The actor is in demand, globally - he speaks to us about his new roles in Hotel Mumbai, The Wedding Guest and Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of a Charles Dickens classic
Dev Patel: 'Every time I go to India it surprises and baffles me'
Dev Patel is bringing a literal meaning to the term global superstar. The 28-year-old stars in two films that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, playing a mysterious British man travelling across Pakistan to kidnap a soon-to-be bride in Michael Winterbottom’s thriller The Wedding Guest and an Indian hotel worker who protects hotel guests from terrorists in Anthony Maras’s Hotel Mumbai, which recounts the horrors of the devastating 2008 attack on the city.
He arrived in Toronto fresh from filming the title role of David Copperfield in Armando Iannucci’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ eighth novel that will come out next year. It seems there is no part beyond the talents of this London born actor, who won a Bafta in 2017 for his performance playing an Australian in Lion.
We start by chatting about The Wedding Guest. Patel is a producer on the film and describes how he came on board. “Michael wrote this cool script and sent it to me and said: ‘What do you think?’ I told him I love it, and really want to work with you, but I only have this little pocket of space where I could do it.”
Such are the demands for the talents of Patel that he can call the shots with a filmmaker of the stature of The Trip director Winterbottom. “Within three weeks, we were on location, and within six weeks of that first phone call, we were done. It’s a real feat.”
Patel wanted to do The Wedding Guest because it’s a thriller with many twists and turns that sees him play a part that is a change from his typical good guy roles. Details of his character are delivered piecemeal as he hires several cars, using several different identities travelling from England to meet and kidnap Samira (Radhika Apte), his friend’s fiancee, and take her to India. His reasons become apparent when things start to go wrong.
An opportunity to return to India
For Patel, playing a stoic man who defrosts over the course of a film as he gets to know Samira was another opportunity for him to return to India, where he made Slumdog Millionaire, the film that first made him a global star in 2008. He’s also returned for Lion, twice for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Hotel Mumbai.
“Every time I go back to India, it constantly surprises and baffles me,” says Patel. With Winterbottom, he says the experience was unlike any other. “I saw parts of the country that I had never witnessed before and I got [to see] a really authentic India. When you go with a big bulldozer of a crew, it numbs the experience. But with Michael, we went to such lengths to go undercover, wearing hats and using secret cameras – I got to see things that I can’t when people recognise me.”
'We are not trying to make a political statement' in Hotel Mumbai
The reaction in the Indian media to his other film at Toronto, Hotel Mumbai, which depicts the 2008 Mumbai attack on the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, has been decidedly mixed, with some reviewers miffed that Pakistan was not mentioned in the film. Yet, as Patel reveals that’s not the film they wanted to make; “We don’t’ dive into the India-Pakistan relationship. It’s more concerned with the human angle. The hotel is like an airport – a boiling pot of all society. It puts the poor waiter who comes from the slums next to the Russian oligarch who has just stepped off his yacht. What you see are the true heroes of the moment. We are not trying to make a political statement.”
The character that the actor plays is a Sikh man who forgets his shoes at home and begs to work his shift as he needs every penny with his wife pregnant. “He is an amalgamation of several characters who were there, and we made him Sikh because we were trying to dispel some stereotypes held by those with an uncultured eye,” explains Patel.
And on playing David Copperfield
Dispelling stereotypes is also a central part of Iannucci casting Patel to play David Copperfield. When Patel was first approached about the project, he admits, “First of all I was like, are they making a film about the magician? I kind of look like him, should I wear a black T-shirt to the meeting.” Every time I’ve interviewed Patel, the actor always throws in the odd joke here and there, an example of typical London sarcasm. He quickly moves on to speak of his admiration for the director and his brave casting. “Iannucci told me: ‘I need someone to get the emotion of this character properly and this is you.’ I said ‘are you crazy?’ He’s going to have to fight for me because people are going to go after him. I’m just grateful that he thought I was the right person. I had not even seen the script when he offered it to me.”
The actor says he doesn’t like the term colour-blind casting, but he says that he appreciates the symbolism of him playing the role that is supposedly based on Dickens’ own life: “Kids like me, growing up in North West London will finally look at this story and relate to it and not be that doofus who goes ‘what the magician?’ and say oh yeah, I can see myself being in a film like that now and relate to it.”