Moving to the Dark Side
He made his name as a slumdog in Mumbai, winning over the world with this story of hope, and now Dev Patel is hitting our screens as an evil prince. But, discovers Declan Cashin, the real Dev is still as happy as ever
It's like a scene from a scary movie. The heavy hotel door slowly opens and someone is standing right in the doorway, ready to pounce.
Cue Psycho music: Reee! Reee! Reee! Day & Night is exaggerating slightly, but actor Dev Patel does give me a fright as I'm led into his dark suite in London's Dorchester hotel.
Dressed like a Topman model in a shiny navy jacket over a shirt, jeans and white runners, Patel is perched right inside the door, snapping his fingers, and bopping about. "Come in, come in, join me," he exclaims, guiding me inside, as I regain my composure. "I had some lunch, man, so I'm tanked up!"
What did he have, I enquire, a Skittles and Coke combo? "No man, a Caesar salad," he replies, laughing, throwing himself into a seat. I'm exhausted already. To paraphrase that great line from Jaws: I'm going to need a bigger espresso.
Patel once revealed in an interview that his mother got him involved with martial arts when he was a child because he had so much restless energy that needed an outlet. It seems that acting might now be his new way of channeling his innate Tasmanian Devil vigour. But there's no denying that his giddiness is infectious. Within minutes of the beginning of our interview, Day & Night has joined him in a bout of fitful giggles while talking about off-message topics such as the movie Mommie Dearest, celebrities having their bums wiped and the thought of grannies attacking him with their handbags over his new 'baddie' movie role.
That brings us back to the business at hand. The 20-year-old Londoner is here to talk about his leading role in the 3D children's fantasy flick The Last Airbender. Directed by M Night Shyamalan (he of The Sixth Sense fame and The Happening notoriety), the movie is an adaptation of the animated Nickelodeon fantasy series Avatar: The Last Airbender (that full title couldn't be used for obvious reasons).
In it, Patel gets his evil on as Prince Zuko, disgraced heir to the throne of the Fire Nation, which is waging a war of domination over the tribal nations of Air, Water and Earth. The only hope for defence is to rely on those who can 'bend' their nation's element at their will. When a young boy is discovered who can bend all four elements, including air -- the last of his kind -- the scene is set for an epic battle to restore balance to the war-torn world.
Airbender is only Patel's second big screen outing, having enjoyed a massive breakthrough as the star of Danny Boyle's Oscar-laden Indian romance-adventure Slumdog Millionaire (before that he'd played one of the main characters in the first two series of the E4 'yoof' drama Skins).
Slumdog was a career-making role that earned Patel a Screen Actor's Guild award, a Bafta nomination, and a stunning girlfriend (more of that later), so there was a lot of interest in what the young actor would do next to capitalise on his success.
"Scripts weren't getting thrown at my feet, but, at the same time, it wasn't just dead," Patel explains. "Coming off working with an amazing guy like Danny Boyle, I was looking for something that would challenge me and allow me to show some versatility. Then this came along and I felt it had that potential."
Suddenly, he turns deadly serious. "You've seen this kind of Shakespearean stuff before: my character is the boy that's yearning for the love of his father." He pauses, before exploding into laughter again. "That's a good line isn't it? I've said that like a trillion times already."
He continues: "Seriously, though, I didn't feel any pressure after Slumdog, but I didn't want to wait either. I was eager to get working again because I actually hadn't been in front of a camera in a long time because of the global Slumdog press tour."
To this day, Patel remains awestruck by the staggering success of that movie. "Slumdog could have been one of those films that was appreciated by a very select group of people and gone way into oblivion," he says. "But I think it came at the right time, particularly in America with Obama being elected around the same time. It was the ultimate story of hope and optimism. That can touch anyone, and that's why it did well."
For Patel, the opportunity to star in a major special effects-laden Hollywood movie this time round was too good a one to pass up. "I'm really into movies like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and I was so intrigued as to how these things are made and how the hell they do it," he says.
Although Airbender hasn't wowed the critics, it's sure to be a hit among younger audiences, and, having grossed some $70m in the US, has the potential to turn into a multi-film deal. Was it part of Patel's career plan to find a franchise to serve as an anchor for his nascent career?
"There are another two in the pipeline already, if this goes well," he replies. "But I'd always seen myself wanting to do little independent, character pieces too because that's where you see yourself stretching as an actor.
"My only plan is to constantly find new characters. That's why I became an actor. And come on, this is a guy who's a prince of an army that can command fire. What are the chances of a character like that being written again?" A pause, and then more laughter as he adds: "Maybe in EastEnders."
Then, of course, there's the matter of his director M Night Shyamalan, or "Shee-mom-alon" and "Shamamamal" as Patel jokingly refers to him. The man hasn't had the best run of movies in the past six years, and indeed has developed something of a bridge-burning reputation for being 'difficult' in Hollywood (the stories around the making of his disastrous Lady in the Water are already the stuff of modern showbiz legend).
"You're right, there's so much stuff floating around in the industry about him, but he was cool," Patel says, carefully. "He has such a great sense of humour more than anything else. I was really surprised, he's really young at heart, and a real family man. His kids were always on set. That's how he got involved in the first place because they were big fans of the cartoon."
Patel himself seems to have adjusted quite comfortably to his increased public profile over the past two years, even when it comes to the intense scrutiny into his private life. Patel has been dating his Slumdog co-star Freida Pinto since early last year, and his response to all the speculation about their relationship is quite fitting from someone who got started in the show Skins.
"I'm just like, whatever," he says. "It doesn't annoy me. There's a lot of stuff out there. Yesterday, I was getting engaged, then the other day, I apparently flew a cake from LA to India. It's actually pretty funny. It makes me sound a lot cooler than I am in real life. I'm going to be very disappointing in reality.
"The sad thing about becoming well known is that it makes you more self-aware, even when you just want to go out and enjoy the moment. Sometimes you're thinking of things like, 'Am I talking too loud? What if that other table hears me?' Before I would have been shouting and screaming stupid things when I was out with my friends, but now I have to be careful. But it's the price that has to be paid."
As our allotted time comes to an end, I ask what Patel makes of his recently-acquired status as a sex symbol? He squirms in his seat, and starts making whooping noises to drown me out, which forces me to repeat the question both to embarrass him further and get a response (actually, more to embarrass him).
"No I'm really not," he says laughing. "I don't see it. It makes me awkward. I feel all shy now. What do I say to it? 'Yes, I'm a sex symbol. I'm a pin up for women'. Maybe I'll get business cards done up that say, 'Dev Patel: International Sex Symbol'."
The Last Airbender is released on August 13