The transformation of Dev Patel

Esquire Middle East
Published: June 12, 2017

On the polished wooden floors of a cigar bar in Four Seasons DIFC lies a pair of battered shoes; the leather creased and worn, the shoelaces frayed and splitting. This footwear belongs to Dev Patel and it serves as a useful reminder of his roots. Patel has evolved from the skinny north-London teenager who seemed to fall into a couple of surprise hits — UK TV indie hit Skins and Slumdog Millionaire — but is now becoming a fine actor, demonstrating his rapidly maturing talent in more considered roles — most notably winning a BAFTA for his lead role in the heart-breaking Lion.

Those shoes are a small but telling portal to the past. They look like they should belong to the Slumdog-era Dev Patel; the one whose mum forced him to audition for his first roles, rather than the present-day version who has buffed up, let his hair grow out and inhabits the more alpha-male presence that he developed for his character in Lion. Patel has hurriedly discarded the footwear to change into a designer-label blazer, shirt and chinos for his Esquire photoshoot, which, along with the IWC watch (he’s a brand ambassador), seems far more in keeping with his current vibe.

He’s still dressed up for our interview, midway through a long day of commitments. Patel is here as for the Chivas Icons dinner, a special event to recognise him for his work in using his influence to help others. And seeing as he recently launched the #Lionheart campaign with his Lion co-star, Nicole Kidman, to raise money for charities in India that help homeless children, the Chivas ‘Win The Right Way’ initiative is an ideal partnership for both parties to spread this definition of success.

Patel will tell the story more than once today of how his mother, who he describes as “a force of nature”, saw a newspaper advert for the Skins audition when she was on the Tube heading to work. “She told me I was going to bunk off school to attend. I’d never done anything like that before, so I thought she was insane and we had this massive argument,” he tells me, evidently as thankful as ever for his mother’s prompting that day, which changed his life. “When you’re 16 you don’t want to be pushed out of your comfort zone.”

Finally persuaded to go, he arrived, dressed in his school uniform, the only kid with his mum as a chaperone, standing in a queue of hopefuls outside Camden’s National Youth Theatre. He didn’t think there was a hope of succeeding, but it turned out he was exactly the sort of character they were looking for and he got the role of Anwar Kharral, which the writers moulded more to Patel’s character as the show progressed. Patel shakes his head in disbelief at his naivety to the industry back then, remembering how the only film jargon he knew back then was ‘Action!’ and how he over-rehearsed his lines to the point where he would mouth everyone else’s parts as they spoke during a scene.

When I ask him what his mother saw in him that he didn’t recognise, he calls it her “sixth sense”. But she wasn’t the only one who had a hunch that he had a gift for storytelling. “I was super hyper-active in school and there was a teacher who gave me an ultimatum: either I go to detention or audition for the school play,” he remembers. “So I did the latter. It was Twelfth Night by Shakespeare and I got the role of Sir Andrew Aguecheek.”
The big, pantomime-style, comedic role got Patel a standing ovation and a school award. “But more importantly, I felt really alive on that stage,” he recalls now. “I felt like somehow I could find an angle in to doing this, but that felt very abstract where I was growing up in northwest London. I didn’t understand how to make my way into the professional field.”

***

Skins was the ideal start. He’d got a foot in the door, and yet it could easily have been an end in itself, seeing as he was a teenager with no training or any other experience. Luckily, the daughter of legendary British film director Danny Boyle loved the show and suggested to her father that he call in Patel for an audition for a quirky new movie he was working on: Slumdog Millionaire. Boyle had envisaged someone older for the role, but something about the youthful simplicity of Patel — an absence of cynicism, perhaps — persuaded him to take a risk.

So, aged 18, Patel boarded a plane and was plunged into the heart of India, and into a film with no famous actors, half of it in Hindi and played mostly by children. Everyone expected Slumdog to go straight to DVD, but instead it spread from festival to festival, then on to general release, and ended up winning eight Oscars, seven BAFTAs and four Golden Globes. In the process it made massive overnight stars of its protagonists and, to crown everything, Patel ended up dating his co-star Freida Pinto, which meant he was now also a tabloid star.

He was on the Tube in London one day when he realised that his life had changed forever. “I sat there and noticed my face on the front page of the free newspaper that gets left on the seats,” he explains. “One by one the passengers looked at the face in the paper, then up at me, realising who it was. It was such a weird experience.” In a good or bad way? “In a scary way, because you’re used to being anonymous for your whole life. And then everything shifts in a second.” He click his fingers for emphasis.

The next few years saw mixed results as Patel tried to establish a sustainable career. He got a career-low Golden Raspberry Award in The Last Airbender, though that was followed by the chance to star alongside some of the UK’s finest actors in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Chappie was a hit, though had generally poor reviews. He got to play opposite Jeremy Irons in The Man Who Knew Infinity. And he ended up moving to LA, where he still lives, for his role in HBO’s excellent The Newsroom, which garnered more awards but ran for three seasons rather than the six originally intended.

Most importantly, he was honing his craft, learning everything he’d skipped in the early stages. But the main lesson, which he took from The Last Airbender, a project he says “never really felt organic” was to look for roles that resonated with him personally. Then along came Lion.

Released last year the film tells the true story of Saroo Brierley, who was separated from his mother and sister in India, aged five, and lived on the streets until being adopted by an Australian family. Years later, as an adult, he went on a mission to find his missing family, using Google Earth to track down the area he’d come from. Patel read the script and was desperate to get the part. He travelled to meet director Garth Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies at their homes, put himself through a “harrowing” six-hour screen test and did everything he could to convince them that he had the emotional and physical presence to carry the story.

He got the part but, to avoid any comparisons with previous roles, was asked to physically transform into the sporty Aussie guy that Saroo became in his adopted country — accent included. Patel also spent months alone in India travelling by train, visiting orphanages, meeting with Saroo’s Indian and Australian families, to form what he describes as “a truthful memory map”.

This total immersion resulted in a hugely powerful film that received six Oscar nominations and won two BAFTAs, with one of them going to Patel for Best Supporting Actor.

Perhaps more importantly, the story transformed Patel’s outlook on life. He and co-star Nicole Kidman set up #Lionheart to raise money for three charities, Childline, Railway Children and Magic Bus, which aid homeless and underprivileged children in India. “Saroo got lost on a train and went through this horrendous experience trying to survive on the streets by himself at six or seven until he got adopted and had a second chance at life,” says Patel of why he felt compelled to help. “We’ve personified one journey, but there are 80,000 children that go missing on the streets every year and 80 million homeless in total. The problem is vast.”

Patel says the emotional impact has made him conscious of the need to make more films that have a social dimension. “I met a woman who had been on the fence about adopting. She had tears in her eyes as she told me that watching Lion had given her the encouragement to do what her heart had been telling her to do for a long time. For your art to manifest in peoples’ hearts like that is just incredible.”

***

Here’s an observation born of a day spent in Dev Patel’s company. When people get to a certain level of fame they develop a shield. This might be through arrogance, or to protect themselves, or maybe just because they become disconnected from most people’s reality. Whatever the reason, there’s usually some kind of barrier.

Dev Patel hasn’t yet built those walls around himself; or at the very least, not noticeably. He is, in the best possible sense, basically normal, and that’s where the battered footwear comes into the picture. Even though he’s dressed like a star and carries himself with a gravitas that has developed along with his reputation, he is still walking, metaphorically speaking, in the same shoes that carried him to those first auditions for Skins and Slumdog Millionaire. (Perhaps even literally, given their dilapidated condition).

Watching him do radio interviews before our interview, I’d written in my notes: He’s at this wonderful intersect where he’s literally becoming a film star in front of the audience’s eyes, and yet you can still see the London boy within. He’s not yet erased himself to become something new.

I ask him how aware he is of this process and it leads to the following exchange of ideas:

Is staying normal something you consciously work at?

“I don’t know… You’re not thinking about being, you’re just being, right?”

And yet your life has changed in so many ways that it would be hard not to become someone very different…

“It’s two different things. When I did Slumdog I was 17 and now I’m 27. Even if you weren’t making movies and travelling the world, those are two very different parts of your life. There’s a child waiting to burst out and be a man, and then all of a sudden people do talk to you as a man. Everyone faces that adjustment. I’ve just continued to read scripts and do my job. It’s not that hard an equation.”

And yet lots of people who undergo profound changes in their circumstances do struggle to adapt…

“Yes, but that could happen if you’re a banker or an athlete or you have a restaurant business. There are lots of pressurised jobs that people cope with.”

How do you deal with nerves?

“I constantly feel like I’m being thrown into the deep end, but it’s the panic mode that makes your adrenaline kick in.”

Do you consider fear to be a good thing?

“Yeah, I think so. Between ‘Action’ and ‘Cut’ my heart is racing at a million miles an hour. Always. And I think that’s exciting; you’re constantly trying to capture a bolt of lightning.”

What about imposter syndrome, the feeling that you’re not worthy to be where you are — is that a struggle you’ve faced?

“Yes and no… It’s when you overthink something that your mind starts to race. There are always moments where you feel like a fraud but that’s only because I’m a perfectionist and I want to be deserving of this privilege.”

Trying to be perfect in order to feel worthy is not necessarily a healthy emotional state to be in…

“You’re right, it’s not. You get projected onto this massive screen and you’re constantly trying to earn that position.”

Arguably, none of us can earn it. We are where we are…

“Well, yes, in Slumdog I felt like I didn’t understand the art of acting. Which is why I was so happy to get Lion. I’d failed and succeeded a lot in the 10 years between the two movies and now I had the chance to make up for not knowing the first time around, and get there of my own accord.”

***

This is where he is now: Still only 27, with a world of possibilities ahead. The physical transformation and scope of his role in Lion has opened up a host of new opportunities. He’s discussing bigger roles, is working on a script and looking at co-directing. His latest film, Hotel Mumbai, about the 2008 terror attacks there, saw Patel take the lead role and gain an executive producer credit.

When the interview ends his PA hurries over to discuss “the schedule”. I ask whether he will get a rest before the evening’s event and he says that, no, he has calls to make back to Hollywood to discuss new projects with his agent.

On stage that night he’s a natural, answering questions as honestly as he can when asked what the Chivas motto, ‘Win The Right Way’ means to him. “I believe success is an energy that should be spread,” he says; an answer that, if you didn’t know his improbable story, would sound a lot more hippyish than it does when said with his absolute sincerity.

He gives an example of a recent American film festival where he curated a selection of film shorts from aspiring directors. “I mean, I’m the antithesis of Hollywood,” he jokes to the audience. “I have wonky teeth, floppy hair, I’m British Asian… There weren’t roles for people like me when I started out. So the fact that I am now finding roles sends a message to other young people who don’t have access to film schools. You can break the mould. In fact, there is no mould.”

He talks again about #Lionheart, how he wants to bring truth to everything he does, and his belief that art can be a powerful tool for change. These could all sound like trite soundbites, but when delivered with such conviction they come across as the genuine ideals of a talented and driven young man who knows that life has been good to him and that he has to pass on that fortune to others wherever possible.

The final question is about where he sees himself in the future. After detailing his upcoming projects he stops, hesitates and then says, as if amazed all over again at how the decade has unfolded: “When I was younger I thought I’d end up working on a supermarket checkout and instead I went to India to make Slumdog Millionaire, so, ultimately, who knows?”

© 2017 Esquire Middle East | Written Jeremy Lawrence | No copyright infringment intended

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