Dev Patel: ‘Sometimes I feel stuck in this cultural no-man’s land’

Dev Patel at the 22nd British Independent Film Awards, Roaming Arrivals, Old Billingsgate, London, UK - 01 Dec 2019

I love Dev Patel. He’s one of those actors who should work constantly in a wide variety of projects. He’s just so talented and able to pull off any kind of role thrown at him. But in the 13 years since Slumdog Millionaire, Dev’s career has had more ups and downs than most actors from his generation. As a British Indian man who “got famous” from playing an Indian-accented Indian teenager in Slumdog, he was typecast for many years and basically only offered “Indian man” roles or sidekick roles. Dev is currently promoting his lead role in The Green Knight, where he plays Gawain, the “debauched nephew of King Arthur.” Dev spoke to the Guardian about racism, typecasting and his own insecurities. Some highlights:

On his 2017 Oscar nomination: “What does this mean, if I were to get this thing? What if I do get nominated – what is that? It becomes that scary seed of hope that you’d never even thought about.”

His self-defensive habit of being funny: “The bigger and goofier you are, the more willing you are to be stupid, the more laughs you get from your peers” – and the less likely you are to be bullied for being “that guy fresh off the boat, or whatever”. In Skins he continued the pattern. “I’d throw every emotion at it: happy, sad, melancholic – all there in one line.”

Being typecast: When Patel broke into stardom, after Slumdog, he expected to land bigger, stiller parts, but none came. Often he had to “wait for an Indian role to come by, where I could put on a thick accent,” because “there wasn’t anything else, it was literally the clichés: goofy sidekick, taxi driver.” For a while he didn’t work. “I was dating my co-star at the time, Freida [Pinto], and she went on to do all of these amazing things. But in a way, she, too, was being type-cast, as this exotic beauty next to all these Caucasian leading men.”

Being cast in The Personal History of David Copperfield: The filmmaker was unconcerned by the colour of his skin. “I’m the one that is fixated on it,” Patel says. Before filming Copperfield, in which he “basically plays Charles Dickens”, he asked Iannucci: “Wait, so is his mum going to be brown? How are we going to talk about that? Is there going to be, like, a scene where they, like, arrive on a boat?” Iannucci said no, to which Patel recalls offering, “Look, I’m really appreciative, but I’m also sorry, because I know you’re going to face a barrage of comments…Because everyone’s going to be so fixated on the colour of the lead’s skin.”

He’s often asked why he, a British Indian man, plays so many Indian characters: “You’re kind of like, Where am I allowed to exist? How specific are we going to get with this? What does it mean to be an actor – to just be yourself? Am I only allowed to play a guy who’s 31 years old? Are you going to check my blood type? The very essence of acting, it asks for you to perform, transform, change, that’s the allure of the job… And sometimes I feel stuck in this cultural no-man’s land. I’m not British enough to be fully British, not Indian enough to be fully Indian.”

Whether it’s getting better for actors of color: “You know, it’s moving in the right direction. My mate Daniel Kaluuya just won an Oscar! And there are so many beautiful films in the mix now. We’re getting more nourished as a society for it.” He was thrilled when he found out Copperfield was being shown in schools. “It’s more indicative of the Britain I grew up in. It makes it more accessible. I didn’t know what David Copperfield was. I couldn’t relate to that. Fifteen-year-old Dev couldn’t see his face in that, couldn’t understand it.” But there are “people out there like me, who grew up in the same position, who share two identities… People are going to relate to this material.”

His life after ‘Lion’: “I feel like, instead of seeing me as ‘the Indian guy’, people were looking at me as the everyman. And that was the place I always wanted to be. I wanted to be part of that conversation. ‘Oh, you’ve got an everyman in a story – why can’t that be me?’”

[From The Guardian]

I winced when he talked about the color-blind casting of the Copperfield movie and he said “I’m the one that is fixated on it,” meaning his problem, in his mind, is that he’s the one obsessed with where he fits in and he’s fixated on his race and which parts he should play. When that was all just a product of years of being typecast and put in a box by filmmakers and producers who only wanted him to play Indian-accented Indian characters. He’s not the only one fixated on it! He’s been the victim of racism and racist casting for years and he’s internalized it.

As for what he says about living in two worlds and not feeling like he’s “enough” in either… that’s such a common first-generation child-of-immigrants feeling, and I would suspect it’s even harder when he grew up entirely in the UK and people treat him like he is “fresh off the boat.”

BFI London Film Festival 2019 - The Personal History Of David Copperfield European Premiere Arrivals - Odeon Luxe, Leicester Square, London

Photos courtesy of Avalon Red.

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41 Responses to “Dev Patel: ‘Sometimes I feel stuck in this cultural no-man’s land’”

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  1. Snazzy says:

    I love Dev and want him to get all the roles …
    Also yes, as another child of immigrants, I know the feeling of not being enough of one or the other. It can be a hard place to live in

  2. Mia4s says:

    A few years ago some people on the Internet started bringing him up as a possible next James Bond….and I am going to be disappointed if it is anyone else. Seriously, it’s a GREAT idea.

  3. Joanna says:

    I loved that movie Slumdog Millionaire

  4. Merricat says:

    I can’t wait to see him as Sir Gawain! I’m very interested in this interpretation of the myth, and Dev is a great actor.

    • PeacefulParsley says:

      He is fantastic in it, but the adaptation is…not good. It’s a bit of a mess, actually, e.g. the side-story about his mother is misleading and inaccurate. Overall, IMO the film doesn’t present or explore the tale’s themes very well at all.

      But the character Patel plays, while not true to the tale either, is good. You just have to set aside your experience with the tale and accept the director’s version that Gawain was a cowardly punk, not a noble knight.

      • Merricat says:

        Lol. I am okay with that! I am predicating that on the belief that this experience causes the character to develop into that noble knight.

    • BW says:

      I have never been so disappointed in a movie as I was in The Greene Knight. I’m a fan of the poem, and have read several translations of it, all of them good. The movie was terrible. Slow, slow, slow, and dark so you can’t always see what’s going on. They changed enough that it really bothered me. They added new stuff that went nowhere. And they left out all the good bits. They totally changed Gawain’s character. They don’t even pronounce his name right. Dev is good, but the movie is terrible.

    • Mah says:

      It’s an excellent movie. It’s slow. It’s deliberate. It’s lyrical. Dev is astonishing to watch in it. His face is ballet. It’s an amazing examination of what it means to use myth and legend in order to develop our youthful identities. The film explores what it means when those myths and legends are rotten to the core, too. I loved every moment of it. It’s not a horror film with knights.

      And the idea that the movie isn’t “true to the story” is a bit silly: it’s a chivalric romance. Those were stories that were swapped over camp fires and in dinner halls: the written version we have is just one version of countless that were shared but never recorded to history.

    • The Recluse says:

      I saw it when it showed here for two weeks. I liked it. It was a welcome palate cleanser after all the usual films I get to see. It was meditative and lingers with you long after you see it. And he’s excellent.

  5. Lena says:

    Reason 1001 not to be an actor. Everyone is typecast and you either have to lean into the typecast or not work. I’m one who (used to) read all the Oscar blogs and even I forgot he was nominated and it was relatively recently in 2017. Which says less about him than the Oscars just don’t do anything for anyone any more.

    • BothSidesNow says:

      @ Lena, that is an issue that many actors suffer from. You see it play in every actors life, being typecast. They either suffer from that category in movies or sitcoms. The fact that the audience and the casting pool have very little imagination to see an actor is the problem. Though he seems to suffer from within himself from the same position. Until we see change for all those who choose to be an actor that opens up doors for immigrants, BIPOC, and LGBTQ there will always be a problem.
      As for not feeling like he fits in, as a child immigrant, I can’t identify with him but I certainly have empathy for him. It must be difficult to be one within 2 worlds.
      Hopefully he will be able to find his place soon. I agree that he is so incredibly talented, that his offers become more often and diverse.

    • FHMom says:

      My first thought was that applies to every actor. Ask any actress over 40. The good news is that with all the screening channels available and companies like Amazon producing original content, there is more work out there. You just hope that real talent is recognized, and he has an abundance of talent.

  6. Songs (Or it didnt happen) says:

    He’s only 31 years old?? To be so accomplished and poised at such a young age…

  7. Beech says:

    Eh, the thing about the Oscars is after a week, you search your brain to come up w/ the names of the recipients. Better to have a steady career than the trophy. And that’s what I wish for Patel, a wide range of roles.

  8. @poppedbubble says:

    “As for what he says about living in two worlds and not feeling like he’s “enough” in either… that’s such a common first-generation child-of-immigrants feeling…”
    It’s a feeling every brown person who lives in a white ruled society has regardless of how long they’ve been in the country.

    • Lena says:

      Exactly. Ask any 5th generation Mexican American from El Paso, Texas if they feel looked at by others (even more recent immigrants) as just”Americans”.

  9. Bettyrose says:

    Has everyone here watched Starstruck? One of the coolest things about it (other than absolutely everything because it’s such a great show) is that the international action star is a British Indian and it’s offered with no analysis. It just is.

    • Anne Call says:

      Great show. And I loved the female lead, who also broke some stereotypes. Hope there is a second season.

  10. Nanea says:

    Dev Patel playing David Copperfield and Sir Gawain is a move in the right direction.

    It’s about time people accept actors based on how versatile they are, and not just check for the content of melanin in their skin.

    See also Jodie Turner Smith as Anne Boleyn.

  11. Melly says:

    Wow i teared up a bit reading this. That whole first generation child of immigrants thing and never quite belonging hit home. Now I’m 50 and have lived outside of the UK for 13 years i don’t feel that anymore. I just feel
    Sad that young POC are
    Still going through it. Dev is a lovely accomplished man and I am so happy to see him getting more recognition in diverse roles.

  12. Adrienne Buckley says:

    Sexiest man alive.

  13. Courtney B says:

    On a shallow note, I remember thinking how he didn’t seem (to me) that attractive in Slumdog. By the time Lion came out it was like ‘hello’. The longer wavy hair, the beard. It just really works for him. Plus some guys just really come out of a goofier teenage phase. There was a funny meme about Chris evans a few years ago. It showed him at the BAFTAs in his 20s and then his mid 30s. Said he didn’t get older so much as he ‘leveled up’ like a Pokémon. Same with Dev.

    • Ursaline says:

      I agree. Lion brought out his hotness. That hair just begs for your fingers to run through it.

  14. Liz version 700 says:

    I love Dev so much. He is one of my favorite actors. I hear his story so much in my husband’s life. He was born in the US but is constantly asked where he is from. I like to annoy people by talking about where he was born and then every state he has lived lol. Dev’s internalization of the racism that he has experienced breaks my heart.

  15. Wilma says:

    I love him. He is a very versatile actor and I believe him in everything I’ve seen him in. I can’t wait to see The Green Knight.

  16. psl says:

    I find him to be absolutely ADORABLE and a good actor. His photo makes me smile.

  17. Hrefna says:

    I haven’t seen the Green Knight yet, I will soon though now I can rent it. He was absolutely wonderful in David Copperfield, he’s one of those actors you just want to watch, you know? He has that magic movie magnetism that makes you want to follow his character’s journey.

  18. ElleV says:

    this is why more colour-blind casting is essential – it’s dumb and racist that people expect some deep cultural backstory/justification for a person of colour to hold an “everyman” role when no one questions a white person taking up that space

    he’s handsome and talented and i’m looking forward to seeing more of him in (hopefully) a wider variety of roles

    • Otaku fairy says:

      ‘it’s dumb and racist that people expect some deep cultural backstory/justification for a person of colour to hold an “everyman” role when no one questions a white person taking up that space.’ God, yes. This is true not only within works of fiction, but even within movements that are about more than just race. Other marginalized communities we’re a part of are ‘supposed’ to be treated as lesser concerns to be left to the white ‘everymen’ (or ‘whiteeverywomen’. Which gets us nowhere and happens to be very convenient for any person of any race who has conservative agendas or hot takes when it comes to issues like sexuality and gender, for example. That’s why it’s so good that now more than ever in the media we have people out there showing that you can be unapologetically queer AND of color, and you can be a woman of color AND be against misogyny/traditional values.

  19. msd says:

    As an Australian, I was really impressed with Dev’s Australian accent in Lion. It’s easy to get wrong and has been badly mangled in the past (Irish people feel must the same way). He basically set a new standard for foreign actors playing Aussies. Now he half lives here anyway because his partner is Australian, which is quite amusing. Anyway, I recall reading that he worked really, really hard at that role because he sensed it could be a game changer. He deserved his award nominations and I’m glad it helped people see him as a talented actor who can do many things. The industry still has a long way to go, though …

    • Cas says:

      I was just coming here to say this. I’m Australian too and thought he did a fantastic job with the accent. 100% believable.

  20. rawiya says:

    He’s so hot in The Green Knight. Y’all. It’s a long movie (two hours) and I probably understood like 60% of it, but I recommend just watching it on mute with your favourite podcast in the background or something. He’s THAT good-looking in it.