Nikesh Patel: speak of the devil
‘Theatre was my gateway drug,” chuckles Nikesh Patel. Born in Wembley to pharmacist parents, once he was hooked on performing, there was no chance of him joining the family business. “I tried my best to be the ‘good son’, then my head got turned by acting. At school, I loved literature, exercising my imagination and getting lost in stories and plays. I had some special teachers who understood that plays were meant to be read out loud and inhabited.”
After gaining recognition with a guest part on Doctor Who, he soon bagged a starring role in Mindy Kaling’s diverse, small-screen remake of Four Weddings and a Funeral. But it was his turn as the endearing Tom Kapoor in Starstruck, returning soon for a third season, that would see him garner mainstream attention and a level of fame that he’s “very much comfortable with”. Translation: he can command high-profile roles, yet still walk 10 paces down the street before somebody recognises who he is.
Erudite, charming and passionate about what he does, it’s easy to see why Patel sells so well as the affable romantic lead. However, things take a darker turn in the upcoming The Devil’s Hour, with Patel starring as a detective investigating a serial killer, played by the legendary Peter Capaldi, and how the events intertwine with a woman who wakes every night at exactly 3.33 am. True to form, Nikesh is playing one of the good guys, a role he loves.
“Don’t get me wrong, I can be a bastard like anyone else,” he laughs. “The received wisdom is heroes tend to have less juicy stuff, but that’s not been my experience. My character very much goes against the grain of what you’d expect from a leading man. You get the sense he’s not the most suited to his job; he doesn’t have the stomach for it. That’s interesting to latch on to as an actor. You want to find the complexities. Someone who’s very nuanced, who the audience can root for.”
Patel is relishing what he describes as a “boom time” in the amount of compelling content being made for television. “Cinema at the moment is dominated by these big blockbusters, which I love as much as the next person,” he says. “But the plotting of Devil’s Hour is so delicious, I’m looking forward to fan theories on Reddit and people trying to figure out what it all means. I felt that myself while making it.”
Although he acknowledges that his brief as an actor is first and foremost to entertain, Patel also appreciates how groundbreaking it is to be a South Asian leading man. “I’m still of the view that representation is an ongoing mountain to climb,” he notes. “If you’re a person of colour, queer or disabled, or someone who identifies in some way as a minority, it is somehow assumed that you have to be an advocate. That work is important but it shouldn’t be a given, because it can distract from simply being good at what you do. But even when you want to push things forward, you have to stop and recognise the very act of walking through doors, where the generation before that had to hammer those doors down.
“Can I try and take things in a different direction, or learn from where they struggled or failed? That’s where I have to push things even further for the next generation that will change the landscape. The younger generation coming up now is very different. Their capacity to call things out and question things is amazing.”
“If you’re a minority, it is somehow assumed that you have to be an advocate”
— Nikesh Patel
His drive for advocacy and visibility could in part be due to personal experience of professional discrimination. “There have been situations where something’s been said on set, thankfully a long time ago, where it was definitely someone using inappropriate, offensive, racist language,” recalls Patel. “I remember at the time kicking myself because I stayed quiet, and I should have said something. And then the moment passes. There are two things I take away from that: next time I’ll be ready. But that also, it’s something you can take forward and educate the younger generation about. I think that’s a real source of strength.”
The good news is that his more recent experiences have hinted at a definite sea change in both representation and the creative process of current productions. “What was nice in Starstruck was I was having a conversation with the writer, Rose Matafeo, and she asked if I had any questions about the script,” Patel says of his breakthrough part. “The character wasn’t called Tom Kapoor or written with an Asian guy in mind, and I said, ‘Let’s have a talk about changing the surname,’ which she was completely open to. Ten years ago, would I have thought it was my place to suggest that? Maybe not.”
Being able to actively contribute in this way empowered Patel to speak up. “The knock-on from that [was] with The Devil’s Hour, the character wasn’t called Ravi. It was written as a white character,” he tells me. “Writers write what they know, but as soon as you come along the role becomes yours. My role as an actor is flipping through the script and thinking ‘Is there anything in the dynamic that changes as a person of colour?’ Sometimes nothing needs to be changed, sometimes it does. The show isn’t about Ravi’s ethnicity, but that process makes me excited about the way things are going now.”
As well as becoming bolder with regards to his place in the creative hegemony, Patel is also learning the value of seeking support from his peers. “One of the benefits of the pandemic, when a lot of us actors had to down tools, is I spent time chatting to Himesh Patel, Sacha Dhawan and Anjli Mohindra,” he reflects. “Amazing actors, all smashing it. What was nice was getting together and swapping war stories. You learn that there’s a community of people you can call up who will give advice, and that advice may come from a horror story that they’ve been through and how to handle it and not forgive certain behaviours.”
Looking ahead, Patel is confident of a more inclusive future. “I feel more and more that it’s a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’ we will all have the opportunity to work together on something, and that’s truly progress.”
The Devil’s Hour premieres on Prime Video on 28 October 2022.