'Skins' star Dev Patel is tipped for an Oscar for his big-screen debut, writes Michael Dwyer.
TWO YEARS AGO this month, Dev Patel was a 16-year-old London schoolboy whose biggest claim to fame was winning a bronze medal at the 2004 World Tae Kwondo Championships in Dublin. Towards the end of January 2007, Channel 4 introduced the drama series Skins, and controversy erupted over its candid depiction of teen life. Patel played one of the leading roles, Anwar.
"Anwar was a stereotypical teenager obsessed with sex," says Patel, who has an amiably exuberant personality. "He just wants to lose his virginity, and it doesn't stop at that. When he does, he just wants more. That's his mission in life."
Patel had no acting experience when his mother spotted an advertisement for the Skinsopen casting call. "I was doing my GCSE exams, so my mum didn't mention it until the day before the audition," he says. "When she told me, I asked her if she'd lost her mind. She dragged me along and it was like X Factor, with so many people queuing. I was given a name tag and a number, went in and read the script for the first time in my life. I was called back for one other audition and they cast me as Anwar."
Was his mother shocked when she saw Skins? "She was," he laughs. "The casting director told us there would be some strong language and a few naughty scenes. I watched it with my parents, which was the biggest mistake of my life! But I learned so much from it and it put me on the radar. I had never been on a set before. I didn't even know that guys wore make-up!"
Patel's second audition was for the leading role of Jamal in Danny Boyle's movie, Slumdog Millionaire. "I was sitting there with my mum and waiting my turn," he recalls. "I was 17 and I realised I was the youngest person there. All these older, good-looking guys with designer stubble were there. I had no training as an actor, and I hoped that would work for me because Jamal has this innocence and vulnerability to him.
"I had to do quite a few auditions. They put me on tape first. Danny saw that, so I got to do the second audition with him. He's very engaging and he has this knack that makes you dig deep for the character. It was a very hard audition process, but I never wanted anything so badly."
He was "elated" when he got it. "I didn't think I would and I was thinking how I'd get over that. My mum was waiting for me with the biggest smile on her face and said, 'Dev, you're going to India with Danny.' I couldn't believe it."
Patel is endearing in the movie as Mumbai teen Jamal, who's one question away from winning the jackpot of 20 million rupees on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? When suspicions are raised because of Jamal's impoverished background, he explains how he learned each answer while living on the streets.
"Making the film in India was so exciting," he says. "It was a shock to all my senses as soon as I got off the plane. You're hit by all this heat, the air smells different and there are people everywhere and all this noise. It's a different universe altogether from London. With Mumbai, you can't just dip your elbow in the water to test the temperature. You've got to leap in at the deep end.
"I went there early on so I could see the slums and the locations and to get into character. I worked for a day in a call centre and another day in a really dingy hotel. The other guys working there saw this foreigner arriving in a bright red Bruce Lee T-shirt and Nike trainers, and they made me wash dishes in the basement for hours."
Since its world premiere at the Toronto festival last September, Slumdog Millionairehas been amassing awards and is now a serious contender for an Oscar. Patel was named most promising newcomer at the British Independent Film Awards (Bifas), and has been nominated in the best supporting actor category - along with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr, Josh Brolin and the late Heath Ledger - for this month's Screen Actors' Guild awards in the US.
"It's such a nice feeling as a new actor," Patel smiles, "and a beautiful confidence boost to get such a thumbs-up. I can't imagine being up there with those guys I've been watching in films for years. The night of the Bifa awards, James McAvoy was at the table opposite, Sir Ben Kingsley shook my hand and I met Sir Ian McKellen. To share the same air as them felt really strange."
Did he bring his mother? "Yeah, of course I did. She was as starstruck as me, walking around in a daze. I'm blessed. I'm a really lucky kid."
• Slumdog Millionaireis on general release