DEV Patel looks younger than his 26 years. A gangly kind of boy-man with a killer smile and charisma to burn, the London-born actor of Indian descent was keen to take on a more adult role in his new movie Lion.
He has been receiving award nominations for his portrayal as the real life Australian adoptee Saroo Brierley. As a five-year-old while his mother was working on a construction site, he had fallen asleep after jumping aboard a long-distance train in India. He reached Calcutta, but didn’t know enough about where he was from to return there.
Eventually adopted to Tasmania, Saroo spent long hours as an adult on Google Earth following railway lines from Calcutta. In 2011, the name of a town sparked a childood memory and a subsequent trip to India led to him tracking down his original family.
“Lion is the kind of movie I relate to as someone who has to go in at the deep end and face a lot of adversity and triumph,” Patel admits. “It’s like Sonny who’s got this crappy hotel and a big dream in the Marigold Hotel movies and it’s similar to my characters in Slumdog Millionaire and The Man Who Knew Infinity too.”
Lion’s first-time director, Garth Davis, known for his visually stunning commercials and work on the miniseries Top of the Lake with Jane Campion, was keen for Patel to transform. Patel spent eight months trying to “embody the role”.
“Garth forced me to go on a journey which was a different embodiment of the way I sound, of the way I do everything,” Patel notes.
Lion runs chronologically so Patel doesn’t figure in the first Indian section where audiences will fall in love with five-year-old Sunny Pawar who plays the young Saroo. Abhishek Bharate as his elder brother Guddu, is also impressive.
“I spent a fair bit of time with Sunny,” recalls Patel. “I went to India two weeks before my first scene which was in fact the last scene of the film — so it was a nightmare — and I was watching these untrained kids be incredible. Sunny’s so reactive. After a scene he would put his head on his Abhishek’s shoulder and they’d keep the cameras rolling and capture these tiny nuances that would make it so much more amazing. It was important to all of us to try and keep the same energy in our later scenes.”
Ultimately, though, Patel had to become an Aussie and learn an Australian accent. He bulked up for the role, grew his hair long and says it helped that he was acting alongside Nicole Kidman, who plays Saroo’s mother Sue. “Nicole is so raw and strips away all of that glamour that she has as a human being,” Patel says.
Kidman is garnering more awards attention than anyone on the film, in the supporting actress category. The Australian actress was kind of made for the role, well, in a past life.
“Garth said, ‘You know you look a bit like Sue!’ And I said, ‘I do?’” Kidman recalls with a chuckle. “He said, ‘Remember your red curly hair when you were 14?’” Davis notes how he wanted to bring back Kidman’s look from her 1983 Australian teen feature BMX Bandits.
“We joked about it because Sue had this wild hairstyle and I obviously thought of Nicole. People are shocked to see Nicole like that but when they see the photos at the end I think it all just goes away. Nicole totally embodied that look. Even for the later stage when Sue had a bit more body weight we worked with her physical structure and she really got into it.”
Did Nicole put on weight? “No she just added a bit to the costume and the physicality came through. We did a make-up test and she walked in character. She was so Sue Brierley.”
“It was an absolute honour to play Sue and I just love what she stands for,” Kidman admits. “She really is a beautiful person and had unconditional love for her two boys and still has. They’re an extraordinary family.”
Avid humanitarians, the Brierleys had chosen to adopt children in need rather than have offspring of their own.
“Of course I reacted to Sue as the mother of adopted children,” admits Kidman, who has an adopted daughter and son from her marriage to Tom Cruise. “But for me this is about the powers of mothers. I said to Saroo, ‘You have two mothers. Lucky boy!’ It was very emotional for me, obviously.”
Following the success of his book A Long Way Home and having achieved more celebrity since Lion, the out-going Brierley is currently doing well as a motivational speaker, while still being involved in the family plumbing business in Hobart. In Tasmania he is a kind of hero.
“I was driving through paddocks looking for locations,” recalls Melbourne-based Davis, “and this farmer came up to me and was getting upset that I was on his property. When I said I was doing this story about Saroo Brierley, he said, ‘Absolutely, keep going!’ They love him down there.”
Brierley had searched obsessively for his mother online most nights after work over three years. So did Google Earth help with the film?
“Not financially unfortunately,” replies Davis. “We had to re-create it on an old computer in the same way Saroo had it. It was a bit slow to work with as the maps aren’t as detailed as they are today.”
While Davis isn’t figuring so much in the awards season, he is not about to complain. His prize is his stellar career. He has completed another high-profile production, Mary Magdalene, featuring an impressive cast that includes Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter and Rooney Mara in the title role.
In Lion, Mara plays Saroo’s supportive girlfriend, Lucy.
“Lucy is a kind of amalgam of two women,” explains the film’s screenwriter Luke Davies (Candy, Life.) “Real life is messy but for our purposes it was better to have one through line. Saroo had a couple of girlfriends in that time.”
“Saroo’s a player!” Patel chortles.
Patel had bonded with the man he would play. “We had an amazing cast barbecue before we started filming where we got to meet the whole family. I had dinners with Saroo, sat in his car and listened to music and things like that. The most important thing for me was to capture his essence even if we look very different. He is a complete survivor, an incredibly smart individual and it was really inspiring hanging out with him. The family saw the film earlier on and it was quite an emotional journey for them.”
His meeting with Saroo’s Indian mother Kamla was emotional.
“Kamla was amazingly generous. She sat there with an interpreter and I made her weep for two hours. Every question that I asked I had to keep saying, ‘I’m so sorry to ask you this but..’. It was really moving and complex.”
A lot of tears have been shed over the movie and at the film’s Toronto Festival world premiere there was hardly a dry eye in the house.
Did Kidman cry? “I cried, yeah. My sister [Antonia] started about ten minutes into the film and leant across and asked, ‘Is it going to keep on like this?’
‘Mmmm, I think so.’ I told her.
“She said there are some movies where you just go and you watch and there are films that transform you — and she said this is transformative. I thought that was a beautiful way of explaining it.”