Dreaming Outside Geisel

“Inception” is a labyrinth of a movie. Dreams become reality, reality morphs into dreams and — no matter how lost you might be — it’s all rather beautiful. But deep within this stylized dream world, just before limbo, there is a peculiar building. Hidden away amongst the snowy mountains lies an imagined fortress, the final roadblock to the film’s cerebral heist. It’s a strange-looking structure, resembling a totalitarian space ship. And it looks far, far too familiar.

That’s right: Christopher Nolan, acclaimed director of “The Dark Knight” and “Memento,” has stolen Geisel.

It’s a coincidence that could be easily attributed to simple architectural admiration, had there not been one more coincidence in store. The film just so happens to star a UCSD grad.

In this summer’s blockbuster smash, Dileep Rao (Muir ’95) plays the chemist Yusuf, an integral part of Leonardo DiCaprio’s team of memory-stealing thieves.

Our very own Dileep proves to be pivotal in this box-office explosion, driving the getaway van, making it rain when he has to pee and joking with his sleeping comrades (all in a dream, of course). For a school full of science devotees, this is no small feat. If you haven’t seen “Inception,” or at least read your friends’ ill-fated analyses of it on Facebook, then you not only live under a rock, but an impossibly large boulder.

Lulling bad guys to troubled sleep isn’t all Dileep has done: The dude has also had critical parts in Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” and James Cameron’s Oscar-nominated “Avatar,” giving Rao one hell of a resumé.

To prove to the La Jolla masses that you, too, can star in critically lauded films post-graduation, Dileep spoke at last week’s convocation ceremony, where he addressed the incoming freshmen and assured them that, as his unlikely experience proves, anything is possible.

I caught up with the burgeoning star and he told me about his time here.

“My college experience was one of the unrestrained joy of learning, of irrepressible nerdiness [and] of being a smart person at a smart school,” Dileep said. “I loved it. I thrived in it. I embraced being a dork, I embraced being bright and I think it changed me for the better forever.”

Hailing from Los Angeles, Dileep began his UCSD career as a pre-med student, but quickly found his chosen career path to be creatively stifling. Dileep then stowed away his chemistry textbooks and flocked to the stage.

“There was a part of me that was not being expressed in my journey to become a doctor…There is more of a risk involved [in acting], but at least while I practiced the art and learned the craft there was something very personal about my expression through that,” Dileep said.

Having plunged headfirst into his newfound passion, Dileep’s years as a Triton were far from boring.

“You don’t know it when you’re there because you’re busy doing it, but my college experience was an incredibly dense, fun, surprising experience,” Dileep said. “There was all this stuff about being a doctor and then suddenly all this stuff about acting and theatre and writing and politics. And I was taking all these different classes; I would even crash courses I wasn’t registered in. I would learn so much about the world doing that.”

So yeah — just because he can call Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt colleagues doesn’t mean he isn’t a nerd too. Dileep has earned his UCSD badge of honor. In fact, he’s got one on you that you’ll never beat.

Dileep Rao was a contestant on “Jeopardy,” and he won.

“I guess the nerdiness comes back to haunt me,” Dileep joked. The nerdiness paid off, as the money from his win helped Dileep bridge the gap between grad school at the American Conservatory Theater and his first job.

More importantly, did he get to hang out with Trebek?

“Uh, no.”

While I talk to him, Dileep fulfills the stereotype of an actor on the rise, walking though the streets of the Big Apple as he finishes the run of his first NYC theatre production, “The Awesome Dance.” I have to repeat my questions because, with the taxis and sirens echoing in the background, he can barely hear me.

The past few years have been even more unbelievable for Dileep. He has found himself being interviewed at premieres for the first time, and given more and more opportunities to work with extraordinary people.

“I was in Cannes with Sam. I mean, it was the Cannes Film Festival! Here I am sitting on the greatest red carpet in the world with Sam Raimi. And I’m like, ‘Who could ever see this coming?’” Dileep mused.

He likened going to work on the set of “Inception” to the height of New York baseball glory. Working with actors like DiCaprio, Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard and Ellen Page every day, Dileep thought, “Wow, I’m in the 1927 Yankees. I’m playing short-stop for the greatest team in the world.”

He only has praise for castmates.

“What blows my mind is how talented those people are, how generous they are, how they worked so hard and how good they are at what they do,” Dileep added. “They just want something for nothing. People who get excellence and get respect— you get that kind of acknowledgement because you are better than everyone else.”

So if the cast of “Inception” is a 20th-century sports metaphor, what would that make his experience working on “Avatar?” Apparently, quite the learning experience.

“Working with [James Cameron] was the best,” Dileep said. “He is such an amazing artist and visionary … He is way ahead of his time, always challenging himself … I am proud of having been in his movie and working with him … There aren’t many people who can do what he can do, and that’s pretty darn rare. When you look at his totality and comprehensive skill set, he is one of the greatest living film directors in the world.”

Dileep doesn’t have anything in the works just yet. He just wrapped up his play, and he’s now shopping around for scripts. After all, with a track record like his, the next project has to be perfect.

So, back to the real question: Is Dileep responsible for Geisel’s newest claim to fame?

“Everyone keeps asking me this — ‘Is it Geisel, is it Geisel, is it Geisel?’” Dileep said. “I think it’s directly influenced, but from different shots and angles, it looks different. But there are definitely shots where it looks like the Geisel Library, no question. So maybe it was one of those fortuitous accidental beauties that wasn’t able to be taken credit for. It just happened.”


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