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Freida Pinto didn’t rise to fame as much as she instantly found herself in its spotlight. It’s a story almost more Hollywood than Hollywood – kind of like the one in the small film that started it all. Set and filmed in India, Slumdog Millionaire emerged as a surprise sleeper, grossing nearly four hundred million dollars on a budget of only $15 million. It was the most successful film of 2008, winning eight of its ten Academy Award nominations. It was also the first film Pinto ever made. She had a mere 20 minutes of screen time (and no formal acting training) to convince viewers she was a girl worth crawling across the earth for. First she had to convince director Danny Boyle, sort of. He saw hundreds of girls on videotape, but “The first time I saw her audition, I remember thinking, ‘Well, that’s her.’” It was.

The ironic part was that it took a British filmmaker and an American studio to launch the career of someone who’d grown up in Mumbai, the capital of Bollywood, which regularly outpaces its U.S. industry counterpart in production spending, ticket sales – and competition for roles. The daughter of a banker and school principal who was never going to become either, Pinto was keen to act from an early age. Seeing her country’s pride in Sushmita Sen’s 1994 Miss Universe win, she wanted to inspire her nation’s admiration as well. She went to college (English literature, psychology, economics), but Charlize Theron put her over the edge. Watching 2003’s Monster, Pinto knew she had to find such transformational opportunities for herself. She modeled to finance auditions, scoring chewing gum and phone commercials and even a travel show for India’s Zee channel – while film rejections piled up.

What audition after audition couldn’t do for her in Bollywood, Slumdog did overnight. She quickly landed roles in films by some of the businesses’ most iconic directors, including Woody Allen, Michael Winterbottom and Terrence Malick. There’s your acting school right there. What seemed to elude them was knowing exactly what to do with her. Pinto’s roles in smaller movies (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Knight of Cups) and larger blockbusters (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Blunt Force Trauma) seemed underwritten and one-dimensional.

The exceptions were small, but revelatory films. In Trishna, the India-set adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, we saw what Slumdog hinted at. “The movie is dominated by the performances of the beautiful Freida Pinto…and Riz Ahmed,” ran The Guardian’s review. “Both are actors with striking presences playing people uncertain of their identities, discontented with their lots and seething with doubts about their roles in evolving India.” As the lead in Julian Schnabel’s biographical, political Miral, she won praise for her performance as an orphaned Palestinian woman who grew up in a refugee camp in Israel, but its most profound effect on her was personal, as she told Interview in 2011. “There was a lot I had to learn, because all the news channels say is, ‘Israeli soldiers’ and ‘Palestinian terrorists’ — we’ve already compartmentalized them.” In describing the film, she said, “There are people who are trying to make a difference in a very civil manner, not just by picking up a gun. I felt that if I became part of this film and I gave it my all, that’s exactly what I would be doing…I knew the film was not going to be accepted too well, but I did it hoping that somewhere in the future it would be referred to as one of those films that started the conversation.”

She’s determined to continue it, spending half her time advocating for women and children around the globe, working with organizations like We Do It Together and Because I’m A Girl, and being a producer on the devastating and controversial India’s Daughter. “It’s definitely not a career decision. It’s more of a human decision.” That said, the career decisions are holding their own. She’s recently joined Idris Elba and Babou Ceesay in Showtime’s Guerrilla as a woman whose values are tested when she liberates a political prisoner in 1970s London. She’ll also appear in Love Sonia, a tough film about the global sex trafficking trade, and in next year’s Jungle Book: Origins, which is already giving off franchise whiffs.

If the business was unable to figure out her “place,” well, lucky her. When you belong nowhere, you can go anywhere, a feat few “ethnic” actresses manage to accomplish. She’s played women of all nationalities and religions; she’s been eye candy, heroine, muse and badass, all without ever being confined to a type. Perfect, for someone who’s said she rather enjoys being an outsider. “I don’t want to be fitted in somewhere. I fit into the world. I’m a human being before anything else.”