It’s September during the Toronto International Film Festival and as he sits in a hotel room, actor Dev Patel still looks uncannily like the character he portrayed in the film he’s in town to promote. The day after the world premiere of Lion, the genial British-Indian actor still sports a longer than normal mane of hair than most audiences are accustomed to seeing and several days worth of facial hair growth.
It’s not that he has suddenly fallen in love with the look of his character from Lion, but just a sort of serendipitous coincidence that the project he’s currently shooting – Hotel Mumbai, a film due out next year looking at the 2008 Taj Mahal attacks – required a similar sort of character look.
“Actually, for the film I’m shooting now I look a lot more unruly,” the charming actor chuckles when asked about his uncanny resemblance to the picture of him on the poster next to his chair. “I tried to tame the look as best I could today for the press without ruining it for the rest of that shoot.”
Although the 26-year-old actor who rocketed to stardom after starring in Danny Boyle’s sleeper hit Slumdog Millionaire still has quite the career ahead of him, physically transforming himself into someone vastly different from his own appearance is something that’s still new to him. For the debut feature of television and commercial veteran Garth Davis, Patel was finally given the chance to fully immerse himself in a role mentally and physically, and go beyond standard acting techniques and tricks.
Lion (which was the runner-up for 2016’s TIFF Audience Choice Award) tells the inspirational and heart-wrenching true story of Saroo Brierley, who at the age of five got lost in India and separated from his family. Accidentally boarding a train and beginning a thousand mile journey away from his home, Saroo essentially became an orphan via a language barrier and no way to get in touch with his mother. Saroo (played as an adult by Patel) would be adopted by an Australian family (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and raised in Tasmania. He would grow up, go to a good school, and develop a healthy relationship with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara). But memories of the family he left behind in India begin to creep back into his mind, and when Saroo is introduced to the (then new) technology of Google Earth, the young man begins the almost impossible, overwhelming task of piecing together the journey that took him from his hometown to his new life.
“Saroo was a really happy charismatic man who found this girl, fell in love, and they were dating, but there’s a single moment where he sees the jalebis [a deep fried Indian sweet] again for the first time and he’s hit like a bolt of lightning by this sensory experience.”
Patel, sipping on a coffee, explains that the part of Saroo came to him at a time where roles requiring more of a transformation were starting to come his way. To play Saroo, the actor would have to bulk up, learn an Australian accent, and change a lot about his everyday appearance. The chance to play a leading role in Lion actually came right about the time he was finishing up what was – to that point – the most physically demanding role of his career.
“I was shooting a film just before Lion called The Man Who Knew Infinity, and I was just a little string bean of a person because I was playing a character in that film who had tuberculosis and couldn’t eat any food,” he says about the radical transformation and adjustment he had to make between the two projects. “That character was rationing, and he was a staunch Hindu vegetarian on top of that, so I was wafer thin. If you sneezed, I would have fallen over. (laughs) Around that time, I auditioned for Lion and got the role, and me and Garth spoke about it, and a script like this sort of demands you to go to a certain place and tells you what the character needs to look like. We both agreed, and I wanted to completely change for this movie. I wanted to look, feel, and sound like someone who had spent most of their life as an Aussie, so when Saroo goes back to India, I would look like an alien to that land because that’s really what happened. I called up my manager and said, ‘Don’t send me anything these next eight months because I’m going incognito.’ (laughs) I trained and I ate until my liver basically got foie gras’d. For me to hold all that weight on after not having a lot of it, and the physical training, and then the dialogue coaching, that was the most difficult part of getting ready for me.”
Outside of eating a lot, trying to master an Australian accent and make it sound subtle, and growing his hair out a bit, the hardest part of nailing down Saroo as a person was to convey the character’s often internalized nature. While most actors jump at the chance to play a character going through an existential crisis that causes them to withdraw from those around him, Patel at times found the challenge somewhat daunting. Describing himself off screen as “a bit of a hyper person,” internal performances were also something new for the actor, but through Saroo’s real life story, Patel was able to transition into such a headspace with remarkable fluidity.
“Saroo was a really happy charismatic man who found this girl, fell in love, and they were dating, but there’s a single moment where he sees the jalebis [a deep fried Indian sweet] again for the first time and he’s hit like a bolt of lightning by this sensory experience,” Patel says about how a key scene in Lion provided him with a major signpost as a performer. “As a child, having a big vat full of those was his dream, but slowly from there those pleasant memories become haunting, and he becomes slowly riddled with a sense of guilt. For a man his age that’s still young, he shouldn’t be feeling this guilt because he’s already living and has lived this incredible life. He’s got a loving mother and father and a great partner, but it’s because he’s living so well that he has this guilt. He realizes that he’s the product of not one, but two loving mothers, and the other loving mother in India is searching for him with his brother and sister every night. That idea creeping in just takes over his existence, and that’s what made him shun the privileges that he has. That puts him in a tough place sometimes because he becomes less supportive as a boyfriend, and he was already in a position where he was kind of the son who was holding his family together in Australia. He was the fibre that was holding a lot of things together, and he’s slowly fraying.”
“Sunny and I spent a lot of time together. We just wanted to feel like we were one. Garth wanted that, too, so we really bonded as much as we could. Garth had us lie in a field and listen to music together. Those little things were so important because through those moments we could actively create our own memories.”
It should also be noted that Patel’s screen time in Lion might be a bit misleading if one were to judge the film based on the poster with his face on it. In fact, the star of the first hour of the two hour drama is newcomer Sunny Pawar, who plays five year old Saroo. Davis’ film spends a lot of time documenting the struggles and confusions this boy faces in his quest not only to find his former home, but also safety and shelter.
The shooting schedule of Lion offered Patel a chance for an experience some actors are rarely afforded. Although Patel had met with Brierley twice previously over dinner to discuss his involvement in the film and he had read Saroo’s book (the primary source for Luke Davies’ screenplay), it was more valuable to him as a performer to watch behind the camera as Pawar and another group of young actors played out this man’s childhood experiences.
“I would just get behind the camera and watch the kids do their thing,” Patel says about being able to join the shoot early to get a sense of what Saroo’s childhood was going to look like in the finished film. “Garth was so good with these children, and when you’re five-years-old you have no idea what acting is. At that age, you’re just completely reacting to what’s around you. Sunny, and Abhishek [Bharate], who plays the older brother, and Priyanka Bose, were great. Abhisek and Priyanka had both been on camera before, and they were of an age to really understand these things, and together they created a unit with Sunny. When Garth would yell cut, he would keep the camera rolling because that’s where we got moments like when Sunny gets tired and he puts his head on Abhishek. You see that, and those moments are raw and real, and that’s where a lot of the beauty comes from. He’s a real patient filmmaker, and that’s where the reality comes from.”
“But Sunny and I spent a lot of time together. We played around a lot. He used me at one point like I was a jungle gym, just climbing all over me. He would love it when I threw him into the air and catch him. He loved doing that, but he loved doing it with me because I’m pretty sure I was the tallest person on set. (laughs) We just wanted to feel like we were one. Garth wanted that, too, so we really bonded as much as we could. Garth had us lie in a field and listen to music together. We would play hide and seek in the leaves. Those little things were so important because through those moments we could actively create our own memories. Later in the film when I’m cold and alone, I have something honest and true that I can recall, so you’re not in the moment as an actor staring at a blank screen and trying to pretend. You actually have something you can call upon. I could hear the sounds of the leaves. I could hear Abhishek playing with Priyanka. I had real memories, and that was a key for most of the shoot.”
While some of the child actors in Lion have previous acting experience, Sunny did not, with the young man getting the part as a result of a lengthy casting process. This wouldn’t mark the first time that Patel has played the older version of a younger character, as he shot to prominence doing just that in Slumdog Millionaire, a film that also utilized then unknown child actors. In the case of Slumdog Millionaire, the young actors had trust funds established for them that they could access when they turned sixteen and filmmaker Danny Boyle and the film’s producers did everything they felt they could to ensure the well being of kids who were still living in slums, but controversy and backlash swirled – particularly in India – following the release of the Oscar winning film.
“Every young actor dreams to play a role like this, especially me, a young Indian dude from London. This stuff doesn’t come around every day with this kind of cast and these kinds of filmmakers. It’s truly special, and I knew it when I read it.”
Davis and the team that produced Lion have established similar measures to make sure that Sunny – who still doesn’t have a passport, making festival appearances for the young man to promote a film he’s starring in even harder – has as safe and happy of a childhood as possible. Patel looks back on the lessons learned from what happened with the younger cast members from his first big break quite thoughtfully, and explains how the filmmakers behind Lion have learned from past missteps.
“I think in the case of Slumdog the real issue was the press, and that’s the God’s honest truth behind it,” he says about how the young stars of that film weren’t prepared for the kind of exposure they would get from the success of it. “The film became catastrophic for some of these kids, but the media in India were particularly brutal. They were turning up to the doorsteps of these kids. They weren’t living in gated communities, and they were just saying the most terrible things and trying to twist the minds of these kids. You shouldn’t be exposed to that at such a young age. Things were put in place. They were given homes. They were put in schools. This film, Lion, is doing the same thing. A trust fund has been set up for the kids. They’re going to be put up in English language private schools. And I think from what happened with Slumdog, we knew that people were going to be asking us on something like this, ‘Well, where are they?’ That’s leading to us choosing festivals a bit more wisely, I think. This is not normal for a young child to experience, and we must remember that. We’re in an industry where adults experience such invasions of privacy all the time, but we’re trying to keep them as grounded as possible. They will get a chance to enjoy some of the more pleasant things about the experience, but primarily we want to give them as normal an upbringing as possible while being in this big movie.”
Patel admits that it’s hard for some to avoid comparisons between Lion and Slumdog Millionaire and their sometimes closely related depictions of childhood poverty in India, despite the more sombre and forlorn tone of the former and the exuberant, stylized tone of the latter. Even he couldn’t avoid thinking back to the project that kickstarted his career as an actor, but not because of any perceived similarities, but because he was afraid that his first big success was going to overshadow his attempt to land the role of Saroo. It was only after a lengthy audition with Davis and an unconventional, but strangely convenient final request from the director that he thinks he was able to prove himself as worthy of joining the production.
“This is not normal for a young child to experience, and we must remember that. We’re in an industry where adults experience such invasions of privacy all the time, but we’re trying to keep them as grounded as possible.”
“Slumdog actually worked against me in this case,” Patel says. “I think Garth and everyone else really wanted to see if I could disappear into a role like this. The audition process was all about that. It was a bit of a test for me. It was great because after all that I went on set with the confidence that I had really earned my part. We had this connection after we did a six hour long audition. After we had left and the sun had gone down, Garth said, ‘You know, I just want you to do one thing: I want you to scream. I want you to go crazy and just let it all out. Exorcise your demons.’ And I thought, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ He said, ‘I’m just going to put some music on, and you don’t have to if you don’t want to.’ And I’m just thinking in my head, ‘Well, I better do this even if I don’t HAVE to.’ (laughs) And can you imagine that you just met this guy on this day and he wants you to just lose it on a whim. Playing a role within the lines is kind of safe, you know? It’s another thing to tell someone, ‘Go insane right now and start crying. Lose your shit.’ And so I just said, ‘Okay, but can we at least close the curtains because it might get messy.’ (laughs) Then he put on this song that I had been listening on the way down there, and it was the Gustavo Santaolalla score from Babel, from the deportation scene in that film, and I listened to that a lot before that and it was just what he ended up playing in that moment. It was really serendipitous and the emotions just came flowing from it. That was great, but he was literally seeing if he could break us and put us back together again. It was about being comfortable enough with each other to be so emotionally raw and naked.”
Naturally, such a conversation about Patel’s career to this point takes a turn to talking about how someone with his ethnicity might be typecast if they aren’t careful about the projects they pick. The actor credits Lion with giving him a chance to break through as an actor and not just as an actor with Indian heritage. He’s grateful for the opportunity, and it has given him a chance to reflect on a career that finds him transitioning into more character based leading roles and fewer clichéd Indian stereotypes.
“Every young actor dreams to play a role like this, especially me, a young Indian dude from London,” he says warmly and enthusiastically. “This stuff doesn’t come around every day with this kind of cast and these kinds of filmmakers. It’s truly special, and I knew it when I read it. I was allowed to explore a space and embody a character that’s far, far away from the usual cliché that we get fed about brown people. It broke the mold for me in every way with the accent, the physicality, and I was in front of a laptop not trying to program a robot or expounding information in a newsroom, but I was sitting there surfing a history and looking for depth, and for me that was completely exciting in every way. And that’s important to me, and why it’s a gift to get a script like this and to try and smash it out of the park. A movie like this wouldn’t have been able to be made ten years ago. Slumdog Millionaire opened doors not just for me, but to the industry. There were no names in that, no clichés, half of it was in Hindi, and it almost went straight to DVD. That’s the climate we were in ten years ago when no one thought a film like that or like Lion could work. I’m still riding that wave and seeing it, and things are changing. You see television and film becoming more and more diverse. There is still cliché, but you can’t blame the actors for that because without that, some actors don’t work. I feel, for me, it has been sometimes been about taking on those clichés sometimes to break the mold. You have to be in the mold to break it sometimes, and often that can take a lot of small steps. Even in The Newsroom, I started out at the I.T. guy, and more and more Aaron got to know me, the more he thought the character should be cooler. Slowly, that tiny role became a lot more around the third season. There’s definitely a change coming; not overnight, but it is coming.”