A suburban U.K. native with Indian roots, he's now settling into Hollywood, hoping to build a series of unexpectedly attention-grabbing roles into a serious career.
At age 18, after a breakout stint on the British television hit Skins (his mother saw a casting call and pushed him to audition), Patel was thrust into the international spotlight with his performance in Slumdog Millionaire (it's also where he met costar Freida Pinto, his current girlfriend). This year he won praise alongside British legends Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, and Judi Dench in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, an all-star, low-budget comedy that grossed more than $100 million worldwide.
Before resuming his supporting gig in Season 2 of The Newsroom, Patel is tackling his next task - "Not a fancy car. An Audi" - with intensity, perfectionism, and humor. It's the same hyper energy he employs on daily tasks, the logistics of adulthood, and new roles.
Director John Madden, who cast Patel as an Indian hotel owner in Marigold Hotel (though he originally intended to find a middle-aged man for the part), said the ever-grinning actor is "the center of every scene he's in." Patel makes the audience truly care about his character, cheer him on. The rebellious teen in Skins, the precocious boy-hero in Slumdog, the blogger hunched over his laptop in Newsroom share the same magnetic quality, the Dev factor.
"I didn't know until I auditioned him what he was capable of," Madden said. "I'd obviously seen him in Slumdog Millionaire and I really, really liked him, but I had no idea that he was such a gifted comedian. Very natural, fantastic comic instinct - a very rare thing."
Patel brought enormous energy to the set - always talking, laughing, joking, launching into karate kicks, requesting extra do-overs to nail a scene.
"There were times I would've been grateful to get it in three takes instead of eight, but something amazing happened in every one of those takes," Madden said. "He's restless, always wants to be better, and he had the admiration of those acting with him. Veterans were dazzled by him."
Patel recalls holding his breath, secretly terrified, while shooting the movie's close.
"I'm on this moped, fist-pumping, and I had to drive by Judi," he said. "I kept thinking, 'Please don't crash into her. Please don't crash into her.' I'd be the most hated man in England!"
Of meeting his famous costars, Patel said, smiling, "I've grown up watching these guys, so at first it was a really daunting experience. But as soon as I got out there, I've never worked with a more graceful cast. I almost think that Judi's more precious than the queen of England."
After wrapping Marigold Hotel, he leafed through Sorkin's script and considered a seemingly small part as an aspiring journalist initially mistaken to be an IT guy. Racial casting is a double-edged sword, Patel said: He may be recruited to fill an "Indian actor" role, but he uses the platform to present a complicated, multifaceted, expectation-bending character to the world.
"Me being who I am, I automatically get pigeonholed into some things," he said. "I do try to look for roles I can mold and change, and writers and filmmakers who aren't close-minded."
Patel's character in Newsroom slowly develops throughout the first season and is expected to blossom beyond "a nerdy blogger type" in the next.
"In one part, there's a shot of Neal rolling around in bed with a girl and he has to stop and grab his phone when news breaks," Patel said. "Of all the good-looking men on the show, [Sorkin] wanted me topless in the bed."