Dev Patel is adamantly seeking roles that avoid Indian stereotypes — and it's paying off.
In 2008, Patel landed his breakout role in the Best Picture winner, "Slumdog Millionaire." Now, the 26-year-old has earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Lion," a film based on the true story of Saroo Brierley's improbable search for his lost family.
Kyle Buchanan — senior editor at Vulture.com and John Horn's co-host of The Awards Show Show — sat down with Patel recently. After sharing some tips for healthy hair, they discussed his arc from "Slumdog Millionaire" to "Lion" and how he seeks to avoid typecasting as "an Indian guy."
On the shift in political climate between making "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Lion":
I’ve spent eight years since trying to find my feet in the industry, you know? And sometimes the work hasn’t been quite so successful. So when you’re all of a sudden in a position where you’ve got your peers recognizing some of the work you’ve done, it’s pretty overwhelming and beautiful. "Slumdog" came at a time when Obama was just about to become president, and everyone was passing around these badges with Hope on them, and it was really beautiful. And this, right now, in the world is a much more different climate. It’s interesting. But both films are beacons of love. And that’s an amazing message to be speaking about.
On getting the lead role in "Lion":
I knew the experience was life-changing for me, to get a role that felt so substantial. I wasn’t a goofy sidekick caricature, tech-geek guy. It was thoroughly soulful and emotional. And it took me on this journey that was so nourishing that I just thought, Oh god, it must be special. Every film I’ve done, a lot of films are never like this. So that’s what I’d felt. But you normally think you have so much fun on a film it can’t be good. But this one defies that.
On playing the "Indian guy":
It’s kind of hard because a lot of the work I do does stem from, I’m playing an Indian guy, because I am one. So people will kind of package that into me playing the same character all the time. But I think that’s kind of unfair, because how can you compare the character I played in "Marigold Hotel" to ["The Man Who Knew Infinity"], a period film about the first [Indian] mathematician to go to Cambridge? Or, you know, "Lion." They’re all so different. To just boil it down to the color of the character’s skin is a shame.
With this, what was really exciting to me was that the character is dissected into two worlds. It begins with the audience following a young boy reacting to a really traumatic environment. And he doesn’t say much, but he’s an Indian kid lost from his parents in India. And then there’s a moment where our screenwriter describes it as a baptism, where the character comes out of the water and he’s an Australian. And it’s the first time you see me, and he’s got facial hair, he’s bigger, he’s really acclimatized to nature and the earth. And he sounds different, he looks different. Everything about him is Australian. And that was something that really drew me to the role, that I was actually playing an Australian man trying to connect to a part of himself that had been dormant for so long.
On hearing that he was nominated for an Oscar:
I was with my best friend in India, and he was with me on my way to audition for Garth [Davis, director of "Lion]. And I was having, like, a panic attack in the car. And I was just crippled with fear because I hate auditioning. And he was giving me a pep talk. Trying to get me to get the confidence to walk in the door and claim this role. [Now] we’re in India, having finished another film together ["Hotel Mumbai," about the 2008 attack at the Taj Hotel], and I turn to him, having received this call and I’m on the verge of tears. I’ve just been nominated for an Oscar. And it was a beautiful kind of full-circle moment.