Dev Patel on Lion

The story of Saroo Brierley’s life is so outrageous and unthinkable it could only be true. At just five years old, Brierley was separated from his family after accidentally boarding a train to Calcutta. Forced to live on the streets in a place where he couldn’t speak the language, Brierley struggled to survive before being rescued by a man in a coffee shop who puts him in touch with the local authorities. After the search to find his family proves fruitless, he was adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley, with whom he settled until adulthood, when he decided to try to rediscover his birth family using Google Earth. It’s this remarkable story that forms the basis of Lion, starring Nicole Kidman as Brierley’s adoptive mother, and Dev Patel as the adult Brierley. Patel first appears on screen bounding forth from the water like a creature reborn. It’s something he describes as a moment of “baptism” for his character, though it’s hard not to see it as true for Patel too. After shooting to fame in Skins, E4’s era-defining portrait of teenage hedonismwhich Patel admits “put me on the map and got Danny Boyle to hire me because his daughter saw it”—his performance in Lion is both moving and mature, earning him a Golden Globe nomination in the process. We sat down with him to discuss what attracted him to the project, why he avoids social media, and how he feels about Skins a decade on.

On why he wanted to star in the project:

“I just kind of read about the articles, [and was] completely moved, and ended up hounding my agents to get me in the room with the writer. I ended up knocking on Luke Davies’ door and he was still working on the script with Garth [Davis] and they were in there with this big whiteboard with all these stickies on it—and it was kind of an awkward meeting. They were like, ‘You know, you seem sweet but you have to audition when we’ve finished the script.’”

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On the transformation he underwent for the role:

“The conversation I had with Garth [was] about how we can really transform into this kind of different performance space, and Saroo’s a really sporty Australian guy, so he was like, ‘You know, I want you to put on a bit of weight’, so we went about doing all that, really. And then I travelled the trains across India, wrote a diary and visited orphanages—it was really nourishing, actually.”

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On working with Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara:

“Nicole is a movie icon; to be able to share the screen with her is one of those pinch-yourself moments—and same with Rooney, who is so enthralling on screen. We just sort of really got along, and Garth is that kind of director that creates such an intimate atmosphere. That tactility and warmth really helped.”

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On the film’s focus on brotherhood:

“When I auditioned for the role [I] met Divian, who plays Mantosh, and he’s from near where I am in London. It was kind of amazing because we were in it together—[both] nervous—and we did this scene that’s not in the film anymore because of timing. We really bonded and it really is about brothers in a way.”

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On how he feels about Skins:

“I guess I feel very grateful for it, because I rocked up to that audition with my Mum, didn’t know what I was doing and it was great. I met some incredible people, [and] that put me on the map in a way, and got Danny Boyle to hire me [in Slumdog Millionaire] because his daughter saw it and so, yeah, it so funny how people still talk about it.”

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On social media:

“I don’t really have any social media platform—I try to keep my life as simple as I can. I think it helps [you] to be a better actor when you’re not exposing too much of your private life, so you can step into these roles and people are not over-familiar with what you had for breakfast that morning… I don’t want to be a celebrity for the sake of being a celebrity.”

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On reading online reviews:

“You start going down this rabbit hole of reading reviews, and then it’s like you’re going to get burnt at some point, and those are the scars that last the longest.”

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On being nominated for a Golden Globe:

“I just feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the universe—I know it sounds cheesy, but I feel really grateful. When we shot it, in these rural parts of India, we weren’t even thinking about [nominations], we were just pouring our souls out. Then you come out here and… after Brexit and Trump, you’re like, ‘God, this is amazing, we’re out there talking about unification and families and love’, and… that’s cool.”

Lion is in cinemas from 20 January

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