“It’s utterly overwhelming,” says the actor Dev Patel of his banner awards season as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. Eight years after Patel first burst onto the scene with Slumdog Millionaire, he has, over the last six months, gone from the triumphant world premiere of the latest film in which he stars, Garth Davis‘ Lion, at September’s Toronto International Film Festival (where Slumdog also exploded onto the scene) to a best supporting actor Oscar nomination (his first, and only the third ever bestowed upon an actor of Indian descent), also picking up Golden Globe, SAG, Critics’ Choice and BAFTA noms along the way.
“What I hadn’t done before [Slumdog] was properly struggle,” Patel says, “and in-between that film and this film, that’s what I’ve done. There’s been times when I was worried — like, ‘How am I going to keep the lights on in this apartment? Am I gonna have to move back into my house in London?’ All these thoughts go through your head. And you’ve taken on roles that have not worked out well. You’ve been critically panned. You’ve been nominated for a Razzie. You’ve been everywhere. So to come [on stage at Toronto after the first screening of Lion was greeted with a rousing standing ovation] and stand next to Rooney Mara and Nicole Kidman, Priyanka Bose and Garth? I felt, all of a sudden, just calm for a second, and it was nice.”
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Patel was a “hyperactive” kid who, at the urging of his parents, tried his hand at many different creative outlets — among them martial arts, of which he became a championship-level practitioner — before finding his way to acting. An early school play led to more serious study and performance in junior high school and high school, leading to accolades and encouragement, but he never imagined himself becoming a professional. Then, one day, his mother spotted an ad seeking young actors to audition for a British television series, and dragged her son to it. It resulted in his being cast as a horny young Muslim — a supporting role that provided comic-relief — on Skins. “It was just madness,” he says of his two seasons on the the edgy and controversial show.
One day, out of the blue, Patel received a call from Danny Boyle, who, unbeknownst to Patel, had been trying to cast the title character for an India-set movie called called Slumdog Millionaire. After scouring the Indian film industry for a suitable actor, but finding almost all of the right age to be buff, in the style then popular in India but not appropriate for his film’s character, Boyle almost threw in the towel — but then his 15-year-old daughter, a fan of Skins, suggested he consider Patel. This led to a series of auditions and eventually Patel’s casting, after which Patel joined Boyle on a trip through India, the actor’s first since early childhood, which opened his mind and heart to the world he would inhabit and the people he would know as underdog slum kid Jamal Malik. Slumdog ultimately “broke the mold in a million different ways,” Patel notes, and garnered not only SAG and BAFTA acting noms for him, but also 10 Oscar nominations, winning eight, including best picture.
“Afterwards,” Patel recalls, “I called up my team and said, ‘I’m hungry. Let’s find something I really want to sink my teeth into. I want to prove myself and earn this position I’ve been given. But there was nothing, really.” He continues, I was getting a lot of those geeky, funny, sidekick-friend roles, and I’d kind of done that in Skins.” There were few opportunities of any note for a young Indian actor in Hollywood, and because of his association with Slumdog many of the filmmakers who had those opted not to offer them to him. (The most painful example of this may have been Ang Lee‘s Life of Pi, the principal human character of which was a boy his age with the last name Patel, but for which, he says, “They just weren’t interested in auditioning me.”) “It was like being in a gold-plated cage,” Patel explains. “A lot of people think it’s contrary: ‘Ah, Dev Patel gets all the Indian roles.’ It’s actually the opposite. I’m fighting against the early success I had.”
The one big opportunity that did come Patel’s way — M. Night Shyamalan‘s $150 million action film The Last Airbender (2010) — turned out to be tainted goods, he later realized, having been turned down by many other actors who saw the flaws that he did not in the conceptualization of the adaptation of a Nickelodeon show. “I was excited because M. Night is an incredible filmmaker and [producer] Frank Marshall was attached,” he says. “On paper, it was a win.” In reality, it was not — the film, in which Patel played a martial-acts-practicing villian, was savaged by critics (hence Patel’s Razzie nom) and bombed at the box-office. “I was very, very out of my depth in a big way,” he says, “in this big machine.”
Just a year later, though, Patel rebounded with a role in the unexpected hit comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011), which enabled him to share scenes with an all-star team of British legends — among them, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy — as the proprietor of an Indian hotel that gets overrun by British pensioners. The part originally was written for an older actor, but he talked his way into it more than once (before and after its director changed), and it proved a life-changing experience. “I found my family,” he says, noting that his costars were “so warm and so welcoming” to him. They later reunited for a 2015 sequel.
From 2012 through 2014, Patel was part of the ensemble at the center of Aaron Sorkin‘s divisive HBO The Newsroom — a high-profile project of which he initially had no desire to be a part, but came to embrace because he saw an opportunity to “learn so much” from his more experienced collaborators and from the rigorous demands of learning and precisely delivering Sorkin’s very precise dialogue. He moved to the U.S. in order to do the series, which Sorkin ultimately ended sooner than many expected.
2016 proved to be Patel’s year, not only because of Lion, but first because of The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016), an under-seen indie in which he played the early 20th century Indian mathematics genius Ramanujan opposite Oscar winner Jeremy Irons. “It was the first time that I’d been able to greenlight something,” Patel proudly notes. Lion, however, was a film that was moving forward with or without him, which is why, when he learned about it, he and his team did everything possible to land him the main part: that of Saroo Brierly, a real person who, as a young child, climbed into and fell asleep on a stationary chain that then carried him thousands of miles from his beloved mother and brother. Unable to describe where he came from, he wound up in an orphanage and then adopted by an Australian couple whom he came to love, while also desperately hoping to one day find the family he left behind. “I was like, ‘That’s what I want to show to the world,'” Patel explains. “A script like this — a journey like this — is never gonna come around again, so all systems go.”
Patel showed up unannounced at the home of the film’s screenwriter Luke Davies, who happened to be with director Davis at the time, and begged to play the part, but was told he would have to come back and audition like everyone else. In the interim, he began working on Indian and Aussie accents, and then wound up having a six-hour session with Davis that resulted in him landing the part. (During that visit, Davis fortuitously played the song that Patel most often turns to for inspiration: Gustavo Santaolalla‘s “Deportation” from the 2006 film Babel.) Patel then spent the next eight months, before production got underway, transforming himself, inside and out. He continued to work on the accents. He got buffer, like the adult version of Brierly. And he rode trains across India, learning more about not only the land and the populace but also about the sense of isolation and sadness that can come as a result of being separated from one’s loved ones. By the time cameras started rolling, he was ready, even for the film’s most emotional scene, which was the first to be shot. “It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” he says with a smile.