As the star of Danny Boyle’s film “Slumdog Millionaire,” 18-year-old Dev Patel has every reason to be a nervous wreck. Not only is this his first movie role, but as the lead in the English filmmaker’s latest project, opening Nov. 12, Patel could very well break out like past Boyle “discoveries” Ewan McGregor (“Trainspotting”) and Cillian Murphy (“28 Days Later”). That is, if he can pull it off.
“As you can see, I’m not the normal hero-type for a film,” says Patel, motioning to his gawky frame, which looks all the more so in his stylist-approved press junket garb (Armani sweater, Original Penguin shirt and tie and dark French Connection jeans). Based on the novel “Q&A” by Vikas Swarup, “Slumdog Millionaire” focuses on Jamal Malik — played by Patel — a street kid who is accused of cheating in the final round of India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” The film, which took the People’s Choice Award at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, weaves together Jamal’s game show performance and the subsequent interrogation by Indian police with scenes from his harrowing childhood.
“I didn’t want to cast a guy that looked like a hero,” says director Boyle. “I wanted him to earn it over the span of the film. Dev is very serious and committed. He has a real presence on screen.”
And character intricacies aside, the process of shooting over five months in and around the slums of Mumbai would be challenging for any actor, let alone for an unseasoned teen from the London suburbs who doesn’t speak Hindi. Boyle had intended to cast Jamal from among the young stars of India’s Bollywood scene. But when he saw a video of a 17-year-old Patel in a supporting comedic role on “Skins,” a drama on the British channel E4 TV, the director changed his mind. “I was still struggling to find my feet,” Patel says of his work on that show, which was his first professional gig.
Even Patel’s family was skeptical upon hearing that he had won the part. “First, they asked if it was a Bollywood film and if I would be dancing,” says Patel, whose performance has the blogosphere buzzing about an Oscar nod. “All of my relatives in India were like, ‘Wait! Say that again? So you’re filming in India and it’s an English film and you’re not dancing and it’s not Bollywood?’ I was like, ‘Yes!’”
In fact, “Slumdog” couldn’t be further from a rollicking musical. But Boyle did spring a Bollywood-style dance routine on his cast at the last minute. “I really had to throw away all of my inhibitions,” Patel says. “Their opinion of ‘cool’ dancing is so different from ours. We’ve got body popping and all that, but [in India] it’s all cheesy finger-pointing and ‘Grease Lightning’ sort of stuff.”
The sequence, shot in one of India’s busiest train stations, attracted hordes of gawkers. “Of course, the extras dancing were trained professionals,” Patel recalls. “The people in the station would be looking at us, thinking, ‘Why can’t the lead actors do that, but the guys behind them can?’”