LAFF Interview: Dev Patel on The Road Within, Chappie & The Newsroom

Dev Patel The Newsroom

Dev Patel came to Los Angeles for the premiere of his new film, The Road Within, at the Los Angeles Film Festival. He plays Alex, a man with obsessive compulsive at a clinic that also treats a girl with anorexia, Marie (Zoe Kravitz) and Vincent (Robert Sheehan), a man with Tourette’s Syndrome. The three end up on a road trip together with their doctor (Kyra Sedgwick) and Vincent’s father (Robert Patrick) on their tail. I spoke with Patel about the intensity with which he portrayed OCD, as well as his career since the whirlwind success of Slumdog Millionaire. Patel is going back to HBO’s “The Newsroom,” has wrapped production on The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2 and is currently in production on Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie.

CraveOnline: After Slumdog Millionaire, how did you navigate your career after that whirlwind? Your first movie after was a studio movie.

Dev Patel: Yeah, that wasn’t the best move, was it? It’s really hard. Slumdog catapulted us somewhere which was dizzying in a way and also we’re so lucky. We did this tiny film, it was my first movie ever, I was super nervous and the next thing, I’m walking the red carpet at the Oscars in the blink of an eye it felt like. Obviously there’s so much work that went into it, and Q&As after Q&A but looking back on it it felt that quick. In the moment you can never really have any perspective on it when you’re in the eye of the tornado.

The difficulty I’ve always had is people seeing me differently. When you come out with a movie that big, then you’re labeled as “that kid from Slumdog, the Slumdog guy from the slums who’s got an Indian accent.” I would fly to L.A. and do meetings and people would be surprised when I’d speak in my normal voice. They forget sometimes that you’re an actor. It’s constantly been trying to break the mold, and sometimes that means trying to break the mold within the mold if that makes any sense. Sometimes if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. In a way I’ve tried to be as selective as I can, so that means not being as busy as I could’ve been just so I could do stuff that the product I’m putting out is better and better.

Airbender was a real big eye opener for me because I had lots of people on the team. In all honesty, looking at it on paper, it was an amazing gig because you’ve got Frank Marshall producing, you’ve got M. Night Shyamalan, you’ve got cinematographer Andrew Lesnie from Lord of the Rings. You’ve got all these amazing people for this film and I was a martial artist so I loved it, but I learned something about how these big studio films, you feel so small in comparison to this big goliath machine.

Thus doing a film like this where there’s no motivation monetarily. There’s no money to gain from it but you’re just doing it because you’re all together and you really believe in the script and you really believe you can create another little gem that will inspire or shed the light on an issue or something people are going through like OCD, Tourette’s or anorexia but with some humor and some lightness and some entertainment.

I don’t think anyone would begrudge you doing a studio movie, but do you have some regrets about The Last Airbender?

No, no regrets at all. I learned a lot. I learned a tremendous amount on Airbender and I got to experience amazing things on the press tour and stuff like that, and working in America for the first time. “The Newsroom” is the only other time that I got to work out here. Most of the other stuff was done in London or abroad. That was a beautiful experience. I just remember the first day on set looking at the craft service and I was like this must be the budget of Slumdog, this craft service table. It was crazy.

I’m doing another studio film now with MRC and Neill Blomkamp. I’m the lead in his new film called Chappie. That’s a $50 million film. It’s kind of small in comparison, but it’s a very expensive indie film. There’s such a heart to it and such a voice and a uniqueness to it. I’m very filmmaker, actor and script orientated like you should be I guess.

Have you also grown up with the roles you’ve taken?

Yeah, absolutely, you do. There’s always a part of me that wants to go back and redo it now being more experienced and better, but there’s also something that’s so beautiful about innocence. I could never be that Dev in Slumdog anymore. I’m not saying I’m too trained or something, but there’s something that’s a bit more polished about me that wouldn’t have fit that raw type of movie.

But you do definitely grow. With each film, you get more confident. That’s the main thing as an actor is I think we all, as human beings, are all wells of emotion. It’s how easily we can tap in and out of that emotion. The more you practice, the more sensitive you get to your feelings and observe other humans. I know it sounds super hippy, but the more you play characters, the more you learn. Once you’ve harnessed the anger of one character, you can go into an emotional scene in another movie and harness a frustration that was never really on page but would just elevate it, if that makes sense.

Was it exhausting to play the full on OCD in The Road Within?

Oh, like anything. I’m a high-strung human being. I did a comedy before this called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with all these amazing actors and I’m this big showman. It’s loud and I’m running around. It was really energetic in the desert of India and I was like, “Dude, there’s not going to be a role that’s more delivering these mad wacky speeches again and again, never going to be as high strung as that.” Right into this and it was exhausting, absolutely exhausting because Alex is so high strung. He’s at such an escalated level of tension always by simple things of us just sitting there shaking your hand. That is, for him, life threatening.

That’s what happens is in his head, something so small is a catalyst and it’s like a domino effect. It leads to something bigger and bigger until it’s something that’s so blown out of proportion, like a little cut on his finger or having to shake someone’s hand or touch a dirty surface or eat food that’s not been packaged. For me, it’s a constant thing of if I’m sitting in a car, how would I be positioned? Would my elbows be touching a window sill? How would my posture be? Would I be more uptight? The gloves are melting and the powder inside was becoming gloopy and we’re shooting in Big Sur. It’s all of those things.

There’s one scene where you had full spit flying.

Oh, did I? I apologize.

No, I thought that was great. You were really into it.

What scene was that?

Oh, I should have written it down more specifically but I thought that might’ve been indicative of getting fully into the OCD of it.

Absolutely. It’s something that I was dropping “Oh, I’m so OCD sometimes.” It’s a statement that I’ve realized doing research for this movie that is so wrong to say because you’ve got people around the world like Alex. It’s not really a big dramatization. There’s people that literally can’t have contact with the outside world, it’s that bad. They’re in relationships where they can’t touch their partners or step out the door. To step out the door, it needs to open right and that can consume them for three or four, even seven hours. How do you go to a job interview on time if your daily routine can take 12 hours? For me, I felt a big, big, big responsibility towards some of these people.

Could you have played Vincent just as well if that had been the role you were offered?

I don’t want to take anything away from Robbie because I thought he was amazing. It’s a phenomenal character. I would have put as much effort and commitment into that as well. The very similar thing between OCD, anorexia and Tourette’s is that it’s kind of an affliction. It’s something that’s torturous. That’s what it is, that nagging feeling inside your head. For Marie, “If you eat, you’re going to get fat, you’re going to get fat, you’re going to die, you’re going to look awful.” Same with Tourette’s and the voices in his head and OCD. It’s the same thing. So they’re very similar on that front but also incredibly different.

How intense is your role in Chappie?

Chappie’s really intense too but it’s a wacky film about robotics and gangsters and lots of things. It’s out there.

If we’ve seen Neill Blomkamp’s other two films, does Chappie fall in line with those or is it something different?

I think it’s safe to say Neill’s an auteur. It’s closer to District 9 than it is Elysium in its comedic feel. It’s grounded. It was shot mostly in Joburg, South Africa. Sharlto Copley’s playing the robot that I create. He’s trying to bring it back there but it’s hard to really put a label on the film. You’ll get what I mean when it comes out. It’s out there.

Are you saying it’s comedic?

There’s comedic elements to it. There’s sheer dramatic elements and there’s real amazing sci-fi, action. It really is just a big gumbo of emotion.

What’s coming up for the last season of “The Newsroom?”

Again, talking about intense, everything’s boiling and coming up. For me personally, all I can say is it’s some of his best episodes that I’ve read.

Have they released what the news story they’re following are?

No, not yet.

Has Neal proven himself with his Occupy coverage?

Oh, he gets into things far worse than that this season. Let’s just say that.

Did you ever expect Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to become your first franchise?

I know, that’s crazy, right? A bunch of old pensioners staying in a hotel in India and that becomes a sequel. I didn’t at all, but I’ve been watching certain scenes of that. The test reviews so far have been amazing and I’m so, so excited about the film.

Is it even more hyperactive for you?

No, everyone’s grown up, no pun intended. Now it’s less about people going to India and being wowed by the environment. Now we’re moving away from the shackles of the book and Ol [Parker], the writer, is just writing about the characters we already know and how they’re dealing with each other, certain issues and coping with growing older. My character’s a lot more grown up. It’s a nice relationship between me and Maggie Smith who run the hotel together, so there’s a lot of comedy and a lot of warmth between the two characters. 

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Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.