Dev Patel on playing David Copperfield: “There wasn’t a version of this story that related to young Dev”

The star of The Personal History of David Copperfield discusses slapstick, imposter syndrome and his transatlantic career, from Slumdog Millionaire to embodying a Dickens hero.

Dev Patel as the titular protagonist of The Personal History of David Copperfield

Dev Patel as the titular protagonist of The Personal History of David Copperfield

In years gone by you’d have struggled to spot British-Asian actors who broke through in much-loved hit films – Naveen Andrews in The English Patient, Parminder Nagra in Bend it Like Beckham, the cast of East Is East – going on to extended, high-profile film careers. This was in no way an indictment of their considerable talents, but rather the piecemeal, myopic nature of the UK film industry in limiting actors of a different ethnic background further opportunities to show their range. So when young Dev Patel so winningly took the lead in 2008’s multi-Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, it wouldn’t, sadly, have been a surprise to see him – or not, as was the usual case – slowly fade from big screen roles.

Cut to just over a decade on: the poster for Armando Iannucci’s zestful, nimble The Personal History of David Copperfield has Patel’s face knowingly smiling out at you. He plays the title role of Charles Dickens’ own personal favourite (and most autobiographical) book, more than holding his own amid a who’s who of British acting talent (Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Laurie and many more). Iannucci’s bold, colour-blind casting extends through the cast, but having Patel as his David is a bold statement of intent, both for the film as an adaptation of a beloved English historical novel and a challenge to the UK industry as a whole: to embrace a more inclusive, and frankly more representational picture of modern Britain – even when exploring Victorian times.

Far from being some tokenistic choice, Patel is there wholly on merit. It may have taken a few years post-Slumdog to find, and take, his chances, but he’s already an Oscar nominee in his own right, for his powerful, moving portrayal of an accidentally orphaned boy in Lion (2016). And if moving to the US is where his options really opened up, David Copperfield is hopefully a chance to re-establish himself as a leading man in British cinema.

Before this project, what did Charles Dickens mean to you?

As funny as it is to remember, it felt grim. Just sitting in an English class, looking out the window – and it was raining like today – talking about poverty, and it was just so sad and depressing. And having to do coursework on it… And then here comes Armando, and he just gives it this buoyancy, this really infectious and youthful spin on it all, with a lot of laughter and joy. And that’s what he saw – his version of David Copperfield.

Presumably it wasn’t David Copperfield that you studied at school?

No. I really thought he was the [Las Vegas] magician… I was that numpty. Then I heard that Armando wanted to meet me. I met him in transit in London and he laid out this literary classic that I’d somehow missed in my youth. And I thought, this is incredible and was very overwhelmed that he would even think of me for the role.

You’re absolutely the film’s anchor – most scenes are you plus one or more great British actors. Did you have to modulate your performance according to your co-star?

I just suffer from extreme imposter syndrome, when it comes to this work. So just being in a room with all those great actors is very intimidating.

But it really works for the character, because David is sort of an observer. He’s a writer, and it’s a story about a young man, taking all these larger-than-life, colourful characters and putting them into his work, which leads to success. You know: owning his past, where he came from, and embracing that.

Jairaj Varsani as the young David Copperfield

Jairaj Varsani as the young David Copperfield

The role requires you do a lot of impersonations of your fellow actors – did you ever try the voices out in front of them?

There are some characters I really enjoy doing – [for instance impersonating] Benedict Wong as Mr Whitfield, the drunk. Ben’s got this great, gravelly voice and I just love doing him. And Ben does this thing with his lips, this beautiful character trait he just kind of pulled out of thin air and it became something that we played with. But it’s very strange during a rehearsal doing a version of the actor’s performance back to them. It’s kind of like, are you taking the piss or what?

There’s also a lot of physical comedy and slapstick. Was that something that came naturally to you, or did it need a lot of work?

I feel like I’ve missed all these greats. I knew of Chaplin, I’d watched his stuff. And I grew up watching Jim Carrey and Rowan Atkinson: Mr Bean, all that stuff.

But Armando gave me this great Buster Keaton box set. I watched it back and I’m like, God, I am really all limbs and double-takes. I didn’t realise I was kind of doing it.

The thing about Armando is he pushes that broad physical comedy, but it’s difficult to pull off and ground so that the audience still buys it. Then he mixes it with the sharpest text. It’s got the physical stuff and the wordplay, and the great larger-than-life characters. It’s almost like a British Aaron Sorkin.

Patel between Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick and Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood

Patel between Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick and Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood

You’re obviously the first British-Asian actor to play a major Dickens character in a film, and the whole cast is incredibly diverse. What were your thoughts when Armando pitched this vision to you?

You know, there wasn’t a version of this story that related to young Dev. And I think, now, kids in schools who watch this will find a face they can relate to. And that’s what’s exciting about it – they won’t have guys like me thinking David Copperfield is the magician! It makes the story just so much more relevant to today’s world.

I’ve heard you say in other interviews that it’s not ‘diversity’ that matters to you so much as much as ‘representation’.

Yes. It’s about having representatives on the screen, so that everyone’s reality is portrayed. And that’s what’s important.

It’s less about being pigeonholed, but what you can bring is potential, looking at individuals and communities in terms of what they can excavate. When you see films like Crazy Rich Asians being these massive box-office successes, it just shows that there’s money to be spent in every community, and people want to see their stories on screen.

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire

Your breakthrough in Slumdog Millionaire was only just over a decade ago, but that’s a very specific role suited to you. The same with films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

I did Slumdog and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was 17. I look back at that and I just see mistakes and bad accents and horrible skin.

But after that I was expecting to find a role as meaty: ready to go prove myself somewhat, so let’s go and do another deep role. But there was nothing. So it took a while. I love Marigold Hotel but again it was that type of character. To find my Lion, to find a guy who was soulful with many shades to his journey, took a long time.

Is that what prompted you to move to the US? Better work opportunities?

At that time, yes: I hate to say it but there was more opportunity. You went there because there were lots of new things happening in America and I really do think my career changed when I did. There was less stigma around what was attached to us and me [than] in London at that time. I know it’s very controversial to even say that.

Patel with Rooney Mara in Lion (2017)

Patel with Rooney Mara in Lion (2017)

So have you noticed in general that opportunities seem to be getting broader and less based on one’s background?

I did get emotional seeing young Jairaj [Varsani, who plays young David Copperfield] come out in his costume for the first time. Armando showed me a picture of his fitting and I was just like: God, I would never have had that opportunity at that age.

Things are changing. And he just takes in his stride and doesn’t know how big a deal that is. It’s so cool. And hopefully, it’ll be even less of a deal for the next generations to come.

It’s been great for me being out [in America]. But I’m very proud of my British heritage, and to do movies like this, one of the main reasons is to be on home turf, and work with some great actors that I look up to. Hopefully we’ll get to a stage where you won’t have to say that it’s just casting for the sake of casting. Actors are meant to be explorers of new terrain.

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