Dev Patel: The Man Who Knew Infinity

The Slumdog Millionaire star talks wild hairstyles, his new film and making maths interesting, ahead of his new film set to premiere at DIFF.

Robert Chilton December 10, 2015

He’s only 25 but Dev Patel has already shared the screen with the likes of Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Richard Gere, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and, in his new film The Man Who Knew Infinity, Jeremy Irons.

Dev plays Srinivasa Ramanujanin in the true story of a young Indian mathematician who came to England during World War I and changed maths forever.

Jeremy Irons has one of the most incredible voices, doesn’t he?

Yeah, his voice is so commanding and his diction is almost poetic. You never know how he’s going to say the line so acting with him was always a surprise. To be able to share the screen with him so intimately throughout this film was a real honour. He’s an absolute icon.

What did you learn from him?

He’s a devil for detail. On set I’m just trying to hit my mark and remember the lines. But Jeremy takes into account the entire environment. He’ll be thinking, ‘If the scene is supposed to be cold should there be dew on our jackets?’ It was a masterclass. He led the way and I hung onto his coat tails.

Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons.jpg Dev on set with Jeremy Irons at Trinity College, Cambridge University. It's the first time the collage allowed a film to be shot there.

Did you know the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan before you read the script?

I had heard of him very briefly in one of my favourite films, Good Will Hunting. There’s a scene where the characters mention a great Indian mathematician who created some of the most complex mathematical formulas in the world and that was Ramanujan.

On paper, mathematics doesn’t sound like a great topic for a movie. 

Even though the film is about mathematics, it’s about much more than that. It’s about the humans behind the formulas and that’s what interested me. We’re not going to create a new generation of mathematicians from this film but I think we will inspire people with Ramanujan’s genius and resilience.

Did you have to learn maths jargon?

There was one scene where I had to write a very long and complex number on a chalkboard. It took about 35 seconds to write it. I tried to learn to write it very fast in one shot because I thought it would look cool, but I couldn’t remember it and they had to use several shots stuck together. In rehearsal I did actually write it correctly and the crew went, ‘wow, did you just write that?!’.

Did you have help with the maths?

We had a mathematician on set called Ken Ono who is one of the greatest minds there is in this field. He taught me about the symmetry of the numbers so that even if I didn’t understand it I could look at it as if it were a painting and learn it that way.

Were you good at maths at school?

I was absolutely terrible [laughs]. It was my weakest subject, which is ironic considering I’m playing this role.

Where did you film in India?

We shot in Pondicherry, Chennai and Kumbakonum. This was my fifth shoot in India and I love it there. You don’t know what the hell is going to happen, a cow might walk into shot. And the catering is intense.

You’ve got some crazy hair going on right now.

[Laughs] Yeah, it’s out of control. I grew it for a film I did recently with Nicole Kidman called Lion. I haven’t got around to having a haircut yet. But I think I’m getting used to it.

Finally, how excited are you about seeing the new Star Wars movie?

Oh, I cannot wait. It’s a cinematic event. I’m going to buy a plastic lightsaber and go to the cinema to watch it.

The Man Who Knew Infinity has its Middle East premiere on Saturday, December 12, at Madinat Arena, as part of Dubai International Film Festival. Gala tickets AED 100.