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Dev Patel Upset His Agents by Rejecting Studio Tentpoles After ‘Last Airbender’ Disaster

Patel "doesn't really flourish" when forced to act opposite green screens.

Dev Patel poses for photographers upon arrival at the British Independent Film Awards in central London, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)

Dev Patel

Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

How bad of an experience was shooting “The Last Airbender” for Dev Patel? So bad the actor has rejected offers to star in major Hollywood blockbusters in the decade since. The closest Patel has come to a studio tentpole is Neill Blomkamp’s 2015 sci-fi effort “Chappie,” but that movie doesn’t have the scale of Hollywood’s biggest franchises. According to The New York Times, Patel said “his agents get frustrated with him for turning down” tentpoles.

“Maybe it’s a fear of how I would fit into that world,” Patel said about his decision to stay out of the studio tentpole world after “The Last Airbender,” which he called “one of the worst movies I’ve ever done, and I shouldn’t even bring it up, but do a quick IMDb search and you’ll know what it is.”

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan and based on the animated Nickelodeon series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the movie was a critical and commercial flop. “Airbender” also became a poster child for Hollywood’s continued history of whitewashing. For Patel, acting with so many green screens proved impossible.

“I didn’t really flourish in that position,” he said, admitting it’s hard for him to wrap his head around VFX filmmaking. “I take my hat off to all those incredible actors that do Marvel movies where it’s, like, big, noisy fans and green screen and tennis balls and whatnot.”

While Patel did audition for the most recent “Star Wars” trilogy, that’s the extent of his involvement with Hollywood studio tentpoles since “Airbender.” The Shyamalan movie was Patel’s follow-up gig to his breakout role in “Slumdog Millionaire,” and he rebounded from that studio flop by returning to indies. Patel found financial success with his “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” franchise and an Oscar nomination for “Lion,” plus acclaim for performances in “Hotel Mumbai” and “The Personal History of David Copperfield.”

Patel told The Times that nabbing his first Oscar nomination was not the emotional high some might expect. “I didn’t feel worthy,” he said. “That kind of speaks to my natural low self-esteem: You’re there with really impressive creatures, the best of the best, and you’re like, ‘I don’t know what I have to offer in this space.’”

The actor’s low self-esteem might have something to do with the bullying he received as a star of the popular British coming-of-age series “Skins.” Patel starred in the original run of the show as the sexually active Anwar, but not all viewers liked the way Patel looked.

“I was a young kid going on these chat rooms and it was quite brutal,” Patel said. “There were all these lists of who’s the favorite character on the show or who was the best-looking character, and I was always the ugliest, the least attractive. No one liked Anwar. It really took a toll on me personally.”

Now Patel is front and center in David Lowery’s “The Green Knight,” which has earned him his best reviews so far. The film opens in theaters July 30 from A24.

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