LOS ANGELES — Sunny Pawar has had a long day after jetting from New York to L.A. But the 8-year-old star of the awards-contending film Lion is bright-eyed and smiling as he greets a journalist in a hotel lobby after a nap. He gives a polite handshake before taking a seat.
“This is all good fun,” says Pawar, speaking in his native Hindi through a translator. “But my head is spinning a little.”
Audiences will understand that feeling after seeing Pawar’s emotional performance in Lion, which opened in select theaters over the weekend and expands its release Dec. 9. The power of Pawar's portrayal is all the more mind-boggling given that the first-time actor was just 6 when he was discovered.
Pawar carries Lion's first half as young Saroo Brierley, separated from his family on a moving train. In the true story, Saroo ended up alone on the dangerous streets of Calcutta. Dev Patel is drawing raves (and talk of a best-supporting-actor Oscar nomination) playing the adult Saroo as a university student searching for his childhood home in India after being adopted by Australian parents.
“But Sunny’s performance is the big surprise of Lion — he holds the whole first half of the film down. It's nothing short of amazing for a child actor,” says Tom O’Neil, editor of awards site GoldDerby.com. “The fact is, Sunny really connects with viewers. He really delivers.”
Even finding Sunny was a small miracle, as he was attending a school for disadvantaged children in Mumbai. His father says Sunny was a natural mimic at home but never had serious acting dreams or training.
"For fun, he’d watch the television and ape the songs while dancing at home,” Dilip Pawar says through a translator.
Lion director Garth Davis put out an India-wide casting call; Pawar tried out and was one of 2,000 children short-listed for the role of Saroo. When Pawar made the top 100, Davis just knew: "This was the kid I dreamed about in the story. It was like I had already met him.”
Pawar, working through a translator and hand signals on set, learned to convey deep emotions. “We were able to build scenes as you would with an adult actor," Davis says. "Sunny was a revelation.”
Co-star Patel was impressed by the depths his “adorable” counterpart shows.
“You would watch him growing into this confident actor,” Patel says. “Then you’d see Sunny with an iPad playing Candy Crush in the makeup trailer. You’d be reminded, ‘My God, this is a little boy.’ "
After dealing with a delayed visa to enter the USA, Pawar had an emotional reunion with Patel and Lion's crew to promote the film. Pawar will be a force with his unscripted answers on topics ranging from moviemaking perks ("Lots of chocolate") to autographs requests ("I've signed six already"). O'Neil compares Pawar's appeal to young Jacob Tremblay's charm offensive for Room in last year's awards race.
Pawar plans to continue acting, appearing in the 2017 drama Love Sonia (with Demi Moore and Freida Pinto). He is already relishing the awards run, especially putting on a black tie for the Governors Awards this month.
“The night was fun,” Pawar says. "I especially liked running up and down the steps on the red carpet.”