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The Last Airbender - Dev Patel interview

The Last Airbender

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DEV Patel talks about the appeal of appearing in M Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender getting to grips with martial arts and how life is treating him in the wake of the success of Slumdog Millionaire.

Q. It’s already been written that your kung-fu in this film is better than Jaden Smith’s in The Karate Kid! Are you a natural in the field of martial arts, or was it just a fluke?
Dev Patel: [Laughs] I agree, I was amazing [raises arm in the air]. I trained in a Korean version of karate called Taekwondo, which they teach to Korean military. When I was a young kid I had a bit too much energy, I needed to sort of channel that and my mum put me into martial arts training. I still have too much energy. I was more than rusty going into the film but the stunt co-ordinators, Ben [Cooke] and Marco, were great in sort of incorporating our own talents within their vision of what our characters should be.

So, I got to add a few of my own kicks into the film and also incorporate the character’s fighting style, which was northern Shaolin. The interesting thing is the sort of elements that are associated with a character sort of really represent that character in itself… if you think of fire, you think of something which is really aggressive and erratic, and sort of uncontrollable and dangerous – and that’s what Zuko should fight like. It’s a very hard style, very aggressive…whereas Nicola’s fighting style is very fluent and natural, like water. So, it was good fun and tricky as well.

Q. Can you give us an idea of how the last couple of years have changed for you? Can you still walk down the streets of Harrow unimpeded? And what do your nearest and dearest think of your success?
Dev Patel: It really was… I think the one term I used throughout Slumdog [Millionaire] was that “it was a blessing”. And I’ll say it again, it really was. For your first film to have that sort of success in the industry, I wouldn’t say it was a dream come true because it was beyond that. I didn’t even expect Slumdog to do that well and it did. It was one of the biggest confidence boosts for me that Danny Boyle believed in me and put the film in my hands was one, but the second one was that the film did that well. So, that was amazing.

It’s crazy… there’s lots of things that I‘ve had to become accustomed to really quickly, such as the whole paparazzi and things like that. But in general, the people that do meet me are very nice… they’re well-wishers. But what was hard is the sort of domino effect it has on your family, so getting pictured coming out of somewhere or something like that… and the sort of rumours that are spread about you, I can deal with. But my parents having to go to work and explain it to a million different people, that: “No, my son’s not engaged! He hasn’t flown his wedding cake across the world..” or something like that. But it’s something that’s made the whole family a bit stronger in a weird way I guess.

Q. You had such a huge success very early on in your career with Slumdog Millionaire. Does that put you under extra pressure to relive that success with everything you do subsequently?
Dev Patel: Do I feel the pressure? It’s tricky because I’m not expecting another script like Slumdog or a character like him to come round… or the film to win eight Oscars every day. I’ve accepted that. What you do as a young actor is you try and sink your teeth into as many different roles as possible. So, going from doing a TV show [Skins] where I played a very comedic sort of character that was sort of a humping Chihuahua on acid, to going out to India and playing Jamal Malik, a boy that was struggling to survive in the slums and reunite with his soul-mate, and then coming to this…

What enticed me to this film was that he’s a prince of a nation, there’s so much more involved, there’s so many amazing names attached, and I can actually weigh that up and try and sink my teeth into as meaty a role as possible. Obviously, what’s going to happen because you’re in this industry, is that everyone’s going to compare your last work to what you’ve done now. But what you try and do is just come to it as a fresh slate and just act. I came into this industry as an actor and that’s what I want to do… is try and put myself in as many different shoes and as many different characters as possible.

So, I’m not looking to top Slumdog and I’m proud of it. I worked hard on it, so if people say it’s a good performance then thank you very much, and I’ll just keep on trying to do more. I can’t deny that there isn’t a pressure when everyone’s expecting you to do that. But they’re two totally different roles and the characters are 180 degrees different. Hopefully with this, I’m trying to tap into a different audience as well. So, we’ll see.

Q. There’s an incredible amount of CGI in this film. So, do you ever get to a point where you see the first screening when it’s all complete and think, ‘oh that’s what I was looking at, that’s what it’s all about’?
Dev Patel: Yeah, it was great. I was saying this earlier before but these guys – Frank [Marshall] and Night – they really tried to put us in as real a situation as possible with a fantasy film. We were flown to Greenland to shoot some of the scenes. So, on that front, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. But when I saw the final product, I’ve got to say I really was just so pleased with how it turned out visually.

The amount of detail that went into those little patches of… peaks of green through the set that you could see every detail and how much it was filled with so much detail. For my ship, they built the entire front deck of the ship to perform on, which was amazing. But what I looked out on, I couldn’t see, so when I saw that it was absolutely amazing. So, I did have the ship to work with, but not everything, so it did require a bit of imagination skills.

Read our review of The Last Airbender

Read our interview with Jackson Rathbone