Dev Patel is glad he said yes to playing David Copperfield
British actor Dev Patel has been very careful about the roles he’s chosen since his breakout performance a dozen years ago in “Slumdog Millionaire.” He’s had great success in some - he was Oscar- and Emmy-nominated for “Lion” - while other films have fallen through the cracks - anyone remember “The Last Airbender?” But his presence has always been a welcome addition, no matter if the film was light or dark. Think of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Hotel Mumbai.”
Now he’s got himself an iconic role, starring in the latest adaptation of Charles Dickens’ timeless novel “David Copperfield,” going by the book’s longer title “The Personal History of David Copperfield.” He plays the adult version of the hapless lad who endures some tough times in early Victorian England, but keeps a positive attitude and remains a kind and generous person.
Patel, 30, spoke about the film on a Zoom call.
Q: There’s a story going around that you said yes to this film after speaking with the director, Armando Iannucci, but before reading the script. Is that true?
A: That is true.
Q: Had you ever done that before?
A: No. I’m brilliant at talking myself out of work, so I don’t know how I have a career. But with Armando and his work (“In the Loop,” “The Death of Stalin”), I knew he had such a great grasp of comedy, and the way he spoke to me about this film, the kind of energy and passion he had for it, I loved the way he saw this world. So, I immediately said yes. Then I read the script and was blown away, but also terrified at the task at hand. The character is pretty much in every scene and there are many interactions with many different characters.
Q: You also have a whole lot of dialogue. Was that part of it a challenge to you?
A: You know, the more you live with the text, the more you realize it has its own rhythm to it. The more you read it, you see that it’s not only about a lot of dialogue, it’s also about the whole orchestra, about where everyone comes in and who’s cutting who off, and when. Once we were off to the races on set, I really started to find his voice.
Q: Most actors say that they have to identify in some way with characters they’re playing. Did you discover a connection with David Copperfield?
A: Completely. I related to the kind of general anxiety with which he approaches the world (laughs, nervously). He’s a guy who is trying to figure out who he is, to find himself, and he’s on unstable grounds. He came from something, then lost it all, and is trying to find his way back. There’s also a general awkwardness to him that I can strongly key into. It’s a coming-of-age story about identity and about accepting your past and embracing where you come from.
Q: Did you have any qualms about playing such a famous character?
A: Yes, because they’re really big shoes to fill. There are many iterations of the story. But therein lies the opportunities to put your own unique spin on it. This is truly Armando’s spin on this classic tale. So, we’re coming in and mainly servicing his vision. I’m not beholden to the book; I’m beholden to my director.
Q: You’ve been acting for about 20 years now. Does acting get any easier the more you do it or is it a whole new thing every time?
A: I don’t have a clue what I’m doing (laughs). I think what I’m getting better at is not being so precious, like when I first started out. Now I can kind of let go and submit myself to the process. For a long time, I was fixating on stuff that I thought would make or break a moment or a scene. When I watched them back, I might think, “Oh, on that day I wasn’t feeling too good and I had a stuffy nose, and I wasn’t right there in my head.” Now, I’m better at letting go.
“The Personal History of David Copperfield” opens on Aug. 28.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.