Dev Patel was an 18-year-old unknown actor, enthusiastic, a bit awkward and not quite able to process the prolonged ovation Ryerson Theatre audiences had given Slumdog Millionaire the night before at the Toronto International Film Festival, a few years ago.
“That was amazing,” Patel recalled of that September 2008 evening as he prepared to see how Toronto audiences would react to the world premiere of his latest film, Lion, at TIFF 2016. Lion opens in Toronto Dec. 9.
Slumdog won the TIFF People’s Choice Award that year and went on to sweep the Academy Awards with eight Oscars, including Best Picture.
Based on a true story, emotional drama Lion stars Patel as Australian adoptee Saroo Brierley, who searches in adulthood for his lost family in India with the help of Google Earth. It earned an enthusiastic, although less rapturous reception at the festival and was named first runner up for the TIFF People’s Choice Award (behind winner La La Land, out in theatres Christmas Day).
Directed by Garth Davis and based on Brierley’s bestselling memoir A Long Way Home, Patel stars alongside Nicole Kidman as his adoptive mother, Sue, and Rooney Mara as his girlfriend, Lucy. Five-year-old Sunny Pawar steals hearts as the childhood Saroo.
Too young when he was terrifyingly separated from his family to be able to recall the name of his mother or home village, Saroo grows into a young adult who loves his Australian family, but feels the ache of loss and a lack of connection. Lucy encourages him to unlock the secret of his heritage.
Now 26, the eager, friendly side of Patel is still evident when he sits down with the Star, although it’s a more restrained version, unlike last time when he was all knees and elbows. That was evidenced by the scraped shin he was nursing the morning after Slumdog’s TIFF premiere; Patel cut himself when he leaped out his theatre seat with joy when he heard the reaction to the film as the credits rolled.
Since then, Patel has gained experience in front of the camera with starring roles as struggling hotelier Sonny in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films and as mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity, as well as playing blogger Neal Sampat on TV series The Newsroom.
And while he has learned to temper his enthusiasm for what he calls “my craft,” he can’t suppress it entirely, which is not an unwelcome thing at all.
“I put in the time,” said Patel. “Whereas in Slumdog, I felt so humbled and blessed by it all, but I felt so new. I felt so unworthy.”
Patel praised Luke Davies’s “beautifully profound” Lion script, adding roles like Saroo “are really difficult to come by for any actor. Just by the colour of your skin. It’s really difficult.”
He said while Slumdog director Danny Boyle initially schooled him in acting, Lion director Davis continued the process. The two directors are “very similar” he said.
“Danny is like this tidal wave that I have been … that he’s created for me that I’ve been riding for a while and as that started to dissipate, I ended up on this beautiful, tropical, lush island full of all these fruits, and that’s Garth,” he said. “And (he) provided all these things for me and allowed me to really dig deeper as a young adult and really expose myself and give me the character and the opportunity to do so.”
It required commitment. Davis told him: “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to have to really change you and transform you.” Patel took eight months off from other work to prepare for the role, working on his Australian accent and training to gain the bulk to play the athletic Saroo.
“I owe it to Saroo and I owe it to this piece,” he reasoned.
In fact, Patel only appears onscreen for half the film, with the first part of Lion following the young Saroo’s frightening separation from his family after he inadvertently ends up on a train to Kolkota, thousands of kilometres from his home.
Patel said a grocery store misadventure gave him some inkling of what Saroo must have felt. “I was a young boy and I got split up from my mum … for all of five minutes. It felt like five hours. And then on the PA system, the microphone: ‘Would Dev Patel come to aisle whatever,’ and I was there, a ball of tears, my mum’s like, ‘Where were you?’ ”
It was an emotional meeting when Patel was introduced to Saroo’s birth family while filming Lion in India. He and actress Priyanka Bose, who plays Saroo’s biological mother, Kamla Munshi, met with Munshi.
“I don’t speak Hindi and she doesn’t really speak English, so we just sat there and Priyanka was there, and we just all hugged and cried,” Patel said, adding the encounter helped inspire his performance. “You really feel the weight and you know what you’ve gotta do.”
Patel will be seen next in Hotel Mumbai, about the 2008 terrorist attacks at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, playing a Sikh waiter in what he described as “a really harrowing” story.
“I really wanted to be a part of telling this film. It’s very close to me, it’s something that rocked India,” said Patel. “Many people died, most of which were staff members. And again it’s a story of triumph over adversity and right now in this canvas, it’s extremely relevant.”