Dev Patel talks to GC about his upcoming film, Hotel Mumbai, that revolves around the 2008 terrorist attacks at The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel
Gone is the awkward skinny kid that got his start more than a decade ago on the British cult teen drama series Skins, and then shot to fame in 2007 playing the lead role in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, a movie which went on to win eight Oscars. 27-year-old Dev Patel has undergone a complete Hollywood transformation, and it’s not just physical, though his look is more distinguished now. (He can thank Lion director Garth Davis for that.) “Garth told me to grow my hair and go to the gym,” says Patel about his more masculine look.
I meet Dev Patel in Dubai, a few hours before he’s due to attend a glitzy dinner where he will be celebrated as a Chivas Icon in recognition for his work with the #LionHeart campaign, a project he got involved with while filming the 2016 movie Lion, which starred Patel opposite Nicole Kidman and Sunny Parwar. It tells the true story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian child lost many miles from his home and his decade-long struggle to return to his family.
Although Patel, who is joined by his girlfriend and Hotel Mumbai co-star Tilda Cobham-Hervey on the trip, won a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor in Lion this year and received a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, he is far from the apex of his career. Yet his off-screen presence is seductive, akin to the actors he’s starred opposite, and channelled not only by his height but his habit of tousling his jet-black hair as he talks in a very British accent about his latest film Hotel Mumbai, of which he is also an executive producer.
Lion was emotionally exhausting for you, having spent eight months prepping for it and riding trains across India. Was it also a journey of self-discovery for you?
I tried to almost do a pilgrimage as a character. Garth [the director] had me writing a diary so I sat on the trains and travelled across the country effectively alone to feel what it would be like to have that isolation, and hear the different voices and cultures, the languages change as you go across this very vast country. It was self-discovery and introspection, and it made those words on the page even more precious because you realise that they’re not just words on a page. It was a real conversation that was spoken between a real mother and son so it makes it more precious.
Did you spend much time with the real-life characters to ensure your performance was as authentic as possible?
It was important for us to capture the essence of Saroo. I sat down with John and Sue, who are is adoptive parents, and it was such a beautiful experience listening to her talk about how much she loves her children and her vision for the family and seeing that love she has for her sons. We had this big bonding BBQ with myself, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, basically the film family and the real family.
Your next film, Hotel Mumbai, is about another real-life event and again it’s about the fight for survival. How sensitive were you to the fact that you were enacting a script that dealt with such a horrific incident of terrorism?
This story is very dear to me. The last thing you want to do is go in and exploit a subject matter like that. My character is actually based on a couple of different people. The idea is to really show the everyday hero and show what happened at that hotel. We wanted to show the whole trifecta of society from the guys who live in the slums and come in and put on these uniforms and pour Blue Label Vodka to these rich clients. When the terrorists came in that structure was gone. Everyone became equal and you could see the true humanity of the people in that place. A lot of people that died in the Taj were the staff and you can read the accounts of them strapping on baking trays and pots and pans, and running in front of AK47 fire to save their guests and their fellowmen. It’s also a commentary on religion and radicalism, especially in a country where religion can be bold and loud and divisive, or it can be the complete opposite: it can be sacred, nurturing and about loving thy neighbour and karma.
Do you enjoy playing roles like this where you take the stereotypical character of a turban-wearing Sikh hotel worker and develop the character so audiences see him as much more than his job or his religion?
We created that. He wasn’t actually a Sikh. I pitched that idea to the director. I thought it would be interesting to make him a young Sikh man because I read lots of accounts after 9/11 in New York about lots of taxi drivers that were Sikh and they were beaten up, and had people calling them all sorts of racial slurs. I’m not allowed to give too much of the story away, but again it talks about religion.
This is the first movie in which you’ve tried your hand at producing. Could see yourself doing more of it in the future?
It was really exciting. The material was great, but I could see that I could add to it since I’ve already shot so much in India. I was lucky that I found a collaborative director who really respected my opinion. We would be pinging casting ideas back and forth on the phone. I sat down with him and we had a seven-hour script session on the character to see how we could dig deeper and say more. It’s absolutely something I would like to do more of in the future.
You’ve worked with some incredible actors over the years, Nicole Kidman most recently. Is there a lesson or a technique that you’ve picked up from these more experienced actors?
Everyone has their own kind of flavour or approach. The general attitude that you see with those more established, amazing actors is that there is still a real drive and a real curiosity. Especially in [The Second Best Exotic] Marigold Hotel, your surrounded by Dame Judi Dench and Dame Maggie Smith and all these great actors and they’re still asking questions and they’re still excited by the process and that was really encouraging for me to see.
You’re being celebrated as a Chivas Icon for your work with the #LionHeart campaign which supports three Indian charities, Magic bus, ChildLine India and Railway Children India. Why partner with Chivas?
For me it was a way to tie in the brand with helping a cause. I’ve really wanted to push this #LionHeart campaign because the film has really changed my life personally, and it’s helped me professionally. It’s really opened my career up and my world so to be able to come here to Dubai for an amazing evening with Chivas and have that angle of raising awareness for these three charities, that’s really beautiful, and hopefully we can raise a bit of money too.
When you were filming Lion in India did you get a chance to work directly with any of these charities and see first-hand how they are helping these street kids?
A lot of them are trying to get these kids off the streets, but it’s very difficult because of the sheer numbers that you’re dealing with. 80,000 children go missing in India every year, and 11 million children are living on the streets. Language barriers make it an even more complex situation. Then there is the different adoption laws in different countries. For the campaign, it’s about raising awareness for the people on the ground and it’s also about raising funds so they can have more manpower to go out and facilitate the very costly process of taking a child in, and doing the paperwork and trying to send out search parties to find children if they’ve been lost from their parents or abandoned. It’s a very lengthy process. I got to meet Saroj Sood, she’s now in her nineties and she was the woman who took Saroo out of this horrible orphanage where the children were being molested and beaten. She took him out of there and paired him with this Australian family and organised his adoption. She’s just an incredible woman. She works in conjunction with these charities.
You’ve said before that roles like these, referring to your part in Lion, don’t come about often for a British Indian dude. As a minority, is it difficult to get meatier leading roles?
For me it’s about the journey, it’s about the words, it’s about what the person is doing in the script. That’s what’s important for me when I look at a script. If I’m telling a different story every time I play a character, then it doesn’t matter.
It’s been a decade since you first rose to fame in Slumdog millionaire and you’ve mentioned that one of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt since then is how to say no to certain roles. Do you turn many roles down?
That’s sounds like a very cocky thing for me to say, [laughs]. It’s just that if you’re going to do a film and do it properly, you’re really giving a part of yourself. It’s like giving a limb. You come out of that really changed as a human being. So my thought process when reading a script is to make sure that all that time spent giving my heart and soul to something is a nourishing experience, truthful, honest and organic.
You’re living in LA now and had the chance to bring your mum to the Oscars this year. When you go back home to London, do you still slip back into the same family dynamic as you did before?
It’s a little bit more difficult. However, when you go back home it’s always a very grounding experience and I’ve got an older sister who will quickly put me back in my place. Sadly, I don’t spend enough time with my mum and dad at home so that’s something I need to work on. I left school when I was 16, so I stepped out of there when I was young. The close friends that I’ve made have been through the film sets I’ve been on.
You’ve said that when you walked the red carpet when you were younger [for Slumdog Millionaire] that you felt inferior and not worthy. Did it feel different this year?
In a way, yes. I’ve had some successes and some failures in between and that’s really shaped me as a filmmaker. I’ve grown up as well. I’ve become a more conscious performer. Now I can take it all in and really relish it, because the first time it was all a blur.
You started out on TV doing Skins in the UK, and then you did Newsroom in the US. Would you be interested in doing more TV?
Possibly. It’s something that we were just discussing earlier at lunch [laughs] but I’m not working on anything at the moment.