After Slumdog Millionaire, Dev Patel had Hollywood at his feet. So, how come he’s playing the baddie in The Last Airbender? “It’s a very tricky place I’m in right now,” he tells Paul Byrne
You can’t help but like Dev Patel. Broke through with TV’s Skins (aka The O.D.), and then took everyone – including himself – by surprise by becoming an international star with Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning little-film-that-could, Slumdog Millionaire.
Patel and his model co-star, Freida Pinto, toured the world back in 2008, a Slumdog Millionaire promotional tour that soon took on the sense of a victory lap. By the end of the happy globe-trotting, and the victorious Oscar night, Patel and Pinto were a couple.
All in all, quite an experience for a 18-year old and his first movie. Which makes it all the more bizarre that London-born Patel hasn’t been running from movie set to movie set over the last year and a half. He’s popped up in just one outing since Slumdog, as a hotel waiter in the America TV show, Mister Eleven. And, er, that’s it.
Until now, that is, and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, a big-screen adaptation of a Nickelodeon cartoon series that ran from 2005 to 2008, about a gifted martial arts kid who must restore the world to rights. He’s a bit like the Dalai Lama’s Mini-Me. With kick-ass skills.
His troubled Prince Zuko more than just your traditional panto baddie, having been sent on his mission to capture the supernatural little tyke in order to win back the love of his stern, manipulative father.
PAUL BYRNE: With Prince Zuko, you get to have some fun with your dark side – and I’m sure growing up on the mean streets of Harrow must have helped with that. Was it part of the attraction, going in this new direction?
DEV PATEL: Eh, I had to constantly fend for myself, living in Harrow, so… No, it was great. I really wanted to sink my teeth into something new after Slumdog Millionaire, and I really looked for something that would show my versatility – and then this film came along. It’s such a physical performance, and there are so many fight sequences, and the character was not just evil. Everyone says he’s the villain, but what struck me about him was that, basically, the reason he had that intention was because he was emotionally blackmailed by his father to do that. In essence, he’s just a boy yearning for the love of his father, so, with that came some vulnerability. That was interesting, to try and squeeze in.
M. Night Shyamalan originally cast pop pixie Jesse McCartney as Prince Zuko, but a tour cancelled that out. Were you okay with that, being the second girl he asked up to dance?
Eh, it was kind of strange, because I wasn’t made too aware of it, to be honest. And I don’t know if that’s a film set thing, because I’m so new to it, but I came on, relatively fresh-faced – ‘Hey, I’m Dev! And I’m playing Zuko!’ – and, yeah, I really didn’t of it that way, to be honest, at all.
There was some boot camp training here, but you’re already something of a killing machine. You have a black belt in taekwondo and you also got a bronze medal, in Dublin, at 2004’s Action Martial Arts International Association World Championships. So, piece of cake?
That was the great thing about my growing up, all these little gifts my parents gave me as a child, which I never really knew would pay off. But I guess this was their bigger picture, my destiny, and it just so happened that the film fell into my lap, and the producers said, ‘You need to be physically fit, and have great martial arts skills’. ‘The second one I have – physically fit, I don’t know. But I know martial arts’.
As with all big-screen adaptations of much-loved franchises, the hardcore fans protested almost as much as the critics did about this movie. Were you aware of all that grief, or do you feel removed from that side of the process?
It’s weird, because after doing a film like this, you realise how small you are in the scale of things. You do a film this big, and all I came in to do was try and bring, within the script and the lines I have, try and bring as much of me and put as much effort and do as much justice to my character as possible. And, you know, once you’re part of a film, you can’t be selfish and step away from it. But you support the team, because it’s such a big collaborative art, and so many people put in effort. The people who are in front of the camera, at the end of the day, do all the selling, but they also take all the praise. So, we’ve got to stand by our piece, I guess.
You turned 20 in April, and to have something like Slumdog Millionaire happen so early in life is pretty remarkable. How come you’re not on our screens every other day though? Holding back for the right parts, or has it all been a little overwhelming?
Neither really. It’s sort of strange, no one’s been throwing projects at my feet, or anything like that. It’s sort of hard, I find myself hoping that the industry will be a lot more colour-blind in the future, and the roles I do get offered, or get auditions for, are not really where I see myself wanting to go. I don’t want to be stereotyped, or see myself typecast, and I’m very consciously aware of that. I want to play characters and make myself as versatile as possible, and this came along, where, even though it was a cartoon, and obviously the script wasn’t going to be as emotionally pulling and deep as Slumdog, character wise, he’s a boy called Zuko, he has his dark side, and for me as an actor, I thought he would be great for me to play. To show some versatility. And that’s what I hope to continue to do. Hopefully, there are more roles out there. You just have to consciously try and… It’s a very tricky place I’m in right now.
Words – Paul Byrne
The Last Airbender is at Irish cinemas from Aug 13th