TIFF: Dev Patel on Starring in a "Mathematical Bromance" and How He's Never Used Facebook (Q&A)

The Man Who Knew Infinity Still - H 2014

The Man Who Knew Infinity Still - H 2014

The 'Slumdog Millionare' and 'Newsroom' actor talks about diversity in the industry, the benefits of a British accent and his delight at playing a "really great man of Indian heritage" in new biopic 'The Man Who Knew Infinity.'

Since bursting onto the scene with Slumdog Millionaire, British actor Dev Patel has slowly been carving out his own impressive niche, with major roles in HBO’s The Newsroom, Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie and British comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel.

His latest feature, The Man Who Knew Infinity from director Matthew Brown, sees him take the lead, playing Srinivasa Ramanujan, the mathematics genius who went from impoverished beginnings in India to the stuffy English world of Cambridge University in the early 1900s, where he would come under the tutelage of G.H. Hardy (played by Jeremy Irons) only to die at just 32 years of age from tuberculosis.

Ahead of the film’s world premiere in Toronto on Thursday, Patel talked to The Hollywood Reporter about mathematical bromances, the perks of having a British accent and how, despite playing a social media guru for HBO, he’s never once been on Facebook. 

Did you know anything about the film’s subject Srinivasa Ramanujan before you got involved?

I didn’t. When Matt approached me it was pretty much a blank slate. I’d heard his name being brought up in one of my favorite films, Good Will Hunting, when Robin Williams and Stellan Skarsgard are talking about this famous Indian mathematician, and that turned out to be Ramanujan.

You worked with director Matt Brown on the script for a year. What was it about it that attracted you?

For someone who doesn’t get the opportunity to be in period productions, I knew I could use my position to bring forward a story of a really great man of Indian heritage. And I feel really proud of it, because I helped bring it to the screen a lot more than the other stuff I’ve done. My only note was that we’re not going to create a whole new fan base for mathematics or a legion of mathematicians. People are going to come to this film to watch the humanity. And I think it’s a kind of mathematical bromance.

Did you get your head around any of the mathematics?

We actually had this really cool dude working with us called Ken Ono who is like this mathematical ninja. He would sit in the readthroughs and try to break down the most complex mathematics known to man. He was really helpful, but I’d be lying if I said I knew any of it, they’re so difficult.

With your social networking guru on The Newsroom, the technology genius on Chappie and now this, you’ve carved out a niche for somewhat brainy roles. Is there any typecasting going on?

The irony is, I was playing the social networking guy on Newsroom, and I’ve never been on Facebook in my life. I’m so bad with technology, let alone whatever they’ve got now, Instagram or whatever that is. In terms of mathematics, my dad is an accountant, so this is perhaps one of the reasons that I do these movies, to prove to my dad that I can only fake it.

Why do you think you’ve been getting these parts?

I think it’s the accent! They think I’m cleverer than I am with this British accent of mine. It’s one of the perks.

Diversity is a hot topic at the moment, with many suggesting the situation is better in the U.S. than the U.K. for non-white actors. Is this your experience?

All I can say is that there has been plenty of opportunities for me in America, which has been great. The aim eventually is to try to be colorblind. When I play an Indian guy in Marigold or whatever, people suggest I’m being stereotyped, but denying part of my heritage is something I don’t want to do. I’m proud of where I come from and if I can bring stories of these great people to the screen then I will. But the idea of being colorblind and being able to play other roles is quite exciting, too. At the end of the day you’re going to get the work if you’re talented, that’s what it boils down to. It’s easy to pull the racist card. There are hurdles and obstacles to jump, we may have to jump an extra few to get the role, but the perk for me is being able to play Ramanujan.

You’ve recently been shooting Lion with Nicole Kidman. How was that experience?
It was beautiful. That is a film that has really been one of the most nourishing film experiences for me I’m so excited for the world to see it. I play a young Aussie guy who’s adopted from India, but it’s a very modern character for me. I’ve got an Australian accent and I play alongside Rooney Mara who’s just a stellar actress. It’s a very grounded triumphant story.

And it’s another real-life story of sadness and triumph over adversity. Are you becoming immune to the sorts of emotional strains these films touch on?

Not at all. You take a lot of that home with you. You have to go to some dark places. In these stories for it to be a triumph, you’ve got to hit rock bottom first. With Slumdog, or with Lion, it’s tough, but I love playing those roles. I love people to go watch a film of mine and be inspired positively. And I love that feeling myself. For example, when I came out from watching The Pursuit of Happyness I was like ‘I want to earn a million bucks tomorrow.’ Or like when when you watch Rocky for the first time you want to go to the gym and start boxing. It’s that feeling. I want people to be energized into life, if that makes sense.

You burst into the public conscious with Slumdog Millionaire. How much effect has that had on your career, good or bad?

It really put me on the map, it sounds so cheesy to say, but that’s really what it did. People have responded very kindly. That really did help. I’m proud of it. But it’s interesting. When you do your first film and it goes on and wins eight Oscars, it’s just ludicrous. As an artist what you want to be able to do is go out and test the waters, but what that did was put a magnifying glass on me. You're under way more scrutiny than you should be for someone who has done one film. But it makes you strive to reach that kind of platform again. It’s a plus and a minus. I won’t lie to you, there were moments when I was walking the red carpet at all these awards ceremonies and there was a lot of me not feeling very worthy to be there, sharing a red carpet with these legends. But now that I’ve been working longer I feel that I’ve been working towards that again.

Since Slumdog, you’ve managed to remain out of the limelight. Was that a conscious decision and how easy was it?
I’m quite the hermit to be honest. I just like watching films, hanging with my mates. There won’t be many times when you’ll catch me vomiting on the sidewalk outside a club or something. Famous last words, as they say. You do get paparazzi hassling you once in a while, but I’m pretty low-key. I’ve got long, shaggy hair right now. And I walk around looking a bit disheveled with my baseball cap.

As a Brit now living in LA, have you gone at all "Hollywood"? Have you got yourself a personal trainer, for example?

Ha, I do actually have a trainer, that's the one thing I've got. It’s so funny when you tell people you’ve moved to L.A., because they think you’re living on the H of the Hollywood sign, surrounded by a bevvy of beautiful women in an Olympic-sized hot-tub. But no, it’s completely the opposite, you’re just out here grafting.