With a little help from my friends
Soapie actor Himesh Patel had to borrow a guitar for the audition that would turn him into a movie star, he tells Kerry Parnell
If you are going to make the leap from soap to movie star, you want to make sure your first film is a cracker — Chris Hemsworth-style. So Himesh Patel — well-known in his native UK as playing Tamwar Masood from EastEnders — has hit the career jackpot, scoring the lead role in Yesterday, the latest feel-good rom-com from writer Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle.
But not only did he have to prove his acting worth, he also had to reveal his musical talent, belting out covers of songs from the biggest pop band in the world. No pressure then.
Patel plays Jack Malik, a failing singer-songwriter who wakes up one day to discover he is the only person in the world who remembers The Beatles and promptly cashes in. He stars alongside Mamma Mia!’s Lily James and Ed Sheeran.
“What a privilege to make this film as my first,” he says, “It’s crazy, really crazy, I can’t thank my lucky stars enough.”
Patel, 28, can really sing and play guitar, which is lucky as the songs were recorded live on set, but he confesses he had to borrow his mates’ guitars and bluff it for the audition.
“I taught myself to play on a really crappy electric guitar I had when I was 14,” he says. “Two of my best friends lent me their acoustic guitars for my auditions. I owe them a lot.”
He says the movie has made him appreciate the astonishing talent of Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
Were The Beatles important to him growing up?
“They have become important in my life now,” he laughs, “but it was this that made me go through
their back catalogue and learn about the band and what made them so special. It’s superhuman, the amount of hits they had.”
And although playing the songs over and over wore out his fingers, he says he never tired of them.
“Sometimes it was hard work on the fingers, with the old calluses, but the playing of the songs, listening to the songs over and over, I’m still not tired of it. They are magic.”
It was a different process to making Mamma Mia!, explains co-star James.
“In Mamma Mia we prerecorded, whereas Himesh performed live, so we were singing along to an already perfect single, if you like. To be in a film where you are celebrating good music was just a treat. I felt so happy,” she says.
Happiness is the key to Yesterday, which celebrates the joy of normal life. It’s also a sobering message on the folly of pursuing fame at all costs.
Sitting chatting in a London hotel, the young actors are unpretentious and answer questions thoughtfully. Patel is quiet and reserved, compared to his more experienced and polished co-star James. So how do they keep their feet on the ground?
“The only answer is being with your people, your friends and family from forever, so you can totally be yourself,” says James, 30. “They know who you are, so can say if you are behaving like an idiot.
“But I don’t think I have really changed. Life has changed, other people’s reactions to you change and that can be really difficult. People’s relationship with celebrity and fame is bizarre, it can be quite dangerous. And social media feeds into that,” she says.
“If you are trying to fill something in your life with fame, then it’s not going to make you happy.” Keeping grounded is also important to Patel.
“Absolutely, it has been from day one. I started off young and was exposed to being on TV at a very early age and I was lucky that I had my family around to keep my feet on the ground and make me do my paper round. I make sure I surround myself with people who love me and keep me in check.”
In Yesterday, Jack gets devoured by the fame machine. They both express concern over the darker side to fame, particularly reality TV.
“It is so sad that two contestants on (UK) Love Island killed themselves, it’s tragic,” says James.
“It’s also the people in that world who they are surrounded with, whether they are being supported or whether they are being exploitative. It can often sadly be more towards exploitation,” says Patel.
On-screen the couple adhere to the classic rom-com plot of the lead character not realising the love of their life is their best mate, which is even more unlikely when they look like Lily James. Do they think you can turn friendship into romance?
The very private Patel, of whom no romance rumours surround, ponders, as though this is the first time anyone has posed the question and falteringly says, “Could be, it just depends, doesn’t it…” until James comes to his rescue.
“When you are best friends with someone you are kind of soul mates. You are drawn together because in every way you fit. Sometimes that friend into romance is a tricky territory to cross, but the ones that do, surely have the richest basis to start a life together. If it worked for Ross and Rachel (in Friends), it works for anyone,” she says.
In real life, James is dating The Crown’s Matt Smith, who she met on-set of Pride And Prejudice And Zombies where she played Elizabeth Bennet — with a twist.
James has played some of the best characters in literature — including Natasha in War And Peace, Juliet in Romeo And Juliet and now Mrs de Winter in Rebecca, opposite Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers. She admits she is nervous. “I am in the terror zone before you start, when you think I am never going to be able to do this.
“Because it’s a first-person narration, the truth becomes something that is really ambiguous. Even though she sees herself as this nervous person, how people describe her is quite different, so it’s been an amazing thing to decide how I want to be her.”
Likewise, Patel is tackling a literary masterpiece in the TV adaptation of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries, set in 19th century New Zealand.
“That was an amazing novel and (author) Eleanor Catton adapted the TV show herself. She’s wonderful, it was a joy to work with all those actors and film in New Zealand,” he says.
Joking that he hopes he hasn’t peaked too soon, Patel has also shot the period adventure piece The Aeronauts with Eddie Redmayne.
“I just want to keep doing different things. What you want to do as an actor is not get pigeon-holed in any way,” he says. “And to strive for what’s challenging and scary. Yesterday was challenging and scary in a lot of ways but when you find yourself well-supported and you step up to the plate it can be really fulfilling.
“It was a fun movie to make — a blast from beginning to end,” he says.
You get the sense that his Magical Mystery Tour is just taking off.
YESTERDAY IS IN CINEMAS THURSDAY; VICKY ROACH’S REVIEW PAGE 100
Himesh Patel with Yesterday co-stars Ed Sheeran and Lily James at the London premiere this week. Picture: Getty
Himesh Patel and Lily James in a scene from Yesterday.