Dev Patel: ‘I thought: what would young Dev want to see on screen? I created a movie for that guy’

The star is on both sides of the camera in his directorial debut Monkey Man, an action movie that is really a ‘Trojan horse’ for more serious themes

A chilly late spring day in Soho. Dev Patel enters chummily and, hands wet, offers an elbow in greeting. The knocked-about kid from Skins and Slumdog Millionaire is no more. Now 33, Patel is as friendly as you would expect, but he imposes himself on the room like the movie star he has become. Despite a current, work-derived confusion, he spills presence to all corners.

“I’ve been in a dark edit room,” he says with a laugh. “This amount of conversation is new. I don’t feel quite fit for consumption right now. I feel like Gollum resurfacing from his cave. But the reception the film has had has been nothing short of a miracle.”

He is talking about the clattering, racing, blood-drenched Monkey Man. Patel’s directorial debut concerns a young Indian man who passes through all circles of hell on a quest to avenge his mother’s murder. The film, presented in threatening, blotched colours, confirms – if confirmation were still needed – that Patel has the chops to be a proper action hero. I’m slightly astonished to find him all in one piece. I imagined they’ve been sewing bits of him back on since they wrapped.

“It was the most brutal, exhausting, humbling and yet electrifying thing I’ve ever done in my life. Yeah. Yeah,” he says with a nod.


Patel sounds genuinely weary. It has been a hectic few weeks. The film debuted on March 11th at the South by Southwest Festival in Texas where, after a tumultuous reception, it went on to win the audience award in the Headliner section. We already knew Patel was versatile. He showed that in the phantasmagorical The Green Knight from 2021 and with his Oscar-nominated turn in Lion from 2016. But a bit of the sparky optimism from his earlier films still hangs around. I wonder if, with Monkey Man, there is any conscious effort to assert his “darker side”. You could scarcely imagine anything less cosy.

“I think so. This has been knocking about in my brain for over 10 years,” he says. “It was born from a place of loving action cinema so much and never being invited to that party. Right? Unless it was to be the funny sidekick or the guy that hacks the mainframe for the main dude. Also it came from a frustration: there is so much senseless, mindless studio rubbish out there. I thought: what would young Dev want to see on screen? And I created a movie for that guy.”

Ah, young Dev. He was born in Harrow to Anita, a care worker, and Raju, an IT consultant. Both parents hailed from Kenya, part of that country’s significant Indian community, but moved independently to London before meeting and marrying. Patel did a bit of acting at school, but didn’t seem to take it seriously before auditioning for the famously raunchy E4 series Skins.

I wonder if he will indulge my mad theory. He grew up at the outer reaches of the Piccadilly Line in Rayners Lane. The fringes. The penumbra. A lot of creative people come from such places. Think of David Bowie and Siouxsie Sioux. The urge to escape suburbia drives them.

He doesn’t immediately reject the idea.

“Totally. I felt like the city was kind of inaccessible, in a way,” he says. “It felt so alien. We couldn’t afford to go out and eat in the restaurants in the city. My parents were working two jobs at a time. So it was tough. Just to be sitting here in this snazzy hotel with you? It feels crazy this is my life now. It is a very different London to the one I grew up in.”

It sounds as if his mother was an important force. The Dev mythology tells us it was her idea to try out for Skins. Set in Bristol, the show launched (or platformed anyway) such talents as Nicholas Hoult, Kaya Scodelario and Jack O’Connell. A generation grew up watching millennial decadence in the southwest. He admits he took some persuading to take the audition seriously. Once or twice Mum nearly gave up on the idea.

“It feels like one of those Charlie and the Chocolate Factory moments – where you find the golden ticket in the gutter,” he says. “I talked to my Mum about it the other day. I said: ‘You nearly cracked, I was such an awkward stubborn little bastard of a kid.’ I didn’t want to be embarrassed – all that stuff. I didn’t want to show up with my Mum. Thank God she didn’t crack. Because if she had I don’t know where I’d be right now. She’s got incredible instincts.”

He has previously admitted that, when he arrived on set at 16, he had no idea how television worked. He didn’t know what a boom was. The mechanics of the process may as well have been quantum physics. But he is plainly a sharp guy and he learns quickly (just have a glance at his technical accomplishments in Monkey Man). Skins was his drama school and his film school. The amateur rapidly became a pro.

Slumdog and what Danny did was a huge thing. A film with relative unknowns, one third of which was in a foreign language, won eight Oscars. This was a film that was going to be sent straight to video

“I was flailing so wildly in Skins,” he says. “I was lucky I had such an incredible cast with the stars of the show. I was too caught up hanging around with kids, and not being at school, and being in a hotel in Bristol. That was a lot for a 16-year-old Dev who hadn’t been much farther than Rayners Lane. That was huge. There was a director called Adam Smith who instilled in me the idea of stillness. He talked to me with real respect as an adult. I then realised I didn’t need to be the class clown.”

Skins ended in 2008. Any number of scenarios could then have played out: a journey back to the civilian life; jobbing roles on soap operas; a lull followed by a later rediscovery. Actors know that an early break doesn’t always lead to lifetime employment. As it happened, the timing proved to be close to perfect. Danny Boyle was, as the show wound to a close, looking for an Asian actor to play the hero of his raucous fable Slumdog Millionaire. It is said that Boyle’s 17-year-old daughter pointed Patel out in Skins. It took five auditions for the director to be won over. The film went on to become one of the biggest winners at the Oscars this century, taking eight awards, including best picture.

That sounds like a time to be alive.

“I never felt worthy during the time of Slumdog – walking those red carpets with all those incredible icons,” he says cautiously. “I remember at the Toronto Film Festival I was wearing my school shoes to walk the carpet. You are on a carpet with Dustin Hoffman and all these mega stars. You absolutely are enamoured of everyone. But I felt this crippling sense of anxiety. What the hell am I doing here? I knew it was all about the film and I was lucky to be a cog in a very complex mechanism – a small cog in the mechanism. When we all ran up after we won best picture I hid in the back.”

Patel has clearly thought deeply about the trials and lessons of an already extraordinary career. There is no sense of a man blithely allowing the wind to blow him hither and thither. That philosophical manner served him well after Slumdog. He got work, but he was not offered the spectrum of parts he desired. It was still, as he told me earlier, “the funny sidekick or the guy that hacks the mainframe”. Part of that was old-fashioned type-casting. He had done it before. Therefore he must do it again. But one can’t help but think there was a racial bias at work.

He prefers to accentuate the positive. “Now, it’s burst wide open,” he says. “I really feel like the film industry is in a really exciting place – with the streamers and the amount of content being churned out. The amount of faces. The stories that are being expressed. It’s a very exciting time to be an actor.”

Ireland is the land of the greatest conversationalists I’ve ever met. In terms of the Ireland I experienced, it was like a spiritual odyssey for me

And he feels that’s changed in the 15 years or so since Slumdog Millionaire emerged?

“Oh, yeah. Absolutely!” he says. “Slumdog and what Danny did was a huge thing. A film with relative unknowns, one third of which was in a foreign language, won eight Oscars. This was a film that was going to be sent straight to video. That was a huge message to the industry. You saw it with Parasite as well. Even before that, I remember watching East Is East. Think of what that did for people who look like me. It’s been a slow evolution. But we’re at a place where it’s all on the table.”

There can be no better illustration of that change than Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield from 2019. The film, among the most delightful of Dickens adaptations, cast Patel in the title role and gathered a bustle of racially diverse actors around him. Benedict Wong as tipsy Mr Wickfield. Nikki Amuka-Bird as Mrs Steerforth. Bronagh Gallagher as Mrs Micawber. It crackled with new energies. Around the same time, he was cast as the protagonist in David Lowery’s The Green Knight, singular adaptation of the 14th-century epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. That film was mostly shot in Ireland.

“It’s the land of the greatest conversationalists I’ve ever met,” he says, like the obliging young man I already know him to be. “Everyone can hold forth. Everyone can have a great conversation with you. In terms of the Ireland I experienced, it was like a spiritual odyssey for me. I was this one man up in the Featherbeds, and in other weird locations. It’s vast and it’s beautiful. Being up there with my horse chewing on some gorse, I’d think: this is epic.”

And somewhere in all that busy whirl of projects he secured an Oscar nomination. He missed out on the Slumdog rush. But the academy made amends when they voted heavily for his heartbreaking turn as Saroo Brierley, an Indian adoptee in Australia, who decides to seek out his birth family, in Garth Davis’s Lion. He lost best supporting actor to Mahershala Ali, but he got to call himself Academy Award nominee. He got to attend the ceremony with his mum. And he got to see Faye Dunaway award the big prize to La La Land, instead of the actual winner Moonlight.

“Yeah, absolute madness,” he says, still slightly disbelieving. “Wow! That was good television. Right?!”

He now spends a good part of his time in Australia. With technology you can now organise a movie career from anywhere in the world. But you wouldn’t take Dev Patel for anything other than a Londoner. He has that dusty wit and capacity to roll with punches.

“London’s is just so intoxicating,” he says jerking a head towards Soho. “Every time I come it just evolves so quickly. It’s so multicultural and diverse – in terms of industry and of people. I really miss it. It’s awesome. And obviously my family is here too.”

They must be proud. Monkey Man is attracting all the right sort of attention. It’s an action film, but it also engages with sectarianism and with religion and with a loss of innocence. That is only the start.

“The film is sort of Trojan horse to an extent,” he agrees. “I knew if I wanted to talk about religion, politics, the caste system, violence against women, police brutality and corruption and the third gender of India it was going to be a hard film to access. But if you wrap it in exciting action sequences maybe that can be a gateway drug.”

What will come next? It feels as if he’s opened all kinds of new doors.

He makes “can’t say” noises.

“Right now I am just riding the wave of this film. It’s been hard to give birth to this gremlin.”

Monkey Man is in cinemas from April 5th