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Playback: Dev Patel on ‘Lion’ and Diversity’s Double-Edged Sword

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

On this week’s show, with the year winding down (but the season heating up), Jenelle Riley and I take a few reader questions. Is Isabelle Huppert a threat to upset the lead actress race? Are the top three Oscars — best picture, director and screenplay — going to go to three different films? How do the critics groups influence the race? Are any of the current frontrunners in danger of peaking early like “The Social Network” and “Boyhood” in years past? We ponder all of that and more.

A little later I’m talking to “Lion” star Dev Patel, who also popped up in “The Man Who Knew Infinity” earlier this year. Eight years after “Slumdog Millionaire” shot him out of a cannon, he’s finding his way through more and more leading man territory.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

Click here for more episodes of “Playback.”

“I was still trying to grasp the art of acting in front of a camera,” Patel recalls of that time. “When I did the TV show before that, I didn’t know what a boom mic was or what ‘speed’ meant. The next audition I got was for [‘Slumdog Millionaire’] and it was a real blessing, but at the same time, for your first film to come out and win 8 Oscars and you’re walking these carpets with these cinematic greats, it kind of gives you a level of anxiety. I was 17, 18 at the time, and I was like, ‘God, I haven’t really been able to test the waters and make mistakes and build a taste, really, or a style. So that’s been interesting. I never quite felt worthy when I was walking those carpets.”

A lot of Patel’s performance is internalized because of the guilt he’s trying to carry across, which the real Saroo Brierley felt profoundly, knowing his family was out there looking for him after he disappeared from an Indian railway station. How did he and director Garth Davis zero in on that?

“It requires a bigger command,” Patel says. “It’s far more exhausting, actually. He’s looking at this blurry laptop screen and he’s trawling his past. He’s in a world of nostalgia, and that’s what we spoke about. There’s a man who you see glimpses of being cool and funny, and all of a sudden when this Pandora’s box is opened, he starts to retreat into a land of nostalgia and becomes less present. It affects all the relationships in his life. It’s difficult to portray that and not overcook it.”

And both of the roles he’s taken on this year, obviously being biopics, are specific in their ethnicity. Diversity has come under scrutiny in this business the last few years, and rightfully so, but the question is whether there is ever a sense of pigeon-holing based on ethnicity. Does Patel feel like certain doors remain maddeningly closed to him?

“It’s a really tricky question, that,” he says. “Does Robert De Niro play ethnically specific characters? We don’t torture him for the fact that he’s playing a white guy or an Italian. We just embrace it. It confuses me sometimes because I feel people are mad at me for playing [Indian-specific roles]. When I look at ‘Lion,’ I want people to look at the transformation I went through. I don’t want them to look at me as an Indian guy. I want them to look at, ‘He put on 25 pounds worth of weight. He changed his voice to sound like an Australian. He spent eight months prepping.’ That’s what I want them to see, because that’s difficult.”

He continues: “That being said, are there good scripts flooding in? No. And I would like to pride myself on the fact that out of the hundred Indian-centric scripts I get sent, the five I’ve chosen have landed. I had to fight for ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.’ I was too obvious for ‘Lion,’ coming off ‘Slumdog,’ so I had to fight for it. I just hope people don’t look past the struggle it takes for us. They’re doing us a bigger injustice that way. But yeah, I’d love to play a role that it doesn’t matter what his name is and where he’s from. It’s happening slowly.”

Patel had much more to say on that topic, in fact, and confided off the air that he was happy to wrangle with it in a much longer thought, as it’s something he’s often asked. Check out all of that and more in the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

Dev Patel photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety
Dev Patel photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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