‘They didn’t realise I was the lead’: Dev Patel on Slumdog Millionaire, The Man Who Knew Infinity, and Lion

Actor Dev Patel has come a long way since almost being snubbed at a red carpet event in 2008, and the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel star’s career continues to flourish. Patel talks about his rise to stardom

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 June, 2016, 8:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 June, 2016, 8:01am

As Dev Patel bounds up to the table it’s hard not to be bowled over by his boyish energy and charm. “Hi, I’m Dev,” chirps the 26-year-old Londoner, trying to make the interview process as informal as possible.

Certainly we’re used to the actor, who is of Indian heritage, bouncing around on our screens in Slumdog Millionaire and the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movies as well as in the underrated Chappie.

Yet we’ve never seen him be so restrained, in what he terms his first truly adult role, as Srinivasa Ramanujan, the self-taught Indian mathematics genius in Matthew Brown’s The Man Who Knew Infinity.

“It’s interesting because there’s no real footage of Ramanujan, so there’s no aspect of mimicry, which is freeing,” Patel explains of his portrayal. “I could see from the photographs how we are very different. Ramanujan was short, stout and very dark and he was quite reclusive. His energy only came alive with mathematics, otherwise he didn’t really know how to function with the rest of the fellows.”

The film follows Ramanujan as he contacts Cambridge scholar G.H. Hardy (played by Jeremy Irons), who on a hunch invites him to England and places him under his tutelage at Trinity College in 1913.

“It’s almost like a dysfunctional father-son relationship,” explains Patel. “You’ve got a guy who’s from the middle of nowhere in southern India coming into Cambridge, a very snooty environment. He’s facing a lot of adversity, racism and prejudice and he’s an abstract mathematician and believes his theorems have come from God.

“Hardy, an atheist obsessed with proof and logic, put his reputation on the line for this deeply religious man. They had nothing in common except for maths and to see them come together and create something great is beautiful.”

While Irons and Patel forged a strong on-screen relationship, that doesn’t mean they know anything about numbers. “I can barely figure out tips on a bill!” quips Patel. “My dad’s an accountant and I always let him down. I was absolutely horrendously, atrocious at maths, so he was particularly proud when I played this role.”

Patel was naturally in awe of Irons, an accomplished Oscar and Tony award-winner, who in person is surprisingly laid-back and is famous for wearing collarless Indian-style shirts. “Jeremy is so cool, an absolute rock star,” Patel enthuses. “He comes to set wearing jumpsuits and stuff. The planets revolve round his gravitational pull.”

Unlike Irons, Patel drew on his personal background for the role. “I always struggled in school and I was never really popular so when I read scripts like this I relate to the outsider quality.” Why wasn’t he popular? “I don’t know, I was quite an awkward looking fellow – not that I’m not now,” he chuckles.

He recalls the 2008 Slumdog Millionaire Toronto Festival premiere where he felt he looked like “a goofball” alongside his glamorous co-star and then girlfriend, the six-years-older Freida Pinto.

“I came in my school shoes and I wore a blazer and I remember them saying, ‘You can’t put this guy next to Freida, because he looks so terrible’, and she was in her gorgeous dress surrounded by stylists. In the end I got a free penguin suit that didn’t quite fit and shoes where I had to curl my toes to go on the red carpet,” says Patel.

“It was a very weird experience. When I stepped out of the car the first time and all the press were rushing at Freida, they didn’t realise I was the lead in the movie, so I got barged out of the way. I was essentially holding the door until they realised they’d forgotten me and then I got in.”

Times have changed. While Pinto’s star has arguably waned, Patel’s career goes from strength to strength. When we meet he has just completed Lion, and according to American pundits he could be up for an Oscar for his portrayal of the real-life Saroo Brierley, on whose bestseller, A Long Way Home, the film is based.

At age five, Saroo, born in central India, was lost on a Calcutta-bound train, after which he was deemed an orphan and adopted by an Australian couple (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham in the film). Twenty-five years later the determined Aussie businessman successfully used Google Maps to locate his Indian mother.

“It’s probably the best script I’ve ever read, so to be able to be a part of the film is just astounding,” Patel says, sporting a floppy mane and muscles and looking – as he puts it – “big and hairy”. “The director Garth Davis not only physically changed what I looked like, but he really forced me to go on a journey which was a different embodiment of the way I sound, everything.”

Patel learned an Australian accent, though a little bashful today, refuses to give a sample. “Oh, no!” It helped he was acting alongside Kidman. “Nicole is so raw and strips away all of that glamour that she has as a human being, and Rooney Mara plays my girlfriend. You just hang on to the coat tails of all these great actors and hope they’ll raise your game as Jeremy did in this.

“Lion is the kind of movie I relate to as someone who has to go in at the deep end and face a lot of adversity and triumph. It’s like Sonny who’s got this crappy hotel and a big dream in the Marigold Hotel movies, and it’s similar to my characters in Slumdog Millionaire and The Man Who Knew Infinity, too.”

Patel’s parents were born in Kenya and he’d only been to India as a child before reclaiming his Indian roots through his movies. “I got dragged along to a family wedding when I was not even six,” he recalls. “I didn’t enjoy it. I just remember missing my Game Boy and being bitten to death by mosquitoes.”

Venturing to Calcutta for Slumdog Millionaire, he says “was like finding a part of yourself, a tectonic plate shift when you get connected to a big part of your heritage that way.” He has come to appreciate what his parents endured.

“I’m very lucky. What my parents had to face when they first came to London, and also their parents, is completely different to the London I live in, which is a multicultural boiling pot of people. It’s a city that allowed me to flourish and get my first job.

“Still there were certain scenes [in The Man Who Knew Infinity] where Ramanujan is being called a wog, and I remember doing those scenes and it started to hurt a little and I didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t expect that to happen.”

The Man Who Knew Infinity opens on June 23

Want more articles like this? Follow SCMP Film on Facebook