Nominee Q&A

Dev Patel on Awards Season in Current Political Climate: "What Does This Even Matter?"

David Needleman
Dev Patel

"What are we doing walking these red carpets when people can't even walk out of an airport into this country?" asks the first-time Oscar nominee.

As Dev Patel enjoys his first Oscar nomination, the stark contrast between the glitz of awards season and the state of U.S. politics is not lost on him.

"What are we doing?" Patel asks. “What are we doing walking these red carpets when people can’t even walk out of an airport?"

In Lion — based on a true story — he plays Saroo Brierly, an Australian of Indian descent who was adopted by a Tasmanian family after being separated from his birth mother, only to track her down using Google maps and travel back to India some two decades later.

Patel talked to THR about the role that finally made him feel "accepted" and the hope that the Garth Davis-directed film, which cites as being "about a love that transcends continents," can act as a "salve" in blistering times.

You really fought for this role.

Garth was talking about finding a stillness and a soulfulness in this character. But [Saroo] is also a young guy who's seemingly well-adapted but has a lot of demons. [Garth] had a lot of reservations about me and, fair play to him, he didn't want the guy from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to be taking the audience through a very emotional journey.

Did anything change in the script from the first time you read the draft to when you started shooting?  

The name. Originally the script, when I read it, was called A Long Way Home. We started developing and diving into these characters. The next rewrite happened when we were in Australia and they put Lion on it. For a second you’re like, "Lion? What the hell is going on?" And then once you dive deeper, you realize what he’s becoming. It’s actually a coming-of-age story, is what it is. It's about him embracing a part of his history that he’d suppressed, a part of past. He’s embracing his inner spirit animal, his past, his history. I know it sounds real hippy but it makes sense in my head somehow.

How will your experience with Lion inform your future projects?

It's all instinct, really. I want to be challenged. So I'll just stick to that recipe. It has kind of served me well thus far. What [Lion] has allowed is for people to see me slightly differently, and that's a luxury that I never had before. I was put into a box quite quickly, and it has been hard to step out of that. This role has allowed people to see me just as an everyman who can put on an Australian accent and be in love with an American [Rooney Mara]. And that's kind of a big deal.

Lion deals with themes of personal and national identity. With what is happening in the U.S. with regard to immigration law, is your recognition bittersweet within that larger context?

I'm at a moment in my career that I've worked really hard for, where I've been accepted for my culture, for my uniqueness. I've been pushing so hard to be embraced, and it has finally happened. While outside, in the real world, there are people being turned away from these shores and being thrown back into the conflict zones. So you're constantly thinking, "What does this even matter?"

Without giving [Lion] too much importance — because it's not going to cure anything — if it's going to be a salve or provide some relief or hope, then that is amazing because all we're doing is trying to entertain and enlighten. A film like this, particularly, feels quite poignant right now because it's about a love that transcends continents. It's about a love that transcends race, ethnicity, religion. 

A version of this story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.