Dev Patel on life after Lion, his Indian accent, and becoming tabloid fodder

Dev Patel first shot to fame in the 2008 Best Picture Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire and has wrapped his latest film Hotel Mumbai, based on the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Actor Dev Patel in Dubai for the Chivas Icons. Photo by Francois Nel / Getty Images for Chivas Regal
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Actor Dev Patel was in Dubai on Tuesday to be honoured as one of the Chivas Icons at the H Hotel venue Play. The 27-year-old has been having a very good year.

The Brit earned a best supporting actor Academy Award nomination for his turn in the real-life tale Lion, in which he portrayed Saroo Brierly, who was adopted by an Australian family after he was lost in India as a little boy and later used Google Earth to find his home.

Patel first shot to fame in the 2008 Best Picture Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire and has wrapped his latest film Hotel Mumbai, based on the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

He spoke to The National about the Chivas Icons honour, his charity work through the film's #LionHeart campaign, becoming tabloid fodder and working on that Indian accent.

A Chivas Icon at 27? What does this mean to you? How does it feel?

It’s really exciting actually. The calibre of talent that Chivas has worked with before [Sir Patrick Stewart has been among the honorees], and just the opportunity to sit down in front of a bunch of incredibly influential people tonight and talk about this campaign, the #LionHeart campaign [which supports 11 million children who live on the streets and another 80,000 who go missing every year in India], which is really important to me. The film has changed my life so it’s really important to try and raise awareness and funds for the three charities within that umbrella [Magic Bus; Childline India and Railway Children India] is amazing.

Have you made trips to India? Have you met with the charities?

I met a lot of the heads of charities on the press tour, when we started the campaign, me and Nicole [Kidman] and we started a competition where they could come and meet us at events, we started a crowd funding. I’ve been to India and shot five films so I’m very aware of this situation. So while preparing for the role I got to go and visit orphanages and it really was kind of a nourishing and heartbreaking experience. You leave there driven to do the role justice because that’s all you can do as an actor. You put it into the work.

Lion changed your life professionally, how did it change your life personally?

I think what it does is it pushes you out of your comfort zone and you’re colliding with people you’ve never met before and it broadens your perspective of the world and makes you a more conscious human being, a more sensitive human being. Even just meeting the actual family, I met Kumla, who is Saroo’s Indian mother. I don’t speak Hindi, so we don’t share the same language but we sat there and held hands for awhile while her and Priyanka [Bose], the woman playing her on the screen spoke, and we just cried together at one point and moments like that, they really instil you with a determination. Same with Sue [Brierly, Saroo’s adopted mother, played by Kidman], she is a beautiful, beautiful soul. Just going around the world and listening to her talk, she’s special.

Do you stay in touch with the people depicted in Lion?

Saroo texts me once in awhile. He’s cool. He’s an absolute firecracker. And I’m very grateful to him for opening up to me and really exposing himself so that I could go into some dark places as him on the screen. It’s trippy, isn’t it?

Now that you have a bit of distance from your second Academy Awards, how are you looking at the experience?

This is different because when I went there on Slumdog I didn't take a moment to understand it ... but there was a good 10 years in between when my brain could defrost and I could learn, and fail, and all those kinds of things. So when you get to that point again, if you're lucky enough, that lightening does strike twice, you really embrace it and cherish it.

Since all the attention you got from Lion, you have become a paparazzi target. You are a regular in the Daily Mail, they talk about your biceps! How are you dealing with that level of attention?

Noooo ... You catch them once in a while, hiding in a bush and you’re like ‘what you doing? Go home, and just be with your kids or whatever’. It’s ridiculous when you see it in situ, you’re shopping in a market and a guy feverishly trying to snap you picking carrots, it’s just ridiculous. But yeah what can you do about it? It’s part of the culture. It’s like the parasite feeding off the artistic world. And it’s there. And you deal with it.

So you have wrapped your next film, Hotel Mumbai, about the 2008 terrorist attacks across the city. Can you describe the character you play?

I play a character who's called Arjun, who's kind of a mixture of human beings. He's a young Sikh man from the slums who works as a waiter in the hotel. I can't say too much more about it. But it's very important to me, this story. That day the terrorists, we danced at the VT Station for Slumdog and that was a real life-changing moment for me, and these guys came in and opened fire and killed so many people. I have a friend who is a humanitarian in India and she deals with a lot of children. And a lot of children lost their parents that day. And they just didn't come home and could never be told why because the truth was too brutal, and she would send me accounts of this. And it makes you realise the sheer extent of it all and why films like this are important because it sheds light on the issue. There's the Marvel heroes and then there's heroes like this, who actually should be praised.

With Slumdog, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Lion and now Hotel Mumbai, you seem to be drawn to true-life tales. How come?

It’s magical to do a true-life story because human beings are just incredible. And that’s shocking when you read the story of a guy who found his mom from space, a needle in a haystack from space, using Google, and it’s amazing that that can happen. And I think human beings, when they go in a dark theatre they want to escape. They don’t want to be reminded of the bills they have to pay or the troubles and turbulations of life. They want to escape into a life of hope and a land of entertainment and come out of there inspired. Those are the films I like, anyway.

So you're working as an executive producer on Hotel Mumbai and you are writing your own script. Will you keep trying to stretch and grow beyond acting?

I've just been really lucky to be surrounded by some amazing filmmakers, Danny Boyle [Slumdog Millionaire], Aaron Sorkin [Newsroom], John Madden did Shakespeare in Love, Jon Blomkamp [Chappie], all these guys and they're incredible and I would love to be able to get behind a camera and give birth to a story instead of coming in at the later stages of it and just say the lines once they've been set in stone. So, that would be an experience I would love to do and I think it would make me a better performer. Tasting food is one thing but understanding how it's made is something else altogether.

Some people from India have criticised your Indian accent, but also say it has gotten way better — do you agree with them?

I have to agree with them! Actually my worst Indian accent was Slumdog. I worked really hard on it and we finished it and then I get a call from Danny so many months later, I've been in London and he's like 'we can't hear a single thing. There's cows mooing, there's rickshaws buzzing by, trains going by, we need to re-record it all'. So I went in and re-recorded North West London over all my work. And then Marigold [Best Exotic Marigold Hotel] I'll defend. It's a comedic creation. I'm hitting certain phrases harder for comedic effect. I have this amazing dialect coach ... he changed the way I sound in the last couple of films I've done. We worked on Infinity together and Hotel Mumbai. And they're just real life stories that are a lot more grounded. So it has improved but it also has to do with the story and character.