He starred in 2008’s Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, but Dev Patel’s first Oscar nomination for acting came just weeks ago, as he nabbed a Best Supporting Actor nod for his sensitive work in Lion. That story of Saroo Brierly, who was accidentally spirited away from his small Indian village as a child and spent years trying to somehow find his way back, has been an under-the-radar hit for the Weinstein Company, earning six Oscar nominations and presenting an international, border-crossing tale that only feels more resonant in these politically charged times. Recently, the 26-year-old Patel flew into Los Angeles to talk about Lion’s big moment with Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan on The Awards Show Show. You can listen to the podcast below, or read an edited version of their conversation. First, as they got settled, Patel offered a tip as to how he gets those lustrous locks.
Your hair looks great. What are you doing to it?
If I told you my hair tip, you’d laugh. It’s Cetaphil moisturizer. After I finish moisturizing my face, I rub the rest of it in my hair.
Really? Did you come up with that on your own?
It’s from sheer laziness.
Well, it seems to work. My grandfather used to use Jergens hand lotion.
In his hair? We’re on to something here.
Well, first of all Dev, congratulations on all the Oscar nominations.
Take me back. Do you remember where you were and what that day was like when you found out how many nominations Slumdog Millionaire got?
God. I would have been caught up in the whirlwind of it all. We would have all been together, but I don’t quite remember the moment. Walking my first red carpet was overwhelming enough. All of it just carried on snowballing from then on.
I have to think that, especially given your film’s sort of underdog status going into the whole season, people might not remember, but there was a time when Slumdog Millionaire was maybe going direct to video, I remember.
Yeah, there was a strong chance of that happening. You know, on paper, it shouldn’t have done well at all. And it was quite groundbreaking for its time because you’ve got no known faces at all. So you’ve got no one to bank the film on. Half of it’s in a foreign language, the two children are in most of it, it’s set in India, it doesn’t have any action or special effects. So all of it was a tough sell, but I think the world really responded to the humanity of that story. And it kind of changed the mold and allowed careers to be built, and more work to come in for people like myself.
Lion certainly has more star power, but I would say a whole lot of what you used to describe Slumdog Millionaire would apply too. So I wonder, by point of contrast, what was this experience like for you when you heard about all the nominations that it got?
I mean, it’s such a beautiful experience. Because 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.
I wonder how you can tell when you’ve done good work. Because I remember I was I at Cannes two years ago, and they showed a trailer for Lion, which didn’t come out that year. I gather that you shot it a while ago; you knew, I would think, that this is a good project you’ve got coming out. What was it like to have that in your pocket?
I wouldn’t have counted my chickens too early. And I hadn’t seen it. So 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.
It’s interesting what you said about what you look for in a role. I remember Garth Davis said that you’re very insistent on not being typecast as the funny Indian. Have you had to tell your team there’s a certain sort of thing that you get offered that you’re not interested in?
Yeah. And you know, 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.
And using an Australian accent.
All of that. So that to kind of diminish all that work and transformation and just say, “Oh it’s another Indian role,” is sometimes a bit heartbreaking.
But I think it’s a very lucky and very good thing that you’ve been able to play such varied characters. Though I think I understand what you’re saying, you know. You have had the fortune of playing so many fantastic characters that were written as Indian. Do you find that Hollywood shows the same sort of imagination when it comes to casting you for roles that aren’t written in any particular way?
Umm, not yet, no. But I mean, things are changing, you know? I try to look and find the silver lining wherever I can. But that’s okay. I’m happy with my piece right now. And I’m earning my stripes. I’m 26, so I’ve got a bit of time to go.
How did it feel to get that sort of individual recognition for Best Supporting Actor?
Pretty overwhelming actually. I was with my best friend in India, and he was with me on my way to the audition for Garth. And [back then] 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.
From the actors I’ve talked to, there always seems to be this wildly fluctuating mix of confidence and insecurity, maybe something that helps power you. But I would have to imagine that on that day, the insecurity-to-confidence ratio was maybe a little bit better balanced than it might normally be.
Someone once phrased it as a “negative charge.” Which I quite like the sound of. That negative charge fires you. For me, sometimes I haven’t felt worthy of the great blessings I’ve been given. So that gives me more drive to want to go and earn that position in life. Does that make sense?
If I’m ever satisfied and feel like I’ve done it, then I’ll probably quit. Whilst there’s still that uneasiness, I want to still keep working and exploring.
Meryl Streep mentioned your name in her speech at the Golden Globes. That was a barn burner of a speech, and I think has galvanized this industry in a major way. But tell me about being in that room and experiencing it. What did it mean to you?
Man, I was so wrapped up in her words. Never in a billion years did I think that my name was going to slip off her tongue. And the camera cut to me, and I hadn’t been warned or anything. So what you saw there was just me with by gob open, trying to process it all. I’m very humbled by it, really.
It seems incredibly germane, given what’s going on in the world, and what has been going on just even in the past week and a half with this administration. This year’s Oscar films seem to address the notion of feeling like an outsider, feeling like an immigrant, trying to find your place in the world. Do you feel like Lion is more germane than ever, given what’s going on?
I would hate to turn real people’s strife into a film pitch, you know? But you’re constantly trying to evaluate what you’re doing. I’d flown in from India having shot a very tumultuous film, and then I entered into real-life nightmare. And straight away someone’s knocking on your door, “Here’s the suit, all right let’s go. Walk these carpets.” And I’m always calling my publicists like, “What does this matter, what are we doing talking about these movies?” But you have to really sit down and think; the awards ceremony will carry on. The world will keep spinning, but do we want the voices of positivity and unity to be quiet? So on those days, what are you going to stand for? What are you going to roar about? I decided to just say what I felt that day on the carpet at the SAG Awards. But it’s difficult. You get a lot of inspiration from those people handing out pizzas or giving out granola bars to those people standing outside at the airports. They’re the real courageous human beings. But it’s horrible what’s going on.
At the same time, I think what you’re getting at here is about an artist’s place in the world. I think that what you do, Dev, especially as an international performer, is you help a lot of people sort of see parts of the world, understand characters that they might not normally engage with, whether in their own lives or even in pop culture. And I think that’s important too.
It’s weird. Everyone uses that term, “The film’s more relevant now than ever.” And I get scared by that sometimes. Because it feels like you’re jumping onto something. But always, when I read the script, I knew the power of it was in its embracing love. It’s about a love that transcends continents; it’s about a love that transcends race, gender, whatever. That’s what its power is. It’s nice, you know? It’s not going to cure anything, but it might be a little salve to someone’s day.
I was a little bit baffled by some of the way the media covered the Oscar nominations because, you know, very rightly they said this is a year where #OscarsSoWhite wouldn’t seem to apply, because we have so many more actors of color represented and stories represented. But they always seem to be leaving out Lion, which frustrated me. This is a movie that has major significant roles for people of color and you are one of the people of color who’s nominated this year. Was that a head-scratcher for you at all?
I haven’t really had a chance to listen to much of the press actually, ’cause I’ve just been in the middle of nowhere in India. I was literally barefooted in the slums of Dharavi, which is one of the biggest slums in Mumbai. And then the next minute I open my eyes and I’m in a tux, walking down a red carpet. So there’s, like, two brains firing.
You just had the Lion premiere in Mumbai, right?
I was filming though, so I missed the premiere. Yeah. I mean, it’s great. It’s really … You look at the carpet when you’re walking down it, and it’s a really beautiful, diverse set of people there. And Lion is such a diverse film. You’ve got people from Australia, London, India, America, coming together about this story. That makes me really happy, but that’s okay. I don’t mind. I’m just trying to do me and do justice to that. I don’t feel like a crusader for a greater cause. I wouldn’t have a bloated enough ego to think so. I’m just trying to be truthful and honest in the work.