning over me is my favourite. I want to tell them that fawning over us actors is pretty useless.

Where do you situate yourself in Tamil cinema in comparison with other actors?
I don’t compare. It is dangerous to do so. I imagine myself to be a free bird, roaming freely, enjoying my own journey. The industry gives you a particular title based on what the audience is saying and reacting. All one needs to do is his or her job.

Aandavan Kattalai (2016).