Dev Patel knows all about the movie awards season. The British actor became an international teenage celebrity when Slumdog Millionaire won the Oscar lottery. Now his new film, Lion, is seeing Patel win personal plaudits, picking up nominations for Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globe and the forthcoming BAFTA ceremony.
The 26-year-old London born actor argues that despite playing the principal protagonist in Lion, he is the supporting star. That’s because a large chunk of the early part of the film is showing how his character, Saroo, gets lost in India and separated from his mother at the age of 5. These scenes see the young Saroo played by child actor Sunny Pawar, who is mesmerising in the role.
“Most of the screen time is Sunny,” posits Patel. “He leads for over an hour. When my part comes in, you’re also flashing back to him. I guess for marketing purposes I’m on the posters. But that’s no detriment to him, because he is amazing. An impossible act to follow actually.”
The film is an adaptation of a memoir called A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, which details how he came to grow up in Hobart, Tasmania after being adopted by an Australian couple. Later in life, Saroo used Google Earth and combined with fragments of his memory embarked on a search for his birth mother in India.
It was a story that Patel knew that he wanted to tell: “I’m a 26-year-old guy and you are starving for some real meaty work, where you are not playing some comedic sidekick best friend role, and get a chance to show some real gravitas and the pain of this journey.”
But the producers and director Garth Davis were on the look out for a newcomer to take on the role. So Patel had to audition. An example of the actor having to deal with the poisoned chalice, of being the best known actor with his ‘look’, because of films such as Slumdog, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the Aaron Sorkin TV series Newsroom, whilst also having casting directors wonder if there is anyone else for the handful of roles that they see as within Patel’s makeup.
There is also, arguably, a perception problem beyond the diversity problem in movies. As Patel says of himself: “I always felt like a goofy celery stick.”
So it’s always been easy to see Patel on screen as likeable, brainy, and unthreatening. When he auditioned for Lion, he was playing mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity. “I was a tiny twig, with short hair,” remembers Patel. “Completely different to what Garth changed me into.”
Davis demanded that Patel go through an 8-month training regime and work with a dialect coach to become more Australian. “Garth would say, ‘we need to make you more alpha and get your facial hair growing.’”
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The difference is immense. The bulked up frame and more manly appearance is the first thing one notices when walking into a room to meet Patel again. The actor is no longer a geeky man-child. The look has enabled him to produce a more determined and aggressive performance on screen: “So I moved differently, I felt differently in my clothes and all these kind of things.”
To prepare for the role he met with his real life counterpart. “This is a man who is living quite a privileged life with beautiful parents and he was tormented and haunted by the fact that he felt that his brother and mother were still searching for him, so he went through this massive process. He kind of deconstructed his own life.”
Patel would take the smallest details from him, right down to the music that he plays in his car.
Davis, who directed episodes of the hit TV show Top of the Lake, has become quite an inspirational figure to Patel. “Garth is a very spiritually connected human being, one of the most important people in my life, really,” says Patel.
The director sent Patel on a journey across India, asking the actor to write a diary about his experience. Patel, who doesn’t speak much Hindi, got lost in the country and words.
“I went to India a month before I had to do my first shot and it was travelling the train and writing a diary of my feelings,” recalls Patel. “I went to these orphanages and then you sit down afterwards and have to write down what you’re feeling and that is when you digest it properly. I wrote a piece in my diary about the word hero, because you know the Bollywood stars when they are in public in India people call them hero, so they would call out hero to me, and I’m like, I wrote this thing in my diary about feeling less like a hero than ever before.”
Davis also encouraged Patel to do what he calls “bizarre exercises.” He gives an example: “With Rooney, he made us do a monkey exercise to build tactility. Where we could only communicate with each other as monkeys. There was lots of hippy stuff that Garth put us through.”
It’s also hard to imagine Patel ever envisaging that at some point in his career Nicole Kidman would play his mum. They struck up a strong bond. “That movie star glamour she has, she left it at the door and she came into rehearsals and just went so deep into it, you forget that she’s Nicole Kidman and she just became Sue.”
Next up, Patel will be seen in another debut film by an Australian director, Anthony Maras’ Hotel Mumbai. The film takes place during the terrorist attack by armed gunman on several locations in the Indian city, including the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower in November 2008.
“It’s about the humanity angle that takes place in this hotel,” says Patel. “What you are basically talking about are these terrorists who came into this hotel and it’s like an airport, a boiling pot of all society. There’s the poor waiter from the slums who can’t afford to feed his children and the Russian Oligarch who has just come in on his yacht.”
He is also writing his own screenplays. After years of not being considered for parts, Patel has taken matters into his own hands. One of them is a martial arts movie set in India. If it gets made, all that bulking up he’s done is going to come in very handy.
Lion is out 20 January
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