Dev Patel says his favorite sorts of characters to play are likable, aspirational up-and-comers. As a guy in two movies opening this weekend, he could apply that description to his own film career.
Patel had no professional training, but was so passionate about acting that he had to try out when his mother saw an ad for performers in the back of a newspaper. At 17, after a brief turn in an English TV series, he starred in 2008's "Slumdog Millionaire," turning his youthful debut into a delicious mix of humor, biting social comment and engrossing drama. "Slumdog" was the little film that could, going from a minor international experiment to winning eight Oscars, including Best Picture.
He went lighter in 2012's comedy-drama "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," playing a congenial chatterer whose second-class Indian guesthouse welcomed an aged crew of English immigrants to a warm new way of life. This week he's extra busy, reprising that role in "The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," and moving into sci-fi action as a kind computer designer in Neill Blomkamp's futurist fairy tale "Chappie."
In a recent phone conversation, Patel, now 24, said his work for Oscar winners and nominees like Blomkamp, "Slumdog" director Danny Boyle, "Marigold" director John Madden, and Aaron Sorkin, creator of the TV show "The Newsroom," in which he also has a role, makes him feel "very blessed."
"I don't know what they were thinking, but I'm very lucky. They're all amazing auteurs in their own respects and I definitely gravitate toward people who have a very clear, unique style of filmmaking. I'm just trying to be as diverse as I can in the work I choose. They all tell a very different kind of a story."
He said that despite his ethnic background as London-born of Indian descent, he represents an everyman.
"From 'Slumdog' [in which he plays a Mumbai ghetto teen working up to the top of a game show] there's this idea of rising through a lot of adversity. Being determined and achieving something. In 'The Newsroom' you see this young guy who thinks social media is going to be at the forefront of everything and he's a laughingstock, and then you come to the third season and he really comes into his own.
"In 'Chappie' you've got this engineer who works for a weapons manufacturer who doesn't really care for creating war machines. He wants to create an artificially intelligent machine that can feel, and everyone thinks he's crazy but he does so."
The role of an Indian native who inherited a crumbling hotel in "Marigold" was one that Patel fought tooth and nail for, even though the filmmakers imagined the character as an overweight, washed up man in middle age, not the flamboyant, confident entrepreneur Patel invented. He imagined the young owner as a kind of "comedy concoction" of youthful energy based on lots of his colorful uncles, he said. "He's got mad dreams, but he approaches everything with charisma and optimism," another creature determined to overcome obstacles.
Spending screen time with Maggie Smith in "Marigold" and Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman in "Chappie" was "a kind of master class in acting," he said. "I've really been blessed. I hope I represent a lot of hope to young individuals like myself."