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'Slumdog' star enjoys celebrity

February 13, 2009|By BARBARA VANCHERI / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Dev Patel still lives at home with his mum, dad and older sister, but he also owns a tuxedo -- or two -- and plans to slip an autograph pad under his jacket on Oscar night.

"Hopefully, no one will be too offended," the Londoner says, and if he asks with the same enthusiasm and joy he brings to a phone interview, established stars will gladly scribble their names for the "Slumdog Millionaire" actor.

The cast and crew of the rags-to-rupees hit have become red-carpet regulars. "We're still baffled and everyone can't believe it because we're not very media trained, we just get so caught up in the moment 'cause it's such an amazing experience for me.

"I'm just living the dream. I'm 18 years old, and I'm surrounded by these people who have been winning Oscars before I'd even tasted my first script and they'd inspired me, and sharing the same space as them just makes me the happiest boy on Earth. ... It hasn't worn off one bit."

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Not bad for a teen who launched his career on a British TV show called "Skins" without any experience. "On the first day on the set, I didn't know what rolling meant, I didn't know what speed meant, I didn't know we had to have makeup, I didn't know what a boom mike was, or that there was lighting and that you had to hit your marks."

But being part of the "Skins" ensemble brought him to director Danny Boyle's attention and, five auditions later, he was hired to play the teen-age Jamal Malik, a penniless orphan from the slums of Mumbai who lands in the hot seat on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

"When you're a minor character, like Danny said, you can put on a show, but when you're a leading man, you have to allow the audience to enter you, you've got to be still and you've really got to emote with your eyes and be Everyman," said Patel.

Boyle, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle helped Patel get to the point where he could call himself an actor.

"I was really eager to show I wasn't just a goofball and with the right mentor -- which Danny was -- I could really emote and do something subtle."

Before landing the role of the eldest of three Jamals, Patel had been to India once, as a 7-year-old dragged along to a family wedding in a western village most unlike Mumbai (once known as Bombay) on a trip that left him very, very sick.

The day after the wrap party for "Skins," he flew to India and, as soon as he stepped off the plane, started to soak up its smells and colors and adapt to its crush of people.

"Danny hadn't been there too many times, so we were sort of discovering it together, which was really fun and he took me with him when they were searching for locations. I'd never been to this place before and I'm playing a kid who's grown up in the slums all his life, so it was crucial."

With no coach to guide him but a keen ear, Patel came up with his own accent and also paid attention to the cheekiness and banter in the slums, or "colonies" as they call them.

"When I read this character I thought, 'God, he's going to be very upset and depressed, his life's not going the right way, he lives in poverty, he's lost his mother, his brother's left him, he's lost his soulmate,' and I thought probably he's going to commit suicide," Patel recalled of his early readings of the screenplay in London.

"I'm going to make him a soppy mess throughout the film and make him just cry, cry, cry and then when I saw these slums, I thought that would be wrong to do that."

One of the heads of a slum told Boyle: "We've had loads of people come over and film here and they gave us the footage and we looked really poor. If you want to film in our slum, you can't make us look poor."

Boyle said people in the West might make comparisons to their lives and interpret it that way, but he could honor another request: "Don't make us look like we pity ourselves."

As Patel says: "The parents are trying to get food on the table for the kids, and the kids are just like any other kid in the world; they just want to play and it's a working environment ... slums are like cities within cities," where everyone is laboring to make life better.

Patel and the two boys who play Jamal share the same sense of energy and innocence. "He's untainted by his environment, whereas his brother gets enticed by gangs and guns and money, this boy stays pure, beautiful, wide-eyed."

The young actors "say their lines with absolute purity," Patel marvels. "They're cute as well. They're the loveliest kids," who had grown and mastered some English when he was reunited with them in Mumbai for the premiere, where the cast danced down the red carpet to the beat of traditional Indian drums.

Patel, the son of a care worker and an accountant, has come a long way since his mother, Anita, told others in their London borough of Harrow about his acting aspirations. "They used to frown. What, he doesn't want to go into a real job -- accountant, lawyer, doctor?"

Turns out he has a real job, and if he can swing an extra ticket to the Academy Awards, where "Slumdog Millionaire" is up for 10 Oscars, he will bring his mother.

Patel next will star in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Last Airbender," based on the Nickelodeon animated series and scheduled to open in theaters July 2, 2010. The live-action film will allow Patel to use his tae kwon do expertise.

As for the past couple of months, he says, "It's like I live two different lives, one as a normal 18-year-old kid back home -- which I'm missing at the moment, actually, my friends and stuff like that -- and, on the other hand, I'm living in this extraordinary dream world where I'm staying at the Four Seasons (hotel) here in L.A. and I'm getting escorted around to all these studios to do interviews and wearing tuxes all day long. It's just crazy."

But some kind of wonderful.

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