Unlikely route to Infinity and beyond for actor Dev Patel
At just 26, Dev Patel has already forged a stellar acting career for himself. He tells our reporter his views on religion and racism - and reveals his love of the Irish
Having seen him in the movies and in numerous photos, I wasn't prepared for just how handsome Dev Patel is. In jeans and a plain shirt, the 6' 1" actor is unrecognisable as the strait-laced Ramanujan in his latest movie, The Man Who Knew Infinity. With tousled black curly hair and a short neatly trimmed beard, Patel is gorgeous, like an Asian Aidan Turner. Could this really be the man whose looks photographer Mario Testino called into question? To his face?
I don't even get to ask him about Testino's comments, made to Patel about the fact that he was dating his co-star from Slumdog Millionaire, Freida Pinto - the pair were a couple for six years before splitting just over a year ago. Testino basically told the young actor he was punching well above his weight as his girlfriend was so "beautiful".
But before I can open my mouth Patel starts telling me what great shoes I'm wearing. For a mere 26 years, he's got the charm and chat of a much older gentleman. "Let's talk about you and not me," he says at one point. "I'm loving the style; you've got it rocking girl." I get the impression that he would have said this whatever I was wearing. After all, he's been in the spotlight for almost a decade and knows how to handle journalists. But I have the feeling that he's basically nice. A son any mother would be proud of.
In The Man Who Knew Infinity, Patel plays a real-life mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, an impoverished Indian from Madras who earns admission to prestigious Cambridge University under the mentorship of Prof G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons).
Ramanujan's arrival coincides with the outbreak of the First World War and the young Indian faces prejudice from his peers and the public alike. I ask Patel if he has had similar experiences to Ramanujan, as the movie industry has been labeled racist in recent times. Before he has a chance to answer, I say, isn't it racist to ask him? Does he get asked the same question at every interview? "Yeah I do, but it's a valid question," he says, waving away my doubts. "The England and the climate that he (Ramanujan) came to is incredibly different to the London that I know. This is a beautiful, multi-cultural melting pot that allowed me to flourish and have a life. And my parents. Did my mother face more racism than I did? Of course. It's just the evolution of society."
It was Patel's mother, Anita, who "dragged" him to an open casting call for the E4 teen drama Skins when he was 17. The star says he always wanted to be an actor but "it feels like a very delusional distant dream. To be pushed out of your comfort zone, as an annoying teen, takes a powerful woman! And that was my Mum. (She) was born into a Hindu family but went to a Christian school. So we went to Mass and Mum will go and do a little prayer in the Hindu temple and then start doing Hail Marys. She's a complete walking contradiction."
Patel hasn't taken up his mother's approach to religion but he does believe in a higher power. "I believe that there's baby miracles that happen that are responsible for where I am today. I'm in a very privileged position and I don't think it's completely down to the talent I have. I think it's something else."
He landed the part of Anwar Kharral, who he played for two series of Skins. It was Danny Boyle's then 17-year- old daughter Caitlin who suggested Patel for the role of Jamal Malik in his movie Slumdog Millionaire, which made him a star aged only 19. The actor goes on to tell me that his mother keeps Lourdes water in the family home. I wonder silently if this has anything to do with the fact that most of her colleagues in the care home where she works are Irish. "They're all up for a good laugh," Patel explains. "There's a kind of similarity to the Indian culture, they're larger than life but there's a great camaraderie and a sense of family and community, it's the same."
Patel visited Ireland when he was 14 to take part in a martial arts tournament. "I got my arse kicked in Dublin," he says, laughing. "I went with our little martial arts squad, got a good whooping." In reality he won a bronze medal - he's certainly as self-deprecating as any Irish person. He says he'd love to come back to Ireland. "It was good fun. God man, the Irish are up for a good time!"
The conversation veers to the #OscarSoWhite campaign. "I understand where it's coming from . . . (but) I don't think people should be nominated just because of the colour of their skin. That's . . . creating difference." As he continues speaking I notice that his accent starts to become noticeably more London with each word. "I think talent is talent no matter what. Look, I don't know man," he says shaking his head. His tone of voice hasn't changed; he is not ranting but his accent has returned to its west London roots as he obviously feels passionate about the matter. "I worry about that term 'stereotyping'," he continues. "We're either 'underrepresented' or we're 'stereotyped'. It's really loosely thrown around. I think embracing your culture is a beautiful thing. In terms of this whole talk of diversity, it's not so much about the awards and all that bullshit. That's not what matters, it's about telling good stories. That's why I'll go and do a film like The Man Who Knew Infinity where the budget is nothing."
Patel can't stay serious for long. His smile returns, and I again wonder what the hell Mario Testino was thinking? "I'd love to go back to Dublin," he says again. "I should go with my mother and her crew."
The Man Who Knew Infinity, Cert 12A, is now showing
Sunday Indo Living