Born in West London, we first saw Dev Patel on our screens in the anarchic Bristol-based TV drama Skins, before he got the biggest of all breaks in Danny Boyle’s drama Slumdog Millionaire. Aged just 26, Patel’s career shows no sign of stalling, having earned his first BAFTA award and Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Saroo Brierley in this year’s Lion. We caught up with Dev to speak about Aussie accents, earning his place in Hollywood and working with Nicole Kidman.
“Great roles and films are difficult to come by for any actor, and of course when you’re a young Indian dude from London and you don’t fit into certain categories it’s even more difficult,” says Harrow-born Patel before adding with a sarcastic smirk, “You also don’t want to play the goofy sidekick or best friend kind of characters anymore.”
But Patel has proved that you only actually need two good roles to write yourself into the cinematic history books: Slumdog Millionaire brought him global attention; and Lion brought him critical acclaim. “When I first worked on Slumdog, I was only 17 and I was so new to the filmmaking world that I didn’t feel worthy of all the attention that came with the success of the film,” says the 26-year-old frankly. “I didn’t feel that I had earned my way into the business, but I’ve been working hard ever since and as soon as Lion came along I knew that this was my chance – I’d been waiting for precisely this kind of substantial and profound role.”
Amiable and confident, Patel is not afraid to admit that preparing for Lion required huge dedication and was at times deeply frustrating. The film tells the incredible true-life story of Saroo Brierley, adopted by an Australian couple after he was separated at age five from his Indian brother and mother and who later used Google Earth to track down his original family and rediscover his roots. “I spent eight months getting ready for the film. When I first discussed the part with Garth [Davis – director], he said he needed me to bulk up and have the kind of physical presence that Saroo has, and that he ‘wanted to see a Dev Patel that no one has seen before’,” he says. “I also had to work pretty hard on getting his Australian accent right because people will let you know very fast if you don’t!”
Fortunately, the spirited star had an Australian screen icon on set with him every day in the form of Nicole Kidman, playing the role of Saroo’s adoptive mother, Sue Brierley. “I knew she was going to be very sweet and gracious – she just gives off that energy,” Patel says. “Once I got over the nerves of meeting Nicole, I saw how she really put in everything in the role. I’d been prepping for eight months, but she’d been prepping for most of her life in a way, because she is a mother with adopted kids. There was truth there. It was beautiful being in such an intimate performance space with her.”
Patel declares that he felt obliged to do his character justice both as an actor and out of respect for a man he greatly admires. “I felt a tremendous weight of responsibility to Saroo since this is his story and that makes you want to do your absolute best to portray him as authentically as possible,” he explains. “I never went through anything like the incredible challenges he faced. I remember as a young boy I went grocery shopping with my mum one day in London and I wound up getting lost in the store. It was only for five minutes, but it felt like five hours!”
He may not have won the Best Supporting Actor statuette – won by Mahershala Ali for Moonlight – but his transition from light-hearted comedies like The Second Best Marigold Hotel to serious roles is uncontested, and later this year he will star in Hotel Mumbai – a thriller about the terrorist attacks in 2008 at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in India.
“This story is very close to me and to everyone in India,” Patel reveals. “I play a waiter who was working at the hotel during the attack and it’s a truly beautiful story about human courage and how the staff behaved very selflessly and courageously under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. I think it’s a very inspiring and beautiful story that I hope will reach audiences all over the world.”