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The Numbers Game

Dev Patel fakes it as a math genius in The Man Who Knew Infinity

Author Nathan Pemberton Photography D Dipasupil/Getty Images for Extra (Patel)

bulletpointsFrom unlikely game-show contestant Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire to blogger Neal Sampat in HBO’s The Newsroom, Dev Patel has a knack for playing the smartest guy in the room. In his latest film, The Man Who Knew Infinity, he tries on a different shade of learned leading man, ditching the laptop for a chalk slate. Patel stars as self-taught Indian-born mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who formed a bond with British number theorist G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) while studying at Cambridge University amid the cultural and racial prejudices of the 1910s. Here, Patel, no stranger to being a stranger in rarefied British circles, talks about his own self-taught skills and how he faked all those complicated math concepts. 

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• On being an “outsider”​

“I’ve always felt like an outsider, but I don’t think it was due to the color of my skin. The London I grew up in was very multicultural, the opposite of my mother’s. She was a victim of racism. Still, reading the script, I understood precisely his struggle. I was never a popular kid at school, and in every role you want to bring some honesty and truth to it. I spent a lot of time with Matt [Brown, Infinity’s director] trying to focus on this issue and less on mathematics. It’s hard for anyone to imagine this guy that’s completely dirt poor, a religious Brahmin who came across the sea wearing his slippers, heading to Cambridge, the society of the stiff upper lip.”

• On working the chalkboard

“I’m terrible at mathematics. It’s completely impossible to wrap my head around the stuff that the world’s greatest mathematicians have spent years working on. Thankfully, we had one of the top mathematicians in the world, Ken Ono, a massive fan of Ramanujan’s, who helped show us the symmetry in the numbers, so we could fake it correctly. In the film, I had to write a very long equation that I had to get down. On the day of filming, I absolutely slammed it, and everyone was like, ‘Wow, how did you do that?’ They ended up cutting the shot, which broke my heart. Still, I did it in one take.”

• On self-taught skills​

“Besides learning how to use chopsticks? I’d say acting is that skill. I’ve never been to an acting school or drama program in my life. I did take theater in school, among 12 other subjects, but I’ve had to learn with each film. Call it learning on the job.” 

• On his definition of infinity

“To me, infinity is knowing that we’re all infinitely connected and that we all work together to create one never-ending molecule. I think the universe is infinite, like the stars. To Ramanujan, that was his whole concept: If he believed so strongly in God, why couldn’t his art reflect that? If God is infinite and never-ending and all-loving, why shouldn’t the numbers represent that too? I look at infinity as something to aspire to. It’s not 100 percent— it’s 101 percent, if that can even be calibrated. The sky is the limit. I like infinity.” (APRIL 29)

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