“It’s not an apocalyptic show like anything before it,” the actor Himesh Patel tells me, of the HBO series Station Eleven in which he stars. Although it is a timely bit of work that centers a world turned upside down by a deadly flu, “it’s got a sense of humor,” he says. “It’s got humanity and truth to it. It’s not trying to be bleak, it’s just being honest.”
Patel, a soft-spoken Brit who talks in a slow, considered manner, plays Jeevan in the show, which premiered this week to critical acclaim. He’s a sort of drifter character who gets word of the imminent flu while sitting in the audience of a play in the first episode. At the theater, he meets a child actor named Kirsten, played by Matilda Lawler, who is suddenly thrust into his care. Their relationship is one part of the ambitious series—a sprawling tale that follows the lives of people affected by a pandemic over a number of decades.
Patel got his start on the English soap opera EastEnders, but has since branched out into genres of all kinds—starring in Yesterday, Tenet, and Don’t Look Up, the highly anticipated Netflix series in which he plays Jennifer Lawrence’s romantic interest. In conversation with W, Patel shares what it was like to film not one, but two major projects during a pandemic, the secret to Station Eleven co-director Hiro Murai’s success, and what he would tell an audience who might not want to watch the effects of a deadly flu play out on screen during a real-life pandemic.
The filming of Station Eleven started prior to the pandemic, and then obviously stopped during early Covid lockdowns. What were the differences between filming pre-pandemic and during?
The original plan was that we would shoot until the end of February in Chicago and then we’d go back in the summer. We did the first bit, obviously, but we never got back. We shifted the show to Toronto and picked it up in January of this year. And it was a very different situation: we were in a completed different city, with an almost entirely different crew—a crew whose faces I couldn't see because everyone was wearing masks. The cast couldn’t hang out outside of work, so it was quite lonely in certain periods. It wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination. But we’ve come out the other side with a really good TV show. It was a big challenge for everyone to get it done, so there’s an extra sense of pride attached to it.
When Jeevan first realizes he’s potentially been exposed to the flu, he experiences a moment of denial—and then starts freaking out. How did your character’s reaction to the news of a deadly virus compare to how you responded when the pandemic started?
I remember my partner came out to visit when we were shooting the scene in the parking lot with all the shopping carts [filled with food Jeevan buys in a panic]. She was like, “You know, if this happened in reality, this is what we’d buy.” I was like, “Calm down, this is a TV show.” And then two months later, we were at home—and we did a big online shop of stuff and got prepared before everyone else went crazy and started doing it. And so, in having entered a world where it very much was real, fictionally speaking, that influenced how we reacted in reality. I think I would’ve been completely spun out and panicky if I hadn’t already had some notion of how to prepare myself.
What’s something about Hiro Murai’s direction style or an aspect of his personality that people might be surprised to find out?
His work is so artistically rich and precise—clearly, he knows what he wants. But he doesn’t hold himself in any way that’s egotistic. He’s got a great sense of humor, and is very collaborative. He has a very important relationship with his DP, Christian Sprenger, and he was obviously collaborative with Patrick—and with me as an actor. He’s a great leader in the sense that he doesn’t force anything on anyone. The best directors are so secure in their own ability to direct and their own vision that they don’t feel the need to be dictatorial about it in any way.
In the show’s first episode, Lori Petty’s character states that children are the only good actors because adults are too traumatized. To me, Station Eleven is largely about trauma—what it does to us as children, and how it affects us as adults. Do you agree with that?
I think that’s definitely something that was at the heart of the show. Of course, with Kirsten, we very much dive into that—with her being a child at the beginning of the story, when she witnesses a man drop dead. In a way, for her, the trauma just keeps on coming in various ways. And there’s a collective trauma that all the characters go through, that everyone has to live through this pandemic, which is a hundred times worse than the pandemic we’re living through at the moment, in the sense that people just drop dead within hours of contracting the disease. Ninety-nine percent of humanity is gone.
In terms of Jeevan, there was at one point in the script a very clear flashback—a clear spelling out of traumas in his history. But I quite like the fact that ultimately, the reality of who he is is merely hinted at, and that we piece it together ourselves. With him, it’s about who he is, his forward momentum, who he’s going to become, as opposed to the reasons that he is the way he is now.
What would you say to someone who doesn’t want to watch a series about a pandemic when we’re still living through one?
I’d say I understand that. But I’d also say our show is very much about finding hope and community, and finding a sense of purpose during a bleak time. It’s not a show that wishes to exploit the sense of living through a pandemic. It’s about how one rebuilds and finds purpose. And it’s about art thriving in the bleakest of times, as well.
You’re in another huge project, Don’t Look Up, which incorporates tons of societal commentary, too, albeit through satire. People are fixated on the sheer number of amazing actors and actresses in the movie. What was it like to work with so many heavy hitters from so many different industries? I mean, Ariana Grande is in it.
In that case, I wouldn’t call myself a heavy hitter in this movie.
If you’re comparing yourself to Ariana Grande, you wouldn’t call yourself a heavy hitter?
Or Meryl Streep, or Mark Rylance, or Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, the list goes on. I’m still pinching myself that I’m in a movie with these people.
Tell me about your process getting into character as Jennifer Lawrence’s boyfriend.
I had a brief conversation with Jennifer on the phone, a couple days before we shot the scene—we got on quite well, which meant that I wasn’t as nervous heading into my day of shooting. She was very, very kind and generous. I think she was aware that I was probably a bit nervous—it was my first day working during the pandemic—and she was very much like, “If there’s anything I can do to help, please let me know.” Someone like that, she doesn’t have to say that. She could be as diva-ish she likes, but she wasn’t. We talked about our characters, because they’re in a relationship. We were trying to get a gauge on who they were and what sort of relationship they’re in—we landed on the fact that they’re in a very dysfunctional and incorrect relationship.
I read an interview with Jennifer Lawrence where she said her biggest concern was not annoying Meryl Streep. Did you feel the same way?
We shot this movie during the pandemic, so I only got to work with Leo and Jennifer, and I only met some of the others at the premiere a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t actually get to work with Meryl Streep, but if I had, I would’ve been thinking I don’t want to annoy her and I don’t want to make a fool of myself in front of her. I would’ve just been full of anxiety. I actually was, a little bit, when I met her at the premiere. Especially because she said hello to me. I was like, Oh, what do I do? Thankfully, it was during a photo call. There wasn’t a chance for me to make a conversational faux-pas.