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Interview with actor Dev Patel

17 February 2015 | London Calling

Hollywood actor and one-time Harrow lad Dev Patel first won over the teen demographic with his portrayal of wayward Muslim teen Anwar Kharral in the outrageous Skins. Patel quickly graduated to cult TV status, then came his call to the major leagues; director Danny Boyle, looking for an unconventional lead for Slumdog Millionaire, auditioned Patel after his daughter pointed him out on the Channel 4 show.

Today, 24-year-old Patel is going from strength to strength. His workload sees him divide his time between LA and London, as well as Down Under, where he's been shooting Lion with Australia’s sweetheart, Nicole Kidman. Patel might be hanging with the A-list crowd, but he hasn’t forgotten his roots. “I have a place in LA but it's my parents out in Harrow who I'll stay with if I'm back in London, eating all my mum's food,” he laughs.

And for down-to-earth Patel, acting wasn’t even always the dream. “It's interesting. Where I grew up, I didn't think it was a very plausible thing that would happen. I didn't go to RADA or LAMDA, it didn't come to you, that kind of opportunity." At school, however, "I was the acting guy," he says, earning himself an A* at GCSE for his efforts in Drama; "that was the only thing I was good at." It was only when his mum saw a Skins call to auditions in the Metro one day that things started to change.

"Relatives thought this was suicide for me," Patel admits. "The day I dropped out of school to follow it professionally, it was a big decision to go to your mother with. But I'd never been so sure about anything in my whole life. And she understood.” He might not have known it then, but Patel was on course to cracking an industry where many have failed. Thanks to Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire casting, suddenly his face was everywhere.

Patel acknowledges he's a minority in the Hollywood mainstream – “There's very few who've flown the flag before. Fricking Black Americans,” he jokes, “they have Sidney Poitier, Will Smith, so many amazing actors, but for Asians, there’s not many role models. Slumdog was a big moment in changing Hollywood’s perception of Asian actors.

“It's difficult because you are fighting the stereotype, ironically in one the most creative industries in the world. You would think it's not the case but it is.” For Patel, “The question is what do you want to do, what do you want to represent? Which is hard because I want to work but I want it to be of the right quality.”

He explains that, “Spielberg's not going to call to say, 'hey, do you want to be Indiana Jones?' We're light years from that, but you can absolutely work off what you're given. Which is why I'll do a role in The Newsroom and play the tech guy. But he ends up as the guy who gets the girl, who's suave.”

Take his role in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, too; the character of hotelier Sonny Kapoor was originally supposed to be years older, but Patel was able to sway the producers. “Which was great,” says an enthusiastic Patel. “I thought I could bring this youthful energy to the role and to the film. This youthful drive. And I'd always seen him as this flamboyant entrepreneur. He was kind of a mixture. He's a very unique creature.”

Patel isn't afraid to travel for parts; Skins was a short train journey from Harrow to Bristol, but filming Slumdog took him to India. After spending time in LA and beyond with his now ex-girlfriend of six years, Freida Pinto (they spilt only recently), this year he's been taking on Australia, playing “a very raw, very different character from anyone I've ever played," in Lion.

“It’s a story about a young child who gets lost on a train platform in India and ends up going through this horrendous ordeal and getting adopted by an Australian family. And you cut to me, twenty five years later, he's falling in love with a girl and it's a story about family and basically after 25 years, he uses Google maps to locate his birth mum, from memory. It's a really strong, beautifully written script.”

Lion sees Patel lean away from the ‘funny man’ roles and into something more emotional. As he puts it; “I'm growing up, so my characters are growing up too.” Patel isn’t the only one of the original Skins cast to have hit the big screen this year. Fellow teen actor Jack O'Connell starred in Angelia Jolie directed Unbroken, and Nick Hoult took on blockbuster X Men: Days of Future Past. “I'm always baffled as to why I get work, I just feel so lucky but I can see why those guys do well,” says a modest Patel. “I can see it because they're incredible.” He even admits to being a little intimidated by Hoult in the early days of Skins; “I had never been on a set before,” but Hoult, already an acting veteran, looked so comfortable. “Being able to watch that was great and I used to really look up to him.”

In fact, “Slumdog was really when I felt like I became an actor," reflects Patel. "I remember working with Danny – during Skins I was just having fun with the cast, but Slumdog was a massive role. I couldn't be running around, I had to be still. But I wouldn't have got Slumdog had I not done Skins because Danny's daughter saw me on that so it's all connected.” Unwinding the butterfly effect and it's Patel's mum we really have to thank. For seeing that Metro ad and acting on it, years ago - and for her home cooked dinners on those rare trips home today.

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