The Personal History Of David Copperfield star Dev Patel – always the good guy

It’s only 12 years since Dev Patel stepped into the limelight for Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. The kid from Skins had made it and since then he’s played a variety of roles, from likeable comedy in both parts of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, to the deeply emotional in Lion and something closer to heroic in last year’s Hotel Mumbai. But he’s always the good guy, something that he wouldn’t mind escaping once in a while.

Yet he never gets scripts for bad guy roles. “They just don’t look at me that way,” he says ruefully, admitting that he doesn’t feel he looks like a villain to start with. “I think I’d make the most unintimidating baddie ever – but I’d love to play one.” For now, though, there’s no sign of him crossing over to the dark side: his latest, The Personal History Of David Copperfield, puts him back in the lead and sees him playing one of the best known good guys in literature.

The film put in a quick appearance in the UK back last year, when it opened the London Film Festival, an event that brought back memories for Patel. Having “the whole Patel clan out in force – my grandad, my mum, my dad, my sister, every generation …..” was a thrill for him, but it also reminded him of the days when he was just one of the movie fans in the queue. “I remember I used to stand outside that cinema in Leicester Square and one time I was waiting for Will Smith at the Hancock premiere for hours. I got a picture of his forehead on my Nokia phone! And now, there I was on this poster and I was walking down the red carpet with my family. It was pretty cool. A bit of a pinch yourself moment.”

Based on Dickens’ doorstep of a classic novel, the film is released in cinemas this Friday, and when the approach came for the lead role, his interest was fired by the involvement of award winner Armando Iannucci. “I was super-enamoured by Armando and I thought that if he was bold enough to let me be part of this vision and this world, I couldn’t say no. I hadn’t even read the script but the opportunity to work with Armando was the big thing for me. I think I was the first choice for the part – that’s what he told me anyway! I hadn’t read the book or seen any adaptations. Once I read the script, I thought it was a huge undertaking and it was so beautifully written and the way he plays with form and the story, the way it cuts into animated parts and how he broke the rigidity of it all – he made it so accessible.”

Working with Iannucci lived up to his expectations as well. “He’s the cleverest man I’ve ever met: he’s razor sharp and on the other hand he just loves goofy physical comedy. He like a child behind the monitor, giggling away and ruining takes because he’s laughing so much. He’s so curious and playful and I think that’s what makes him a great comedian. I wish he was in front of the camera more – he’s so funny.” Not that the director was the only one to get the giggles on the set. Filming one scene in particular with Peter Capaldi, something of an Iannucci regular (TV’s The Thick Of It, In The Loop on the big screen), sticks in Patel’s memory. “He plays Mr Micawber, and it was the scene where he pretends to be a substitute teacher and has to teach us Latin grammar. That was my favourite day on set because I didn’t have any dialogue and I could sit down and watch him give us a masterclass in comic acting. He just chewed up that scene and we were on the floor. He was just riffing, and it was great.”

For all the comedy in the film – and there’s a good deal – Iannucci has also retained a side of Dickens’ writing that made his reputation, the way he shone a light on the issues of the day. It’s something Patel found especially appealing about the project, particularly the depiction of Mr Dick, played in the film by Hugh Laurie. “Dickens was so ahead of the game. He was one of the first writers to really talk about mental health and I guess Mr Dick was suffering from some form of schizophrenia, which they labelled as madness. He wrote about it for the masses and I think what people often forget is that Dickens wrote for the masses. That’s what Armando has done as well and the way he’s told the story is so we’re not being force fed, we’re actually going to want to watch it. We can find faces that relate to us, and it represents the Britain I grew up in.”

As for his next role, there’s still no prospect of him playing the villain. He’s in David Lowery’s – or, as Patel calls him, “D-Low” – The Green Knight, based on Chaucer’s epic poem Sir Gawain And The Green Knight. Due for release some time this year, he’s moved back in time from the Victorian era to medieval England, but still in the lead – and as the hero. Casting directors take note!

Dev Patel was talking to Freda Cooper.

The Personal History Of David Copperfield is in cinemas on Friday, 24 January.

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