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Dev Patel on Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom, Returning to India, and His Way With the Ladies

Dev Patel
Dev Patel. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel plays the proprietor in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which he invites British retirees to outsource their old age in India, with the hopes of rebuilding his father’s business and eventually marrying his girlfriend. But while he calls it “the best,” the hotel is very much a work in progress. Patel, who just turned 22, is also a work in progress, as he freely admits — but his career gets a boost with both this film and his new HBO show The Newsroom, which will premiere in June. The British actor chatted with Vulture about keeping up with both his film character and his show’s creator.

How do you feel about your career thus far?
I feel like I’m constantly being thrown in the deep end! Slumdog was my first movie, and I had never been to India before — I was just a teenager in the U.K. with my headphones and my Nike shoes. What did I know about growing up in a slum? And then I was back in India with Marigold, playing this young entrepreneur, Sonny. That was more relatable, because you just couldn’t hold him down or oppress him in any way. And I loved the balance of the wisdom of old age [of his hotel guests] with his naïveté and aggressiveness of youth. He’s so eager to please, but he’s an uncontrollable mess, and he’s bitten off way more than he can chew. So he’s stupidly optimistic, and his energy is all hopped up.

Did you drink tons of energy drinks to keep up with him?
More like anything with electrolytes. I have a bad tummy, so I took energy sachets to maintain that hyperactivity. Sonny is just ten paces higher than me, and while I’m pretty hyper as it is, that was just a different story! Plus, he speaks the Queen’s English better than I do, so that juxtaposition of speaking so fast and laying on a thick Indian accent? I had to practice that a lot.

Given that you played such a horndog on Skins, why do you think you keep getting roles as the romantic hero in films?
It’s strange. I really don’t know. And I ask myself that all the time. Somehow I’m romancing loads of beautiful women, but it doesn’t feel like my world. The thing is, I am a loving person. I am super sappy when it comes to romance. But I’m not the Antonio Banderas, swashbuckling, Pierce Brosnan, smooth-talking type. Maybe I’m endearing because I’m persistent? Maybe that’s the key. It’s all persistence, baby! [Laughs.] Don’t take no for an answer. And the age that I’m at, men are really driven by that, by love. The day I win an Oscar and have to give an acceptance speech — because I think about that! I look in the mirror and wonder what would bring my loved ones to tears with that speech — but it is about love.

Is it true that you considered punching yourself in the groin during the love scenes for this movie?
Where did I say that? Oh, yeah. And those are some really poignant scenes. But no, I won’t give a wallop to my bits [to prevent an erection during a scene]. [Laughs.] I’m not a Casanova in The Newsroom, by the way — just another hard worker.

How is your fake typing?
I’ve got a style to it. You know when someone rips the keys on a piano, so you hear all the keys in succession? I do that. I’m that gangster. [Laughs.]

You write the blog for Jeff Daniels’s character, when he doesn’t even realize he’s got a blog.
Yeah. My character’s not a weathered, trained journalist, but part of that new generation that does Facebook, MySpace, everything that the Arab Spring used as a tool, to broadcast stories. And he’s trying to give them some new steam, to get them a younger audience. Jeff is against all that, so that’s the tension. The pace of journalism and broadcasting is so intense, and the guys on the team shape public perception — someone could be a terrorist or a hero by the way they feed us that information! It’s so interesting and so super fast. Everyone’s jumping on top of each other, so it’s a verbal duel. It’s fun, all right.

Were you interested in politics before this?
Not at all. Not until I did the TV show. Aaron Sorkin set this show in New York, and it’s dealing with relevant issues,  so I try to be authentic and immerse myself in that, but I hardly ever used to watch the news before. I mean, I’d be watching Jim Carrey pull faces or Arnold Schwarzenegger beat up men instead! I’ve been watching more news since then, but I still don’t think I have the intellectual capacity to talk about it for too long. But Aaron and his team, they don’t leave any stone unturned when it comes to dealing with realistic events, like when they go into Bin Laden being captured, all the madness and chaos behind that.

You have a lot of musically inclined cast members, including John Gallagher Jr. Anyone ever break out into song on set?
I just had my birthday, so they brought out a big cake and everybody sang “Happy Birthday” to me. But that’s true, actually, we have a lot of great fucking actors, and most of them are very talented, and when you walk past Jeff’s trailer, you hear the most amazing sounds. And trust me, you do get to see his talents on the show. But I’m tone deaf —window-shattering tone deaf. I can’t sing for the life of me. I can’t sing or dance, so no remake of Grease for me!

Dev Patel Has More Game Than You Think