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Dev Patel: ‘I Want to Be Very Selective in the Story I Go to India to Tell’

8 minute read

British actor Dev Patel has been hard at work since his film debut, Slumdog Millionaire, swept the Academy Awards and turned the eye of the West back on India. With a slew of Britain’s screen legends in tow, he returned to India for 2011’s Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, premieres Friday, this time with an even bigger cast of stars.

TIME talked to the actor about Indian representation in Hollywood, meeting Die Antwoord and getting starstruck over Richard Gere.

TIME: How did you feel about making a sequel to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?

Dev Patel: Lightning sometimes does strike twice. When we got the call to come back we were all just so excited, mainly because the first experience was so beautiful and positive. For someone as young as myself to be surrounded by a cast that legendary in one film is really special. We knew we had more of a story to tell with these guys, so we came back.

What is it like working with all these legendary actors? There were some new ones this time, too, like Richard Gere.

Yeah, and Tamsin Greig. They were just wonderful. It was far more relaxed than the first time for me, we got to come back and really play because we were so confident in the characters we’d established. And obviously to have Richard Gere among us brought out the inner fanboy in me. They’re so gracious and so lovely and everyone has a wonderful sense of humor. The boiling heat and exhausting desert of India can be quite tiring, but they were all so supportive and patient. And most of the film I spent with Maggie Smith.

What’s she like?

She is tremendous. She’s so elegant. She’s the true epitome of a scene-stealer. My character is spewing off a thousand lines super fast and then she’ll roll in at the end of the scene and say one line and completely steal it. It was great chemistry. We’re the oddest of on-screen couples, but a really fun, unlikely duo. I play this character that is ever the optimist but spreads himself very very thin because he’s so ambitious. And she is the woman who’s doing damage control. But as the film progresses, she becomes a mother figure to my character, and it gets very emotional. It was wonderful.

This isn’t the only movie you’ve got coming out this week.

Yeah, it’s called Chappie. It’s a sci-fi film set in South Africa. I play this young genius who works at this weapons manufacturer under Sigourney Weaver, and he creates this robot that is hired by the police force, the scout model that kind of polices over Johannesburg. But his interests don’t lie in that — he wants to create companions and friends and robots that can think and feel. He decides to steal one and create his own artificially intelligent robot. But at that point he’s hijacked by these gangsters played by this bonkers rap group called Die Antwoord. And madness ensues.

Was Die Antwoord they every bit as strange as you might expect?

Absolutely. They’re the strangest, most gangster vegans I’ve come across. They’re a walking contradiction in every way and they’re so interesting. I didn’t really know who they were before we shot. Just fascinating creatures. They came and really brought their own unique flavor to the film, to the point where they got to paint their own set — not the whole set, obviously, but their own den in their own style.

These movies are two really different examples of evolving Asian representation in movies. How do you feel about the way that’s developing right now?

I feel like in cinema particularly, the African-American struggle is far more evolved. You have all these amazing groundbreakers, from Sidney Poitier to Will Smith to Denzel [Washington], Cuba Gooding, Morgan Freeman. There’s so many — that’s just to name a few. In terms of someone of my ethnic origin, there’s not many people out there representing. And it’s mainly because there’s not really a large amount of roles for us, so it’s kind of fiercely competitive. Slumdog was a beautiful experience. Not only did it provide me with a career but I think it opened a lot of doors to an alternative film. It was about this young Indian guy. I try to strike a balance between being selective but also continuing to work and be relevant. So sometimes that means breaking the mold within the mold. For instance I did a show called The Newsroom. I played this guy who’s the social media expert. You can look at that and go, “Oh, that’s the Indian IT guy right there.” And initially, you could say he was in a way just that. But as the seasons progressed, we started to break the mold. He was not a nerdy guy with big specs. He was the cool dude that wore the cool clothes, and got to date all the girls on the show and was quite the Casanova.

It seems like Slumdog Millionaire created this appetite for a hybrid between Bollywood and Hollywood. How does it feel to perform in these kinds of movies?

It’s very easy to be labeled the Indian guy. I read my fair share of Indian-centric films. There’s a lot that I pass on for various reasons. I passed on this film called Million Dollar Arm, for reasons which I won’t talk about. But I want to be very selective in the story I go to India to tell. I think it’s a wonderful canvas. What we do as actors and storytellers is explore humanity and there’s no place where you’re going to find more humanity than in India. It’s just bursting with stories and people. It’s fascinating to me. Maybe that’s because it’s part of my ethnic heritage, but I feel there’s just a great level of storytelling that can come from there. And it has opened up a market for these crossover, diasporic films. Marigold, there’s so many wonderful actors in it, but one of the biggest characters in the film is India.

Some Asian actors have talked about accents. You’ve had a couple of movies now where you’re called upon to do that. Do you have any feelings about it?

It’s interesting, because it’s so easy to label it as a stereotype. But what is a stereotype? Is Hugh Jackman stereotyped to playing the really muscular, handsome man in Wolverine or other movies? Yes. And also he’s a wonderful guy and I’ve just worked with him and he’s broken that mold in countless ways. It’s a very heavy word to be throwing around all the time. I’m not hypersensitive. I feel that I respond to good storytelling. I also love comedy. With Marigold, I’m cooking up a very strange accent. The Slumdog accent is more lowkey than the one that I’ve just done. There are millions of accents. It depends on the genre in a way, and the energy that the character requires. I don’t take myself too seriously. I find that, to explore my heritage, I’m not ashamed of it at all. Another film where I put on an Indian accent will come out called The Man Who Knew Infinity. It’s about the first Indian mathematician to become a fellow at Cambridge University. I play an amazing character, a true legend, this guy called Srivinasa Ramanujan, who’s this boy who lived in the middle of nowhere in India. He wasn’t really educated, and got all these incredible mathematical equations from what he claimed was God. I had to put on an accent for that, and I think he’s an incredible, wonderful human being, and I’m proud to say so. I’m doing a film now called Lion where I play a boy of Indian descent but he’s actually more Australian than he is Indian, including his accent. I’m putting on an Aussie accent. I think that being versatile means not being afraid.

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