Dev Patel: Slum Lord

Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel plays with fire as an angsty superhero in The Last Airbender.

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Dev Patel: Slum Lord
Dev Patel in Los Angeles.

Dev Patel: Slum Lord

Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel plays with fire as an angsty superhero in The Last Airbender.

The obvious question that comes to mind before meeting Dev Patel, the young star of 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, is how the rookie has been changed by success. On a bright spring morning in Los Angeles, the answer arrives as soon as Patel bounds into a suite at the Sunset Tower Hotel to discuss his second film, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. Now 20, Patel has the same puppy-dog enthusiasm, the same mama’s-boy manners and the same big ears that endeared him to fans around the world.

That’s not to say he was entirely unaffected by Slumdog, which won eight Academy Awards, including best picture. “I grew up five years in the space of five months,” Patel says. “I thought that I was a big comedian in school, but here I was working with adults and they took me seriously. That gave me a confidence I never knew I had.”

It shows. Although still thin as an asparagus, Patel wears a navy shirt over a filmy T-shirt that gives him a hint of geeky sex appeal. He’ll likely never be a true Hollywood bad boy, but at least he has developed an edge.

For his role in Airbender, Patel needed all the dark charisma he could muster. The movie, out in July, is a megabudget superhero epic, and Patel plays Zuko, a troubled prince who must choose between good and evil in his quest for fatherly approbation. “He’s got an Anakin Skywalker kind of thing going on,” says Patel. The part had him performing martial arts (he’s a real-life black belt), playing with fire and strutting around in major makeup like a “badass,” he says.

“Zuko is my favorite, the Shakespearean Hamlet character, and Dev had a take on it unlike anyone else,” recalls Shyamalan, who first saw Patel in a video shot during Airbender’s worldwide casting call, before the filmmaker had seen Slumdog or even heard the actor’s name. “He didn’t look like or sound like or perform the part like I had imagined, but he immediately popped out.” Later, when Shyamalan watched Slumdog, he realized that the lead was the same unknown actor he was considering for Zuko and, he says, “I knew I wasn’t crazy.”

The big surprise for Patel on his sophomore screen outing was the difference between the set of a $150 million movie and the slums of Mumbai, where Slumdog was shot for a 10th as much. “It was overwhelming,” he says. “Everything was bigger in America. I had my own trailer, which was like, wow.”

Born in London to parents of Indian ancestry who were raised in Kenya, Patel got his big break at an open casting for the British TV comedy Skins. It was that show that brought him to the attention of Slumdog director Danny Boyle. At various points Patel refers to himself as British or Asian, although in most ways he seems more a product of London than the subcontinent. “I can’t speak Gujarati too well, which is what my grandparents speak,” he admits. Nonetheless, he’s aware that in the eyes of casting agents, he is Indian first and foremost, which, he says, means reading for parts as the terrorist, the taxi driver, the smart geek or any “guy named Raj.”

“In the industry it’s hard to get past the way I look,” Patel says, without any rancor. “I’m not saying those roles are bad, but I wish that I could have access to a wider range.” Trying to expand those career parameters is, he says, his primary ambition in the years ahead. His greatest concern is that Slumdog may prove to be not just his debut but also his “swan song.”

“I always worry, every day, whether there is going to be something else like that,” he says. “When I go out on the streets, people are like, ‘Hey, Jamal’ [the name of Slumdog’s hero], or ‘Hey, Slumdog.’ I get that. But one day I want to be known as Dev Patel.”

In the meantime, though he remains romantically involved with his Slumdog costar Freida Pinto, who is five years his senior, he continues to live in London with his parents. The decision is in part a practical one; Patel received no back-end participation on Slumdog, which has earned more than $377 million worldwide, so despite the perks of fame, he still has to watch his pennies. But he stays close to home for more personal reasons as well. “I know this sounds really weird for a 20-year-old to say, but it has kept my head together,” Patel explains. “Coming home from a film set and having your mum shout at you to clean up your room and do the dishes is the most grounding thing ever.”