The interview: Dev Patel
From the slums to the stars, British actor Dev Patel talks to Esquire Middle East about type-casting, playing a lothario and his collection of matchbox cars.
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ESQUIRE: You seem to be in a good mood this morning. Did you just fly in?
DEV PATEL: No, I flew in last night from Singapore. I wolfed down a couple of lamb chops and some hummus, then slept like a baby. Now I’m ready to roll.
Hummus and lamb chops. The secret to any good diet.
What were you doing in Singapore?
The same as I’m doing here in Dubai and India last week; promoting my film The Man Who Knew Infinity at the film festival.
Do enjoy the promotion side of your job?
It depends on the project really. There have been times where I’ve had to promote films that I didn’t believe in, and I hate that. I find it soul destroying, because I feel like I’m lying to people just so they come watch the film. I don’t want them to spend money and then sit there thinking, ‘This is s***’. But when I am promoting something that I am truly proud of, like this film, I am very happy to do it.
Here in the Gulf, cinemas are dominated by major blockbusters, so film festivals like DIFF are one of the few chances people get to see smaller films. Is it rewarding for you to be attached to that?
Hugely. The response we have been getting is overwhelming. In countries like Singapore and Dubai I get so many film students coming up to me saying how grateful they are to have the opportunity to have access to directors and actors to discuss the films. Because Infinity is the story of the brilliant Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, when we took the film to India, people were literally in tears saying, “Thank you for bringing his story to life.”
Are you now ‘Bollywood famous’?
Haha, yes and no. Whenever I go to India I do get confronted with people running up to me and yelling “Karoorapati” — which means ‘millionaire’. But Bollywood is a place where actors are absolute megastars. I think I am more what you would call ‘arthouse famous’ there.
Is the Bollywood route one you’d like to take in the future?
Not really. Some real big popcorn producers have reached out to me, but although I respect it as a medium, I’ve had to graciously decline because that’s not really where I want to go in my career right now.
Do you get any heat from being ‘that Western guy who plays an Indian’?
I do from some people, because they think: “Oh, here’s that non-Indian guy who’s in every film about India,” but people actually respect me for representing. In films like The Man Who Knew Infinity, I was able to bring the story of Ramanujan to a global audience. It’s a film that wouldn’t have been made a decade ago, but because of my profile, after I attached myself to it, the producers managed to get Jeremy Irons on board and from there it became much more possible.
Does being typecast concern you?
Not really. The trick is to plan wisely. I am very particular about what projects I choose to do. What people don’t see is the number of scripts that I get sent, with requests for me to play everything from an Indian spice merchant to a terrorist! If I decide that I am going to play an Indian character, I make sure that I am telling a different story from what I have done before. For example, the roles I played in Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are worlds apart.
In Infinity you play a maths genius, while in The Newsroom you’re a digital-savvy journo — it seems you have a knack of being cast as ‘the intelligent guy’.
Haha, that’s not necessarily a bad thing! You’re forgetting that in Chappie, I played bad guy who created a robot master race. I remember talking to [Chappie director] Neill [Blomkamp], and he said he cast me because he wanted someone who was plausible. I take that as a compliment.
Does playing similar roles makes you more employable as an actor?
I think so. I think fitting the part of preconceived ideas helps me get the part, which then allows me to connect to a bigger audience. That is really important sometimes when you are trying to break the mould. When they cast me in The Newsroom, my character wasn’t meant to be the womanising Casanova he turned out to be. He was just meant to be a smart, young, tech dude. But as the show developed [writer and creator] Aaron [Sorkin] decided to give my character loads of girlfriends, and every time we’d read through a new script he’d be rolling around in bed with someone new. I look at that as a win!
It’s hard to believe that Slumdog Millionaire is now eight years old. Looking back at it, what still sticks out in your mind about the whole experience?
So much sticks out, but on a base level what I most remember is being completely overwhelmed by it all. As a kid from London, it was my first real experience of India. One minute I was living at home in my mum’s box room, and then all of a sudden I was dropping out of school, jetting round the world, playing the lead role opposite Anil Kapoor! I constantly felt like I was in over my head.
“One minute I was living at home in my mum’s box room, and then all of a sudden I was dropping out of school, jetting round the world, playing the lead role opposite Anil Kapoor”
Do you still get that feeling?
All the time. I am such a fanboy, man!
Really? You still get star struck?
Yeah. I love watching movies, so when I meet someone from things that I’ve seen, it’s pretty amazing. I remember meeting Will Smith when I was doing the promotion for Slumdog. He was presenting at the Oscars and then during the break came up to me to shake my hand and tell me how much he loved the film. It was earth-changing! I mean… Will Smith!
The perks of being a leading actor must be pretty great.
I’d be lying if I said that they weren’t, but it’s far from the way you romanticise about when sitting on your sofa watching the awards ceremonies.
This may come as a shock but I wasn’t the most fashion-conscious guy before joining the industry! I even attended my first film festival wearing my school blazer! But then people throw stylists at you and you start gaining a deeper sense of aesthetics and style.
What’s your standard wardrobe?
It’s pretty understated. Put me in a casual suit, an American Apparel T-shirt with a little glimmer from my IWC Portugieser watch poking out from under the cuff and I’m ready to go.
You like watches?
Yeah. I have a partnership with IWC, so it’s definitely a perk to wear their watches and call some of them my own. Although, to be honest, what I enjoy the most about working with them is that it allows me to travel the world, attend their events and talk about our projects, because they are closely involved in the filmmaking side of things and understand the industry.
Has it induced you start a watch collection?
Kind of. I have a couple now, but my first piece was one that my granddad gave me that I’ve treasured for a long time. When I used to walk the red carpet with my ex-girlfriend [actress Freida Pinto] she would be wearing pieces of jewellery so fancy that they would come with their own security detail! I always thought, I wish I could have something cool like that. And now I do… just without the security!
Have you always been into collecting things?
When I was a kid I used to collect Burago cars. Do you remember them? They are little model cars that are to scale. You know, the ones where you turn the little steering wheel and the tyres move? I had a Ferrari F50, Dodge Viper GTS and a Cadillac, all kept in pristine condition in my mum’s box room. It was like a mini car showroom! Right now, I’m collecting random Bruce Lee stuff, film posters and the like.
Nice. Proper grown-up stuff, then?
Haha! Yeah. I actually just bought a house in LA, so I’m currently in the process of trying to fill it with pieces of art that I love. I went to India earlier this year to an art fair and bought some beautiful pieces from an up-and-coming artist… although I can’t remember their name.
I read somewhere that you said that you’re never happier then when you are on set. Is that still true?
Completely. When I’m on set I’m rarely in my trailer. I’m off with the ADs [assistant directors] or running about the set talking to people or asking questions. Because I live in LA now, I’ve noticed how it’s such an industry town. Every Starbucks you walk into there are people working on screenplays. It’s crazy, but the energy there is incredible.