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."
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