Actor Dev Patel has played many roles: a Slumdog Millionaire, a Marigold Hotel owner, a Network intern, an Airbender. Now he's grappling with impossible equations as Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan in "The Man Who Knew Infinity."
For the film, Londoner Patel had to master a Southern Indian accent and face one of his greatest fears: crunching numbers. "I suffer from mathematically induced brain freeze," said Patel, 26, laughing. "My dad is an accountant and a numbers wizard, so I've been quite the letdown in that area."
Based on a true story, Ramanujan is a low-level Indian clerk who's plucked from obscurity by Trinity College mathematician G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) and invited to work with the world's top minds at Cambridge, where he pioneers some of the most groundbreaking mathematical theories of the 20th century.
Patel recently sat down over coffee in Hollywood to discuss career highs ("Slumdog Millionaire"), flops ("The Last Airbender") and what it's like to work with scorpions (the critter, not the '80s band).
Did you know anything about Ramanujan before making this film?
I didn't. It was only when I read the script I discovered this incredible character. I thought people needed to know about this man and his legacy. He was this great mathematician who rose up from absolute obscurity, poverty and no real education, and with this man G.H. Hardy created the most amazing mathematical equations the world has even seen. He was a spiritual man who thought all these equations came from God.
You're British, but because you became known with "Slumdog" do people assume you were also plucked from obscurity out of India?
Ha! I won't mention names, but I remember going into a meeting in L.A after that film and they had a translator and he was speaking very loudly and trying to get the point across. Finally I was like, "I'm from London, mate." They were really shocked by it. I've had more than one or two incidents like that.
Is it hard to master a convincing Indian accent?
For "Infinity," I was almost obsessive-compulsive about it. You just read and read until the character goes away and it feels very natural. I've done many variations of an Indian accent, for instance in "[The Best Exotic] Marigold Hotel" it's a comedic creation I pulled from loads of people I've met in India. But Ramanujan's from the south of India, so it's a very delicate balance. I didn't want it too thick and heavy. It needed to be understandable to a wide audience.
I had slight dramatic license because there's no found footage of the guy, no voice recordings. We just had photos and this wonderful documentary, "Letters from an Indian Clerk." From that I see him as a very noble character. Despite his fish-out-of-water plight, he had a resilience, a strength. You could see it in his photo. I wanted to capture that.
Did you grow up going back and forth between India and Britain?
I went to India as a kid, and I hated every minute of it. I didn't have my Game Boy, and aunties and uncles were all squeezing my cheek. It was hot, mosquitoes everywhere, I couldn't speak the language. I felt like an outsider. I really discovered India during "Slumdog" and fell in love with it.
Why do you think "Slumdog" was such a success?
I'm not sure. On paper that film shouldn't have done well. It had no movie stars, was set in India, was half in Hindi. But it showed audiences are intelligent and what they want are diverse stories.
And then there was "Airbender" …
My finest piece of work. [Laughs]
It was disappointment …
... for a lot of people.
And for you?
It was a real reality check on the world of Hollywood and what I should dip my toes into. Well, I wasn't dipping. I was thrown right into the deep end. "Slumdog" was my first film. Normally you can go off the radar and make mistakes as a young performer, but ["Airbender"] was this massive $150-million studio film. The craft services budget was probably the entire budget of "Slumdog." I was out of my depth. At that stage in my career it wasn't a good move. I wish I could have done it better.
How did you recover from that?
After I did "Airbender" there was big slump, partly because I didn't want to make the same mistake again, but partly because there was nothing. I wasn't that swashbuckling man or that beautiful. … Let's just say I have a face for radio. It's hard to put someone like me into films unless it's as the weird sidekick. I didn't want to do that. It took a while, but then "Marigold" came along.
You worked with some very seasoned actors in both "Marigold Hotel" films. Maggie Smith, for one. It had to be intimidating.
Yes. It was a good warmup for Jeremy [in "Infinity"]. I always remember our first meeting. He had his back to me when I walked in, smoking one of his fine handmade roll-ups. I tried to pretend I was reading the script fresh, but I'd memorized all the lines. I tried not to look at him too much while I was reading. I was afraid he'd look right through me. So I sat on the floor and everyone was in chairs. I felt utterly naked in front of someone of his caliber. He's conquered it all, TV, stage, screen, whatever. All I could hear was his bassy voice penetrating my eardrums. "Oh, God, that's Jeremy Irons!"
You shot some of "Infinity" on location in India, right?
We actually shot some in Ramanujan's hometown. We stayed at this coconut grove, really the only place in town that could accommodate us. I remember waking up one morning and seeing a dead scorpion outside my door. I asked the man that worked there where it came from. He said "nothing to worry about. They're in the trees." Very relaxing, it was.
Did people there recognize you now?
Yes, my work has made an impact there. When they see me the phrase they use is Chaiwala, which means "tea boy" [his character from "Slumdog"]. Or they say Latika, like 'He's the one who was chasing the girl Latika!' Then some knew me from the Marigold films. But I get people stopping me for "Newsroom" and even [the British kids' show] "Skins." It's really strange.
I've heard you now live in L.A.