Over the last year, Brit star Dev Patel admits he was “plucked from being a minor character on a small teen show in a major Danny Boyle film.” On the brilliantly trashy teen show Skins (now on BBC America), Patel played Anwar, a sweet, horny doofus with a ludicrously hyperactive sex drive. Now just 18, the former Tae Kwon Do champion is starring in Slumdog Millionaire as Jamal, a romantic street kid who is so pure of heart he would never be caught dead watching Skins. We talked to him about teen TV, Bombay, and how he wound up in Slumdog.
We confess: We’re addicted to Skins. There’s so much sex, it makes Gossip Girl look like Hannah Montana. Do you watch American teen shows?
On TV, back in London, we get The O.C. and One Tree Hill and Gossip Girl. On Skins, there are loads of things blown out of proportion, but I think why it’s done so well is that it’s pretty much teenagers playing teenagers. The writers are really young. It’s just gritty. It’s not a beautiful cast — that’s why I was in it.
Oh, come on, but you get to be a major stud in the Russian episode.
I’m so young doing that show — and I’m the comic relief, an absolute sex-obsessed goofball. Obsessed with sex and that’s it, one-track-minded. The sex is really in your face on that show. The writer-creator Brian [Elsley] just doesn’t shy away from it.
I can’t think of an American teen show where so many kids get naked.
They had me naked loads in that series. The worst was the beach episode — where I had to strip off and we all did this skinny-dipping thing, in front of everyone. It was so mortifying. You can imagine being 16 or 17 with all your mates…
What did your parents think?
I watched one of the first shows with my parents … Not a good idea.
Before Skins, you’d never acted, right?
Nothing. It was a totally new experience. Sometimes I look back at the show and just think, That’s so bad. Like, what were you doing? No one knew it would take off.
And Slumdog is your first film — Danny Boyle told us his daughter recommended you because she was a fan of the show, and when he saw it, all he could think was, and we quote: “Fucking hell! Is this what she’s watching the whole time? She was like 15!”
Yeah, they’d auditioned all kinds of people, and she said, “Here’s this guy on Skins doing naughty things, give him a try.” I didn’t even have an agent. I put myself on tape for the first time. Thank God he did want to take a risk, because I really didn’t show my potential on Skins.
So how’d you go about the audition?
I never wanted something so bad in my life. I was so eager to impress Danny and get his approval — even while filming. If you were really too tired or whatever and can’t be bothered, you’d just do it for Danny. He’s just got that aura. You want to do it for him.
Since you had so little experience, how did he work with you?
He’s certainly different, to say the least. He talks with so much passion about the script that he’ll almost act it out himself — breathing heavily, staring you down with this eye contact. The passion he has for film is so infectious it was nerve-racking, to be 17 at the time, plucked from being a minor character on a small teen show in a major Danny Boyle film. I had to raise my game.
You spent some time in Bombay before shooting, right?
I got to immerse myself a little bit in the environment. I got to see some of the biggest slums in Bombay — one has 2 million people and is growing. It broke my preconceived notions of what a slum was like.
Watching TV of what a slum was, I thought of malnourished children crying, really pompous stupid things. When I was there, people were obviously living in extreme poverty, but they were not depressed. There was an amazing feeling of community. You have to be optimists to survive in that environment.
How did that change the way you saw your character?
I wasn’t going to make him the sort of character who feels sorry for himself. He’s a soldier, not a guy who mopes around, not a depressed guy. He’s a survivor, a battler.