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Dev Patel says that being a British Asian actor has been complicated when it comes to getting roles, with many of his earlier offers type-casting The Green Knight actor even as he’s been questioned about his decision to play Indian characters, leaving him feeling “stuck in this cultural no man’s land.”
In a new interview with The Guardian promoting David Lowery’s epic Arthurian fantasy adventure, Patel said that bigger and more diverse roles were difficult to find after starring in the Oscar-winning feature Slumdog Millionaire. He revealed that due to limited opportunities, he had to “wait for an Indian role to come by, where I could put on a thick accent.”
“There wasn’t anything else, it was literally the clichés: goofy sidekick, taxi driver. I was dating my co-star at the time, Freida [Pinto], and she went on to do all of these amazing things,” he said. “But in a way, she, too, was being type-cast, as this exotic beauty next to all these Caucasian leading men.”
Recently, however, those opportunities have shifted for the actor with leading roles in The Green Knight and The Personal History of David Copperfield, which was directed by Armando Iannucci. Now, Patel says, that what was once the industry’s fixation around his race is something he finds himself thinking more about. “I’m the one that is fixated on it,” he said.
Ahead of filming The Personal History of David Copperfield, the actor even had a conversation with director Iannucci about the on-screen racial nuances of casting him as a famed literary character who has historically been white. “Wait, so is his mum going to be brown? How are we going to talk about that? Is there going to be, like, a scene where they, like, arrive on a boat?” Patel said he asked the director.
He also said that he had apologized for any backlash the film might receive for the director’s decision to cast him in the leading role. “Look, I’m really appreciative, but I’m also sorry because I know you’re going to face a barrage of comments. Because everyone’s going to be so fixated on the color of the lead’s skin,” he told The Guardian of his conversation with Iannucci.
While Patel has faced hurdles around racialized type-casting, the British Asian actor — who has appeared with an accent in films like Hotel Mumbai and the Exotic Marigold Hotel films — has faced pushback to being cast as Indian as well. As an English actor of Indian descent, it’s something that has frustrated him.
“You’re kind of like, ‘Where am I allowed to exist?’ How specific are we going to get with this? What does it mean to be an actor — to just be yourself? Am I only allowed to play a guy who’s 31 years old? Are you going to check my blood type?” he questioned. “The very essence of acting, it asks for you to perform, transform, change, that’s the allure of the job… And sometimes I feel stuck in this cultural no man’s land. I’m not British enough to be fully British, not Indian enough to be fully Indian.”
Despite these issues, Patel says that he sees significant changes in the industry when it comes to racial representation, pointing to films like Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari and Parasite. “You know, it’s moving in the right direction. My mate Daniel Kaluuya just won an Oscar!” he said of his former Skins co-star. “And there are so many beautiful films in the mix now.”
“We’re getting more nourished as a society for it,” he added.
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