Dev Patel on working with Nicole Kidman, and why his new film Lion hit so close to home

Based on Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home, Lion, starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, tells the story of a man who goes in search of the family he lost as a child.

Dev Patel. Victoria Will / Invision / AP
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

In his memoir, A Long Way Home, Saroo Brierley tells how at the age of 5 he was playing with his brother at a train station near his village in India when he fell asleep on a train and ended up thousands of miles from home, in Kolkata.

Unaware of the name of his village, he could not be taken home and so ended up in an orphanage. An Australian couple, Sue and Jon Brierley, adopted him and took him to live in Hobart.

Years later, while at college in Australia, he decides to look for his birth mother. So begins an extraordinary, epic journey, which is fabulously brought to life on screen by first-time ­director Garth Davis (previously best known for co-directing parts of 2013 TV drama Top of the Lake with Jane Campion).

Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel plays Saroo, while Nicole Kidman is his adoptive mother, Sue.

“This film at its core is about mothers and sons,” says Patel.

This emphasis struck a chord with ­mother-of-four Kidman.

“I have played many mothers,” says the Australian actress.

“I have strong maternal instincts – particularly now – my maternal instincts are pulsing through me in a powerful way. I love what this movie says about adoptive mothers, and mothers, and mothering in general.”

Kidman, who won an Oscar in 2003 for her turn as ­Virginia Woolf in The Hours, met her ­real-life counterpart, Sue ­Brierley, while preparing for the role.

“Sue came to see me,” says ­Kidman. “She lives in Tasmania. We spent the day together talking – she is a really incredible woman. We had a lot of things in common. We didn’t talk too much about the movie. We talked about our lives. It’s a lovely thing to meet someone you ­really like and then you go: I have to play them.”

Patel says he would never have expected to be in a film with Kidman playing his mother. “Looking at Nicole Kidman and calling her mum – it’s interesting when you meet her, playing the role, she still maintains her grace,” he says, “but that glamour, that ­movie-star glamour, she leaves it at the door. When she came into the rehearsals, she just went so deep into it that you forget that you’re with Nicole Kidman and she ­became Sue.”

Priyanka Bose plays Saroo’s biological mother. At the start of the film, we see her doting on her child, played by newcomer ­Sunny Pawar. Kidman notes that the youngster gives a quite extraordinary performance, which she says is largely down to the skill of director Davis.

“To get a performance out of a child actor like that, that’s when you know you have a good ­director,” says Kidman, who ­created a bond with Pawar by playing cricket with him.

“I’m terrible at cricket – I was just ­hoping to hit the ball.”

The story of a child from India growing up in an Anglicised country and then returning to India resonated greatly with 26-year-old Patel.

“I’m playing the closest thing to myself,” he says. “He’s a contemporary young man, who is more Australian than Indian. I really relate to the fish out of water, the outsider, the underdog – you could almost say it’s a common factor in a number of the ­characters I’ve played in my career.”

British-born Patel had a similar experience to that of Saroo when Danny Boyle cast him in the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and he got to experience India as a young adult. Patel fell in love with the country at that time and has since made a number of films there since, most notably 2011's The Best ­Exotic Marigold Hotel.

But to play an Australian, ­director Davis insisted Patel change his appearance.

"Garth would say, 'we need to make you more alpha and get your facial hair growing,'" says Patel. "When I auditioned for the film, I was in the middle of doing The Man Who Knew Infinity. I was a tiny twig with short, buzz-cut hair, completely different to what he transformed me into."

Patel now looks more like the lead singer of a rock band than a brainy nerd.

The actor was as taken with the real-life Saroo as Kidman was with Sue. The men drove across Australia together, providing the actor with invaluable background information – he even took notes of the songs the author listened to in the car.

What struck Patel most, though, was the universal theme of Saroo’s story, one that had parallels with his own story.

“This is a man who is living quite a ­privileged life with ­beautiful parents and he was tormented and haunted by the fact that he felt that his brother and mother were still searching for him, so he went through this massive process,” he says.

“A person who is Australian, born in India, but he has no real connection to that country, so he goes back there, discovering it – just like I did.”

• Lion is in cinemas from tomorrow

For a review of the film, check out Arts & Life tomorrow