Dev Patel’s career started in his native United Kingdom, with a role on the hit teen drama Skins. But it was with Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning 2008 film, that he became a real star. Equally adept at drama and comedy, Patel went on to join the cast of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, as well as star alongside acting royalty in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel duology. This year, he’s in The Man Who Knew Infinity alongside Jeremy Irons, and TWC’s Lion, with Nicole Kidman. Lion is based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, a boy orphaned on the streets of Calcutta before being adopted by a loving Australian couple. Patel plays the older Saroo, whose quest to be reunited with his lost birth mother took years of searching.
What went through your mind when you first heard Saroo Brierley’s story?
I read the script and I was blown away by Luke [Davies]’ writing, and I was a ball of tears by the end of it. I started to research Saroo—articles, and a couple of Google talks he’d done. To be able to play a character well, you’ve got to love them first, and that was very easy for me because the story is so inspiring.
Saroo’s story is sadly not uncommon in India. Did you feel a responsibility to get it right, for India’s huge number of street children?
Yes, and Saroo is one of the lucky ones. There’s hundreds of thousands of children in India that are lost or homeless, and that don’t have families. This is one of the stories of triumph, really. Not only did he get adopted to a beautiful, loving family, but also he was able, through his incredible brain and perseverance, to reconnect with his birth mother as well. That’s what makes it so incredible.
Did you meet with Saroo?
We met during production. When I first got the role, the first step was changing my look, the way I sound, the accent, all those kinds of things. The first thing I said to Garth [Davis, director] was, “I don’t look anything like him; what are we going to do?” But he explained we weren’t doing some kind of imitation. We wanted to capture the essence of his struggle and his pain, and I had to embody that honestly.
We finally met when we were filming in Tasmania. It was a nerve-wracking moment for me. I worried he’d judge me or see right through me. But he was so warm and informative. What we spoke about was very microcosmic moments and feelings. How were you feeling when you were on that laptop, finding your home? What was coursing through your veins? I don’t think he gets asked that stuff normally, but for me it was important to know.
It must be almost impossible to imagine the depth of those emotions.
For Saroo, even though he was surrounded by so much love, his journey was really personal, and actually very isolating. I went through the whole process while preparing the role. I traveled the trains from Calcutta to Bhopal, alone. I wrote diaries. I went to these orphanages and met children that were severely disabled, and kind of disregarded by their parents, and it was a real process of growing up and learning a lot about myself. It’s been the most nourishing experience of my career.
But for Saroo, he lived this reality—this incredible existence, with these wonderful adoptive parents supporting him. Slowly, this guilt started to creep in. He was a product of privilege and luck. And his mother and older brother could still have been on that train platform every single day, searching for him. That started to plague him, and he was consumed by trying to find his mother to let her know he was OK.
You’ve become practically a local in India now. But was Slumdog Millionaire your first experience of the country?
Saroo’s journey is very close to my journey in discovering India. I can relate a lot to that feeling of going back as an alien, but with connections to it. I kind of unconsciously went to India as a child, to a part of Godhra for a family wedding, but I didn’t really understand it at all. I discovered it when I did Slumdog. I was out there with Danny Boyle, experiencing this whole new side to this culture. And it had a massive effect on me. I grew up hiding from my heritage in a way, so I could fit in, and to avoid being bullied in school. I felt insecure about it. And now, having gone there and worked there so much, I have become completely enthralled by the culture and the country, and it’s become a real source of inspiration for me.
Are you hopeful that the film sheds some light on children in India who perhaps weren’t as fortunate as Saroo?
You know, I’ve been there and seen so many children wandering the streets. There are almost too many to help, and it becomes almost suffocating. But when you go through an experience like I did on this movie, and you understand what it’s like for a child, that’s really when it becomes something real to you.
It’s awful, what’s happening, and I’m hopeful this movie can initiate a conversation and shed light on these lost souls. The Weinstein Company and See-Saw Films are trying to figure out a way to give a financial boost to some of these charities, and we’re in the process of that.
There are beautiful people in India—and you see them in our film, like Mrs. Sood, the woman that takes Saroo out of that home, and she’s just a ball of warm, beautiful energy, who would die for her job. There are many people like that in India, that are trying to do great things for these children, and we hope we can bring people to them.