Dev Patel Conquers 'The Green Knight' And Embraces Every Role As A Journey

Jul 30, 2021
Originally published on July 30, 2021 3:06 pm

Dev Patel can kind of imagine what it was like to sit with the Knights of the Round Table — he felt that way on his first red carpet and, to some extent, he still feels that way now.

"You're surrounded by all these incredible legends, these knights among us," he says.

In the new movie The Green Knight, Dev Patel plays young Gawain, the nephew of the famed King Arthur. It's based on the poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," one of the best known stories in the King Arthur legend.

"I could really relate to this young man who was really ambitious and thirsty to belong," he says.

In the original, the mysterious Green Knight approaches King Arthur at his Round Table on Christmas and issues a challenge: he will stand still while one of Arthur's knights strikes a blow at him. One year later, that knight must then stand still while the Green Knight returns the blow in kind. Gawain accepts the challenge and beheads the Green Knight.

Patel says his Gawain is a stripped-down version of the legend. For one thing, in the movie, he's not yet a chivalrous knight of the Round Table.

"We find him in a brothel at the start of the film, and he's got quite the attitude. You watch him make a lot of mistakes and you hope, by the end of this story, he will do the honorable thing," he says. "Whereas in the old story, he's very chaste and honorable right from the get-go. He's less flawed, in a way. In this version, he's very much flawed and has a lot to prove."

In that way, Patel says he and his character are a lot alike. Despite being afraid, he knows an opportunity — like his role in The Green Knight when he sees one.

"You can't turn away from it, you have to grip it and do it," he says. "Otherwise, you're going to step back and kick yourself on the other end."

Patel spoke to All Things Considered's Ailsa Chang about how he personally related to the young Gawain's journey, how a film production is like an actor's quest and exploring his British Indian identity through his acting. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of the interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On feeling the intense desire to prove himself

I kind of feel that with every film I do, in a way. If you took the words "film production" out of it and called it a "quest," I feel like I'm always embarking upon these quests that I don't know how to conquer. As an actor, you feel like you should get better with each role, and in certain aspects I feel like I'm getting confident and I'm at ease with certain parts of process of filmmaking now; I'm not so intimidated by a makeup brush or a boom mic. But they're also [parts that are] new. Even talking to [director David Lowery] for the first time, I'm like, "Oh yeah, I can do this. I can ride a horse, I can feel these things and give you the soul you need." And then, all of a sudden: Cut to the first day of filming and I can't wrangle the horse, it's freezing cold, I'm damp and muddy. It's very much a parallel of that.

On kinds of roles he's been offered since his breakout in Slumdog Millionaire

I guess the main one would probably be that now I'm allowed to exist in different universes that I never dreamt I could have at the start of my career. Even after Slumdog, I was very much pigeonholed. The rare scripts that would come in, they were the usual fodder of goofy sidekick, tech geek, blah blah blah. Now, I get to play Charles Dickens in [The Personal History of] David Copperfield. I'm not holding a tray in the background on set, serving the tea. Those characters somehow are allowed to exist sometimes in these kinds of period pieces, but to be able to, in a way, take center stage: that's the biggest difference, I would say.

On exploring the complex duality of his identity through acting

Growing up in London, I spent my early childhood in school trying not to get beaten up and bullied and that meant hiding aspects of your Indian-ness, of your culture to fit in. There's all these kind of slurs — of being "fresh off a boat," for instance — and so you're trying to be like the local grime rapper more than you are trying to push forward your Indian influences at home. And then [through my work in] this industry, I've been able to go to India, and all these kinds of preconceived notions I had about my own culture, my own naivete, was kind of broken. So I've really loved exploring that other part of myself through my work. That duality that I possess, that a lot of people possess around the world, you kind of sometimes feel like you're sitting in this cultural no man's land: You're neither British nor Indian, you're kind of this odd space in between. Sometimes you're accepted by one faculty, and sometimes you're not, and that's an incredibly complex and frustrating place at times, and confusing place to exist in. So I'm really up for trying to feel that in the work I do, and hopefully more so in the stuff I will do to come.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

"Sir Gawain And The Green Knight" is a poem from the Middle Ages, and it's one of the best known stories that are part of the legend of King Arthur. The poem tells the tale of Sir Gawain, a Knight of the Round Table. And one Christmas, the mysterious Green Knight approaches and issues this challenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GREEN KNIGHT")

RALPH INESON: (As the Green Knight) Let whichever of your knights is boldest of blood and wildest of hearts step forth, take up arms and try with honor to land a blow against me.

CHANG: Gawain accepts...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GREEN KNIGHT")

DEV PATEL: (As Gawain) I will do it. I will meet him.

CHANG: ...And uses his one blow to slice off the Green Knight's head.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GREEN KNIGHT")

PATEL: (As Gawain) Upon this Christmas Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWORD SLICING)

CHANG: What happens after that is the basis for the new movie "The Green Knight." Dev Patel plays Gawain, but he's a stripped-down version of the legend. For one thing, in the movie, Gawain is not yet a knight - so, so not a knight.

PATEL: Kind of this young, headstrong nephew of King Arthur. So we find him, you know, in a brothel at the start of the film. And he's got quite the attitude. And you watch him make a lot of mistakes. And you hope by the end of this story he will do the honorable thing, you know, whereas in the old kind of story, he's very chaste and honorable right from the get-go. He's less flawed in a way. In this version, he's very much flawed and has a lot to prove.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GREEN KNIGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) And what do you hope to gain from facing all of this hue (ph)?

PATEL: (As Gawain) Honor.

CHANG: When Dev Patel and I spoke the other day, he told me the script cast a spell over him for days and that he very much personally related to young Gawain's journey.

PATEL: As a young actor, you're constantly questioning what you're doing and what it all means and at what cost is it, you know, and the journey, you know, the beauty of this journey. So for me, I could really relate to this young man who was really ambitious and thirsty to belong amongst these greats at the round table. I kind of felt like - I felt like that on my first red carpet. I still feel like that now. You know, you're surrounded by all these incredible legends, these knights among us. And I never quite feel worthy. So that I could relate to in a very strong way.

CHANG: Can you talk about that a little more? I mean, was there a moment in your life where you felt this intense desire to prove yourself, where you felt unworthy and felt stripped down to the bare essentials?

PATEL: I kind of feel that with every film I do, in a way. If you took the word, you know, film production out of it and called it a quest, I feel like I'm always embarking upon these quests that I don't know how to conquer (laughter). As an actor, you feel like you're getting - you feel like you should get better with each other role. And in certain aspects, I feel like I'm getting confident, and I'm at ease with certain parts of the kind of process of filmmaking now. I'm not so intimidated by a makeup brush or a boom mic.

CHANG: (Laughter).

PATEL: But they're also new. And you kind of - even talking to David for the first time, I'm like, oh, yeah, I can do this. I can ride a horse. I can feel these things and give you the soul that you need. And then all of a sudden, you know, cut to the first day of filming and I can't wrangle the horse. It's freezing cold. I'm damp and muddy. And it's kind of very much a parallel of that.

CHANG: Well, I want to step back a little bit because, looking at your career, it's been 13 years since your breakout role in "Slumdog Millionaire." And I'm wondering, when you look at a role like Gawain and all the roles that you've been offered since "Slumdog," how have they changed over time despite your eternal feeling of not being enough when you first start a new film?

PATEL: Yeah. I mean, I guess the main one would probably be that, you know, now I'm allowed to exist in different universes that I never dreamt I could have, you know, at the start of my career. Even after "Slumdog," I was very much pigeonholed. And it was - you know, the rare scripts that would come in, they weren't - you know, they were the usual, you know, fodder of, you know, you know, goofy sidekick, tech geek, you know, blah, blah, blah. Now, you know, I get to play Charles Dickens, you know, and David Copperfield or...

CHANG: Right.

PATEL: ...I'm allowed - you know, I'm not holding a tray in the background on set, you know, serving the tea, you know? You know, those characters somehow are allowed to exist sometimes in these kind of period pieces. But to be able to, you know, in a way, take center stage, you know, that's the biggest difference I would say.

CHANG: Yeah. You mention, you know, like, a character on the side just with a tray of tea. That makes me think about - there are some actors of color who are really selective about accepting roles where their ethnicity is a defining aspect of the character. And I was wondering, when you are asked to play a South Asian character, what do you think about before you would accept such a role now?

PATEL: You know, growing up in London, I spent my early childhood in school trying not to get beaten up and bullied. And that meant kind of hiding aspects of your Indianness, your culture, to fit in.

CHANG: Yeah.

PATEL: You know?

CHANG: Yeah.

PATEL: You know, there's all these kind of slurs of being, you know, fresh off a boat, for instance, or blah, blah, blah. And so you're trying to be, like, the local grime rapper more than you are trying to, like, push forward, you know, your Indian influences at home. And then, you know, throughout this industry, I've been able to go to India. And all these kind of preconceived notions I had about my own culture, my own naivete was kind of broken. So I've really loved exploring that other part of myself through my work. And that's something - that duality that I possess, that a lot of people possess around the world, you know...

CHANG: Yeah.

PATEL: ...You know, you kind of sometimes feel like you're sitting in this cultural no man's land. You're neither British nor Indian. You're kind of this odd space in between. And you're constantly trying - you're at ends with - you know, sometimes you're accepted by one faculty and then sometimes you're not. And that's a incredibly complex and frustrating place at times and confusing place to exist in. So I'm really up for, you know, trying to feel that in the work I do, too and hopefully more so in the stuff I will do to come.

CHANG: Yeah. You know, as you think about your career so far, both as an actor and as a director now, what do you think most drives the choices behind your work?

PATEL: I guess it's kind of fear in a big way.

CHANG: Yeah.

PATEL: It's the - you know, fear is kind of - when I'm afraid of it but it's a great opportunity like this, you can't turn away from it. You have to kind of grip it and do it. Otherwise, you know you're going to step back and kick yourself on the other end. So it's that fear in a weird way, something that really drives me. And sometimes, there's just stories that I'm just so obsessed with, you know...

CHANG: Yeah.

PATEL: ...That I just really wanted to - I wanted to live that journey, like this as well, in a way.

CHANG: Well, I hope your fear never goes away.

PATEL: Oh, thank you (laughter).

CHANG: Dev Patel stars in the new movie "The Green Knight." Thank you so much for this conversation. It was such a pleasure.

PATEL: Awesome. Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL HART'S "YOU DO SMELL LIKE YOU'VE BEEN AT MASS ALL NIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.