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

At the beginning of the new movie <em>The Green Knight</em>, Dev Patel's Gawain is the young headstrong nephew of King Arthur. He isn't a knight yet and has a lot to prove.
At the beginning of the new movie The Green Knight, Dev Patel's Gawain is the young headstrong nephew of King Arthur. He isn't a knight yet and has a lot to prove.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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