Better known for his role in Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, Dev Patel has proven equally adept at drama and comedy. Patel joined the cast of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, as well as starred alongside acting royalty in the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
This year, he’s starring alongside Jeremy Irons in The Man Who Knew Infinity, and Lion, with Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara.
Lion is based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, a boy orphaned on the streets of Kolkata, before being adopted by an Australian couple. Patel plays the older Saroo, whose journey to be reunited with his birth mother took years of searching – both on Google Maps and in real-life India.
What attracted you to the film? Why did you want to do it?
I read about it and just liked the idea of a guy finding his mother from space – using Google Maps. He was separated from his family, adopted in another country, and so finding her was very much a needle in a haystack, but he did. The story was almost too good to be true, but the more you read into the situation of how it came about, was also quite heart breaking at the same time.
I got on the phone and was like, “if this film is going to be made, I have to be a part of it”. I met Director Garth Davis and writer Luke Davies, and when the script came in, I thought it was just a magical journey and one that I’d been yearning to go on for so long. I simply had to audition, and then I got the part.
I heard Garth Davis gave you homework before you started?
He had me doing loads of very strange exercises. He had me travel across India on a train, and then write a diary of my experiences each evening. I saw some beautiful things, but also some shocking things as I visited orphanages around the country.
He also made us do lots of weird performance type things. Like when I met my co-star Rooney Mara for the first time, he had us lie down on this big canvas and draw around each other, and then paint what we saw afterwards. That was a chemistry-building exercise, I guest. I had never done anything like that before.
Usually, for rehearsals, you all sit down and read the script and then talk about it. But Garth has his own very artistic take on things.
Did it work? Do you think it helped your performance?
I believe that it helped me produce some of the best work I’ve ever done, so yeah.
When you play a role like this – based on a living, breathing person – how much of your performance is trying to be authentic to that person, versus letting your personality shine through?
I had this conversation with Garth before we started because I’d watched a lot of footage of the real-life Saroo before I went into the audition. I said, “You know, I look completely different to this guy, right?” But he was totally cool with that as his idea was to capture the essence of the man.
Regarding travelling around India, it was almost like a pilgrimage for me. We tried to mimic Saroo’s journey as close as we could, so we weren’t just pretending – I was acting from a place of truth. I visited these places, created my own history in them, which let me tap into that in front of the camera.
For example, when were in India I would play hide and seek with Sunny, the little kid who plays a younger Saroo, and his mother out in the forest. Garth recorded some of that, the sounds of us playing and the leaves.
We were filming this one scene where my character is back in Melbourne, on a laptop, Google searching for a place based on memory. All of a sudden, Garth played those sounds of Sunny giggling, and it took me somewhere emotionally. It provoked a real memory, if that makes sense, what you see is an actual response to that.
Did you meet the real Saroo early on in your preparation?
I shot the last scene of the film first. It’s the climax. At the time, I had only met his mother. It was only after we finished shooting the whole section in India with little Sunny that we went to Australia. That’s where I met his other mom and dad, and then him.
It was a very delicate process. I was worried that because we had already shot a large chunk of the film, that it was too late to change anything if Saroo didn’t like it. I met him, and thought “Hopefully, he’ll like me”. But the meeting went well; we really got along.
What made you get along? Did you have common ground?
By the time I met him, I felt like I’d known him already. That freaked him out, me knowing so many intricate details about his life. But he has this photographic memory; he remembered all these things from when we were in Australia together, like the type of eggs I ordered or the music that was playing on the radio. And I got it; he remembers all these things – which is kind of where the story starts.
He also has the same duality that I have. I’m a British kid with Indian heritage, but I was never really aware of that culture. I had suppressed it to try and fit in at school in London, to not get bullied and be like everyone else. For him, he was Australian. If you meet him, there’s no trace of Indian left in him – he suppressed it because it was too hard to think of his mother and his brother potentially searching for him every day, while he lived this privileged life. We bonded over that.
When you visit India, how are you treated? As a foreign movie star or a home-grown hero?
A bit of both. The Indian media has gotten behind the concept of me, and the films that I star in. When they see me out and about they yell ‘Crorepati’ – which means millionaire. Slumdog Millionaire was titled Slumdog Crorepati when it came out in India.
Lion brings up some big important issues. For millions of people, this film is their first introduction to India’s abandoned children. Does that responsibility add pressure to your performance?
No. You don’t think of it like that when you begin shooting. I didn’t start the film thinking, “Oh, I’m going to change the world”. I was just thinking about Saroo, the boy who got lost on a train and the man he became.
As production goes on, the film starts to grow and take a life of its own. None of us knew what the final product was going to be, and it was only after we sat and watched the film did we understand the sheer magnitude and scale of it. Of course, then you go out and talk to the press and start seeing how people respond to it.
That’s how the charity angle came about. The film was really opening people’s eyes to this issue, and people kept asking us if this sort of thing happens and if the figures at the end of the film were real. So we had to do something about it, and that’s when we started working with the three charities.
Do you think there is a certain stigma around successful actors getting involved in these type of causes? The old, “well, it’s okay for that millionaire artist to care, he’s already so well off”. What would you say to those naysayers?
I don’t think it matters. The proof is in the figures. And for every naysayer, there is someone else willing to be generous and dig into their pockets to help someone else. So who cares what those people have to say.
As someone with a decent level of success, do you think it’s important to give back?
I can’t speak on every actor’s behalf. I believe there are some people who do what they do just to provide themselves and their families a better life. But sometimes, you’ll step into a film or a scenario that changes your life, and changes your career.
I shot for two months and went to some dark emotional places personally. You will see it on the screen, hopefully. It’s hard to not feel genuine pain at that. When I was shooting Slumdog, I stepped out of the airport and was just engulfed by these children.
I grew up in Northwest London, and I’d never seen poverty like that. You see it at every traffic light you stop at. All these kids are knocking on the window asking for food or money. It’s a complex situation. I just feel very lucky that I’m one of the people who get to tell their story to an international audience.
Dev Patel was in Dubai for Chivas Icons. The annual event recognises individuals who inspire others to Win The Right Way. This event will celebrated Patel’s work with the #LionHeart campaign, which helps vulnerable children in India.