Dev Patel may be one of the most humble Oscar-nominated actors in the world. By his mere 28, he has built a career most actors twice his age would be proud of — beginning with a teenage turn on television’s Skins, before dipping his toe in big-budget blockbusters and finally finding his niche in character-driven dramas.
He’s come to Switzerland. Jetting in from LA, he’s looking surprisingly sprightly, bounding around the room at SIHH and shaking everyone’s hands. As an ambassador for IWC, the actor has travelled the world to spread the watch word — and he’s got quite the story to tell.
You first came to prominence on British TV. How exciting is this new golden age of television we’re seeing?
“I think British TV has always been great. The Crown is just amazing, I watched that in awe. I haven’t really watched too much else to be honest. I’ve been out in the world exploring. But there is incredible stuff happening in the UK — I always get excited when I see my friends’ faces pop up on screen.”
Your route into acting was quite untraditional. Do you think this was a benefit to your career?
“I’m just blessed to have got a foot in the door. I always wonder what it would have been like if I had gone to a drama school and had some formal training. The more I work and do different kinds of jobs the more I wish I had a bit of theatre experience. I started off in Skins, and all the cast were incredible and have gone on to do amazing things. It’s been a great platform for us all.”
“I just go in and try and be a better actor and be better at my job with each role I do..."
You’ve been nominated for awards for giving voices to minorities in film and television. Did you make a concerted effort to do this in your career?
“It’s really funny, sometimes you just come into something and you don’t have an agenda, just existing is enough. Being a part of something is enough to send a message. I don’t go in there thinking ‘I’m the brown saviour that’s going to change the world’.
“I just go in and try and be a better actor and be better at my job with each role I do. Now, I’m in a lucky place where I can green light work and get stories out there. But I don’t think that’s always my purpose. I can just go into a script and be that character, and take the whole race conversation out of it. Just say, was the performance good or bad?”
Clearly actors are those who enjoy the finer things in life. What was it about IWC that made you want to partner with them?
“It’s interesting, it was a beautiful coincidence. IWC were hosting a very intimate dinner in Los Angeles at the time and my agent at the time said I should go down as they’d gathered a really interesting group of filmmakers.
“I went down knowing a little bit about the brand but not knowing too much, and sat next to the old CEO. We were talking about watches, and I was wearing a horrendous watch at the time, so that was quite funny. But we just bonded over filmmaking and I really liked what the brand represented.
“Just being a young man and not having access to great things a watch was something that you aspire to and reach for. I don’t know how long I’ve been with them now, it’s been so many years but the watches keep getting better and better and I hope that my work can keep up with the quality of the watches they’re making.”
What watch do you wear?
“I’m a Pilot guy. I have quite the collection now, but Pilots are what I stick to. They’re nice and understated. I started with a Portugieser, actually, but now I’m in a Pilot phase.”
Moving swiftly back to acting, when you were nominated for an Oscar for Lion, that must have been a whirlwind. With the ceremony coming up, how will nominees — especially first time nominees — be feeling?
“It’s a mad feeling. I was in India when I got the call that I was nominated. I had just finished a movie and I was with all of my closest friends. It was just the most amazing experience.
“To call your parents and tell them you’ve just been nominated for an Oscar is the kind of thing you Mum tells you ‘one day will happen’. So, to have it come to fruition was amazing. And I took her to the ceremony — which was the icing on the cake.”
Unlike so many other actors you never seem to conform to one style of character. Was this a concerted effort never to be typecast, or a happy varied coincidence?
“You try, yeah. I try my best to mix it up, like recently I did this film with Armando Iannucci called The Personal History of David Copperfield and I’m really excited about that.
“I signed on not having read the script but having met Armando and he was amazing. He’s a genius and he’s so funny. Having access to a role like that, and being in the world of Dickens, having people like Hugh Laurie and Peter Capaldi and Tilda Swinton around you. I try to mix it up as much as I can.”
So what's next?
“I’m about to direct my first film this year. I’ve been working on a script for close to five years. So that’s really exciting. And I have another film that I’m not allowed to talk about. I don’t know when I’m allowed to talk about that. Not today. Shut up!”
What’s your greatest love?
“Baked beans. I like baked beans. They’re my greatest love. Aren’t baked beans amazing? Huh? They’re brilliant. Sorry. I’m just admiring how good they are”
“And acting. There’s this kind of adrenaline that comes with it. What’s great is that, before ‘Action!’, no-one knows what you did to get yourself there. They don’t know if I was doing 20 push-ups on the floor and then stood up and delivered that line or what it could have been. It’s a beautiful magic illusion.”
“I don’t feel like a veteran in any sort of sense. I don’t feel like a mentor..."
Do you actually do 20 push-ups before every take?
“Actually, for Lion, the director always got me to do stuff like that. It’s just to move the blood around physically and shake you up. We’re very static as humans. We should shake that up a bit to get the blood moving, to get the pulse racing, to get the breath heaving.”
Now that you're starting to see a younger generation of actors come through, have you found yourself mentoring or offering guidance the same way you received it in your youth?
“I don’t feel like a veteran in any sort of sense. I don’t feel like a mentor. I feel just as curious and new to it as I did on Skins is the truth. I’m always with my contemporaries just figuring out how to do it — just trying to find answers still.”
Which actor or director have you worked with who taught you the most on the set of a film?
“Director would probably be, they all impart such different things but Garth Davis in Lion was pretty special. He really entrusted me with a special character that changed the trajectory of the way I saw what I do, and set me on a different path.
“Acting wise, there are so many, so many good actors that I’ve worked with. I can’t mention just a few.”
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