rising stars

Starstruck’s Nikesh Patel: ‘My WhatsApps have been popping off since the Luther story’

The Londoner plays a movie star opposite Rose Matafeo in her infectious new millennial comedy. He talks to Ellie Harrison about filming nightclub scenes in lockdown, diversity in casting and why he’s no longer willing to accept the status quo

Sunday 25 April 2021 06:57 BST
‘As actors, there are certain things we internalise and accept as the status quo’
‘As actors, there are certain things we internalise and accept as the status quo’ (Nathan Johnson)

Nikesh Patel is one of the only people in Britain who can say he went clubbing in 2020. Well, sort of. During lockdown last autumn, he was in Cargo in Shoreditch, filming the meet-cute between his and Rose Matafeo’s characters in her new millennial comedy, Starstruck. “It was a massive party scene and we had members of the public rocking up, trying to get in,” he says. “Obviously, it looked like we were having a good time because we were blaring out Flo Rida and Ludacris to rev up the crowd inside. We had to turn people away.” 

Created by and starring New Zealander comedian Matafeo, Starstruck is a wry, huge-hearted, infectious, messy joy of a romcom. It takes the dinner party scene in Notting Hill – when Hugh Grant’s bookseller introduces Julia Roberts’s movie star to his friends and everyone tries to act normal – and stretches it into a series, which has already been renewed for a second season on BBC Three. 

The action kicks off with Jessie (Matafeo) and Tom (Patel) having a one-night stand. It’s not until the morning afterwards that Jessie realises Tom is an extremely famous actor, having glimpsed his face on a movie poster in his swanky flat. As she stumbles out, she’s greeted by the flashes of paparazzi cameras. But they don’t stay long, assuming that this startled woman with her scruffy tote bag must be the celebrity’s cleaner.

Tom, meanwhile, is having an identity crisis after starring in a run of crappy action movies. His lovely eyelashes and Michael Fassbender jawline might make the girls swoon, but his agent (a brilliant, no bulls*** Minnie Driver) has warned him he “must not f*** civilians”. When he’s not starring in films, he bumbles through his personal life, blinking in bewilderment and forever on the brink of a panic attack. Patel is spot on as Tom, his awkwardness and reticence perfectly portraying the character’s internal conflict between being the man the world wants him to be and the man he really is.   

Patel, 35, says Starstruck is reality in reverse because, in actual fact, Matafeo was the star who he had messaged on Twitter to compliment her work. She’s a comedian on the rise, having won the top award at the 2018 Edinburgh fringe with her show Horndog and starred in Taika Waititi’s feature film, Baby Done, last year. “If anything,” Patel continues, speaking from his flat in Kensal Rise, “I was the Rose Matafeo fan who was then in her show.”  

Like other post-MeToo hits such as Booksmart, Normal People and Sex Education, Starstruck’s dialogue puts an emphasis on consent, with Jessie asking Tom things like: “Do you want to have sex? I just want to check it’s not a mistake.” Patel says it was refreshing to “engage with sex in a romcom in a way that felt funny and not icky”. “You’re watching two people who are into each other and trying to do the right thing in a farcical scenario,” he says. “Touches like that are what make it feel fresh.” 

Another touch Patel appreciated was Tom’s surname being changed from something “specifically Anglo and waspy” – as it had been in the original scripts – to Kapoor, to reflect his Indian heritage. “One of the first things Rose wanted to talk about was, ‘We should find a name for you that fits who you are,’” he recalls. “It felt very easy to turn the name into something that made a virtue of the fact I was cast, rather than ignore it. In the past, I might have tried to second guess or fit myself into another person’s idea of who this character is.”

‘It was a massive party scene’: Starstruck’s Patel and Matafeo in Cargo, Shoreditch (BBC/Avalon UK/Mark Johnson)

Growing up in Wembley in the Nineties, Patel hardly saw himself reflected on screen. “It was limited,” he says. “Every British-Asian actor talks about Goodness Gracious Me as a key touchstone, culturally. The fact is that, while it was incredible television and it got all of us talking, there wasn’t much else. But that’s shifting now. Riz Ahmed is nominated for an Oscar – it’s so exciting to see that.” 

Patel’s parents, who are pharmacists, weren’t big theatre-goers, and it was only when he attended his secondary school – City of London, which counts Daniel Radcliffe among its alumni – that he first saw “someone like me treading the boards” when his classmate Krishnan was cast in a play.

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He went on to read English literature at Warwick University, but spent all his time rehearsing for student plays rather than revising. After a brief dalliance with arts journalism – he reviewed Scissor Sisters in Trafalgar Square for the Financial Times – he attended Guildhall School of Music and Drama. From there, he went on to star in the colonial-era drama Indian Summers, Mindy Kaling’s Four Weddings and a Funeral remake and most recently the heart-wrenching play-film hybrid Good Grief opposite Fleabag’s Sian Clifford.  

‘It was surreal’: Nikesh Patel in Good Grief (Platform Presents)

Patel’s performance in the latter as Adam, a man who loses his girlfriend to cancer, is penetrating. He is brittle and all at sea. He and Clifford rehearsed for two weeks on Zoom, then shot the “plilm” over two days. “It was a pretty full-on experience making that piece,” he says, “because it was a bit of an experiment. You just had to kind of jump.”

One of the jobs that has stuck with Patel the most is one he didn’t get. It was soon after the 2012 Olympics in London, when he was rejected for a television role on the basis of his race. “I remember being really disappointed because we were all feeling celebratory about the opening ceremony, and that depiction of young lovers from different backgrounds that celebrated what Britain looks like,” he says. “And then to be knocked back from an audition... What I heard was, effectively, ‘They don’t think it will work to cast a Black mixed-race woman with a south Asian man.’ Which is just bizarre to say out loud. My agent was furious. I remembered being quite baffled.”

How does he feel about it now? “I’d like to think that that decision wouldn’t be arrived at now and the way it was conveyed would be... ,” he begins, then sighs, shaking his head. “The tricky thing is, what am I trying to say? Do I wish they had veiled their reasons for not casting me and been less brazen? Probably not, because I don’t think that’s better. At the time, I felt like it was out of my hands, which it was, but also that it was normal. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last decade, it’s that there’s so much competition in this industry and when you’re an actor trying to get work, sometimes when stuff like that happens you just accept it.”

Will-they-won’t-they? Matafeo and Patel in Starstruck (BBC/Avalon UK/Mark Johnson)

Earlier this month, the debate about diverse casting was reignited after a BBC diversity chief said Idris Elba’s Luther “doesn’t feel authentic” as a Black lead because he doesn’t have Black friends or eat Caribbean food. “My WhatsApps have been popping off since that story,” says Patel. “Largely among my friends of colour, like, ‘Have you seen this? What do you think?’ There’s a nuanced discussion to be had about being culturally specific and the danger of one story representing everyone. When I was training, there were relatively few role models I was exposed to that looked like me and there was also a real pride in colour-blind casting. I think there’s still a space for that but now people do want to let their identity inform their work… Ignoring ethnicity completely can lead to quite strange, unreal situations. But at the same time, it’s not particularly interesting when a character is formed out of a bunch of bullet points about their identity.” 

Patel has become more politically engaged during lockdown. Last month, he was so “disturbed” by the police’s heavy-handed response to the Sarah Everard vigil that he wrote to his local MP. “Like everyone, I was shocked,” he says. “And I talked earlier about how there are certain things that, as actors, we internalise and accept as the status quo – I think all human beings do that. In this case, I was wanting to be a bit more engaged, civically, and I’m still finding my way with doing that.”

In the whirlwind of usual life, it’s all too easy to read an awful headline, sigh, and move on without acting on it. Patel hopes that our apathy does not return as normality resumes. “I don’t think, with something as horrific as that, that we should sit back and go that’s just the way of things,” he says, shaking his head. “We should look for answers.” 

Starstruck will be released online via BBC Three on Sunday 25 April and on BBC One from Monday 26 April

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