It’s an old show-business adage: “Never work with children or animals.” And while there are no big cats in the new film Lion, there is absolutely a child – a delightful one at that. He’s Sunny, which is not only his name, but an appropriate adjective.
“He’s a beautiful little creature,” says Dev Patel, the star of Lion, when asked about his young castmate, Sunny Pawar. “He was completely adorable and completely present.”
In the crowd-pleasing Lion, based on Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home, Sunny plays a five-year-old village boy who gets lost and alone among India’s masses in Calcutta, a chaotic city a thousand miles away from his family. The film’s vividly shot first half is given to the Dickensian existence of the precocious Saroo as a streetwise child.
He ends up in an orphanage, and while soft-hearted viewers in theatres will no doubt search purses for pens in order to sign his adoption papers straight away, a Tasmanian couple (played by David Wenham and a deliberately unglamorous Nicole Kidman) get to him first as his soulful adoptive parents. The second half of the film features Patel playing Saroo as a brooding young adult seeking identity and searching – Google Earth is the hero – for his Indian mother and the home of his earliest memories.
Lion, then, is a story about a journey, something Patel knows all about.
In 2008, the actor broke big in Danny Boyle’s rags-to-riches film Slumdog Millionaire. Not only was he nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for a best supporting actor, the then-teenaged Londoner snared recognition from MTV Movie Awards for the year’s best kiss, which he shared with his co-star Freida Pinto. (The on-screen couple later became a real-life pair. They split company, after six years of dating, in 2014.)
Patel back then cut an adorable picture himself – all big ears and a bigger smile, a bright newcomer in the feel-good film of the year.
His follow-up and swift comedown happened in 2010 with M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, a fantasy-action flop that earned Patel a Golden Raspberry nomination for worst supporting actor. He would later redeem himself to a degree with his work in Aaron Sorkin’s earnest HBO series The Newsroom.
Patel was a boy when he made Slumdog Millionaire, and boyish in The Newsroom. Speaking to The Globe and Mail during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, however, the English-accented actor was a man of 26 years, all shaggy hair and scruffy beard.
“They wanted me to look more alpha, more Australian and more grown up,” Patel says about his transformation at the request of Lion’s Aussie director, Garth Davis.
Patel spent months preparing – “putting on a bit of weight,” among other things – but it wasn’t only a physical makeover that was required. His scenes with his adoptive parents (particularly Kidman’s character) were, he says, “emotionally hard.”
Patel credits Davis, a first-time filmmaker, with the process that brought him to the acting level needed. “He broke me down and put me back together again,” the actor says. “It put me in a place of comfort where I could feel completely vulnerable, and to allow myself to be that exposed.”
As for perfecting the Australian accent, Patel initially went full crikey before pulling it back a notch. A dialect coach helped, as did filming on location with Australians Kidman and Wenham.
Anybody who knows about the book A Long Way Home knows how Lion and the years-long search for family ends. Patel’s own path and career, though, was more in doubt.
“I was 17 when I did Slumdog Millionaire, and as much as I would like to think I knew what I was doing, I really didn’t,” he says. “I felt like I needed to earn my stripes. I have been working steadily since, but patiently waiting for a role like this one.”
Patel has arrived to something, eight years after first breaking through. The one-time teen actor star is back on the map – with no help from Google Earth necessary.
Lion opens Dec. 9 in Toronto before expanding to the rest of the country Dec. 21Report Typo/Error