The star of HBO’s The Newsroom and Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie will next be seen in the Toronto world premiere of The Man Who Knew Infinity, playing a poor Brahmin maths prodigy from South India who became a Fellow of the Royal Society and Trinity College.
Patel plays Srinivasa Ramanujan, who burned bright in his short life and forged a pioneering collaboration with the Cambridge don G.H. Hardy and earned the admiration of the stuffy English establishment.
Ramanujan died aged 32 from tuberculosis contracted in Cambridge during World War One, however nearly a century later his work remains an important part of string theory and research into black holes.
Matthew Brown directs from the book by Robert Kanigel, while Ed Pressman produced alongside Jim Young, Joe Thomas, Brown, Sofia Sondervan and Jon Katz. Thomas arranged financing with his partners from Xeitgeist Entertainment.
When did you first hear about Srinivasa Ramanujan?
The first time I heard of him was in Good Will Hunting during this conversation between Stellan Skarsgård’s character and Robin Williams’ character.
Matthew Brown gave you the script a couple of years ago. What happened next?
When Matt came to me the first thing I said to him was nobody was going to go take away anything about mathematics but [they what they would take away was] this beautiful relationship between mentor and student. I wanted to work more on the relationship between these two men. We hit a chord on that.
Then they went out to Jeremy Irons and he came on board and things really started up. Matt is really collaborative and he had had this for over ten years and it was his passion and determination that got it off the ground.
Who was Ramanujan and what does he mean to India?
He was this extraordinary man who was the first Indian Fellow at Cambridge. He was a school drop-out. He was an abstract mathematician. He came from a small part of India in the south and believed every mathematical equation he did was a representation of god.
In India he is quite a legend. They have colleges named after him and he’s a very well known person. When we were in Cambridge we got to see a plaque on the wall. I was with Toby Jones, who plays [Cambridge Fellow and mathematical analyst John] Littlewood and his plaque is next to it.
You filmed in Cambridge and then Pondicherry and Chennai, near to where Ramanujan studied. How was that?
It was a beautiful experience being in India. We shot the British part first. India is a very immersive atmosphere.
Ramanujan faced so many hurdles. How did his story affect you?
There were certain moments when it really struck me. There’s a moment when one character calls him a wog and it made me really feel for this young man. He faced an awful lot of challenges and the only person he could rely on was this emotionally stunted being in the form of Hardy. He broke caste, left his young wife behind and came to this college… Hardy could see this man was suffering and eventually he died from emotional stress.
Had you met Jeremy Irons before?
Never. I was so nervous about meeting him. He really is a living legend. I met him at Pinewood Studios for our first read-through. He is a very immersive actor and picks up on the simplest things.
Do you have an affinity for numbers?
I’m terrible at maths. My father is an accountant so I wanted to do the part so I could live vicariously through this character. His theory of partitions is unique.
What’s next for you?
I did this film called Lion [with Nicole Kidman, in post. At time of writing it was unclear whether The Weinstein Company would release in time for this awards season] and I just did voice work for the Studio Ghibli English-language version of [Isao Takahata’s] Only Yesterday.