Dev Patel Is Earning His Stripes
The Slumdog Millionaire star holds his own against Jeremy Irons in The Man Who Knew Infinity.
BY MICHAEL TEDDER | May 1, 2016 | Film & TV
If Netflix is constantly recommending you films about math geniuses that double as character-based inquiries about faith, and you don't feel like watching Good Will Hunting or A Beautiful Mind again, then The Man Who Knew Infinity should scratch your theoretical itch.
Written and directed by Matthew Brown, the film examines the life of Indian-born autodidact Srinivasa Ramanujan, a man whose theories about infinity and other concepts this writer isn't sure they completely understood changed the study of mathematics in the beginning of the 20th Century, and Ramanujan's relationship with Cambridge scholar G. H. Hardy, an iconic mathematician in his own right who brought Ramanujan to England and mentored him. The film has a handsome, Merchant Ivory feel for time and place, and boasts lived-in, back-and-forth performances from Jeremy Irons as Hardy and Dev Patel as Ramanujan.
After a stint on the UK series Skins, Patel scored a breakthrough role as the lead in Danny Boyle's 2008 Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, only to follow it up with the 2010 M. Night Shyamalan would-be franchise debacle The Last Airbender. He rebounded nicely with roles in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, and The Man Who Knew Infinity is the most nuanced and soulful he's ever been on screen. It's a performance worth catching, even if you hate math. We called Patel up to talk about still feeling like an underdog and his action hero dreams.
I don't think I understood any of the theorems and proofs you were doing in this film. How many did you understand?
Not too many at all, man. It's so difficult to wrap your head around things that are so complex and kind of abstract to the average mind, myself included. Jeremy phrased it really well today in an interview. I think [in]the film, the wallpaper is mathematics, but the core of the story is about human relationships—in particular, this young man who is plucked from obscurity in India and placed into academia [at Cambridge] with this emotionally stunted mentor in the form of G. H. Hardy. It's about their contrasting beliefs and faiths and lack of, and how they find a common ground to break ground in their field.
Had you heard of Ramanujan's story before you were offered the film?
I hadn't, and I read the script and there was sort of a light bulb moment where my mind went to that scene in Good Will Hunting—that scene where Robin Williams is at the bar talking about "this amazing Indian genius" who changed the mathematical world. I thought, "Oh my God, this is the same guy." That was my introduction to it.
What was it about the story that made you want to sign on?
To get a character like this is a real treat for any young actor, irrespective of race or cast. The opportunity to do a biopic of someone who is so legendary and iconic and spread his story to the world, that really appealed to me, and I thought it would be a great challenge and a transition to show my versatility in my other outings in India. Obviously, there was Slumdog, but Marigold was far more comedic, so to go back and play a more subtle, noble character was a big plus for me.
Did you have any trepidation about the film? A lot of people hate math, after all, and the things your character does are very intellectual and internalised, and could be a challenge to show on screen.
I have a very terrible relationship with math. I'm so bad when it comes to anything to do with numbers. But again, it's not really the core of the story. I had a lot to bite into with the emotional aspect of the film.
What research did you have to do to get into character?
A lot of it was working on the dialect with a great coach I had. Finding the right voice, the right tone. I spent about a year with Matt working on the script, bringing the relationship forward, tweaking and changing the structure. The rest of it comes in the ring when you're surrounded by titans like Jeremy and Toby Jones and Stephen Fry, and you find the energy and the chemistry between the characters.
Was it intimidating to work with actors who are so well-known and are, as you say, titans in their field? How long did it take to get a rapport going?
It was quite instant, actually. [Jeremy] was so charismatic as an individual, and he's so giving as a professional. The chemistry was one of mentorship and awe, and that came very natural when I'm sitting in front of him. I really do look up to him in every way. That was a very organic build block.
This film is on the dramatic side, you've just come off doing the Exotic Marigold films, which are more comedic, and you've done Slumdog, which is a big adventure story. Do you have a mode of storytelling you prefer?
Not really. I think, personally, I lock into stories of the underdog. I like the idea of succeeding against the odds. As a person, I think that's something that appeals to me and something I'd like to watch when I'm in a dark cinema and want to be filled with hope and triumph.
Why do you think that appeals to you? Does it speak to your own life?
Yeah, quite possibly, I would say so. I don't believe I'm a beacon of hope and triumph, but you look for inspiration and you look to actors and movie stars, and I think that's what cinema is there for: to provide an escape from the trivialities and the hardships of life and to provide an inspiration. I thought this story was a good fit.
You had been in a few things before Slumdog, like Skins, but that was the movie that blew you up on a larger level worldwide. What was that like for you? It had to have been strange to suddenly be in a huge, Oscar-winning film.
It kind of catapults you into a limelight that is a blessing in a big way. It undoubtedly made my career and put me on the map. At the same time, to be completely truthful, I don't know if I really earned my stripes as a performer. It was my first film, I was 17 years old. I didn't completely know what I was doing. You're walking the red carpet with these great legends who have conquered the stage and screen. A part of me felt unworthy in a way, but that provides the drive, to want to earn the privileged position that you are given.
Do you still feel that way?
Always. I think with everything film, I want to do better and improve.
Well, you hold your own with Jeremy Irons, and that's not nothing. You can be proud of that.
I really appreciate that, man. Thank you.
You hear a lot these days that actors have limited choices. You either do a lot of independent films, you do a superhero film or some other blockbuster franchise, or you do television. You've done the indies and you were on The Newsroom for HBO. Have you been looking for any franchise roles in order to get a commercial purchase, or are you content to do whatever is available to you?
Umm... I had a wee bit of a scarring experience when I attempted to be a part of a franchise, and it didn't quite hit the mark. It makes you evaluate what kind of mark you want to leave on the industry. And now that I'm 26, and I'm a lot more thoughtful about the projects I take on, you feel a lot more connected to projects like this. Yes, they're harder to get off the ground, they're a tougher sell but they are exponentially more nourishing, for me as a human and me as a performer.
The Last Airbender got some very hostile reviews. Was that tough for you to encounter right after the triumph of Slumdog?
Yeah, the film was bigger than anyone. The budget of Slumdog was probably the craft services budget of Airbender. You don't really have much say, especially with where I was in my career at that point. So you just get swept along this mechanical tide of this big machine. But like I said, you learn from those bruising experiences more than you do from the positive, sometimes.
Do you think you might ever want to go back to doing TV again?
Yeah, it's all project dependent and script dependent, really.
What else do you have coming up after this?
I have a film called Lion, which comes out in November on Thanksgiving Day, and that's going to take up a lot of time. I'm shooting a film in a month called Hotel Mumbai, and that's a really harrowing story about the siege that happened at the Taj Hotel in India in 2008, they've assembled an interesting cast for that one.
Is there a particular dream project you have or a director you hope to work with one day?
A genre that I would like to do would like to do would be action. I think that would be an interesting move to make. I'm obviously not your action movie type, but I love Korean cinema, I love those old-school revenge films, and I would love to do a film like that one day.
You studied martial arts in school, right?
Yeah, eight years.
Do you still keep up with it?
Unfortunately, I'm not half as good as I was when I was a spring chicken. But who knows, man. Maybe there will be a moment when I can resurrect some moves in the near future.
Actors of color will often talk about how if they are, say, Indian, they will only get offered parts specifically for Indian people, or black actors will only get offered parts specifically for black people, and not just, quote-unquote regular parts. Do you ever feel frustrated, or that you are being offered a limited amount of parts from your agent?
Yeah. It's a delicate situation because we have to define what regular means. Is "regular" white, or is it just humanity and being human, despite your race? And I'm of the frame of mind that embracing part of my heritage and who I am shouldn't be second rate. Stepping into the shoes of Ramanujan was an honor and a great privilege. So to represent that diaspora and that spectrum of the industry only makes us more diverse. That's what I want my presence to do, so I don't care where the character is from in the world as long as the story is good. That's what matters to me.
From: Esquire US.