'Slumdog' Star Dev Patel Takes On Retirement Comedy

Originally published on May 7, 2012 11:56 am

A new film takes a humorous look at retirement with an all-star lineup of veteran British actors. Opening in select U.S. cities Friday, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel follows a group of British senior citizens who travel to Jaipur, India, hoping to spend their retirement years in an inexpensive but luxurious hotel. They quickly realize it's not quite the palace they saw in the brochure.

The brochure had been enhanced by the hotel's young and endlessly optimistic manager, Sonny Kapoor. He inherited the ramshackle real estate from his late father, and he dreams of transforming it into an elegant resort for "the elderly and beautiful," as he calls the retirees.

Sonny is played by British-born actor Dev Patel, who starred in the Oscar-winning 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire and 2010's The Last Airbender.

In an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Patel explains that once he started reading the script, he knew he could have some fun as Sonny. Patel aimed to make the character "annoyingly adorable."

Sonny is "kind of a mad mess who is untamed," says Patel. And when the character gets into trouble, he responds with his motto: "Everything will be all right in the end, and if it's not all right, then it's not yet the end."

He feeds that line to the newly arrived retirees, particularly as they see incomplete paint jobs on hotel walls, missing doors on rooms, and phones and plumbing that do not work. He also says it to his beautiful girlfriend, Sunaina (played by Tena Desae), who is trying to win the approval of Sonny's very traditional mother. Patel has nothing but praise for Desae, saying, "I do not do a movie unless the woman is stupidly out of my league."

Patel says he also enjoyed working with Oscar-nominated director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) and Oscar-winning actors Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson, Golden Globe winner Bill Nighy, as well as Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie.

"They've been acting since I was a fetus — I don't know, I mean, they've just been around for so long and they've seen it all," says Patel, who got his big break in the British television series Skins. "And I'm like, 'What have I got to offer?' "

But the nerves disappeared as soon as Patel flew to India and met the cast. "Literally, they're the coolest bunch of people I've ever met," he says.

The Success Of 'Slumdog'

In Slumdog Millionaire, Patel's first major film, a teen from the Mumbai slums competes on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and correctly answers questions by drawing upon his often tragic personal history.

In the wake of the film's phenomenal success, audiences questioned whether director Danny Boyle did enough to give back to the young Indian children who appeared in the movie.

"Obviously, when you're doing a movie that's so big," Patel says, "there's this massive magnification that's put on it, and everyone's trying to find a kind of chink in the armor, I guess, of this kind of big movie, you know, which is sad because, you know, in this case, they went to crazy extents to kind of do this."

The 'Coolest Role'

The Last Airbender follows Aang, a child tasked with stopping the Fire Nation from enslaving the Air, Earth and Water nations. The film is based on the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The original story featured Asian characters, but the film adaptation featured only one Asian actor: Patel. He played Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation.

"It made me realize that when you're doing these big films, you become really small in the process of this, you know, this big mechanical machine — this studio movie," Patel says.

He says he was a big fan of the cartoon and had participated in martial arts for eight years. He points out that Prince Zuko is the villain at the beginning of the series, but he later becomes a hero and a fan favorite. So Patel was happy to take on the role — the "coolest role," he notes.

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we wrap up our weeklong celebration of our fifth anniversary on the air with a final conversation about what's fun about being five. That's just ahead.

But, first, we want to tell you about a very funny and poignant film about people at the other end of lifespan: retirement. Now, retirement has generally not been the most amusing subject, especially in recent years when many seniors in the U.S. and in countries around the world have seen their savings vanish for various reasons. What to do when they still have many years ahead?

The movie, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," which opens in select cities today, follows a group of British senior citizens who travel to India hoping to spend their retirement years in an inexpensive, but luxurious hotel, only to find that their new home is not exactly the palace they envisioned.

Once they arrive, they are welcomed by Sonny, the young hotel manager played by Dev Patel, who previously starred in the Oscar winning film, "Slumdog Millionaire."


DEV PATEL: (as Sonny Kapoor) Gentle friends, you have found your way to this place bequeathed to me by my beloved father that I have raised from the ruins of his broken dreams and renamed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful. Who knows how many days you have left? But we are most honored that you have chosen to spend that time with us.

MARTIN: And actor Dev Patel joins us now. Not the most delicate welcome, but...

PATEL: I know. Rather aggressive. It's really weird...

MARTIN: Charming.

PATEL: ...when you hear your performance and, you know, the visuals are stripped away and you just hear your voice and the sound. It's crazy.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the film. First of all, what drew you to this?

PATEL: You know, after "Slumdog," I used to - I get sent so many scripts that are, you know, Indian-centric and, you know, I try to be selective to avoid being typecast, number one. But number two, because I want to tell the right stories and, you know, India's just a wealth of amazing stories and I found that out when I was there. And I was utterly inspired. That's the first reason.

The second reason is we have probably one of the most phenomenal casts. You know, for a young actor like me to be able to work with the likes of, you know, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, all these theatre greats like Ronnie Pickup, Penelope Wilton, it was a real honor and a pleasure.

And the director, John Madden, who's directed "Shakespeare In Love," was also just a dream to work with and, you know, it was a chance to go back to a place that I really, you know, fell in love with, during "Slumdog" and, you know, film again, I guess.

MARTIN: Well, it is India-centric, though, and...

PATEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: And I think, for people who don't know, you didn't grow up in India. You grew up in England.

PATEL: No. I'm from the UK. Yeah.


PATEL: Thus, the accent.

MARTIN: Yeah. So...

PATEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: So, really, that was my question. Were you at all concerned about being typecast because it is another India-centric project?

PATEL: Yeah. And he's definitely a loud one. Not really. Because, you know, I - more than anything, this is, I think, a real poignant comedy and most of my decisions are based on gut instinct. You know, I can read half a script and I decide before I've even finished if I'm going to do it or not.

And, with this one, I definitely knew without even knowing the amazing cast that was attached, which speaks volumes in itself, but I was like, you know, this is something that I really - it's a character that I can get my teeth into. He's this kind of flamboyant entrepreneur who has this, you know, dream to outsource old age.

MARTIN: Well, he so means well. He is so - dare I say it - adorable, if you don't mind.

PATEL: No. I was aiming for that. Annoyingly adorable is what I was - is what I was aiming for.

MARTIN: Well, tell me more. That was my question - is what were you thinking about when putting this character together? Sonny, as you can hear from that - just that short clip that we played...

PATEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: He's frantic. He's trying to get the hotel ready and...

PATEL: There's a kind of...

MARTIN: He doesn't even seem to really realize that he has kind of oversold the thing.


MARTIN: You know.

PATEL: Yeah. Well, he - you know, he's this kind of mad mess, you know, who is untamed and, for someone like me reading it, I knew I could really have some fun and, you know, he's ever the optimist. His line he always uses, his go-to line, is everything will be all right in the end and, if it's not all right, then it's not yet the end. And, you know, he kind of uses it in moments as an excuse.

You know, when the guests arrive, for instance, he's still trying to paint the building and he's got green paint all over his face when they all arrive. They soon find out that this hotel that they saw in the brochure has actually just been magnificently photo-shopped by this kid and it's just a nightmare, you know, when you get there.

MARTIN: Well, and it's not his only challenge in the film.

PATEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: He also - and I must say...

PATEL: There's a little bit of romance.

MARTIN: I don't know. Not only a little bit. This is just the second film in which you have, like, a fabulous love interest. I don't know who you must have...

PATEL: It's in the contract. No, I'm joking.

MARTIN: Oh, is it? OK. I was going to say...

PATEL: No, of course not.

MARTIN: You - I don't whether you've - if it's the casting gods have been looking out for you.

PATEL: I do not do a movie unless the woman is stupidly out of my league. My costar. No, I'm joking.

MARTIN: So the theme here, as he's trying to get his very traditional mother to warm up to his girlfriend, Sunaina...

PATEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...who's played by Tena Desae.


MARTIN: And let's play a short clip about a scene between the two of them. Here it is.

PATEL: Oh, God. Here we go.


TENA DESAE: (as Sunaina) Do you love me, Sonny?

PATEL: (as Sonny Kapoor) My feelings for you cannot be reduced to a single word.

DESAE: (as Sunaina) It's a nice word. People like hearing it.

PATEL: (as Sonny Kapoor) No. It will be easier to talk to my mother when the hotel is a success.

DESAE: (as Sunaina) And what if it isn't?

PATEL: (as Sonny Kapoor) Everything will be all right in the end. And if it's not all right, then it is not yet the end.

DESAE: (as Sunaina) Sonny.

PATEL: (as Sonny Kapoor) It will succeed. It has to.

DESAE: (as Sunaina) Because then you can stand up to your family?

PATEL: (as Sonny Kapoor) Because then I can stand next to you.

MARTIN: All together now, aw.



PATEL: That's going to spoil my street cred, that one. God.

MARTIN: No. If it hasn't been already. Well, sorry.


MARTIN: But, you know, but let me just talk about this the scenario there is not unique to India. OK, in the sense of a young person...

PATEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...is drawn to someone who his parents do not approve of for whatever reason.

PATEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean that seems to be kind of a universal theme. But it is interesting in sort of in the context of I think, you know, modern India where there does seem to be this pull between tradition and, you know, modern age.

PATEL: Definitely. Definitely.

MARTIN: Would you just talk a little bit about how you saw that relationship?

PATEL: Well, it was great because in "Slumdog" I'm obviously playing a character that's from a whole different spectrum of society. Sonny, the character I play in the show, in this movie, he comes from wealth and he has this background of these brothers who are all doing fantastically well and, you know, doing his parents proud and he's this one boy who is kind of gone askew and, you know, and astray. And you know, he falls in love with this girl who is kind of wild one and his mother is completely disapproving and he's really not manned-up to the situation and actually introduced them properly. And they meet. I don't want to get too much away, but they meet in the worst scenario possible for your mother to kind of find your girlfriend and be introduced and everything just goes wrong from there.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and I'm speaking with actor Dev Patel. You know him from "Slumdog Millionaire" fame. We're talking about his new movie, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." It opens today in select U.S. theaters.

You mentioned earlier that this was a great opportunity for you to work with in this country known primarily as Oscar winners, Judi Dench...

PATEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...and Maggie Smith, Oscar nominee, Tom Wilkinson...


MARTIN: What was that like working with them? Was it intimidating?

PATEL: Auditioning was great, and then as soon as I got the call saying that I had been awarded this role, the nerves immediately kicked in. And, you know, the week before I went and flew out to India to meet everyone and shoot and rehearse; it literally was the most terrifying moment of my entire life. Because, you know, they've been acting since I was a fetus. I don't know.


PATEL: I mean they've just been around for so long and they've seen it all and I'm like what have I got to offer? And all these kind of, you know, things run through your brain. But as soon as I flew out and met them all in India it, you know, I've never - and this is going to sound so cliche and tacky - but literally, they're the coolest bunch of people I've ever met. You know, it was good fun.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations on everything that you've achieved so far.

PATEL: Thank you.

MARTIN: I did want to ask before we let you go, you know, both of your previous films "Slumdog Millionaire," and "The Last Airbender" kind of sparked conversations apart from the films. And "Slumdog," as I'm sure you know, there was all kinds of conversation about filmmaker Danny Boyle, whether he had done enough to kind of...

PATEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...give back in the wake of the success of the film. And then in "The Last Airbender," that was criticized by a lot of fans...

PATEL: Yes. Yes.


MARTIN: ...of the original animated series "Avatar"...

PATEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...because the characters in that original story were Asian.


MARTIN: And the only Asian actor cast in a major role was you.

PATEL: I know.

MARTIN: And then you played a villain. And I'm just wondering your thoughts on both of those controversies.

PATEL: Yeah. On both those. To start with, "Slumdog," it was an incredibly tricky situation because, you know, we had this filmmaker who wanted to make a kind of movie that would open eyes around the world, and he wanted it to be as authentic as possible. I think the important thing that a lot of people need to understand is, you know, when you grow up in a place like a slum in Mumbai, the essential thing to give these children is actually the gift of education. So we'd set up this kind of thing where Danny and a few of the people on the film set had kind of taken on their hands to find an English-speaking school to put these children into. And the idea was they could only access their fund when they where 18 and they'd stayed in the school to be educated. And obviously, when you're doing a movie that's so big business massive magnification lens put on it and everyone's trying to find that kind of chink in the armor I guess, of this kind of big movie, you know - which is sad because, you know, in this case they went crazy extents, you know, to kind of do this.

MARTIN: What about "The Last Airbender"?

PATEL: Oh, "The Last Airbender," I was a massive fan of this cartoon and I signed on to do this movie and I've been doing martial arts for eight years - a little note for you there. But, you know, it made me realize you are doing these big films you become really small in the process of this, you know, this big mechanical machine, a studio movie. My character, the so-called villain in the first episode goes on to be the kind of hero of the show and he's kind of the most, the fan favorite. So for me it actually was the coolest role to play, you know, this kind of kid who could throw fire out of his hands and things.

MARTIN: Well, who doesn't want to throw fire?

PATEL: Exactly.


PATEL: Exactly. So every like, I was like, I don't know how old I was. I was 18. I was like every 18-year-old's dream to play a role like that.

MARTIN: Well, what do you hope people will get out of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?"

PATEL: I think it's a story about living life at any age. You know, it's a group of retirees that get thrown into one of the most extreme environments in the world. And, you know, some of them are done with learning and experiencing and they put up these bars and they're kind of swallowed alive by this crazy environment, which is India, and the others are kind of are open and willing to experience. And it's a really great story about cherishing life and seeing that, you know, it's worth living at any age, you know.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations to you on all your success.

PATEL: Thank you.

MARTIN: Come back and see us.

PATEL: I will do.

MARTIN: Dev Patel is an actor. His latest film is "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." It opens in select U.S. theaters today. And we caught up with him at our NPR West studios in Culver City, California.

Dev Patel, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PATEL: Of course. It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.