Total Film

TOTAL FILM INTERVIEW

- INTERVIEW MATT MAYTUM PORTRAITS JAY L. CLENDENIN

Dev Patel deserves a knighthood.

Dev Patel has taken everyman likeabilit­y to new extremes since breaking out with Skins and Slumdog Millionair­e. Now he’s moving into unexpected hero territory, in upcoming Arthurian epic The Green Knight and his action-packed directoria­l debut Monkey Man. Total Film meets the British actor who still can’t shake the impostor syndrome…

I NEVER THOUGHT I COULD CUT THE MUSTARD, PROFESSION­ALLY. I KIND OF STUMBLED INTO THE INDUSTRY…

Dev Patel is so innately friendly that he’s entirely unruffled when Total Film’s tech issues delay the start of our Zoom chat, even though he’s currently working franticall­y in post-production on his upcoming directoria­l debut. Connecting from the kitchen of an Airbnb – he’s based in Adelaide, where he’s editing Monkey Man – Patel looks relaxed in a grey patterned jumper, and jokes about the unignorabl­y large pile of sweet potatoes on the counter behind him. “When you’re in the edit room, all the days kind of blur into one,” he laughs. “I haven’t seen daylight in months.”

For a man with an Oscar nomination, a Bafta win, and the names of several of today’s most interestin­g filmmakers on his CV (Danny Boyle, Aaron Sorkin, Michael Winterbott­om), 31-year-old Patel is as self deprecatin­g as they come. “I’ve done a lot of walking in audition rooms, and sometimes failing spectacula­rly,” he smiles.

One audition he definitely didn’t fail was for the lead role in David Lowery’s The

Green Knight, an epic, artful take on a medieval poem. His Sir Gawain, nephew of Arthur and knight of the Round Table, decapitate­s the monstrous title character, who then promises to return the favour “one year hence”.

Patel found himself connecting unexpected­ly with the headstrong Gawain. “As an actor, you’re always thinking about the films you make, and your legacy and ambition, and at what cost,” he ponders, running a hand through his trademark wild locks. “The sacrifice of not being around your family, and being so myopic in your drive to achieve something and gain whatever that is, that box office or that award or that role, whatever it is. I was reading this medieval story, and being able to place my journey in this industry in Hollywood, with all of its trappings… essentiall­y, you know, being successful and trying to maintain your integrity, and to do it but still try to be a good person.”

Patel’s career started humbly, with an open audition for the first season of Skins (at his mum’s behest), with no formal training or experience. Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionair­e was his first feature, and he’s since been seen in the likes of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, TV’s The Newsroom, Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, real-life tearjerker Lion and real-life gutchurner Hotel Mumbai. He also played the lead in Armando Iannucci’s delightful, mould-breaking The Personal History Of David Copperfiel­d.

As well as recently shooting the (Coviddelay­ed) The Green Knight with Lowery (The Old Man & The Gun, Pete’s Dragon), Patel has been filming his directoria­l debut, Monkey Man, which has been described as ‘John Wick in Mumbai’ (he’s also starring in it). “It was an insane process to direct your first movie in a pandemic, and have that schizophre­nic process of being an actor, all bloody in the make-up, and direct it,” he says. “It was a process of brute force and sheer will to get that movie made.” Time now to reflect on the journey that got him here…

How did David Lowery pitch The Green to you?

Knight

I actually read the script before anything. I was really enthralled by it, to be honest. I’d never read anything quite like it. It was lyrical. It had this brutality, because it was set in this kind of medieval time. “Enthrallin­g” is the right word, because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Like looking at a good piece of art in a museum or something, I kept drawing parallels to it in my everyday life. It just made think about where I was in my life, and my career, at that time. And that was what got me really captured by it. And David was out talking to a whole load of young actors for the role. I was shooting David Copperfiel­d at the time. We got on a Zoom together, and it was this really amazing conversati­on. He is the most gentle, kind and curious individual. We just got along like a house on fire.

Had you ever previously thought about doing a big fantasy epic in that vein?

I didn’t think I would ever fit in that world. So to get the opportunit­y to wear the armour and sit on top of a horse… I never saw it materialis­ing. So I feel really lucky that David looked past me being, you know, an Asian guy, and was just like, “In this world, it doesn’t matter who sits on top of that horse. I’m looking for an energy. I’m looking for someone I can be on this journey with.” When I read it, I was just super-excited that he’d even sit down and talk to me about this. No blond hair, blueeyed… you know, the normal knight that you’d expect.

How would you describe the tone of the film?

The tone of the film is one of the hardest things… [pause] It’s got elements of horror, and touches of magical realism. It’s a kind of journey film, about a young man’s journey to face his destiny.

David, when we had our first conversati­on, he said this phrase which really just caught me, which was: “It’s a young man’s journey to integrity.” That

was like, “I want to go on that journey. I want to know what that feels like.”

How would you describe Gawain?

I’d say at the start of the film, he’s quite headstrong and cheeky. He’s King Arthur’s young nephew, so he’s got this entitlemen­t. He’s spoilt, essentiall­y. He’s sitting in this great hall, surrounded by these knights at this round table. He doesn’t have much to offer. He doesn’t have a story of his own, his own legend or myth, to really earn his place at that table. You watch this young man be stripped of everything, and he’s kind of put through this trial by nature in a way.

What I really liked about the script was that it’s an incredibly physical journey – I could tell immediatel­y that I was going to be put in these environmen­ts where I was going to be tasting the mud and the chill of the wind – and also, it’s quite an internal journey, because he doesn’t have a lot of human interactio­ns throughout his journey. There’s a talking fox.

It’s actually kind of like A Space Odyssey when I read it. It’s a journey into one’s self, which is quite amazing.

Were there a lot of practical effects involved?

Yeah. We went to extreme lengths for some of the imagery that you see. It was worth it, because when you watch it, it’s like – you’re just drenched in nature and all its glory. Most of it was pretty practical, apart from the fox. Though we did have a ferret on set which sometimes stood in for the fox. I loved this ferret. I marvel at these, you know, Marvel actors, and how they’re surrounded by all this green screen and the tennis balls and whatnot. I didn’t have to stretch my imaginatio­n that far, to be honest.

Thinking about your legacy, what criteria do you use to choose roles?

As much as I hate to admit it, fear is one of the biggest dictators… It’s the force that pushes me to do something, and it also steers me away from a lot of things. It’s this weird alchemy.

Right now, I feel lucky that I’m at a stage in my career, and that the industry is at a point where the doors are really wide open for actors like myself – you know, actors of colour – to go in and really tell their stories, and also be invited into worlds we never would have dreamed of being a part of. And that is really exciting. And filmmakers like David Lowery or Armando Iannucci [The Personal History Of David Copperfiel­d], they just look at you as a person, rather than the colour of your skin. And that’s what was amazing. It was just having this conversati­on… I was almost more hung up on it than David was.

For me, the way I perform – maybe because I’ve not gone to a drama school or had a great mastery of technique yet, I don’t know – I put my body through it, whatever the films are. So it’s like: what

IT WAS AN INSANE PROCESS TO DIRECT YOUR FIRST MOVIE IN A PANDEMIC

am I willing to do, to go on the journey for? I’ve just directed my own film [Monkey Man], and on that, I broke my hand, I broke my toe… It was a very physical experience. Every time I go to India, I’m doing these films, and I’m walking barefoot through the slums, and I’m getting some kind of crazy parasite infection or something. You kind of think about, “Are you willing to give your body to this?”

And I know it sounds kind of a bit heavy: “Alright, it’s just a movie, mate. Chill out.” But a lot of the times, it’s just if I really think the story is saying something. If I’m thinking of legacy or whatever, what would you be proud leaving the world with?

Did you ever feel like not having formal training put you at a disadvanta­ge?

I’m like, “God, I wish I had the technical prowess of X, Y or Z, whoever it is, and had that kind of formal training.” Just being on the set of The Green Knight and watching… like, Alicia [Vikander] is such an incredible actress, and Joel Edgerton. They have this kind of precision and beautiful voice modulation. Alicia’s incredible. She’s kind of playing two roles. I was like, “Wow. I couldn’t do that.” As much as I try, I’m like me. [laughs] I can’t get away from me. I don’t know if that’s my strength or my weakness, or if that will become my limiting factor. You just kind of break open your chest, and try to let the camera inside. It’s kind of a cathartic experience when it works.

You’ve talked in the past about your mum pushing you to the Skins audition: was acting something you wanted to try?

I was pretty hyperactiv­e. I probably had undiagnose­d ADHD. But in school I was doing anything physical, and especially in the drama class – it was where I could really express myself, and I was getting the biggest laughs. And I felt alive. So she noticed that. But, growing up in Rayners Lane, you think you’re going to have grow up at some point, and focus on something more tangible and real. I’m just lucky that I have my mum, who had this sixth sense on this day to drag me to this casting.

Skins manifested from that, which was amazing. And from that, Slumdog – it was kind of this weird snowball from there.

But yeah, I never thought I could cut the mustard profession­ally. I didn’t know how to enter the industry. So I kind of stumbled into it, luckily, in a weird way. So it’s been a process of extreme learning with everything I do. And that’s why I look up to these directors that I work with so much.

That’s a big part of choosing a project. Who are the makers involved? Because my process is really a process of sheer submission. I completely offer myself up, and I’m putty. I’m like, “Mould me.”

So the good ones like Garth [Davis] and David, you come out of those experience­s, no matter how long or tough they are, feeling incredibly nourished as a human.

Slumdog Millionair­e was your first feature. Was its success hard to take in? How do you look back on that time?

I feel blessed. Because, again, you do this audition. Danny Boyle’s daughter sees you [in Skins]. And the next minute, you’re in India, and you’re shooting this film. And then the film kind of went silent for a while. And now, to my understand­ing, it had been dropped by the studio. And luckily, Fox Searchligh­t picked it up. It was a film that could have potentiall­y easily gone straight to VOD at the time. And then, I remember they were like, “Can you come to Toronto?” But I didn’t know anything about film festivals. I just went there in my River Island school shoes and suit, and embarrasse­d everyone on the red carpet.

But I remember going to the Q&As… You’re kind of spoiled, because everyone’s on their feet for like five minutes. Everyone’s crying. And I’m like, “Oh, this is what it’s like for every movie. Wow! This movie thing’s amazing. Everyone’s crying and clapping!” There was this energy in the cinemas after this movie like I’d never felt before. And now you look back on it, and you’re like, “Wow, how lucky were you to experience that on your first outing.”

I also felt a lot of my usual imposter syndrome vibes. I’m still in my boxroom in Rayners Lane, so I’m getting on a flight and sitting in business class. I was afraid to even ask for anything because part of me was still like, “Wait, are they going to charge me for this, or what?” And then you’re on this red carpet with these incredibly talented, gorgeous individual­s. And you’re like, “What the hell am I doing here?” and all of that kind of played in. I don’t think I’ve quite shaken that, to be honest.

Was it hard to know what to do next after that exploded?

After it, it kind of went a bit oddly silent. It

IT WAS SUCH A BIGGER MACHINE THAN I WAS USED TO, I FELT A BIT ADRIFT

was an interestin­g process. I was dating Freida [Pinto] at the time. She’s incredible in the film, and really had this wonderful, upwards trajectory in terms of work. And I was kind of like the plus-one on all these amazing [experience­s]. And I was like this gangly, Indian dude. At that time in the industry, there wasn’t real substance for us, and thank God I went and auditioned for this role, on Marigold Hotel, and he was written as a much older guy. I was like, “God, I really want to be a part of this.”

I sent in a tape, and then I went and did an audition with… at that time, George C. Wolfe was the director, and Graham Broadbent [producer]. George really loved what I was doing. And then he had to do something else, and then there was that horrible moment where they were like, “You haven’t lost a role but you’ve got to go in and read again with a new director.” It was John Madden, and he was incredible. That was cool.

Did you soak up a lot of lessons from the more seasoned cast members on the

films?

Marigold

Yeah. They’re just so in their skin. That was what was amazing just being around these actors. It was like being on holiday. You’re in these amazing, old palaces converted to hotels in the middle of Rajasthan in India. You’d wake up in the morning, and you’d see Richard Gere doing yoga on his balcony, and a peacock would run by, and you’d follow it, and your gaze would land on Judi and Maggie literally having tea on their balcony. And you’re just like, “This is crazy.”

You didn’t have the best experience on

Avatar: The Last Airbender. Did that put you off bigger blockbuste­r material?

Yeah. After Slumdog, I didn’t really get anything. When that came around, it was a total no-brainer on the page. You know, may he rest in peace, Andrew Lesnie, the DoP of Lord Of The Rings. You’ve got M. Night [Shyamalan] and Frank Marshall and all these big names. I’m a big martial arts fan, so I was like, “Oh, wow.” I was probably miscast, and the film didn’t hit the mark. It was a really hard process for me because… It was such a bigger machine than what I was used to from Skins, that I felt a bit adrift at sea.

I could see that the studio was worried that I wasn’t really performing well. It was quite a torturous experience in that sense where you know you’ve maybe possibly been miscast in something, and you’re not right for it, and I didn’t have any confidence, and I didn’t know how to apply what I now know are my good tools

as a performer, and the truth I can bring to a part. And it kind of showed.

It made me realise that I want to be involved in films where you can really feel connected to the material; it’s more tangible, and you can sit with the filmmaker and have a conversati­on. I need mentorship. I need teaching, and someone that can guide me through the process of a movie. That’s what I found later on in my career with other filmmakers, and that’s what’s made me improve. You learn a lot from it in a way, from films like that. But for me, there was a lot of trauma [surroundin­g] that whole experience.

With everything you’ve learned since then, do you think you could now go into a big-scale comic-book movie or a Star

movie?

Wars

I remember… I don’t know if you’re allowed to talk about it, because you sign an NDA. But yeah, I think everyone did. Everyone auditioned for Star Wars. I remember, I think I was doing Marigold 2, and I sent them an iPhone video from my trailer in India. The next minute, I got a call-back, and I was there, and that was fascinatin­g.

I mean, look, I’m not opposed to it. Those movies are a real spectacle when done right. I guess if I fit in these worlds… I don’t know. The alchemy hasn’t been right for me, personally yet. These journeys with people like David, and stuff like that, have really been the most nourishing. I don’t want to shit on those movies, because there are some incredible performers that manage to go off and win Oscars, and then go and do a big Marvel movie. And there are films like Black Panther that culturally changed the paradigm in massive ways. I liked the first Captain America. I thought that was amazing, the action in that. And so it’s just finding the right one. It’s being invited along, and also finding the right one. The ones that I have been offered, which I can’t talk about, haven’t quite worked for me.

On that scale, Bond is another one your name is always thrown about for…

I don’t know why that is. I guess that I should take it as a compliment. But I feel like hasn’t every young British actor been associated with Bond at some point, I’m sure?

The Wedding Guest probably added to that – any time a British actor is posing with guns, that always gets them on the Bond radar…

Yeah. That was just an opportunit­y to go and play with Michael Winterbott­om, and that was fun. But, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t pay much attention to that.

You’ve done a couple of films based on real scenarios, like Lion and Hotel

Mumbai. Do you approach those roles differentl­y?

Hotel Mumbai was an amazing experience. My character in Hotel Mumbai was an amalgam of some characters. I wanted to make him a Sikh, and wear this turban, and kind of talk about that prejudice in that film. But, with Lion, I remember, I just didn’t work for eight months. I turned everything down. I just applied myself to the accent, and put on a lot of weight, and had to grow my hair out, and all of that. That’s what I did – I just worked on it, day in and day out. It really paid off.

How did your upcoming directoria­l debut come about?

Monkey Man

I grew up watching Bruce Lee films and action cinema, and I became obsessed very early on with Korean revenge films – you know, the obvious, like Oldboy, but there’s films like Man From Nowhere or I Saw The Devil or A Bitterswee­t Life: Korean revenge film staples that are just incredible to watch. They’ve got a cool guy in a black suit, just inflicting the most amazing, gory violence and revenge and whatever. They have this kind of pathos. And they hit in a different way to your usual Hollywood fare. I just didn’t feel like I fit into a lot of those worlds [of big studio films], so I just started trying to write a script on the side, and chisel away at my own character that I felt I wanted to make. I’m more of an everyman action hero, in a way. An unlikely hero. An underdog.

It’s not based on it, but it’s inspired by threads of an old Indian mythology about this Indian god called Hanuman, interlaced into a more modern story. Because as a child, my granddad would tell me all these stories of this half-man, half-monkey. He’d kind of look like Superman to me. If you look at early drawings of Hanuman flying in the sky with a cape, his chest open, it’s very much like Superman iconograph­y. That all just kind of came out in this film. And it’s taken a long time. I’ve been doing it on the fly for like eight to 10 years. Finally we got it to the point where we got it off the ground, and then Covid hit, and I was in India. And it was really just… It was insane.

Did you find yourself drawing on lessons from any particular directors that you’ve worked with?

Yeah. I’m going to mess this up, but Danny Boyle said something about being really good at having a plan and then being able to just totally throw that plan out the window when you get to set. That was what I had to do on a daily basis on this film. The ridiculous­ness of it, looking back, was quite funny. And in a way, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m excited about the film. I’m deep in an edit, so it’s kind of hard to talk about it. You have this love/hate relationsh­ip when you’re editing a movie. You’re looking at all the footage, and you’re thinking that it’s all wrong. Hopefully next time I do it, it’s a lot less manic, let’s just say that. And not a pandemic.

Looking ahead, do you see directing as a big part of your future?

Ask me that question when the movie comes out [laughs]. Then you’ll know your answer. I don’t know. I loved the process, I really did. I think under the environmen­t that I was in, to be able to pull off what we did, I’m quite proud of the team. I really love sitting down with actors, and I can really feel their plight, and I love getting into the design of stuff, and compositio­n, and shots. I really enjoyed it, actually. I didn’t realise how much it’s in me – that I’m actually quite a visual person. That’s how I learn the most. So hopefully the film feels like that. Yeah, I would love to, but who knows?

I’M MORE OF AN EVERYMAN ACTION HERO, IN A WAY

THE GREEN KNIGHT OPENS IN CINEMAS ON 6 AUGUST.

 ??  ??
 ??  ?? PHONE A FRIEND? The award-winning Slumdog Millionair­e was Patel’s first feature film.
PHONE A FRIEND? The award-winning Slumdog Millionair­e was Patel’s first feature film.
 ??  ?? FIGHTING FANTASY Patel stars as King Arthur’s nephew Gawain in The Green Knight.
FIGHTING FANTASY Patel stars as King Arthur’s nephew Gawain in The Green Knight.
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? NOT THE NICE GUY Playing kidnapper Jay in Michael Winterbott­om’s The Wedding Guest.
NOT THE NICE GUY Playing kidnapper Jay in Michael Winterbott­om’s The Wedding Guest.

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