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Dev Patel: 'I get paid to play for a living'

BBC News BBC News 7/04/2016 By Genevieve Hassan
Dev Patel © AFP Dev Patel

Bafta-nominated Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel explains why his latest film is a "mathematical bromance" and why being typecast is "more a blessing than a curse".

Dev Patel and Danny Boyle: Patel was 17 years old when he starred in Danny Boyle's Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire © Getty Images Patel was 17 years old when he starred in Danny Boyle's Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire

"I'm terrible - I can barely figure out tips on a bill," Dev Patel says.

"My dad is an accountant and I always let him down because I'm horrendously atrocious with maths, so to play one of the greatest mathematicians in history is quite the irony."

The mathematician in question is Indian Srinivasa Ramanujan, who Patel plays in his latest film The Man Who Knew Infinity. Ramanujan's name may not be familiar to many, but he was a pioneer who revolutionised mathematical and scientific theories - many of which are still used today, particularly in relation to black holes.

Set in 1913, the biopic follows a 25-year-old, maths-obsessed, Ramanujan as he leaves Madras and travels to Cambridge University at the invitation of meticulous professor and mentor GH Hardy (played by Jeremy Irons), to prove his theories - much to the displeasure of the other Cambridge fellows who are unwilling to accept or credit him.

With maths hardly at the top of many people's fun lists, Patel - who is now the same age as Ramanujan - says he's aware the film may be a hard sell to audiences.

"When the script first came to me I was like 'I don't know anything about maths, so maybe I'm not your guy'," he says. "But what I connected to was the almost dysfunctional father-son relationship [between Ramanujan and Hardy].

"You've got a guy that's come fresh off a boat from the middle of nowhere in South India to Cambridge, into a very snotty environment where he faces a lot of adversity, racism and prejudice.

"Hardy put his whole reputation on the line for this Indian man, but at the same time almost failed to see him as a human for a lot of it.

"These two people are completely different, but the one thing they have in common is maths. So to see them come together and create something great is beautiful - it's like a mathematical 'bromance'."

While Ramanujan faced racism and prejudice from not only the Cambridge establishment, but also people on the street, Patel says he is fortunate enough to not have been on the receiving end of such extreme treatment - although it did hit close to home for his Gujarati Hindu family.

"I'm very lucky compared to what my parents had to face when they first came to London and what their parents had to face," he says.

"There were certain scenes where Ramanujan is being called a 'wog' and it started to hurt a little. I thought 'I don't feel comfortable about this', and I didn't expect that to happen."

Filming took Patel back to India, where he filmed his break-out role in the 2008 Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire. Perhaps surprisingly, the actor had only been to the country once before that - which he remembers as an unhappy experience.

"I was dragged along to a family wedding when I was not even six, so I didn't enjoy it," he says. "I just remember missing my GameBoy and been bitten to death by mosquitoes.

"But then I reconnected with this culture and saw [Mumbai] for the first time with [Slumdog director] Danny Boyle and it was pretty amazing. It's like finding a part of yourself when you get connected to parts of your heritage that way."

Proud of his ethnic background, Patel has played his fair share of Asian characters. But in a 2010 interview he criticised Hollywood for the lack of roles for Asian actors, saying he struggled to find work beyond the stereotypical parts of "a terrorist, a cab driver or smart geek".

Since Slumdog he's notably starred in two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films as eager hotel manager Sonny Kapoor, US drama series The Newsroom as reporter Neal Sampat and 2015 sci-fi film Chappie, playing robot creator Deon Wilson.

His next role is opposite Nicole Kidman in Lion, about an Indian boy adopted by an Australian couple who sets out to track down his long lost family in his adult years.

Now he's been in the business longer, Patel says he has a changed perspective on the stereotyping issue.

"The scripts that I'm offered are quite typecast," he says. "But I'm starting to look at it as more of a blessing than a curse because I get to play characters like Ramanujan and bring great Indians from my heritage to the screen and tell their stories.

"Things are changing now because I've been around a bit longer, but I don't feel as typecast as I did when I first came on the scene."

The modest actor maintains he's just thankful to get work: "[Comedian] Chris Rock says when you are doing a job you are constantly looking at the clock, but when it's a career you can't get enough of it. That's what it is for me.

"I'm so lucky that I'm getting paid to do that. My mum cares for the elderly and she works a lot harder than I do.

"I'm playing all the time, but she's really grafting - it puts everything into perspective really."

The Man Who Knew Infinity is released in cinemas on 8 April.

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