Ever since he burst onto our screens as Anwar in TV’s ‘Skins’ in 2007, Dev Patel’s star has been on the rise, with roles in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ and ‘Chappie’ to name but a few. Patel’s new film is ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’, which tells the true story of Indian mathematics genius Srinivasa Ramanujan who was brought to Trinity College Cambridge to collaborate with G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) on his revolutionary theories.
Movies.ie caught up with Dev Patel to talk more about his new film, returning to TV for ‘The newsroom’, and whether he holds a grudge against Dublin…
You were here in Dublin in 2004 for the AIMAA (Action International Martial Arts Association) World Championships, where you won a bronze medal. How was that experience for you? Dev Patel: I got my arse kicked in Dublin! I went there all hopeful, and came back with my dreams shattered. I’ve got to get back [to Dublin] though; I haven’t been back in a while. It was like going on a school trip with a load of martial arts nutcases!
In your new film ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’, you play a mathematical genius. How good are you at maths in reality? DP: I am terrible at maths!
So that element wasn’t what drew you to the film then? DP: No! What drew me to the film was I had never done a period film before, so it was all new; dressing up, and the tone of the film was very different from a lot of the stuff I have done, and obviously, to be able to walk in the shoes of such a great legend who I actually wasn’t aware of. It was a real honour and privilege. Also, obviously, to work with Jeremy [Irons], Toby Jones and Stephen Fry.
The film took about 10 years to get made. When did you come on board with the project? DP: I think it would have been in the 7th or 8th year, and that’s when we started to pick up heat. Me and Matt [Brown, director] did a mini collaboration on the script, we dove deeper into the characters and toned down a bit of the mathematics, because I knew that that could be alienating to the audience, what they wanted to see was the complicated relationship between these two guys.
The film is based on a book by Robert Kanigel. Did you read the book or deliberately steer clear to focus on the script? DP: I read some of it; I read passages of it but it started to create a kind of schizophrenia in my mind, between what the script was and what the book was. So my real bible was the script. The book is very informative on certain traits and things like that, and even certain pictures created the character.
You said you’re not a maths person, so what was the biggest challenge? It seems that making the mathematical side of the film exciting and interesting could have been tough. DP: The biggest challenge actually wasn’t that at all, we had this guy called Ken Ono, who is a die-hard Ramanujan fan at our disposal, and he really helped to break down these complex theories and helped us talk about them in more layman’ terms. The difficulty was just the logistics of the shoot; doing a film with the budget of a film like this, and shooting in India and Cambridge. We were shooting quickly and doing every scene in one or two takes. That was the hardest part of it; trying to tell a story like this with not a lot of money.
During the making of the film, did you learn anything that surprised you? DP: The main thing is the respect for mathematics; I didn’t like it at all I kind of looked at it as something rigid, but what I learned through [Ramanujan’s] eyes is that it is more of an art form. This guy was so free flowing, and it’s like his life imitated his art, and his spiritualism seeped into that. That was really interesting, the way he looked at it as painting without colours. He was a real artist.
As you mentioned, you worked with an incredible cast on this film, including Stephen Fry, Jeremy Irons and Toby Jones. What was that like? DP: They’re amazing, really. They are real titans in the world of British cinema. Toby is the sweetest man, and I had a great rapport with Jeremy, and Stephen Fry is like the cleverest dude I have ever met.
Ramanujan obviously goes through culture shock from moving to Madras to England, as an English person, did you have culture shock the other way around when you first went to India? DP: The first time I went, for ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was pretty eye opening. God man, like tectonic shifts in my brain. I had all these pre-conceived conceptions of what India would be like; like all the girls would be running around with coconut oil in their hair and cows roaming the streets. There is a bit of that, but actually it’s a wonderful, metropolitan city where tradition collides with modernity, and it’s a stimulating place to be.
You mentioned you wanted to be involved with the film because it was a period piece, was it because of your previous films like ‘Chappie’ that you made this decision? DP: Yeah absolutely. I don’t get to step into the past a lot and I also hadn’t met a character of such calibre in a while too. It’s pretty rare, and it was a proper meaty character to play.
There seems to be a cinematic fascination with scientists at the moment – THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING came out fairly recently as well. Would you are to theorise as to why this is happening now? DP: I think they always have. I think that audiences now want… not only to escape, but to be challenged. So they go to watch a movie, not just to switch off. These movies cater to that. These triumphs, even if they are academic, these underdog stories people can relate to.
What do you hope audiences take from this film? DP: A PhD in Mathematics! [laughs] It’s an incredible true journey and [a story of] the power of collaboration. He was a bit of a mathematical rockstar!
You went back to TV after ‘Skins’, to work on ‘The Newsroom’. What was that like for you? DP: Yeah… it was very different though. We were all in this news bullpen trying to cram complex lines of dialogue into our heads because it was Aaron Sorkin. It was very different to ‘Skins’ where I was running around with my arse out a lot of the time. It was a great experience. There’s great stuff happening in TV at the moment.
Could you see yourself going back to TV again? DP: Yeah, absolutely!
Is there any TV in the pipeline? DP: Not at the moment. I am working on a film called ‘Lion’, that’s with Nicole Kidman; she plays my mother. And that’s it at the moment.
Words: Brogen Hayes
‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’ is released in Irish cinemas on April 8th 2016. Watch the trailer below…