why dev patel isn’t just the kid from 'slumdog millionaire'
We catch up with the actor to talk Indian stereotypes, Zoë Kravitz, and why he owes everything to his mom.
Despite what most Hollywood execs might think, 24-year-old Dev Patel is not a local Indian kid plucked from the obscurity of slum life and splashed all over the silver screen. Yes, he knows how to do a good Indian accent (his family are Gujarati Hindus) but before being cast as the lead role in the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire, he'd never even been to a slum, and certainly didn't like going to India as a kid. He's also not that big on Bollywood dancing.
A far cry from the pill-popping, pork-guzzling (he was meant to be Muslim) horny teenager Anwar Kharra he played in Skins, these days Dev spends his time working on his accent in the city of angels. He's grown-up, charming and incredibly self-deprecating — always wanting to ask questions and surprised when you bring up films he's been in, as if no one has ever heard of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which stars some of the greatest British acting talents of all time, and whose sequel has just been released worldwide. Also freshly released is the Neil Blomkamp sci-fi action movie Chappie, starring Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman, and, strangely, South African music duo Die Antwoord. Although he's now finished filming Aaron Sorkin's HBO series The Newsroom, Dev has plenty of exciting projects in the pipeline to occupy his time. We catch up with the actor to talk Indian stereotypes, Zoë Kravitz, and why he owes everything to his mom.
So tell me about the character you play in Chappie?
I play a character called Deon Wilson, who is this guy who works for a weapons manufacturer and whose boss is Sigourney Weaver. My character wants to create a droid that can think and feel so he steals one from the company and turns it into Chappie.
It's such a large-scale movie, how did it differ from The Road Within?
How do you know about that film?
Why wouldn't I have heard of it?
It was a just such a tiny film, I sort of lost money driving myself to set, you know? It's about a guy with Tourette's who gets put in this home and is forced to share a room with me, and I suffer from severe OCD. My character, Alex, is volcanic. He's fine one second and then suddenly he freaks out. It was a really intense movie, which allowed us to take things to the extreme.
What was it like working with Zoë Kravitz?
She's great, so rock 'n' roll. She plays this badass girl who suffers from anorexia and is always pushing my character's buttons. You know when you meet people in life where talent just oozes out of every single pore? She's so unaffected by who her parents are and how she grew up. She really has got to where she is on her own.
How much research did you have to do into the world of OCD?
I spoke to a lot of OCD sufferers and I had to shave my head. I was cycling in LA and someone shouted out to me, ''Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle!'' I looked really strange, I have the weirdest shaped head and big ears.
Do you prefer those kinds of roles, ones that require more thought, or do you like the more physically demanding ones?
My process is really physical, anyway. It's all about reading and reading and prep and prep. To me it's like solving a puzzle. Writers have a very specific rhythm to how they want their stories to be told. There are a thousand ways of saying, ''hello.'' ''Hello, hey, hi, hallo.'' For every single line there's a thousand varieties. It sounds mathematical but it's more instinctual.
All the roles you've played have been very different, is this intentional?
Yeah it is. I think it's very easy for me to be stereotyped. You know, I'm an Indian dude, right? They'll throw a terrorist at me or a taxi driver or a fucking geek and, sometimes, you've got to play the mould to break the mould. Otherwise it just will never work.
I think Slumdog really broke the mould. Yes, you were playing an Indian guy with an Indian accent, but it was a massive film with a brilliant director.
For me, that was a real jump in terms of character. You know, I'd just come from doing Skins and I'm a dude from Harrow. I'd never been to a slum in my life! A lot of people I meet in Hollywood are surprised whenever I speak. They just assume I have an Indian accent.
Did it feel weird making that jump from Skins to Hollywood?
I still feel like Hollywood is still a long way away…
Going from the comfort of British TV to the big screen, then?
Every movie is daunting and each one is a different experience to the next. In the next film Nicole Kidman plays my mother, which is crazy! I guess it's weird because I'm living my life and you're living your life and then suddenly my big goofy face pops up on the screen in front of you and it's like, ''where did this guy come from?'' But, for me, there's a lot more breathing space between everything.
Do you get weirded out when fans come up to you or are you used to it by now?
A little bit, but people are mostly positive. I'm not a very intimidating person so people aren't scared of coming up to me, which can be a bit annoying when you're trying to shove a chicken wing in your mouth.
Do you ever get star struck?
All the time. Do you get star struck?
What did you do before this?
I'm asking the questions! I went to uni. You didn't go to uni, did you?
No I didn't. I was still at school when my mum saw this advert in the back of the Metro that said, ''new teenage drama on E4, no acting experience necessary.'' I always wanted to be an actor, but I wasn't a 'child actor' who went to stage workshops or did theatre production. When I went to the National Youth Theatre to do the audition everyone was doing their vocal warm-ups, but I ended up getting a role. That's where I met Danny Boyle's daughter, which is how I ended up getting Slumdog, as she put me forward for the role.
It's weird how things suddenly snowball…
So weird! I had a massive argument with my mum the day of the audition, as she didn't tell me until the night before. I was like, ''are you mad? Look at me! How am I going to be on TV?'' She was so close to caving and God, thank my fucking lucky stars, she didn't.
Text Tish Weinstock
Stills from Chappie