The 26-year-old English actor Dev Patel has had some remarkable luck so far in his celebrated career. For his first job, his mother brought him to an open call she spotted in an ad in the back of a free London newspaper. That turned out to be the long-running BBC series Skins, a breakthrough teen drama that turned into a cultural phenomenon. Patel's first film role came to the then still-largely-unknown actor when the daughter of the director Danny Boyle brought his name to Boyle's attention when he was casting the lead in Slumdog Millionaire—which would go on, of course, to win the Oscar for Best Picture. But in Hollywood, luck only gets you in the room. You still have to make the part yours, as Patel's emotionally grueling six-hour audition for Lion, for which he was recently nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, proves. Here, he recalls the moments that transformed his career—and his and Boyle's winning formula on Oscars night.
What was the first job that you auditioned for?
My mum saw an advert in the back of this newspaper called The Metro, which is a free newspaper on all the trains in London. She tore it out and dragged me to this open casting. I was 16-years-old and very reluctant. I was just this very awkward teenager and there were all these drama students doing their vocal warm-ups, all that kind of stuff. And I was like, "Oh man." I was in my school uniform with my mum, and we waited outside the National Youth Theatre in London. It was for this TV show called Skins.
And you got it.
I did get it, yes, so it was a success. I played this character called Anwar. I was wildly hyperactive and he's kind of like that little Chihuahua that keeps humping your leg? He's very sexually charged and was trying to do anything to lose his virginity. [Laughs.]
But everyone on Skins was like that. It was a wild show.
Yeah, it was crazy. There was some really awesome actors on there. I'd never been on a set before, so everything was alien to me. You know the only thing that felt familiar was "action," because I'd seen that in films before. So I kind of, you know, mouthed everyone else's lines and was wildly swinging; my performances were so over the top. [Laughs.]
Were you a theatrical child?
Yeah, I think I just was very energetic. My mum put me into martial arts and drama. It was the only way to channel that energy into something productive.
When you were doing the show did you immediately feel that this was your calling?
Yeah. In between action and cut, all those voices and all that external noise just goes quiet, and you're coasting in a different space. That is something I really enjoy.
And how old were you when you did Slumdog Millionaire?
I did Slumdog when I was 17. So right after Skins. [The director] Danny Boyle was out in India, New York, Los Angeles, going through all the agencies looking for the lead in this film. I was very off the radar. His daughter was a fan of the TV show [Skins]. And one day he came home after a year of searching, he was going to pack it all in and his daughter was like, "Dad, you should try this dude." So I got to audition for him.
I would have imagined that Slumdog was kind of an amazing personal experience, because it went from zero to 50. I mean, it went to the Toronto Film Festival and from that point forward it was a straight shot to the Oscars. [Chuckles.] I mean, what was Toronto like for you?
Yeah, the film festival in Toronto was insane. I remember walking up in school shoes, and I had this terrible suit that I found on the High Street with my mum. [Laughs.] An my costar, [Freida Pinto], is a beautiful, very glamorous, well-styled young lady. The stylist was like, "We can't have this kid walking down the carpet with her. He's just spoiling the whole picture." So they gave me a suit and fixed me up a little. It was a bit Pretty Woman, I guess. Yeah, I felt like Julia Roberts.
Then you guys won everything. And the suits got better and better.
Yeah, it's just been fun.
What were the Oscars like?
The Oscars were just beautiful. We were just wonderfully naïve to it all. So you weren't coming into it jaded. There was just a complete hopefulness and you're seeing all these incredible actors just walking right past you. You're just like, "Oh my god, there's…" I was waiting to meet either Jim Carrey or Will Smith. And the press hauls was months and months long, and we were really exhausted answering the same questions for a year of your life. But they promised me, like, "Will Smith is going to be there on the Oscars day." I was getting a little disheartened—and then, all of a sudden, after the commercial break he emerges from the stage floor. And I'm like, "Aaaah." He went and presented some awards and then, in between the break, he came down and everyone is greeting him. And he's like, "Where is Dev Patel?" "Where is Dev Patel?"
Oh my gosh.
He's looking in the audience and I'm freaking out, because I have a picture of him. I waited outside of the Hancock premiere in London, and I got a picture of his forehead on my terrible Nokia phone, because I'd been waiting for hours. And Danny Boyle is like, "He's here, he's here, he's here." And he came over, and I just sunk in my seat. And he was so wonderful and warm. That was cool.
And we did this thing, me and Danny, where we kept rubbing all the Oscars statues' bums as a good luck thing, as we walked down the red carpet.
And it worked.
It did, yeah.
So how did Lion come about?
I heard on the grapevine about this incredible true story of this young boy who was torn away from this family and heads across India on these trains. It was a tale of survival, and then he gets adopted by this Australian family, and grows up as an Australian lad, down to the cricket team he supports. It was beautiful. He falls in love with this American girl and slowly you see that his roots—that he's been trying to suppress to fit in—all of a sudden start bubbling up and start to haunt him in his everyday existence. And he uses Google Earth to literally find his mother from space. [Chuckles.] Like, a needle in a haystack. It's an anthem of diversity and triumph and love, and at its it's a mothers-and-sons story. As you can see I'm harping on about my mum, but that's something that really resonates with me. And, you know, I had to audition.
You had to audition?
I had to audition. It's very interesting, when your resume works against you sometimes. You work so hard to book jobs, but all of a sudden you become, ah, obvious. I had to fight against that. Because they're like, "Oh, he's been done before. He was in Slumdog. We've seen all that he can offer." So I Skyped with Garth [Davis, the director]. I put myself on tape. Then, when I was in London doing this film with Jeremy Irons, they called me in to a read with Garth, which was terrifying because I had been practicing an Indian accent for two months, and then all of a sudden I'm trying to piece together this Australian tongue. And it was a six-hour audition.
Did he tell you in the room you had it?
Well, kind of. After we'd finished, he said, "Look, I really want you to transform for this if it comes your way." But I could see the connection in the room. I remember closing the door behind me and I'm out in the street in London with teary eyes, my hair is all messed up. You know, it was like that weird audition where you give it your all, and then they're, "Okay, thank you."
And did you celebrate when he called?
I did, it was great. He called and said, "Look, I want you to start growing your hair. I want you to start training to put on some weight. We want to grow you up a bit." I called my agent straight after and said, "Don't send me any work or distractions or other auditions. I really want to commit the next eight months to doing this right." Because the story demands that and Saroo's journey demands it. For someone that looks like me those characters don't come around every so often.
They might now.
[Laughs.] We'll see.
So let's ask some fun questions: Who's your cinematic crush?
I fall in love really easily. You know, it was pretty mesmerizing working with Rooney [Mara, his costar in Lion]. She's got this very old-world charm, the complete opposite of the spectrum to the energy that I bring. I'm this big, goofy Labrador, and she's a quiet but really strong presence. It was beautiful working with her and watching her. So her and probably also Bruce Lee. Man looks sexy in that yellow jumpsuit.
Bruce Lee. [Laughs.] I think that's the only time he and Rooney Mara has ever been in the same conversation. [Laughs.] What movie other than Lion, which of course makes everyone cry, makes you cry?
Oh man, I cry again very easily, but The Pursuit of Happyness always tickles me. Well, it doesn’t tickle me, it, it makes me cry. I really relate to those kind of underdog stories.
What's your biggest pet peeve in life?
I don’t like people who are quick to judge. You meet some very judgmental types in this industry. We're floating in a fishbowl of labels. That's dangerous, yeah. There's lots of facets to people, that's what we as actors are trying to explore. So it kind of goes against the grain of what we're doing.
And what was your first kiss?
I remember having a very awkward kiss with a girl in the playground who I really had a big crush on. Her name was Kelly, I've forgotten her second name, she used to suck her thumb. [Chuckles.] It was a very weird kiss, and then all my friends were like, "Ew, you kissed a girl." But my first proper kiss was probably onscreen in Skins. It was my first kiss and my first sex scene, all of that in one go.
Were you nervous?
I was damn nervous. I'd never had sex before and I was simulating it in front of a camera. I stayed up the night watching James Bond trying to be romantic, and then all of a sudden they're like, "More chihuahua."