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For Himesh Patel, Filming Station Eleven Made for Some Eerie Parallels to His Own Life

Himesh Patel. Photo-Illustration: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Spoilers for Station Eleven episode nine.

The events of HBO Max’s Station Eleven kick off when a flailing freelance writer named Jeevan, played by Himesh Patel, takes in a young actress named Kirsten, played by Matilda Lawler, amid the onset of a highly lethal pandemic. As the season progresses, we see them survive the first months alone in Chicago alongside Jeevan’s brother Frank, and we see an older Kirsten, played by Mackenzie Davis, in her new life as a wandering actress many years after the apocalypse. But it isn’t until episode nine, released on January 6, that we learn what happened to Jeevan.

In short, after Frank was killed by a stranger just before the trio planned to abandon his apartment, Jeevan and Kirsten eked out a life in a cabin in the woods. There they grew increasingly antagonistic with each other; he lashes out at her for always being distracted by her copy of the graphic novel Station Eleven and throws it away. When he goes out to retrieve it, he’s attacked by a wolf but saved by a woman named Lara (Tattiawna Jones), who takes him into a makeshift community full of pregnant people. The doctor who runs it mistakes him for a doctor and demands he help care for them, and Jeevan thus begins life as a healer. When he goes back to try to find Kirsten, however, the cabin is empty. The episode ends with Jeevan, 20 years later, grown into life as a doctor, with a new family in Lara and their two kids. It’s a big, arcing journey for the character, and Vulture spoke with Patel over Zoom about his big episode, the process of returning to shoot the series after the real-world pandemic hit, and how he mastered a midwestern accent.

As someone who’s been a freelancer writing about pop culture, it’s fun to see that hustle represented through Jeevan in his pre-apocalypse life. How did you think about playing that aspect of him?
He was probably on the slightly less accomplished side of things than perhaps you yourself and very much writing for some questionable publications. His position was one of aspiring to be more than that and not being able to find his way to it. He’s adrift and in some way embarrassed about his previous pursuits.

By the end of episode nine, he’s found he can be useful in the postapocalypse life. That general arc is in the book, but did you know exactly where he was going when you joined the show?
There was talk of it, but it was still being built when we initially spoke two and a half years ago. What was clear to me was that they were going to expand the character from the book, and this is the episode that makes good on the promise. He becomes a doctor in a way, but there’s the moment toward the end of the episode where he says he’s not a doctor, and this character says she knew and that he’s a healer. That’s almost the equivalent of a doctor in this new post-pandemic world. He doesn’t qualify for it by getting a Ph.D or in any official way. It’s simply through the act of doing what he does that he takes on this mantle.

You filmed a bit of the show before our real-life pandemic and then returned to shooting months later, after it hit. Was this episode filmed after?
The only thing we shot beforehand were the last shots of episode one where they leave the apartment block and walk through the snow towards the lake. Other than that, everything was in the beginning of 2021. There’s a separation for me especially when it comes to episode nine because we were a year off what we shot before. The distance wasn’t manufactured.

At that point you had experienced actual lockdown and isolation on some level. Was it cathartic to then act it out? 
That was a lot of inadvertent research done for what we ended up shooting. Episode seven is all set in the apartment, and we had spent two weeks isolating in a house in Canada before coming out and shooting it. And when it comes to what happens to Jeevan in episode nine, in terms of taking care of someone and being a birthing partner, for me personally that was strange because I had a kid towards the end of 2020. I told Patrick Somerville [the showrunner] when I found out we were going to have a kid and he said, “Just wait till you read episode nine because you’re not going to believe what we have in store.”

What was it like to actually act out that birthing scene?
We were carried by Jeremy Podeswa, our director, and between him and his DP Steve Cosens, they did a great job. I was also surrounded by brilliant actresses, some of whom were actually pregnant. It was really sort of a holy experience, to be honest. One of those things where you go, “I’m never going to do anything like this ever again.”

A big loss for Jeevan in this episode is Kirsten. How did you think about that affecting him?
He’s lost so much already, and I think he’s putting a lot of pressure on himself — and her, inadvertently — because he’s scared of losing her and letting her go, in a way a lot of parents tend to be with their children. He lets her go in the worst way possible, perhaps, but there is a sense of catharsis ultimately, that he’s not been okay for a while. He wasn’t okay at the beginning and he still wasn’t okay going into episode nine, but he gets a bit closer to that by the time we see him at the end of episode nine. It’s the end of a big chapter. He has to feel that she’ll be okay and that he did his best and that his best was okay. For me personally, it was a sad good-bye to working with Matilda because I loved working with her and she was the best. We had a journey together from Chicago at the beginning of 2020 to being in Toronto shooting episode nine. Jeevan lost something, and I lost something as well.

One of my friends was surprised to discover you’re British and not actually from Chicago. How did you master Jeevan’s midwestern accent?
The good fortune for me was that I got to be in Chicago initially. I worked with a great dialogue coach who works out of Chicago and knows that accent very well. I was also surrounded by a crew who were largely from the area. I was hearing it a lot and asking people here and there if it sounds authentic. There’s various different words for the specific accents that dialogue coaches love, but it was the wider “ain’t” when he says “can’t” that is very specific.

When we see Jeevan 20 years later, he’s grown a lot toward acceptance of himself. How did you think about playing the older him in that last scene?
We toyed around with some ideas of what had happened in the years in between. There’s the stuff that’s physically there: his children, and that he does find a fulfilling relationship and a family. Ultimately, he wanted a family the whole time. We get a sense of that in episode seven when Kirsten asks him what he would have done, and he says he would’ve come home earlier and seen his mum and they would’ve been together. That’s something he’s been wanting for a long time, and he finds a sense of belonging and responsibility and thus a sense of peace in knowing who he is and what his role is. That scene at the end of episode nine was the very last thing I filmed on the show, actually, and there was a sentimental feeling for me filming that.

It looks like a beautiful summer day.
We almost didn’t get that scene because it was the end of May, but it was snowing! It was snowing all day and I was sitting in my trailer. But then it broke, and because of the sharp change in temperature there was this beautiful mist across the lake, and we got the scene with this beauty we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Do you think, at that moment, he’s still holding out hope that he might see Kirsten again?
Maybe somewhere in his heart, but ultimately, he’s had to make his peace with it. The options are that she is alive or that she didn’t make it. That second option doesn’t bear thinking about for him. It must cross his mind from time to time, but I think he’s moved on to the point where it doesn’t keep him up at night.

You’re also in Don’t Look Up, which is about a comet threatening to hit Earth, and you were in Tenet recently, which has its own end-of-the-world threat. Do you think of yourself as drawn to these stories about apocalypses?
It’s strange, between Station Eleven and Don’t Look Up coming out in the same week, it’s two characters who get told the world’s going to end and have a panic attack. Complete coincidence, but I quite liked how different the two projects are. I mean, Tenet, to some degree, becomes a whole other thing, but I liked how they were all very different in their tones.

In Don’t Look Up, you’re playing a panic attack more for comedy. What was it like filming that?
When you’re in a scene with Leo and Jennifer Lawrence, you’re just like, “I’m just gonna try my hardest and have fun.” But they were lovely, and Adam’s brilliant. He just shouts lines at you from behind the camera and encourages you to improvise, so that was fun.

Himesh Patel on Jeevan’s Big Station Eleven Episode