Dev Patel is a social media-hating millennial. The narcissism. The absence of a genuine connection. The blatant disregard for living in the moment.
“Everyone’s so worried about capturing and showing it instead of being in it,” he says in a quaint British accent.
He admits he may sound a bit backwards, but it’s this reluctance to join today’s Kardashian paradigm of self-promotion that has preserved this rising young actor’s sanity, complete with talent and humility in tow.
The latter has seen him take home some serious bacon too. Patel was nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, taken a win from the BAFTA Awards and one from the Screen Actors Guild Awards. That’s not to mention his starring roles alongside names like Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench and Bill Nighy.
At just just twenty-seven years of age, the man considers himself lucky, but luck has nothing to do with it.
Patel is stashed away with us in a secret room at this year’s SIHH watch convention in Geneva.
Having earned his stripes as one of the industry’s freshest new talents – thanks in part to a leading role in Danny Boyle’s award-winning film, Slumdog Millionaire – Patel has been able to flourish with dignity and self-expression in an industry that rarely allows it.
The question we’re asking the IWC Schaffhausen ambassador today isn’t so much how he got here, but how he pulled it off with so little arrogance and ego to back up his craft.
“I know my favourite restaurants whether it’s Rumi or Chin Chin – I’m foodie,” he recalls of his recent visit to Melbourne.
“I love it. It’s a three hour wait to go to Chin Chin and I just stood there. I actually got turned away a couple of times because it was so busy!”
Why didn’t he just throw the ‘Don’t you know who I am’ card?
He laughs and then pauses when he realises it’s a legitimate question. He assures us that he never pulls that card. It’s not his style.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to say ‘f*ck it’ and do it. And if no one sees it then so be it.”
Patel comes across as a thinking actor. Often self-critical and completely open to worldly experiences, he says he needs to be because he doesn’t have formal acting training like many of his Hollywood peers. On the job is where he gets to nurture his craft and grow professionally.
“My mum saw an audition in the newspaper and that’s why I’m sitting here today,” he says.
It was a ballsy move considering he had a science exam the next day, but it paid off. Two auditions later and Patel would be cast in the hit show Skins as a British Pakistani Muslim teenager – basically a derived version of himself.
He’s admitted in the past that he had no idea what to do on that first day of his shoot, but that was a long time ago. These days he’s a seasoned professional with a holistic view of the industry and an understanding of all the driving forces behind it. A philosophical creator, one could say.
“The process of bringing it [film] to life is exhausting,” he says.
“You feel there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s an isolating process. When you’re acting you take that process for granted because you come in at the end, you learn your lines, go on set with borrowed clothes and some make up, do your thing and then go home.”
“There’s a whole journey that happens before that point and a whole journey after it. We’re just the exposed part of the iceberg. There’s a world beneath that.”
Patel wanted to immerse himself in that process rather than just playing the metaphorical tip of the iceberg, so he made his own short film.
Home Shopper marked his directorial debut alongside a starring role from Armie Hammer. The short eventually made it into the Sundance Film Festival 2018 roster and it was there that Patel had fallen in love again.
“To reconnect with the art form is amazing. To sit down and write something; I have stories to tell and I’m able to do that for different people.”
“I’m willing to do that and not sit on my laurels waiting for a script to come in.”
It’s a daunting crossover path that has been walked by a many before him. Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Ben Affleck and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all conquered it, but there are many who have failed miserably (sorry, James Franco).
What little voices in Patel’s head compels him to pull such ballsy moves?
“I have a good team around me,” he says.
“I really trust in them when I’m lost and [need to] figure out my next steps. You don’t know really, you just go with your gut instinct.”
“I know if I’m afraid it’s probably the best thing to do, I just need some pushing from some agents and managers.”
When Patel took on the role as Saroo Brierley in Lion, he was terrified. Growing up in northwest London meant that the actor needed to reinvent himself in a few months as a young Indian boy who had been adopted by Australian parents before growing up in Tasmania.
Nailing the Australian accent would be imperative and Patel made light work of it even though he says it was his most challenging and rewarding role to date.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to say ‘fuck it’ and do it. And if no one sees it then so be it.”
“I didn’t come from an acting school so learning on the job is quite important for me. Being in a specific environment, working with a specific filmmaker I’m not used to…doing makes me better.”
Success in the past doesn’t make a career in entertainment any easier.
“It allows you to think ridiculously,” he says.
“And people think ‘how ridiculous is he? We’ll humour him.’”
“You won’t even get that humouring reception if I hadn’t done the work I’d done before.”
Patel hopes that he can make something authentic one day, something that’s more to his vernacular. The rewards won’t just come as box office takings, it will come as the audience reacting to a new voice.
Just don’t bet on it being an all-out action flick starring a Schwarzenegger or Van Damme.
“I’m twenty-seven but have a fifty-year-old’s body,” the bonafide black belt laughs.
“I got very injured doing martial arts; I enjoyed it but competing, you get bashed up and it doesn’t work well when you have to be on set the next day.”
Patel hopes he can some day make a form of escapist cinema that’s a bit more loose or fun.
“I’m developing a piece on an old mythology piece set in India,” he smiles. Just don’t expect any updates on his non-existent Instagram. Or any other form of personal social media for that matter.
Patel had an argument with an actor once when they said they needed ‘x’ amount of followers on Instagram to make it in the industry.
“I’d never faced that,” he shrugs.
“It depends on what kind of actor you want to be. This is me talking from extreme luck and privilege. It may work for some people but for me, I didn’t need to tweet out the sneakers I’m wearing or ‘hashtag-hashtag’. It’s hard work.”
Patel believes that the more elusive an actor is, the more they can transform into a new person. The guy has a point.
“When you get too familiar with people, it’s harder to believe there’s someone else on screen.”
Some of his most memorable moments in recent times are the ones where he hasn’t had his phone. He vividly recalls the colours, the feelings and the smell of the air like he was trying to paint us a picture.
“I was somewhere off Indonesia paddle boarding in the ocean and I could see the local fisherman and turtles swimming beneath my feet. And I remember thinking ‘wow, I’m really in touch with everything around me.’”
And then he spirals off into a spiel about how his parents and their parents grew up in a world without social media and they were fine.
It’s the kind of hey-day conversation you see having with a middle-aged bearded man in a park whilst playing Backgammon. At least Patel has the bearded part down pat.
“I think it’s really important. If you look at an industry like ours, we’re dealing with anxiety and physically it’s not good for you. It amplifies it.”
“I really don’t want to know what people think about me. I don’t want to know what everyone else is doing, I need to stay on a single frequency because it’s better for my brain.”
“From an actor’s point of view, what we yearn for is privacy but it’s kind of counterproductive when you post a picture of your breakfast and then demand privacy from the world.”
“It doesn’t work,” he says.
Dev Patel recalls a funny moment during the Sydney leg of the Lion premiere.
The good word had gotten out and the film had sold out on opening night with traffic queues backing up to a kilometre outside the venue. He and co-star David Wenham were stuck in the back of a car and they were going to be late to their own premiere.
“We just said ‘fuck this!’ and we walked to the premiere,” he laughs.
“We were walking past these hoards of people lining up to go to the premiere and me and David were just waving and saying hey.”
It’s obvious that Dev Patel doesn’t need an entourage or any special treatment on this wild ride that often makes or breaks people. He’s made it, but he’ll always be that hungry kid waiting in line for food whilst no one notices. And he’s cool with that.