Dev Patel: Smashing the Hollywood mould

Frustrated by the jobs Tinseltown first offered, the actor tells Kunal Dutta he's now determined to break 'Indian guy' boundaries from within

"I am trying to break the mould," Dev Patel wails. The star of Slumdog Millionaire is in Hollywood, complaining that there is still a prejudice towards India that is magnified in Tinseltown.

Asian actors, he says, are seldom written into scripts except as taxi drivers or shopkeepers: "Even when I first arrived in America everyone thought I was from a slum in India. They found it weird that I had an English accent."

His latest role should at least put a couple of cracks in the mould. In The Newsroom, which starts on Sky Atlantic this week, he stars with Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer as a blogger in the office of a troubled cable TV news show. The series, penned by Aaron Sorkin, the writer of West Wing and The Social Network, charts the show's struggle to stay highbrow despite its audience's desire for simplification and celebrity tittle-tattle. It's pitched as Mad Men with autocues and draws on recent historical events – the Arab Spring and Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, for example.

As far as the critics are concerned, it hasn't quite come off. Patel says this is to be expected from a show burdened by so much expectation. He says he nearly bailed out after reading the script: in the first episode he is bellowed at by the news anchor who nicknames him "Punjab", and he is frequently mistaken for one of the office tech supports. "When I first read for the role it was just marked as 'the Indian guy'. I almost didn't do it. What was great, though, was that once I signed on, I managed to impart my own character and [Sorkin] has written for that role in mind. Now it's changed," he laughs. "I'm the one rolling around in bed with the girls."

Ironically, given that he's one of a tiny handful of Asian actors getting decent roles outside Bollywood, he had only been to India once before Slumdog catapulted him to fame. Originally from Harrow, north London, he was dragged to a wedding in Gujarat, aged 10. His few recollections include being "bitten by mosquitos" and "getting the runs". He recalls: "I just couldn't make sense of it back then. I was a young kid and couldn't understand such a weird country."

Then in 2008, Danny Boyle cast him as Jamal Malik and unlocked the country for him in a way his parents never could. "The India I witnessed through Danny was the India of gangsters and black money. It gave it an identity that I am still forging in my acting identity today."

Since Slumdog Patel has become the go-to guy for Hollywood executives looking for brown skin and a safe pair of hands. Few other Indian actors get a look in. Nevertheless, Patel feels ambivalent about his good fortune: "As an Asian guy in the film world, you automatically get pigeonholed. I noticed that even before I got here. Without stepping into a room, you could already hear people thinking: 'he can be that guy who runs that shop or drives that taxi'. And that was a real hindrance. But after a while I began to realise that I couldn't keep turning down roles. I had to conform to what Hollywood was giving me and then break that boundary from within the role."

Given that he is only 22 and dating the actress Freida Pinto, his Slumdog co-star, he can afford the odd critical knock. He is very aware of how lucky he is. "By now, I would have been fresh out of university with a degree and massive loan to pay off.

"My sister is clever and passed all her exams but she's really struggling to find a job. It's awful to see. The worst thing is that all her life she has assumed that if she worked hard her future would be bright. Yet the dismal reality of it is that you spend all this time learning and then you're left adrift. It's terrifying."

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

HR Manager (standalone) - London

Up to £40,000: Ashdown Group: Standalone HR Manager role for an SME business b...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone