With the same sparkling enthusiasm he exudes on-screen, Dev Patel, stylishly rumpled in an olive-green linen button-down, Acne Studios blue jeans, and beat-up tan leather Cole Haan oxfords, eschews the comforts of the sumptuous sitting room inside the well-appointed Los Angeles home where we just wrapped up our photo shoot. Instead, he opts to sit outside, where he spots Boomerang, the resident cat, walking across the lawn. “Hello!” he shouts. “Come and join us.”
The cat, no doubt drawn in by Patel’s charisma, instantly obliges. The actor’s buoyant mood contrasts sharply with his role in Lion, a profound, emotional drama in theaters November 25. He plays Saroo Brierley, a young man raised in Tasmania who, with the advent of Google maps, becomes obsessed with finding his Indian family of origin. Scenes with co-stars Nicole Kidman (who plays his adoptive mother) and Rooney Mara (his on-screen girlfriend) are deeply affecting, but it’s Patel’s solitary moments, in which he must reveal a whole range of human feeling to a lifeless computer screen, that will truly captivate audiences. “It’s the hardest performance I’ve had to do,” Patel confesses, leaning back on his hands. “It required a level of stillness, a kind of comfortableness, that took a while to get.”
VIDEO: InStyle Awards: Nicole Kidman Dishes on Her Style Icon Award
In Lion, your character, Saroo Brierley, develops a somewhat unhealthy, if wholly understandable, obsession with Google Earth. Have you ever fallen into an Internet K-hole?
I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with technology. I’m a very active human, so the idea of sitting down behind a desk or being on a computer, it kind of takes away from that human interaction—which is why I’m doing what I’m doing, you know? That’s what acting is—it’s exploring what it’s like to be human. Of course, I’ve got to say one of my guilty pleasures is going on YouTube and watching shark-attack videos. I love that kind of stuff.
Did you enjoy working opposite Rooney Mara?
Rooney is amazing. [Her face] is so watchable; you’ll forget your lines when you’re in front of her. She’s got this fierce quietness about her, and I’m like this big, dopey Labrador running around. So those two kinds of energies together were very interesting.
Your look has evolved considerably in the past year. Did you change your appearance for a role?
When I auditioned for Garth [Davis, the director of Lion], I was in London prepping for a film. I was really skinny—like fall-through-the-cracks-in-the-floor skinny—and I had short hair. So Garth came and said, “We’ve got to grow you up a bit. Grow your hair. Don’t shave. Hit the gym. And eat. And we’ll go from there.” It was great—I kind of shed and grew into this other skin.
What initially sparked your interest in acting?
I was very hyperactive—the class clown—and it was this amazing teacher, Mr. Vine, who said, “You’re going to get school detention if you don’t go for the school play.” [I had to harness] that energy into the right place so it wouldn’t go the wrong way. I grew up [in London] in an Indian community next to a council estate, so acting was a very indulgent dream. It was like saying, “I’m going to be an astronaut.”
You mention being the class clown. Fashion can be a little self-serious. Are photo shoots a challenge for you?
Yeah, this gives me more anxiety than getting into the ring with Nicole Kidman! There’s no character to hide behind. And you’re pursuing a kind of perfection, or something … It’s very foreign that I’m standing there, trying to pull these poses with my rubber face.
How do clothes impact your confidence and performance when you’re on a set?
My work has really given me a respect for clothing. Your character becomes finite and real once you’ve got it on. There have been times when I haven’t felt comfortable in my costume—it just hasn’t fit the energy of what I was trying to achieve in my head—and the performance hasn’t gone right because of it. It changes the way you move, the way you act.
What’s your personal relationship with fashion?
Once I started having to walk the red carpet for various premières, I began to understand what styles fit and what pieces felt like a good representation of myself. I love British brands. I lean on Burberry all the time; they’re always there for me. Burberry suits my body type—the nice, skinny tailoring and mix between looking cool and not caring too much.
Do you have a fashion icon?
Bruce Lee. He was impeccably stylish. Get a dude to put on a yellow and black onesie and see if he’ll ever look as cool as Bruce Lee.
What’s your default date outfit?
Jesus—when was the last time I went out on a date? Hmm. I wear my lucky shoes. Nice pair of socks. You’ve got to smell good. I lean toward Bleu de Chanel.
OK. So you’re not dating up a storm, then.
Not dating up a storm right now.
How do you spend your free time?
I’ve been doing up my house in L.A. I’ve got a guest bedroom that I named Villa Anita, after my mum. I made this little plaque with a tree on it that I think she’ll like. My granduncle passed away, and he had all these family pictures of life back in Kenya—with my mum in a little blue frock. All my granddads look like either Elvis Presley or James Brown. They were just so cool. I put them in [my mum’s] room so it would make her feel at home.
No interior designer?
Not at all. It’s gotta be my space. Why would I want someone else’s?
Styling by Emil Rebek; Grooming by Ramsell Martinez for Streeters; Prop styling by Nelson Pitts for 11th St. Workshop