If there is one actor to keep your eye on, it is Dev Patel. Dev began his career on the UK television show Skins, and his work on that show led him to the role of a lifetime: Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire. Audiences and critics the world over are raving about his performance and the film, using words such as triumph, miraculous, and one in a million. In his review, which gave the film 4.5 stars (the highest he has ever given, I might add) our writer Aly Kassam said, “Dev Patel, who plays a role in the UK program Skins, is absolutely brilliant in a role that seems made for him. He doesn’t falter even once, even though he’s the central character of the film.” The film, directed by Danny Boyle, won the Peoples Choice Award at this year’s prestigious Toronto International Film Festival, and the buzz is that it will get a Best Film Oscar nomination. This week I got the opportunity to do a phone interview with Dev. It was an incredible conversation that covered getting his dream role, what it was like to shoot the film, and how awesome it is that the film is being so incredibly well received.
The role of Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire is really a dream role for a young actor. How did you manage to bag such a great role?
Yeah, it is a dream role, to be honest. Danny Boyle’s daughter saw me in Skins, a show I do in London. Initially, he wanted to have an all-Indian cast, but he went out there and, as the story goes, the guys out there are a bit too bulky and masculine, and good looking and too muscly to get this role. He needed more of an average Joe, an everyday guy, an underdog that people can root for, so he ended up with me in the end! His daughter saw me in Skins and told him ‘why don’t you give this boy a go?’ and that’s how I got into the audition process of this film.
What was the audition process like? Were you scared when you first went in?
Oh man, I was nervous. I remember sitting in the casting studio and I was with my mum, because she’s usually with me on my auditions – she’s like my lucky charm. I was 17 at the time and I remember looking down the line and there was this dude, like really good-looking guy, designer stubble, girlfriend … I was like ‘DAMNNNNN I’m not gonna be getting this today!’ That was the one scary thing. Then when Danny opened the door and goes I’m next, I just couldn’t believe that. When you see his face, its like “aaaaaa”(sings), like a Halo around him … he is Danny Boyle! I was so nervous because he was in the auditions, and it was sort of my first proper audition that I’ve ever had. I had done Skins, but I sort of stumbled into an open audition and I didn’t really know what I was doing. But this, I knew, was an audition, and I was going for it and it was scary. He’s got this aura about him that really gets you relaxed. He just gets you talking straight away and he’s so likable and yeah, I was like, I really want this. I went to five or six different auditions, quite grueling to say the least. I got it from there.
Who is Jamal?
Jamal Malik. I play the 18-year-old version. He’s a kid who’s grown up in the slums of Bombay. He witnessed his mother die at a very young age. Him and his brother had to fend for themselves for that point on. He meets this girl called Latika. They instantly hit it off and they have this connection, this friendship, which blossoms into a sort of romance, if you like. They called themselves the three musketeers: him, his brother, and Latika. They all get torn apart. His brother takes the death of the mother badly and gets enticed by a gang and money and girls and all the bad things really. And Latika, he loses her in the chaos of Bombay and to gangs. It’s his mission in life to find her again. He thinks that she’s his soul mate. If anything’s worth living for in his life in the slums, it’s this girl. So he’s going to stop at nothing to find her. Who Wants to be a Millionaire (Kaun Banega Crorepati) – it’s like the most watched show in India. In real life, it’s hosted by a guy called Amitabh Bachchan, who’s like the biggest Bollywood megastar ever and then his predecessor Shah Rukh Khan hosts the new one. He thinks if I can get on the show, which nearly the whole nation watches, maybe I can find her again. And that’s the story.
Do you have a favourite scene in the film?
A favourite scene? Ahhhhh … I’m literally in throughout the whole thing! I have got the most scenes, so that is the hardest. My favourite scene … that’s really tricky. I’ve got quite a few, they’re not all mine to be honest, but I’ve got a few. I love, from an acting point of view, I loved doing the scenes with Irrfan Khan and Saurabh Shukla, which are the police inspectors. When they are interrogating me. They’re such good actors! To be in a room with them, and just to work with these guys … it really makes you up your game! They’re so good; I can’t put it into words. Such great and subtle actors. They’re awesome to work with. I loved, even though I hate dancing, which I thought was gonna be my hardest scene, dancing with Freida Pinto next to me with the whole of the station watching – that was great! I started to really like it, by the end of it. That is another good scene of mine.
How did you prepare to do the role?
That’s really tricky because I mean, I was a 17 year old (well, now I’m 18), Brit kid from London and I have to play a kid who’s grown up in the slums all his life in Bombay. So Danny took me out there while they were searching for locations and things like that. Location scouting, they call it. I went with the crew, a small crew looking for places to shoot in. I got to see quite a lot of the slums in Bombay. I saw a slum called Dharavi, which has got a population of 2 million people and it’s still growing. I was just amazed at it. I worked for a day in a call centre, which was quite funny, as a new intern. I just remember sitting there. They didn’t let me answer any calls but I was literally having fun and they gave me a free mug at the end. AND they put me in this really scary, dodgy hotel for a day – they left me there – because he [Jamal] is meant to be a chaiwala. At the start, he was working at the hotel, well, that was the plan. That was the scariest experience of my life in India. I was there alone and the guy that was meant to be looking after me forgot about me outside, he was too busy on his mobile. I was downstairs in the kitchens and everyone just ate me up. They literally had me for breakfast. They had me washing dishes for four hours! I couldn’t speak Hindi and I felt like crying and it was just scary. That was just some of the stuff I got into. I didn’t have an accent coach, which was the hardest thing, and I had to put on a sort of Bombay accent, so I had to go out there and try and pick it up from everyone else. I guess the budget didn’t allow it. That was fine. The really hard thing about picking up an accent is that the guy that plays my brother has a totally different way of speaking to Freida because there’s so many parts of India, they all go to Bombay because it’s a nerve centre. And I was confused trying to learn an accent. It’s the worst thing ever, you know. But I sort of made my own leeway and sort of invented a middle accent, my own accent.
What was the experience like once you actually started shooting in Bombay?
You know what, it’s awesome! The hardest thing actually, I mean it was hard at times, the heat takes a toll on you and if you’re on location, there’s a lot of people that look into the camera and things like that. It was so chaotic you know … everything’s moving so quickly and it’s so easy to get distracted, especially with my character. His eyes have to tell the story. I think the most important stuff with him is when he’s not speaking. He tells the most when he’s not actually speaking. It his eyes that say the story really. It’s hard when there’s so much going on, but that is where Danny Boyle is so great; he’s so engaging a director, and that was pretty tricky filming there. But you know what, I really enjoyed it, overall. I was fully immersed in Bombay – I was living there for four or so months. I was living and breathing this character. I’ve fallen in love with it now. Anything to get me back there.
What’s one reason you think the film has worked so well?
Loads of reasons. I think the script – Simon Beaufoy has done an amazing script, which is so different. When I am trying to explain it to people in a nutshell, they’re like ‘whattttt?!?’ It’s really out there, it’s weird, it’s different. Danny Boyle’s stamped his mark on it. It’s a weird combination, a sort of a film embracing Bollywood by one of Britain’s best iconic directors, written by the guy who wrote The Full Monty. We’ve got some great Bollywood actors in there, and then there were all of us guys, cred actors, all of us; we are all new and fresh. So I guess, that plays a part in it.
What do you have to say about Danny Boyle as a director?
I love the guy. He’s awesome!! Danny Boyle is THE best in the world. He hates me saying this. Whenever we have Q&A’s and stuff, I can’t really big him up because he’s like ‘eurghh'; he can’t accept people saying that he’s good, but I think that he’s great! He’s so engaging when he speaks and as a new actor, this is my first film ever, I didn’t have the confidence that I would have liked to have had going in it, but he’s really given me a nice step in. I didn’t have any trouble putting all my faith in this guy, just allowed him to be my mentor in this film. I think he really, really got something out of me, which I thank him for.
A huge portion of the film rests on your shoulders. Did you ever feel the pressure?
That was the hardest thing. I mean I am 17 year old kid plucked from my small home in London and thrown into the chaos of Bombay with Danny Boyle and his film crew and I’m the lead of his brand new film and it was so daunting. I was so worried – it was crazy. I was cast first out of everyone because the film was about Jamal. I kept having nightmares, like Dev, if you’re shit, the film’s going to be shit so you can’t be shit! It’s the hardest thing ever you know. I didn’t want to let anyone down, especially Danny, because he’s worked so hard, and everyone else. I didn’t want to be the weakest link in the film. So that was the hardest bit. Hopefully, I wasn’t too bad.
How do you think you did?
I thought I was gonna sit and close my eyes through the whole thing cringing but I didn’t do that, which is good. I am my harshest critic, which I think is how it is with all actors. That’s the only way you’re gonna get better, if you analyze yourself, but it’s a great film and I love it.
What do you have to say about the extraordinary response at festivals worldwide?
It’s brilliant! Like I said, it’s really given me a confidence boost as a new actor. On the first day I was watching at Toronto with the audience and I looked around and I was just shocked, I was like, damn, there’s a whole audience here, they’re gonna watch … I never wanted something so bad in my life, and I’ve got this film, and they’re gonna watch it and they’re gonna comment on it and have their own opinions on it. They’re all critics in their own right. I so badly wanted them to like it, to enjoy the film. And when they started clapping at the end – some people stood up – I was like, wow! You know, it’s such a great boost of confidence.
Did you ever anticipate the success that Slumdog Millionaire has received?
No, I didn’t. Not in my wildest dreams, but it’s been amazing. I think it’s an underdog that you can really root for, and yeah, it’s great.
So you are going to be on David Letterman? [Editor’s note: The interview was on November 19th, 2008.]
Yes, I am, how did you find out? (Laughs). I’m going to be on tonight and I’m BLOODY nervous man! I don’t know what to expect. It’s scary you know. I’m on David Letterman. It’s weird. I should be at home or at school right now or something. I’m nervous, I’m nervous. Say I’ll be okay. Hopefully, I’ll be okay.
Oh you’ll be okay, you’ll do great I’m sure.
I also hear that there’s a lot of Oscar buzz for this film… How do you feel about that?
I don’t know. It’s really exciting. I mean even for people just to say that the film is worthy of an Oscar … it’s like, wooow! It’s great. I don’t think I’m gonna get my hopes up too high because I don’t know what to expect. I’m taking each day as it comes. If the film did get nominated or something, that’d be great. It’d be awesome.
What’s the best compliment you’ve received about your performance?
We did a Q&A at the Screen Actors Guild and it came from another actor, which really meant a lot to me. He was like ‘It’s amazing. How do you maintain the innocence in that guys eyes? He is so subtle’, and I really wanted to make him subtle, and I wanted his eyes to say everything, and for someone to recognize that I was trying to do it and how hard it was for me to do it. Coming from another actor is lovely. Thank you for that, dude! Thanks for that, man!
Your favorite actor?
Can I say three? I love Leonardo DiCaprio, I love the fire and intent in his eyes and his movies are amazing. I still love Jim Carrey; I think he’s awesome, he is on the opposite end of the comedy spectrum. And Will Smith, he’s great. I love him!
What about actresses?
I’ve never really been asked that, which is pretty bad. I think Tabu, who is an Indian actress. She was in The Namesake, is awesome (and Irrfan Khan is one my favourite actors now as well) and I would go for Julia Roberts because my dad loves Pretty Woman, he’s watching that all day long, and I think she’s great and has been great in other films. Charlize Theron is amazing in Monster as well. She’s awesome in that film.
Your favourite film?
My favourite film, I guess, would have to be …. oh God, you’re giving me some hard ones now, aren’t ya? I watched it on the plane the other day and I really loved it. Shawshank Redemption is great. I like The Namesake and Enter the Dragon.
If you were ever offered a Bollywood film, would you do it?
I guess so, I would! Anything to get me back to India!
Do you have a favourite Bollywood film?
Oh man! Sorry about my accent, I’m not really good at pronouncing them. What was that I watched when I was a little kid? You know Shah Rukh Khan and .… ah, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, I think. When I was a kid, I watched that. My dad’s got that on tape and again, he watches it all day long, that one. So, that one I guess.
Do you have any other films lined up?
At the moment, no, I don’t. I’m twiddling my thumbs; I’m a bit unemployed. I don’t know. Hopefully! It’s been really crazy with press and things like that. I haven’t really had time to sit down and read some scripts and audition or anything, so I’ll get doing that.
Thank you very much for taking the time to do this Dev.
Thank you. Have you seen the film?
No, not yet. It’s not playing here yet, as soon as it comes out, I’ll be watching it.
I hope that you enjoy it when you see it.
Oh I’m very excited to see it. It’s on my first to-see list.
I wish you best of luck. Thanks once again for speaking to us and good luck on David Letterman tonight.
Hahaha cheers, thanks!
From his performance in Skins you could see what a deep talent Dev has, and in Slumdog Millionaire he tapped into that even more. This young actor has a very illustrious career ahead of him. We are looking forward to seeing many more great performances in the years to come. It was absolutely brilliant to talk to him and I thank him for such a fun interview! We wish him the best of luck now and always. Slumdog Millionaire opened in limited release last week in the US and each week expands to more markets. This week the film opens in Boston, Baltimore, Dallas, Denver, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Vancouver, Phoenix, and San Diego. To check out when it will be at theater near you click here. It is a must see film!! (And Dev, I saw you on Letterman, and you WERE great!)