Lion star Dev Patel believes it's time an Indian won an Oscar
The Dev Patel who greets me to talk about his latest, Golden Globe-nominated performance is barely recognisable as the happy-go-lucky kid who fluked his way to a fortune in Slumdog Millionaire almost a decade ago.
At 26, Patel appears double the size of his teenage self – thanks to an eight-month daily gym regime – and his hair is a luxuriant mane which looks like just as lengthy a work-in-progress.
He effected this extraordinary transformation to play a real-life character, Saroo Brierley, in Lion, an Oscar-tipped new film from Top of the Lake director Garth Davis. In 1986, at the age of five, Saroo was separated from his impoverished family, when he got trapped on an express train and transported thousands of miles from his home in the central Indian city of Khandwa. He ended up on the streets of Calcutta where, illiterate and unable to explain where he had come from, he was taken in by an orphanage then adopted shortly after by an Australian couple, the Brierleys, who took him home to Tasmania.
In Lion, the young Saroo is played by newcomer Sunny Pawar. Patel plays him 25 years on, by which time he is an Australian citizen with decent prospects – thanks to his kindly foster parents, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham – but has never given up hope of tracking down his long-lost family.
Patel says it wasn't just this astonishing story that had him itching to take the role, but also the quality of Luke Davies's screenplay. "The words are so delicately placed and chosen, to set off these tiny explosions in your brain," he says. "By the end of it, I was just a puddle of tears, and thought, 'I've got to be a part of this..'"
Despite his Indian heritage his parents, an accountant and carer, are Gujarati Hindus who met in England after moving from Kenya in their teens – Patel was far from obvious casting. Few of the Harrow-born actor's post-Slumdog roles have suggested deep reserves of angst, or the rugged physique of the real-life Saroo. Most recently he's played a geeky blogger in Aaron Sorkin's HBO series The Newsroom, and, of course, Sonny Kapoor, shambolic inn keeper of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel. Casting him in Lion's lead role required no small leap of faith.
"It's interesting when your resume starts to work against you," he says. "When I began to express interest, they were like, 'Umm, dunno, he's the Marigold guy, we've seen what he has to offer'.
"That's really frustrating for me because I'm a 26-year-old, raring-to-go actor who's got so much in the tank. These are exactly the parts you die for, not the usual, bog-standard, goofy-best-friend, comic relief-type role. So I had to fight for this. I told the director, 'You can disassemble me and put me back together again'."
Patel's relief at leaving those throwaway roles behind is palpable. Did he ever worry he was becoming pigeonholed? He pauses for a moment before answering. "You feel a little stifled, sometimes. But I think a lot of actors can face a pigeonhole, it doesn't matter what colour your skin is. You can be a beautiful woman and get stuck playing that hot girlfriend role, or whatever. Sometimes people throw you into this pigeonhole – 'Oh, you're just playing this Indian guy'. And I think that cheapens it. You don't crucify De Niro for playing a white Italian!"
At the time of casting, Patel says he was physically "an absolute celery stick" and so he threw himself into preparation. After every day's gym session it was time for dialogue coaching: he was determined to get the Australian accent right, so that it didn't "go caricature" in front of Kidman. And, before even meeting the real-life Saroo during production, he took time to retrace his childhood steps, aiming to get as far into character as possible.
"I went to India and rode on the trains. When you're sitting on these trains and you can't speak the local dialect, and you're seeing all these different people coming on at each stop, you can start to get a taste of what the alienation would have been like for a small child."
While he's aware that his performance in Lion promises to earn him a new level of respect as an actor, Patel is careful not to dismiss his earlier films altogether.
"When I'm playing Sonny, in Marigold, you fully commit to that, you know," he says. "He is no-one in particular but an amalgamation – a bit Fawlty Towers, a bit Mr Bean, Jim Carrey, one or two of my drunk Indian uncles who I've seen at parties."
He never sounds more humble, though, than when talking about the film that started it all: Slumdog Millionaire. From a script originally intended for television, and on a modest US$15m budget, Danny Boyle's feel-good firework display of a movie charmed the world. Patel was swept along on the red-carpet tide, going from a near-nobody, who'd only just cut his teeth on TV's Skins, to the grinning poster-boy for an eight-Oscar-winning global sensation. He even received a Bafta nomination for Best Actor – up against eventual winner Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler and Sean Penn in Milk – about which he sounds almost actively embarrassed. "Mad, yeah. What were they thinking?!"
Looking back on that period now, he admits, "I didn't know what the hell I was doing! I was 17 years old. It was just a big whirlwind of all these hands coming at you. Then you come out of that and realise it is not the norm. That was a shooting star of a moment, where everything aligned perfectly. I've been into screenings for some of my films and half of the audience has already left! Whereas for Slumdog, they stood and clapped for, like, five minutes.
"You want to come off that experience and get better. But there was an ocean of nothing that was an adequate follow-up. And that was kind of hard."
Somewhere in that ocean, he was thrown what looked like a life-raft by Sixth Sense director M Night Shyamalan – the lead role of exiled sorcerer-prince in his US$150m 3D fantasy blockbuster, based on a Nickelodeon cartoon, called The Last Airbender. It turned out to be the laughing stock of the year in 2010, and anything but a shrewd career move. Patel looks back on it now with considerable chagrin.
"That was super humbling," he says. "I came out of Slumdog and there was nothing. I'd auditioned for this film, because I'm a big Bruce Lee buff, a martial arts fan" – he's a black-belt in taekwondo – "and loved the cartoon. I was 18, my agents were like, 'This is where you want to be'. But I got there and was completely consumed by it all, swallowed up and spat out.
"It was a really tough shoot for me. I don't think I was the right choice for the role, I came out of it shaken, and the film wasn't good. You go from walking the red carpet at the Oscars to getting the phone call that you're nominated for a Razzie!" – a Golden Raspberry award for the year's worst performance – "Woo!"
It must have been hard for him, I say, to promote a project he didn't believe in, having to describe it, as he did at the time, as "a really fun experience". "That can get soul-destroying," he admits now. "After all of that, I came out and then the next offer I got for something, I said, 'No. No. No. No.' So I learnt the power of no.
"It took a long time for me, with Marigold, and The Newsroom, to get to this point now. You have to slowly start moving the bar with each role. My motto's been to surround myself with better actors."
He's certainly not doing badly on that score. The Marigold cast alone – thespian royalty right down the line – is a wish list come true for any young British actor. In The Newsroom, he shared a screen with Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer and Sam Waterston. He's squared off with a donnish Jeremy Irons in the maths biopic The Man Who Knew Infinity, and tinkered with weaponized robots in Neill Blomkamp's sci-fi thriller Chappie, opposite Hugh Jackman and Sigourney Weaver.
However, going toe-to-toe with Nicole Kidman, his accomplice in all Lion's most intimate moments, has pushed him up to a new level of professionalism. "We're really getting to know each other now. But when we shot the film, I came in and met her as kind of Saroo. And she was Sue. The first scene we shot was one where she metaphorically just opens her veins out – it's a massive scene.
"We did do some wacky rehearsal stuff together. You look across the room, you've got Nicole Kidman with her sleeves rolled up, another drama student, just like you are, submitting yourself to this director."
These days, Patel lives in Los Angeles: he relocated to the city with his Slumdog co-star Freida Pinto, when he got The Newsroom role about five years ago. Their relationship has since ended and he has recently moved into a new place. "It's like a little shoebox of a home, it needed a lot of work," he says. "I wanted to be on the ground, surrounded by people, as walkable as LA can get."
Along with his friend Riz Ahmed, another London-born actor, Patel can now count himself among Hollywood's rising Asian stars. While he has never been as politically outspoken as Ahmed on the nuances of representation and casting non-white faces, he finds he has ever more to say on the subject.
"The storytelling is where you want the diversity," he says. "But we're on the cusp of something. When you look at the African-American struggle in cinema, you've got these beacons like Sidney Poitier and Will Smith, and Denzel and Samuel L Jackson. Now tell me how many Indians have gone on and won Oscars. Ben Kingsley's, like, one-eighth Indian, maybe?"
Kingsley is in fact half-Indian, but Patel's point holds: no actor of fully Indian descent has ever won an Academy Award.
"That's, you know, why I'm so proud! You've got Riz Ahmed. And Dev Patel, getting nominated for Golden Globes."
He emphasises the surnames, stressing the point that being a Patel has given him a special kind of flag to fly.
"We're the snowpiercers right now, treading new ground. Riz is young. I'm young. I think things are going to get better."
Lion (PG) opens in New Zealand cinemas on January 19.
- The Telegraph, London