Exclusive Interview with The Last Airbender’s Dev Patel

While young Brits were aware of actor Dev Patel from his work on the first two seasons of the Channel 4 TV series "Skins," the rest of the world find out about him when he starred in Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, a movie that made Patel an overnight sensation among the audiences charmed by the movie’s Bollywood-inspired love story.

After having such breakout success, the world was Dev Patel’s proverbial oyster, and he had already committed to starring in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender as the cartoon villain Prince Zuko, the exiled royal from the Fire Nation who hopes to prove himself by capturing the Avatar, a being who can control all four elements: water, earth, air and fire, something that will help him to reunite the nations of the world divided by the Fire Nation’s imperial advances.

It’s been a couple years since ComingSoon.net first sat down with Patel, but we also conducted a group interview with him from the Philadelphia set of Shyamalan’s new movie last year. In fact, you may want to read that part first since it’s more background stuff on how he got the role and stuff like that, so check it out below then return back here for our exclusive follow-up.

SuperHeroHype: Yeah, so it’s been about a year since we last spoke. (see below) I remember we were talking about how angry and intense this character was, but I didn’t realize how angry and intense until I saw this movie. He really is very angry all the time. So I was curious, after the fact now, how was that? Were you really angry all the time or were you able to turn it on and off?
Dev Patel: Yeah, he’s really a disturbed character, that’s for sure. You know, he’s angry, I think he lets out in bursts of anger. In the cartoon, he’s erratic and angry all the time and screaming and shouting. I guess it’s more comedy in the first season, but what I tried to was try to find a balance between making him more human and real and still staying true to the essence of the character. I sort of found a vulnerability in him I think.

SHH: I remember you auditioned for this before "Slumdog" came out and Night just mentioned that he was thinking of going with you before seeing "Slumdog." What drove you to audition for this movie? Were you just doing a lot of auditions at the time by that point?
Patel: No, it was just one audition that came along. They were like, "Put yourself on tape for it." I did and then once Night called me I was still in two minds about it, then once I spoke to him, his passion was just, oozing. I was like, "I’ve gotta do this. I’ve gotta be a part of it."

SHH: This movie has a lot of firsts for Night in terms of the amount of martial arts and action, so was it exciting or daunting knowing that you would be going on this journey with him, this being only your second movie?
Patel: It’s really daunting because you’re coming into this knowing that there’s a lot of hype and pressure and expectation already from the fans. It’s got such a big fanbase. But at the same time it’s exciting as well. I’ve never done a project with this much CGI. I haven’t done any CGI work before and special effects and fight sequences. I’m playing a whole different character, so it’s a real departure for me.

SHH: What was the most surprising thing when you finally saw the movie with the finished effects? Did you have any idea that that would be that stuff going on?
Patel: No, I was really excited. When I saw it for the first time I was just like, "Wow." There were all these things that we had to imagine and you see it put together, it surpassed what I thought it would look like, yeah.

SHH: How is Night as a director in terms of working with you as an actor, what is that relationship like? What does he say or do to get you into the mood of where you need to be as character, as well as being aware of what’s going to be added later?
Patel: I guess we just have to get to that place really of where you’re meant to be. It’s quite stressful when you’re on a massive set like that and there’s so many people working and all these extras and supporting artists. It was difficult to stay in the zone, especially when you’ve got all these big, blaring fans to create artificial air. At times, it was very difficult, but I guess when you’re with good actors it really helps. I did a lot of my scenes with an actor called Shaun Toub, but yeah, he’s a great actor.

SHH: What about some of these younger actors? Even with only two movies, you’ve been acting longer than Noah… yet he has more martial arts experience. What was that like?
Patel: It was great. I mean, he’s so unfazed by everything which is just amazing and he’s just so determined and his martial arts skills is just fabulous. He’s such a good martial artist, yeah.

SHH: Was there anything you learned from doing martial arts you might keep?
Patel: Unfortunately, no, on press tours like this, not really. I wish I could. I’d be amazing right now if I kept on practicing, but no.

SHH: Having played nice guys and a bad guy, which side do you prefer? Do you think you’ll play more bad guys after this?
Patel: I’m just trying to keep it mixed up really and trying to find roles that are a stretch for me as much as possible. This was a great role to do, but I’m pretty much open to things. I’m trying not to get typecast as much as possible. It seems that lots of roles that are coming my way are the same old goofy stereotypes and things and there’s nothing wrong with that and to an extent, I have to weigh up. "Do I really want to know? I need to start acting and being in front of a camera. I need to take on some projects," but at the same time I’m trying to hold out and wait for something good to come through the door.

SHH: I was curious about that because when someone is involved in an Oscar-winning movie, you’d expect that you want to strike while the iron is hot. You want to read as many scripts, go out there and do as many auditions and try to get more roles. Be out there. You’ve kind of played it very, very low key. After "Slumdog," this movie’s coming out a year later and we haven’t really seen you much, so was there a lot of pressure to try to keep out there?
Patel: No. It was a bit frustrating because I wanted to do another project maybe, but the things that were out there weren’t really going to stretch me as an actor and weren’t really too appealing, to be honest. So I just had to hold out I guess.

SHH: You shot part of this movie in Greenland and I’ve heard all these stories from people about how insanely cold it was there, so what was that like shooting there?
Patel: Oh, it was freezing. I had so much hair gel in may hair. With the cold, you basically could snap my hairs off my head, it was that cold. It was freezing and my first scene in Greenland was to try and be as intimidating as possible and really was so hard because I was in so much pain from the frostbite and the cold.

SHH: I don’t remember seeing a lot of mist coming out of people’s mouths. Did you have heaters around you?
Patel: No, there was a lot of smoke, it was just freezing, yeah, really cold. I think you can see it in our faces when we’re looking around and acting.

SHH: Was everyone able to just get into it and do it?
Patel: Yeah, just get into it and try and get it done as soon as possible.

SHH: So did you just do quick takes and then everyone ran back into the heat?
Patel: Yeah, run into an igloo, get warmer and come out again before your lips start going droopy and your eyelashes start freezing together and things, yeah.

SHH: I’m curious what kind of movies do you normally watch?
Patel: Everything. Sometimes when you just want to leave your brain at home and you sort of want some mindless comedies and things you can do that. I’m a big fan of "The Shawshank Redemption," but I also love watching films like "The Hangover." There’s so many different films, to be honest, that I enjoy watching.

SHH: We know that you’re good at comedy from "Skins." Are you trying to get away from that in some ways? I figured comedy would be something you can definitely do.
Patel: No, I would love to do a good comedy. That’s for sure, yeah.

SHH: You’re just waiting for a good script?
Patel: Yeah, yeah. Of course, yeah.

SHH: Do you feel like you’ve gotten the big action/FX movies out of your system with this one? Or is this a starting point to do more?
Patel: Oh, why not? I’m very open-minded to it. It was a really fun experience, that’s for sure. I love expressing myself physically instead of having to do it through dialogue all the time.

SHH: Obviously there’s a lot of elements involved in doing another one of these movies, and this is certainly taken to a point where you want to know what happens next.
Patel: Yeah, it really does. Hopefully we get to the next two and we can see how it goes from there.

SHH: Do you think you’ll go to Greenland for the next one?
Patel: Oh, I don’t know, hopefully not. (Laughs)

SHH: Considering that I haven’t seen you in about a year now. Has the craziness from "Slumdog" settled down now?
Patel: Yeah, it has slightly settled down. I mean, people are still genuinely excited to see us and have plenty of nice things to say which is good about the film, but no, it’s nice to have let it die down a bit and now come back again and maintain some sanity because it was absolutely crazy when the film was at it’s peak, it was, wow.

SHH: With a movie like that, a year later people almost forget about them in some ways even if they still love them. Do you have any trouble walking down the street?
Patel: Not really. I’ve got one of those faces that is really recognizable and I’m tall as well, so I stand out from the crowd, so I do get it hard sometimes.

SHH: In New York, do you get a lot of double takes?
Patel: Yeah, double takes and like (gasps) sorta stuff, yeah.

SHH: Do you know what’s next?
Patel: I haven’t got a clue. Hopefully a good audition comes back.

SHH: Have you been doing any auditions?
Patel: Not too many to be honest.

SHH: Do you have a dream project or a dream director you’d like to work with?
Patel: I mean, there’s so many. I’d like to aim high and think of the Scorseses and things like that. There’s so many good ones out there. I’m really liking what Christopher Nolan’s doing right now. What he’s done with the "Batman" trilogies and his films in the past have just been very good, very good indeed.

SHH: You’ve set the bar for yourself pretty high.
Patel: Really high, really high, but why not dream?

SHH: Some actors just want to work. I talk to Sir Ben Kingsley all the time and he just wants to keep working and working.
Patel: No, I’d love to work, but I think Sir Ben Kingsley is in a different position where he’s Sir Ben Kingsley, he can afford to do that whereas me, I fall into the category of, I could be typecast very quickly and then I won’t get out of that, so I’ve got to be very selective.

And here are a few highlights from our interview with Patel from the Philadelphia set of the movie over a year ago:

SHH: Can you briefly talk about how you got involved with this and whether you were familiar with the original story from the animated series?
Patel: Yeah, so with this project, I had done an audition for this, way back before "Slumdog" was released and I got myself on tape, and I started promoting the film and mid-promotion, I got a call from Night saying that he wanted me to play the character and that’s how I got into it really. Then flew straight from the Oscars to Philadelphia, didn’t go home, and straight into the training, lots of hard training, learning Wushu and martial arts and things like that and yeah, they whipped my butt into shape for this character really.

SHH: Why did you choose this as your first post-"Slumdog" role?
Patel: I think it’s that I wanted to do something as distant to "Slumdog" as possible ‘cause I think "Slumdog" was an amazing role and to have that role that early on in my career, I didn’t want just it to define me. I wanted to do something completely different and what’s so different than playing a prince of a fairytale nation who can control fire to a slumdog in India, they’re totally different. And I wanted to stretch myself as an actor. This guy in a nutshell is a villain with a heart. He’s not just evil for the sake of being evil, he’s sent on this mission to capture this young boy, called "The Avatar," but the backstory is that it’s because he wants to regain his honor to his father and he’s just a child looking for love really.

SHH: Were Night’s daughters fans of "Skins" also?
Patel: Fans of "Skins"? I don’t think so, I hope not, no! (laughs) You have to be 18 to watch "Skins" even though I was 16 doing it.

SHH: What’s this movie about for you? Is there any metaphor or message?
Patel: Even though it’s a fantastical film, I think there’s some really good messages come through in the characters. I think it’s interesting making this cartoon into a film, because obviously you’re working with human beings now so you have the capability of showing a lot more emotions within a scene. Night once said that the thing that holds these characters together and makes each person special is family, and the ones that hold family strong for themselves prevail and the ones who stand-alone fail. Zuko’s a boy, and especially in his situation, he’s struggling to impress his father and get his honor back and his love, and then he has Iroh (Shaun Toub), his uncle who’s there, treating him like a son. Almost in life, you take your anger out on the people you love the most, and he sort of neglects his uncle and he’s just on this one-track mission to find this boy. It makes it really interesting. They have this good dynamic, this naïve boy who almost acts on aggression all the time and then you have this wise older uncle, it’s like the calm within the storm sort of thing, it’s a good dynamic.

SHH: Can you talk us through your powers and how that’s going to look on screen?
Patel: My powers? That’s awesome. I’m a firebender and I control fire. I can manipulate the elements and use it to fight within combat, and again, the great thing about this film and why I wanted to do it is that you can express the way you’re feeling with the way you fight. A lot of this is physical acting, and within a fight scene… there’s a couple fight scenes where I fight Noah, who plays the Avatar, and the dynamic with that is so different, because I’m fighting with aggression, I’m trying to catch this kid and hurt him and damage him, whereas he’s trying to neutralize me because he’s a monk. If I’m upset, you see that in the way I spar with the people on my ship. Fire is an element you associate with venom and aggression. It’s unpredictable, and that’s really it in a nutshell. He’s unpredictable, he’s a firecracker, Zuko.

SHH: Has Night shown you what any of those fights look like with the finished FX yet?
Patel: No, no, he hasn’t. When you go into the production area where they’re showing all the pictures of what it should look like, it looks surreal. I’ve seen pictures of what the Appa is going to look like and miniature models of what the sea and the villages are going to look like. Just being on the set, you can tell that it’s got this epic feeling to it, which is great.

SHH: You said there’s a lot of anger in your character but we’re used to seeing you as a nice guy on "Skins" and in "Slumdog," so do you think people will be very surprised because this will show different sides of you?
Patel: Again, yeah, I want to sort of flex my muscles as an actor and sort of show that I’ve got a bit more range. I mean, again, I’ve played a horny teenager in London, a slumboy in India and now this character. So yeah, I’m excited and I get to wear loads of cool costumes.

SHH: But do you think people will be surprised when they see you on screen being so angry?
Patel: I think so. The thing about this is it’s a real stretch for me. At the start, going into it, I was a bit naïve, and I thought, "This is just going to be a big laugh. I’m playing a cartoon character." Then I got on set with everyone and read the script and M. Night’s in front of me, and there’s a lot of soul-searching to be done. It’s a real departure from who I am as a human being. I try and think of myself as a happy go lucky sort of guy who just loves joking around and not taking things too seriously and then I’m playing a guy who is full of all this anger and aggression. It’s actually been a real stretch for me to get that intensity constantly, yeah.

SHH: Is it easy to turn it on and off?
Patel: Yeah, it is. I mean, I don’t like to stay in him too long. (laughs)

SHH: How bad do you get?
Patel: How bad do I get? Uh, to this stage, I don’t think he’s at his worst. I mean, he’s got a lot of learning to do and that comes with his skill as a martial artist. He’s going to get stronger and more powerful as the story progresses and the characters arc, and he’s going to learn more skills and find himself more, and that becomes scarier. Because this is a boy, you’re talking about a boy who’s almost in charge of a nation. He’s a prince, and he’s capable of wielding so much power, and he can only get stronger, so it’s this constant battle between good and evil. Will he use this power for the good or for the evil, which makes it interesting.

SHH: How helpful was the original cartoon in creating this character?
Patel: It was helpful. I watched it while I was filming "Slumdog" in India. I’d come back from set and it would be on one of the channels, but I tried not to watch too much of it, because even though I’m basing it on a cartoon, I wanted to bring myself to it as well. I could never play a character if I didn’t add a bit of Dev inside it. Even though I say I’m a happy go lucky guy, I think in everyone, if you dig deep enough, you can find the serial killer to the madly in love whatever to anything, so I tried to make him as much me as possible.

SHH: You talked about the role being a stretch and you came off of "Slumdog," so is there pressure on you to live up to expectations?
Patel: A bit (laughs).. that’s an understatement, I think. It’s crazy. I’ve just been thrown into the deep end, I feel. I haven’t had a chance to look back, but the people I’ve been surrounded with have been great role models to me, and have really kept me afloat in the deep end. We were one big family at the Oscars with Danny and everyone and then I’ve been thrown in here and we’ve got Mr. (Frank) Marshall. We’ve got people in the industry who have been doing it for years, and you don’t feel alone when you’re doing something like this. I remember coming here on the first day and seeing the ship being built, and I’d never been on a set with this scale… I’d never really been on a film set. We’d been filming on location in India, and I felt overwhelmed, I felt like I was engulfed by this massive production and then just meeting everyone sort of gave me up and yeah, it’s just exciting. I’m sort of taking it in my stride I think.

SHH: Is there’s anything that’s opened up for you, as an actor after doing a film like "Slumdog"?
Patel: Yeah, the best thing I feel the most blessed about is I’m seeing the world. Acting has allowed me to see the world. I was a boy, I’d hardly ever been on holiday. I’d never been to Mumbai and most of my family are from there, so that’s how much I hadn’t traveled, and then I got into this industry, and I’ve been to Greenland now, I’ve been to Mumbai, I’ve been all over, Toronto, doing press everywhere, you know? To get my visa to do this thing, they sent me to Calgary, I’ve been everywhere! On those journeys, you meet new people and the best thing about being an actor is that the only way I feel like I can portray a character is by digging into myself and finding a relating point to why I’m feeling angry. If I don’t feel that then I’m just not going to show it, so by meeting new people and hearing different stories of the world, you get different perspectives on life, so now I know what it feels like to not have love for my father etc. etc. So I get to see the world and learn stories and then I can relate to them when I’m acting, and it’s made me a fuller human being.

SHH: When you think about role selection for something after this, do you think "Now what role is going to teach me most?"
Patel: Yeah, I mean, that as well. Also, it’s my gut instincts. I mean, being on the whole "Slumdog" bandwagon, people want to throw scripts at you because they want to capture you quick, but I’ve been quite selective, and I tried to do things that I love because I always want to keep the fire inside burning, and I’m trying to… it’s so hard to cancel out all that pressure from doing your first film and being thrown into the whole Golden Globes, Oscars and all that, but I just try to push it aside and follow your own path.

SHH: Have you learned anything specific from the older actors, have they been trying to teach you?
Patel: Yeah, I mean, the first time I met (Shaun Toub) was just before the read-through for this and I had a massive cold on the read-through and I was really ill and I’d just flown out here from L.A. so I didn’t have all my provisions, and I didn’t know what Zicam was or anything and without knowing Shaun, he went to the conscierge and asked for a pen and paper and asked for some prescriptions for me to go to the chemist and get, and I was like, "Wow, this man is really nice, he’s really looking after me." He goes, "You don’t want to have a cold for the read-through." I think he’s been around for so long, it’s almost… I think our characters are exactly like our relationship. There’s the new kid on the block who’s very naïve and young and then you’ve got this wise man whose been around for years in the industry. He’s showing me the ropes almost. So yeah, he’s great, he’s really good. I mean, he’s an amazing actor, and it’s just great working with him. He’s a good guy, he can have a laugh as well. He has a good sense of humor, which is fun.

SHH: What about M. Night?
Patel: Night’s great. I remember hearing that he was going to direct this and you don’t really put Night with a cartoon, with an action film, you don’t put the two and two together, but I think that makes him more interesting. I think the contrast is going to make this film interesting, because he’s going to add so much more depth and dynamic to what could be a simple story, and he’s going to make it a lot more interesting to watch I think.

SHH: About that scar you have, I wondered about when you’re bringing a cartoon to live action, it’s going to be more violent, so how are they going to deal with that? Are they going to keep it minimal to be able to get a PG but keep it realistic?
Patel: With that, I think that the action in the film is really fast-paced. I wouldn’t call it gruesome. I think all these characters in the film are trained technicians in their art. You’re looking at a great firebender, an amazing Avatar that can control air and has the power to harness elements. Waterbenders and these martial arts, these specific beings and their nations are regarded as people who are special because they can control… they’re technicians at martial arts, so the way we fight is not street brawling. Even when I fight with venom, I have a certain style. That’s what’s going to make Zuko a better character is that he’s so skilled but his anger takes over so that his fighting becomes weak, so he just goes full-out and goes back to the big swings and hooks. When he’s calm, he can actually show his skill and capture this kid. Yeah, I don’t think it’s about blood and guts and gore. It’s more interesting when you’re talking about elements, you’re talking about fire and water and air and earth. Water can cancel out fire, things like that, which makes it interesting.

SHH: Can you talk about the differences between working with Danny Boyle and Night? How different are they?
Patel: In my book, you can never compare Danny Boyle to anyone because he for me is the man who opened up the world for me. He employed a boy that he saw from a silly TV drama, who is probably unemployable, and he took me on his journey and took the biggest risk in sending me to India without an accent, without any real acting experience. Again, you can’t really compare directors because everyone has their own shine and the thing I love about Night is he’s young, so he’s good at connecting with us. This is a relatively young cast so he can have fun with them and (play) games, and you say he’s young, but he’s done lots of big films. Films like "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable" are some of the films I really love. Yeah, so he’s interesting to work with.

SHH: You and Night are hopefully taking on a huge new franchise. Did you and Night ever talk about other past fantasy or sci-fi franchise that either of you love?
Patel: Franchises? I love quite a lot of franchises, I’m an action junkie so I’m a big fan of "Lord of the Rings," "Harry Potter," the works, I love it all. I don’t really know what Night likes actually. I can say that growing up, one of my big idols was Bruce Lee, so doing this is cool.

SHH: Have you gotten used to the attention you’ve gotten after "Slumdog"?
Patel: No, it still hasn’t really struck me. It’s strange walking down the street and people recognize me, and they call me by my name as well. The only time I get called by name was when I was back in school and I’d be sent to the head teacher’s office and it would be like "Dev Patel!" (laughter) Now they’re screaming it in a totally different light, so it’s surreal, it’s great. I think it’s so nice to be appreciated. I feel blessed, because I’m doing something I love and you get so much appreciation for it, you know? It’s really nice. When you get thumbs up from people, like doing "Slumdog," the first day I saw it was at the Toronto Film Festival with a packed crowd, and I watched my performance for the first time with this whole crowd. It was the biggest thumbs up I’ve gotten and a nice little confidence boost. I’ve really grown up. You’re working on a film set with all these adults, and it really makes you mature quickly.

Now, go back to the top and read the follow-up (if you haven’t already).

The Last Airbender is now playing. You can read our earlier interview with director M. Night Shyamalan here and you can watch the trailer using the player below.