Interview: Dev Patel

(Images via Google Images)
It would be an understatement to say that actor Dev Patel speaks fast. Breakneck would be more like it. After a long day at work and an even longer Mumbai local commute, it becomes a task to keep up with Patel‘s pace as he joins me over the phone from London. Bursting with energy, leaving almost no breathing space, the 24-year-old is in high spirits. I wonder if he was always like this. “Pretty much,” he says. “I had too much energy when I was a child that my mother sent me for Taekwondo classes to channelise it right.” Judi Dench, veteran English actor with whom Patel just finished working on the sequel to The Bext Exotic Marigold Hotel, testified to this in a recent interview. “Somebody with more energy, verve and enthusiasm would be very very hard to find,” she said.
This raw energy helped him bowl over the makers of English TV series Skins at 17. His acting skills coupled with the fact that he didn’t fall into the conventionally good-looking box worked in his favour to be cast in his first and biggest film outing Danny Boyle’s Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire. Although the films that followed were met with largely lukewarm responses, Patel managed to stand out and bagged good projects with acclaimed filmmakers. In his short career, the actor has tried to do as diverse roles as possible in films like The Last Airbender (he plays the anti hero Zuko), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (in which he plays the energetic manager of a hotel for the elderly) and The Road Within (in which he plays an OCD patient). All set for the India premiere of the third season of his TV series The Newsroom on HBO Defined in which he plays Neal Sampath, a journalist, Patel says that the biggest challenge for him is to be able to “play an every man in America”. Last heard, Patel will be seen alongside Nicole Kidman in Lion, a drama to be directed by Garth Davis and based on Saroo Brierly’s memoir A Long Way Home.
Excerpts from an interview:
What followed after the humongous success of Slumdog Millionaire? Was it confidence or nervousness? 
I think I will go with nervousness. Slumdog was an amazing honour, I was 17 when I started and by the time the film was over I was 18 and it was my first film! And I got to walk the red carpet, do all these wonderful things which was all like a wonderful dream. But at the same time there was a small part of me that felt the success I tasted was a bit too early and a larger part that felt I completely deserved to be walking the red carpet with legends. So I recognize how beautiful the situation it was, but I knew that if I ever wanted to be on that red carpet again I had to do more movies like these. This movie was one on which I did work hard on and how do I beat that since now is the big time. And normally people don’t realise the fair experience and calibre it takes to walk one of these red carpets and it is one of those anomalies which just passes on to you and it so phenomenal since it makes you feel that the life you chose is so incredible!
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When you look back at your career up till now, do you think you have made the right choices?
I feel like I have only just started my career. I would say that with some choices I have made I am not incredibly proud, but do I have any regrets… I think no! Because the intention with which I went for doing a movie was always to do something different, or try another genre and being the best I could be. But you learn something from every movie you do since it makes you grow and it makes you a better actor.
How do you choose roles that come to you or what is that you look for in a role offered to you?
What I look for in a role is to be an everyday man who is searching for an identity and a place in life, because I want my performances to be relatable. Like in Slumdog, it was about the struggles in the life of an Indian boy. In The Newsroom, my role is that of a young journalist who does not come from a normal school of training, but from the school of life. It is about his pursuit in changing the way people broadcast news.
What should we expect from the new season of The Newsroom? How has it been playing the character of Neal Sampath?
Neal is an incredible character to play as he has constantly been coming up with something new with each season. He as a character has been fired up all through and it has been interesting for me to play this role. But the mission for me was to get under the skin of the character and for the American audiences to get used to me and my face. I want to be able to play the every man in America. So this was the role which was really interesting and this is where you really see him become a man and take his career forward and especially for the sake of journalistic integrity I would say.
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Was it a conscious decision to bring in so much variety in terms of characters you choose to play? 
Absolutely, it is conscious decision I make. Sometimes a character is very similar to the message I am giving to the audience and I am constantly trying to engage better in the given context. It is easy for me being in this industry especially being a cross over actor who is proud of India and I am proud of my heritage and for me as a young actor doing such new roles will probably get better. Amongst most of the guys on the show, I am the youngest and the most inexperienced and the irony is that I am one of the faces that a lot of people can recognise from Slumdog. I know that working with such actors who are so trained in theatre will only make me just as better.
Tell us a bit about your latest project The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
That was a lovely journey and again it was a very interesting role because that came around to me at a time I was getting offered Indian centric scripts. My manager was like Dev you should read it and keep an open mind for the story. Now my mother has taught me to care for the elderly all my life and that is how I grew up as well. Also, I think that I have a funny bone inside of me. And the message of the movie was that no matter how old you are you continue living life and experiencing and growing and learning and you are never too old to be something. I love this message of the movie and the character in the movie of this guy who was an underdog. And again it’s a journey of identity and of a character who has self-confidence and who believes in himself.
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Who were your cinematic inspirations while growing up?
A couple actually. First and foremost will be probably Bruce Lee, and I remember as a child sneaking out downstairs past my bed time looking through the gaps in the staircase railing his movies my dad was watching in the night and remembering feeling completely mesmerized by his masculinity and his screen presence, the confidence he had. I thought he looked like me, as he was a coloured guy with black hair and it gave me a hero who I was very inspired by. Also there is Jim Carrey who is a funny guy. Watching him makes me love to do comedy and then there is Will Smith as well. And lastly Shahrukh Khan, I always used to love him in all his films from Devdas to Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and I used to love how much I could relate to him.
You have acted in both TV series and films, how are the two different? And what are your learnings from the two mediums?
I have always enjoyed television as there is always an amazing journey of the character in the shows. There is a bigger arc of development and as each week goes by the audience can go with you and so it is a very beautiful medium to be a part of. Also I feel that TV tests your mettle as an actor. It’s a very intense experience and there is a lot of dialogue lines that we are learning and just even to memorize them is incredible along with the stories that are in it. I thing that my show’s third and final season’s writing is one of the finest and I can’t wait for the world to see it and what happens to my character as there is a real spotlight on him this season.
 
Upcoming projects?
I have a couple of interesting projects that are coming up, one that I can’t talk about and one that I just shot which is on a wonderful Indian mathematician called Srinivasa Ramanujan who was a very famous Indian mathematician who not many people in the West know about. He changed modern day mathematics and it is a story of a great Indian, who overcame a lot of adversity and I think that Indians in India and those abroad will be proud. I think that the West will really enjoy the story. So I think the movies I am signing on will really challenge me as an actor.
Will you be giving Bollywood a shot? Any filmmakers from India whose work you have loved and would want to work with?
I am not quite sure if I will ever step into mainstream Bollywood, even though I have immense respect for it, and the actors who strap their clothes on and go out and sing and dance. The movies are changing and it takes an immense amount of confidence. I feel awkward as I can’t dance for the life of me so that is why I would never do that medium. But also where I see myself in the world is to tell stories about the Indian canvas that are inspiring and enlighten the world as there can be wonderful stories that can come out of India. There are some great filmmakers I would like to work with in movies such as Bandit Queen by Shekhar, The Lunch Box and many great films out there.
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