British actor Dev Patel on snorting whipped cream, moving on from Slumdog and starring in Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi comedy
Your new film, Chappie, sounds like an edgy Short Circuit set in Johannesburg…
Yeah, in the sense that it’s about an experimental robot adopted by a dysfunctional family. I’d describe it as a dark comedy about nature vs nurture. I play an altruistic scientist who creates a police droid, CHAPPiE, which dramatically reduces crime. Hugh Jackman plays a rival technician who creates a terrifying war machine.
Do you think AI robots will supersede humans within your lifetime?
I can barely work a BlackBerry, but technology definitely controls our lives these days. If you talk to Chappie director Neill Blomkamp [Elysium, District 9], he’ll tell you that the world will become one big supercomputer, and that every inanimate object is going to be intelligent. It’s already happening: cars park themselves, mirrors interact with you, toilets greet you when you walk in…
Jackman’s character sports a really cocky mullet. Were you tempted to touch it?
It’s epic. To commit that hairdo to celluloid you’ve got to either be crazy-confident or look like Hugh Jackman. Luckily, he’s both.
Sigourney Weaver plays your boss – did you ask her any geeky questions about Alien?
I stayed away from questions like that, because it’s not cool. The amount of people who’ve said to me, “Do that dance from Slumdog…” I just want to shoot them in the face. Besides, my dad’s a huge fan [of Alien], so he was the one freaking out.
Is ‘living in the shadow’ of Slumdog Millionaire a bad thing?
I worked bloody hard on it and I’m proud of it. It’s difficult to compete with a movie that won eight Oscars, so if on my grave someone says, “He made Slumdog Millionaire”, that’s great. I feel like I’ve moved on.
Chappie aside, have you ever been immortalised in action-figure form?
I have. I did this god-awful film called The Last Airbender, and the best part was that my character got his own Happy Meal toy.
Despite growing up in north London, do you find yourself being asked to audition for endless Indian-centric roles?
It’s interesting, as people think, “Oh he’s the Indian dude. He’s in Life Of Pi, he’s in this, he’s in that.” But I’m very specific about what Indian-centric projects I do. I don’t want to make Bollywood films.
Are you excited by the buzz surrounding your forthcoming biopic of maths guru Srinivasa Ramanujan?
Yeah, it’s me, Jeremy Irons, Toby Jones and Stephen Fry. They’d been trying to get it off the ground for 10 years when it landed in my lap with no one attached, so it was great to headline it. Mathematics is completely foreign to me – despite my father being an accountant – but it’s a really interesting role. Ramanujan was the first Indian fellow at Cambridge, and invented infinity, which is a ridiculous milestone. He could dance with numbers in the millions in his head; he was a human calculator. I don’t know how many people will watch it, but I think it will be beautiful.
Do you feel that you missed out on university?
I did miss out, but I got all the wild thrills from Skins.
On the set or off it?
[Laughs] Both, my friend! We had a good time. When we were 16, we got paid £1,000 to show up at university Freshers’ Week parties, and we’d get drinks and look at older girls… I look up to the boys, and I always have. I got plucked from the street, so I didn’t know what I was doing. In early episodes you can see me mouthing everyone else’s lines – I was bad.
When was the last time the Skins alumni had a reunion?
We had a good night a few weeks ago. All the boys are exactly the same apart from the facial hair. Everyone’s moved on, but we fall back into that relationship we had when we were running buck-naked into the sea, trashing a mansion or snorting whipped cream… There were some mental scenes on that show.
You’re also developing your own projects – are they top-secret?
One’s called Stray, set in the gold smuggling market in Bombay. I’d call it an Indian Godfather, but more contemporary. The criminal underworld in Bombay is amazing – a very rock’n’roll side of India.
You won bronze at the 2004 AIMAA Taekwondo World Championships. Are you still a ninja?
I should be, right? I did it for eight years. Not keeping it up is one of my biggest regrets – now I can barely touch my toes.
What do you miss about London?
I miss my box room and my old Bruce Lee posters. And, it sounds cheesy, but my mum’s food. The Indian food in LA is really sh*t.
Do you consider LA your home?
I’ve got a place in LA, but it’s going through a remodel at the moment. Who knows, I might come back and find pink velvet everywhere…
Is it weird to be 24 years old and have ‘people’ who decorate your LA home?
[Laughs] I haven’t got that much money – I’ve got a mortgage to pay. I’m not making ‘Will Smith’ money yet.
Lastly, did you snort whipped cream at the Skins reunion?
No. But who knows? It’s only Monday…
Chappie is at cinemas nationwide from 6 March