When filmmaker Armando Iannucci first reached out to Dev Patel about playing the title character in his Charles Dickens adaptation of “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” the actor was a little confused. Why would Iannucci, who had never met the Oscar-nominated actor, want to cast a British actor of Indian descent in the classic role of a 19th century protagonist who has long been considered white? Looking back on it, Patel said in a recent interview with IndieWire, he wanted to ask Iannucci one question: “Are you sure?”
But Patel eventually realized the potential that the role gave him. “It’s a full meal,” he said. “There’s real despair and tragedy and loss, and then on the other hand, there’s beautiful moments of unabashed physical comedy and just absolute goofiness. Any opportunity I get to be able to do that, brilliant.”
Iannucci ultimately took a colorblind casting approach to the entire project, but said that decision started with Patel. “When I knew I was making the film, I could only think of Dev playing David,” he said. “I just thought, that’s how I must cast the whole film, cast who you think is the best person for that role.”
It was a stark contrast to some of the roles that Patel been offered on the basis of his appearance. While he has already put together an enviable resume — from his breakthrough role in “Slumdog Millionaire” to leading the charming ensemble cast of the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” franchise and an Oscar nod for “Lion” — the actor admits to occasionally feeling at the mercy of preset casting expectations.
“Professionally, I’ve existed in a bit of a no man’s land, sort of neither here nor there,” Patel said. “What you do as an actor is, you want to be able to explore. The very nature of our job is to be able to step into different skins and be other people. This is the truest of that form.”
While Iannucci’s film is set in Dickens-appropriate time and place (mid-19th century England, of course), “The Personal History of David Copperfield” infuses its story with some very modern touches. Look no further than Patel, who easily inhabits the role of David, a part typically assigned to white performers (previous screen incarnations have starred actors like Hugh Dancy, Daniel Radcliffe, and Frank Lawton). But he’s not alone.
Iannucci populated the film with a wide array of stars from an assortment of backgrounds. David’s mother is played by Morfydd Clark, and while we never meet his father, his paternal aunt is played by Tilda Swinton. David’s best friend and eventual wife Agnes is played by Rosalind Eleazar, with the role of her father going to Benedict Wong. Rival and sometimes pal Steerforth is portrayed by Aneurin Barnard, whose mother is played by Nikki Amuka-Bird.
Iannucci said he was lucky enough to be able to develop that approach without too much fuss. When FilmNation first approached the creator about producing whatever he wanted to do next, he surprise them with a pitch to “make a costume drama as if no one had made one before,” including out-of-the-box casting not beholden to preexisting casting conceptions.
“I hope it encourages [other] casting directors, other producers, other directors, to feel it doesn’t have to be this way,” the filmmaker said. “Hopefully it [becomes] a subconscious thing of people automatically thinking, I mustn’t categorize this role to any particular ethnic background. I say, ‘Why can’t I cast from 100 percent of the acting talent available to me?’ … It can’t be the case that a whole group of amazing actors are prevented from having lead roles, because the whole point of making these films now is because we feel the story is relevant, and we should show that it’s relevant by how we go about making it.”
Patel said he was also optimistic about the possibilities such creative choices have for the filmmaking future. “I think it’s a really positive time,” Patel said. “There’s so much more opportunity out there, and I’m very grateful for that,” he said. “I think Armando is really keeping the doors open on this, and hopefully there’s some other brave filmmakers that will follow in his footsteps.”
Patel has another promising turn in the pipeline as Arthurian hero Sir Gawain in “The Green Knight” (which was originally set to premiere at SXSW, and has yet to receive a release date from A24, Patel said he doesn’t expect it to arrive in theaters soon). But some fans are already clamoring for him to play James Bond after Daniel Craig steps down following the upcoming “No Time to Die.”
They shouldn’t hold their breath. “My vote is for Idris [Elba] on that one,” Patel said with a laugh. “I mean, you don’t want me blasting through a door with a Walther PPK to try to save you. I’ll do the comedy version with Armando. I just think the best person for the role is what it comes down to.”
But there is a deeper reason for his resistance to the Bond idea. “I also don’t want to be gifted a role, just because of the tokenistic nature of me being a garnish — ‘Let’s sprinkle some diversity into this!,'” he said. “That doesn’t make me feel good either. If it works for the story, and I feel like I can bring some truth out of this role or embody it well, then that’s what it should come down to.”
Searchlight Pictures will release “The Personal History of David Copperfield” in select theaters on Friday, August 28.
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