If you're heading to the multiplex this weekend there's a good chance that you'll be catching a movie starring Dev Patel. It's a rare occurrence for any actor, but the “Slumdog Millionaire” breakout has the fortune of having two different films open in the U.S. today.
In Neill Blomkamp's “Chappie,” Patel plays a robotics designer and computer programmer who brings the title character to life in a dangerous and unstable environment. His other new release is Fox Searchlight's “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” where he reprises his role as Sonny, a young entrepreneur who runs what is effectively a retirement home for British Expats in Jaipur, India. The surviving members of this geriatric crew, including Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton and Celia Imrie, are all back for more life affirming adventures as Richard Gere checks in to stir things up. Don't worry, the venerable Maggie Smith also returns and her cantankerous Evelyn still has a sweet spot for Sonny and his dreams of expanding the “Exotic Hotel” empire.
Speaking with Patel via phone from New York earlier this week, he described his 80-year-old co-star as “wonderful” and admitted what screenwriter Ol Parker had revealed in an earlier interview; the two of them formed a close bond while filming the sequel. So much so that Smith nicknamed him “Petal” during the shoot.
“She would cringe if she knew I said this but she is one of the most gracious talented and incredible humans I”ve ever got to share the screen with,” Patel says. “I mean I”m just astounded by her talent and her patience. We”re in the scorching heat of India filming, our set is two hours away from where we”re staying and we're traveling through these big, bumpy roads. We get to set and it”s long days and lots of scenes. And I”m kind of like a kid with Tourette”s. Just to keep the energy [up] and the spontaneousness of this comedic character I”m playing and she”s just so patient and lovely with me.”
He added, “You know she”s got a great sense of humor and I was just astounded by her consistency take after take and just the stamina she has, y' know? Put me to shame really.”
Released a little under three years ago, the first “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” was something of a surprise global blockbuster for Fox Searchlight earning $136.8 million on just a $10 million production budget. The filmmakers never intended for their to be a sequel and mocked their luck by intentionally picking “Second Best” as the phrasing in the title as opposed to “Exotic Marigold Hotel 2” or adding a subtitle. This time around Patel's character is even more central to film's storyline as he tries to balance potential U.S. investment, the arrival of a “friendly” business rival and a busy weekend of nuptial celebrations as he marries his beloved Sunaina (Tena Desae). Considering his character was originally written as an overweight, middle-aged man he took his expanded role in the sequel as a “pat on the back” for his original performance.
“The main thing is the first film was so loved we didn”t want to come back and muddy the waters just for financial reasons,” Patel says. “The first one was about Westerners coming to India and dealing with this extremity. I feel in this one [we could] go even deeper than that because now they”re adapted to the place and it”s more about them dealing with their issues [such as] aging and the idea of taking risks.”
“Chappie,” on the other hand, came to Patel of the blue. The 24-year-old was in production of the final season of the HBO series “The Newsroom” when his manager called to tell him the “Elysium” director wanted him to be the lead in his next film. Patel was sent the “top secret” script to read for just a short while before he made his decision. Patel recalls, “He had put some of the visual contents on the iPad of what he thought he the robots in the world would look like and I was blown away. I loved 'District 9' so I jumped at it really.”
Patel character, Deon, is the brain behind a line of security robots manufactured by a private company, which has been contracted out by the Johannesburg, South Africa Police Dept. The bots have helped the officers cut down on violent crime in the city, but Deon has much bigger dreams. He's secretly been spending his free time developing a computer program for the first true artificial intelligence. His A.I. would not be full formed at first, but, instead, need to learn like a child. After his boss (Sigourney Weaver) forbids him to use a damaged bot to test out his breakthrough he goes behind her back and saves it from the junkyard by sneaking it out of the facility. Just as he's about to bring Chappie to life, he's kidnapped by two criminals (played by South African hip-hop artists Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser) who horrifically attempt to take his creation down a very dark path.
Many might believe Deon's actions are reckless and naive, but Patel doesn't subscribe to that. He sees his character as a “visionary” and almost a “young Steve Jobs” who”s low-esteem gets the better of him.
“He”s a young genius who creates these robots that are employed by the police force in Johannesburg and police deaths are at an all-time low, you know? Civilians are not dying anymore, but his interests don”t lie in making war machines,” Petal says. “He wants to make a robot that can think and feel and true artificial intelligence. And he”s ridiculed by everyone in the office but he”s cracked it so he”s going to stop at nothing to make this idea, this dream a reality.”
While co-star Hugh Jackman plays the primary villain and brings “Chappie” the star power that likely got it green lit, most moviegoers are going to be fixated on Deon's two kidnappers played by Ninja and Yo-Landi. Reaction to the first-time actors' performances is already divisive and even the incredibly polite Petal says, “They”re the most interesting creatures I”ve come across to be honest.”
He adds, “Y'know, we”re playing characters and they”re reacting as themselves. That”s the great thing with Neill is it”s a real mash up this film. It”s very ballsy storytelling. They really bring a unique voice and there was never a dull moment with them at all.”
(Read into that what you will.)
What both “Chappie” and “Second Best” have allowed the British born Patel to do, however, is to shoot in different and unexpected parts of the world.
“I kind of grew up in a very quiet sheltered. I didn”t have the opportunity to travel that much,” Patel says. “So, this industry has really opened my eyes to the world and experiencing humanity in all different forms and cultures in a way. It”s one of the most incredible parts of the job.”
“The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Chappie” are both playing nationwide.