Back in August, few Americans had heard of 18-year-old Dev Patel, but that should change by year’s end when they see him starring in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, an epic underdog story set in Mumbai, India in which Patel plays Jamal Malik, a young man from the slums of Bombay, who gets onto the popular game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” and knows the answers to all the questions.
Patel used to be part of the ensemble cast of the British teen drama “Skins” (which can be seen in this country on BBC America), where he caught the eye of Boyle’s daughter; the next thing you know, Patel was off to Mumbai for months to shoot his first major feature film with one of England’s most respected directors.
As big fans of the film, we were excited to sit down with this young actor to talk about the experience making his first Bollywood-style film with a filmmaker like Danny Boyle no less… but only after Dev turned his own handheld camera on us to ask what we thought of the movie for his own blog. (No, we have no idea if our response was usable.)
(You can also read our interview with director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy here.)
ComingSoon.net: I spoke with Danny back in Toronto and he mentioned that his daughter suggested you for the role of Jamal, which is a strange way of getting cast for a movie. Did he just call you or your agent or what was the process?
Dev Patel: Yeah, I was doing this show called “Skins” in London, and I think they were having trouble finding the lead guy, and as Danny always puts it, I think they were too buff out in India, so he couldn’t find the right dude. His daughter was watching “Skins” and I think she said, “Why don’t you give this guy a go?” and then the casting director, Gail Stevens, gave me a call and then I went on tape and here I am today really.
CS: Did he send you a script or sides of just some of your scenes?
Patel: I actually just had sides at the start, and yeah, I just had a small scene which is not in there anymore, when he’s having an argument with his brother about destiny and stuff like that. Yeah, it was quite shocking. I remember reading it and thinking a 17-year-old guy is talking about soulmates and destiny, and I was like, “God, do kids our age really talk about that?” But yeah, once you get the whole script, it all makes sense.
CS: You didn’t go and read the book and try and find out more about your character?
Patel: No, I didn’t, because the book’s a lot different than the script. If you read it, the book, each individual chapter could be taken out of context and put as its own film. There isn’t anything fluid throughout it really, but from the book, we do use the whole “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” thing as a skeleton to provide the flashbacks, but the thing is the love story. Simon Beaufoy has done an amazing job interweaving this love story into it, that just ties it all together and gives it that depth really.
CS: Was Danny already in India doing all of his casting there when he found you?
Patel: He was. I think I came into it quite late actually, and yeah, they’d been looking out in L.A. and India, and I went on tape, because he was out promoting “Sunshine” as well, so they just put me on tape. Then, from there, on the second audition, I think they liked me and then I was straight with Danny doing it, and I had a few more auditions after that until they told me I got the role.
CS: What was the first stuff you shot for the movie? Did you do all the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” stuff first?
Patel: No, that was actually right near the end, that was probably the last stuff we did. I mean, the hardest thing about doing this role was it wasn’t in a chronological order. It’s so complicated as it is, because everything is based on flashbacks and I have to garner this emotion from a past event that’s really shocked his life. We were jumping all over the place, but honestly, it was great having Danny to set the scene, it was good yeah.
CS: Did you get to watch any of what he’d shot with the younger kids?
Patel: I did actually, I did get to watch and when we watched it, we were like, “Wow! We’ve got to raise our game because these kids are amazing.” They’re great little actors, and they don’t even know the extent of what they’re doing. They’re playing in between takes and things like that and than all of a sudden, everyone’s like “Ready?” and they’ll just switch into serious mode, quickly smash out their lines to perfection, and then get back to playing again. We were just in awe of these little kids because we were working so hard, writing notes and things like that, but they’re great kids.
CS: Were you on set at all while they were there shooting?
Patel: We were, yeah? I was there a lot and in the rehearsal process, we saw these kids doing rehearsals and there needed to be that continuity between us, so hopefully one of us doesn’t stick out like sore thumbs.
CS: Did you know Danny’s work beforehand?
Patel: Yeah, of course. This is Danny Boyle we’re talking about in London, and yeah, I’d seen most of his films already, but I decided to get all the DVDs so I could see the director’s commentary on most of them. See what he’s like and stuff like that, because I’d only met him in auditions and I really wanted to have a feel of how he’d direct me, so I watched these.
CS: I’d think that you could see how good he is with kids from watching “Millions.”
Patel: He is, he’s great. He’s a great actor’s director, especially on a set in Mumbai where everything’s so chaotic and it’s so easy to get lost in it all and get stressed out. When he’s talking to you, he has a wicked way of just engaging you, and you forget about everything and just get into that role, into character for that scene.
CS: Had you ever been to Mumbai before or were you familiar at all with the movie scene there?
Patel: No, I’d been to India but not Mumbai, and that was a very young age, so yeah, this was quite new to me.
CS: What was that experience like? There are a lot of British actors who do go back and forth a lot and work in Bollywood. What was your first experience in that kind of setting vs. doing a TV show for so long?
Patel: It was good for me actually, because I was away from home and I was just immersed in Mumbai. I mean, I was playing this character and I was there, so I had no other distractions. I could sleep and breathe this character. I was there with the people, the culture, everyone speaking Hindi around me. You really get into the role, which really helped.
CS: What was your relationship with the actor playing your brother? When you did your scenes with him, you already had all this backstory, so did you get a chance to spend time with him to establish that connection?
Patel: Yeah, he was a great guy, his name is Madhur Mittal, and we spent a lot of time together. I actually met him before I met Freida, the girl that plays Latika. I went to his house and met his family and actually stayed the night in his house and then he took me out to all these places I wouldn’t be allowed to go. He took me to all these snooker clubs and meeting all his friends and we went out to watch films. Sometimes, it would be a bit rough and tumble, but it was great, because I got to see a part of Mumbai that I wouldn’t be able to see otherwise, being in an air-conditioned car or something like that, you know what I mean? So it was great for the character and he’s a great guy. I remember he took me to watch this film called “Chak de Indias” which is a big hit out in India, a Bollywood film, and it was crazy. I was sitting in a cinema in India with him and everyone was… It’s weird, it’s like going to watch theater where everyone’s so involved in it and like when they don’t like something, they’ll start throwing popcorn at the screens, this was in the cinema, and then a massive fight broke out behind us, on the other rows, and I was the only one affected by this, two big men having a fight behind us, rowing with each other in Hindi, and everyone else is just watching the film like nothing had happened. It was crazy.
CS: Have they shown “Slumdog Millionaire” there yet?
Patel: No, the first time I saw it was at Toronto.
CS: I’ll be curious to know how this movie will go over there with those kinds of audiences.
Patel: Yeah, I know, ’cause they’re the real deal. They’ll know if there’s a fake, right?
CS: Were you able to connect easily with Madhur even though you came from different backgrounds?
Patel: I mean, Danny’s cast him pretty well, but me and Madhur are quite different people He’s very loud, but we got along really well, and on set, he’s a very good actor. We spent a lot of time talking, and he’s a really good friend now to me. Just on set we’d talk with each other and really got into it, really got into that zone. Spending a lot of time with him off-set really helped I think.
CS: What about Freida? Did you get time to rehearse with her before doing your scenes?
Patel: Of course. Me, him and Freida were like the Three Musketeers. Me being out of London, they took me around everywhere and showing me some of Mumbai. There was a lot of downtime obviously, so we were hanging around together a lot of the time. The characters we’re playing, they’re so intimate with each other, there’s love beyond the greatest bounds when he’s trying to find this girl, and there’s really, really strong brotherly love. I mean, they’ve lost each other for ages, but then there’s that whole story about his brother being tainted, he gets into gangs and things like that. It’s a real strong story, so we had to get to know each other real well to garner some sort of emotions at that level.
CS: Not being from Mumbai, were you able to relate to Jamal’s journey at all?
Patel: Of course, I think everybody can relate to that. I mean, everyone’s drawn to that whole underdog story I think, and he’s just a great character, his rise through adversity. He’s going to do anything to get this girl. He gets sh*t from everyone, he’s tortured, he’s interrogated, but he’s got a strong sense of destiny, and he’ll move mountains to get to her, literally if he has to. To get to her, he’s literally one-track minded, that is his aim in life, his mission, and it’s a brilliant story. For him, 20 million rupees isn’t the prize, it’s the girl. For a boy coming from the slums, it’s even more awesome. Where a lot of people in that situation are, money is a big dream for them, but that’s not his dream.
CS: I was thinking more of relating to that extreme situation of coming from the slums and such extreme poverty and that unique experience. Do you have to suspend disbelief when playing him or do you have to believe that this can happen?
Patel: Yeah, you do. I mean, it does keep you on the edge of your seat for a bit, and of course it does, and you just want to root for him when you watch it, I think. In the end, we are embracing that sort of Bollywood film, that sort of escapism. So there is that sort of dreamy environment. I mean, it is pretty out there, a kid from the slums winning “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” but if you come from Mumbai and you live in the slums or wherever, which is a large population, you don’t want to watch things that remind you of the lack of water you have or what a bad situation you’re in. You want to be escorted away into a land of people who are madly in love, heroes and heroines, dancing in mountains.
CS: Is “Millionaire” really as popular there as we see in the movie?
Patel: Yeah, yeah, the guy who hosts it is called Amitabh Bachchan, and he’s like a mega-star there, he’s massive. Anil Kapoor (the host of the show in the movie) is massive as well, he’s a big superstar over there.
CS: What is it like working with actors like him and Irrfan Khan, who are just so huge and popular there.
Patel: He’s massive, and they’ve got that great chemistry with the camera. They’ve been around the camera for so long and done so may films, it’s great to watch. Going into the scenes, they really set the scene, the atmosphere in the room. I just went along with the flow really, we were just in their hands. Irrfan especially, there’s a lot of improvisation and things like that and he’s great, such a subtle actor, and it was great to work with people like him.
CS: How many days were you shooting all the “Millionaire” stuff on that set?
Patel: I think it was two weeks or so, and that was good because we did that in chronological order, which made it easier. I went on there the first day with all these extras on set, and I was really nervous. The whole experience of all these extras on set and I don’t know what they’re saying and they’re all staring at me, and if I mess up, they’re all going to be watching.
CS: But that was probably good for your performance.
Patel: Yeah, a good thing, and then I started to warm as we got along with it, yeah.
CS: Did Danny try to shoot entire scenes of the “Millionaire” thing like they would do the show or did he just break it up and do each person separately?
Patel: We’d done it by questions but we used so many different cameras, we’d done like long chunks of it and things like that.
CS: I know you’re done with “Skins” so what else do you have coming up?
Patel: “Skins” is finished, they’ve got a new cast in that, and I had to leave that anyway to do “Slumdog” so it was good timing for me, really, but yeah, I’m out looking now.
CS: What are you looking for? More television stuff at all? Or going to Hollywood on the love this movie is getting?
Patel: I don’t really know. I just think getting to work with some great actors and get some experience or just some good roles that interest me I think.
CS: Are there any specific genres you like?
Patel: Anything really… honestly. I’m really open-minded and I like to try everything and be as versatile as I can.
Slumdog Millionaire is now playing in select theaters and will open in other places over the next few months.