Interview: Himesh Patel, star of Yesterday
Himesh Patel is the somewhat unlikely star of Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis’ sure-fire summer hit, Yesterday. His face is well know in the UK, Patel having played the endearing Tamwar Masood in EastEnders for nearly ten years between 2007 to 2016. Now, with a lead role in Yesterday, Patel takes on another great staple of British culture.
Curtis and Boyle’s film asks the question: What if you were the only person on Earth who could remember the songs of The Beatles. And Himesh Patel is the man to answer. Sam Howlett spoke to Patel about Albert Street, the fab four and Ed Sheeran.
Curzon: How did you get involved with Yesterday?
Patel: I was in New York doing a play at the end of 2017 and I got this email from my agent, she said it was a Danny Boyle film with a musical element. I had to make a tape of myself doing a monologue from a play, and a performance of a Coldplay song. So I sent that off, and then I got a recall to meet Danny and Richard back in London. I read the script and loved it. I picked some scenes to do, sung a couple of songs, and then after meeting them again they offered me the part.
What Coldplay song did you pick?
Patel: ‘We Never Change’. A lovely acoustic song. I thought it best to do that rather than something bigger and replicate that big Coldplay sound.
How daunting was it not only auditioning to act in a Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle, but also singing and convincing them that you can sing?
Patel: It felt very daunting. It was scary when I knew I was going to meet Richard and Danny; it was probably the most high-profile audition I’d had at that point, so the stakes were high. But I didn’t want that to overwhelm me to the point where I didn’t enjoy it. It’s a privilege to get to walk into a room with those two so I just enjoyed it as much as I could and I think that did me well in a way because its what’s channelled through their music, that joy.
What was your personal history with The Beatles before this film and how was it performing their songs?
Patel: The Beatles were drip-fed into my life from a young age, there was a bit-here, a bit-there, I’d heard Sgt Pepper, bits of The White Album and Abbey Road, the songs we all know, and then this came along and I just dived in and listened to everything. It was a real journey of discovery and you realise just how amazing their reach is; their cultural influence is unlike anything else. The fact that here we are 50 years later making a movie all about their music is unprecedented. So that was a real joy that finally came home to me in a way, I guess it’s one of those things that I’ve kind of been acutely aware of without over-analysing what it really meant, and perhaps our movie will do the same for others. You then start to feel a responsibility in performing their songs. I was well supported; Danny and Richard never put any pressure on me in that sense, and Daniel Pemberton our composer worked with me for about two and a half months, and we really improved my guitar playing and my piano playing and created our own versions of the songs because of course we couldn’t be slavish to the original songs, but we had to be respectfully doing our own thing. We steered clear of doing any drum and bass remixes.
The performances range from a pub, a small stage at Latitude, a pier in Gorelston-on-Sea to Wembley, what was it like filming those different levels of performances?
Patel: We went in stages. The second day of filming was the pub, and then we moved on to the Latitude scene, and then we did the Russia scene, then Wembley, which was a bit of camera magic so it wasn’t fully packed when I did it, maybe just a couple of hundred people there for our shots. At Galston-on-Sea, that’s actually 6000 people who turned up on the day, and it was incredible. I was just getting ready in the hotel and slowly you start hearing this sound, and then you open the door and there’s just a sea of people. It was really incredible and quite moving that people came out. I think the local people were thrilled to have us there. That was the day I realised I was in a movie, with cameras and helicopters and a crane and 6000 people, the band behind me on a rooftop, it was just incredible.
What is the process of making a super-successful character still likeable?
Patel: It’s about having an internal antenna on that; when you’re playing a character no one’s empathising with them as much as you are, so I think I did kind of try to make sure that Jack wasn’t being too belligerent. But you’ve got to trust that Danny Boyle knows the lay of the land, and I like to think Danny Boyle knows what he’s doing. It’s also something Danny might find in the edit. But it is interesting when you start to think about Jack because, having months away from playing him, the first time I was watching the movie I was thinking “What are you doing mate?! She’s clearly in love with you and you’re definitely in love with her”, which is very judgemental of me, and through doing all this I’ve found my way back to him and you realise he’s just really swept up in it all.
Have you thought of any parallels between you and Jack? Both young performers being launched into fame, appearing on chat shows etc.
Patel: There was an internalised version of that, which saw me through the film in a way. I guess it was in the back of my mind when we were making the movie, but of course I wasn’t thinking about any of this or having dreams about being on Graham Norton. But that kind of thing has happened and is continuing to happen. But in the movie Jack has an imposter syndrome, a very rational imposter syndrome, and as much as I sometimes suffer from imposter syndrome, I know it’s irrational because I haven't stolen anyone else’s acting… kind of. But also, Jack is so caught up in the wave of what’s happening that he loses sight of Ellie, of the most important person in his life, and we don’t really see it much but also his friends, after a certain point in his life, and that’s definitely something that I consciously try to keep hold of because if you lose sight of these things, they start to unravel.
Ed Sheeran is in the film quite a lot, what was it like to act along side hime?
Patel: The thing with Ed is he’s so down to earth. He doesn’t present himself as world-famous Ed Sheeran with a massive entourage. He’s just like “Hi, I’m Ed”. He’s got a great sense of humour, he loved all the jokes that are being played on him in the movie. He came to rehearsal and rehearsed with me and Danny and was very interested with how we were going to do things because he’s not used to it. When it came to actual filming he was so relaxed, he’d clearly learned the lines, and it just meant that we could enjoy it, and each take was different. He’d play, which is what you want to do with actors, just play, and try different things and see what happens, and he was really relaxed which meant it was fun to work with him. There was one time where he tripped over his lines and then just kept going, and it meant that fuelled the next line, and then that next line was really truthful and I thought, “Wow, that was really good”. It was really interesting to watch him do that and he reminded me that if you mess up a line don’t stop, carry on. So Ed Sheeran taught me how to act, basically.
You were on Eastenders for 9 years. Can you talk about that experience as a young actor, and what it was like when you first left.
Patel: They were the most formative years of my life. I was there from 16 to 25, so it was a long time. I think it was an acting school in the sense that I made sure it was only ever about the work. When you’re on a soap the celebrity thing can become quite prevalent, but I also knew I wasn't particularly interested in that, I was only interested in the work of being an actor and I was lucky enough to work with a group of actors who had the same sort of feeling about things. My family on the show, Nina Wadia who played my mum and Nitin Ganatra who played my dad, were very inspiring figures because they’re brilliant actors and they kind of taught me a lot about the craft of acting. You find your people in that world if you want to make it about the work, and I always did. It was terrifying taking a leap of faith and leaving after 9 years, but I did have to do it, and things just kind of lined up, the stars were aligned, not to say I’ve not worked hard to get here but as an actor sometimes these things have to come along at the right time, and so far I've been very lucky in that sense.
What if you were the only man on Earth able to remember the iconic music of The Beatles?
A collaboration up there with Lennon-McCartney, Yesterday is the brain child of director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) and screenwriter Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually). As full of soul and heart as any of the Liverpool lads best tracks, this is an hilarious story of finding your own voice.
Jack's (Himesh Patel) career as a singer-songwriter is not going well. His friend Ellie (Lily James) thinks he’s got talent, but no one else agrees. But after a mysterious blackout, it turns out he’s the only one who can recall the Fab Four’s back catalogue. With the iconic songs in his arsenal, he becomes world famous, but at what cost?
Yesterday plays in our cinemas from Friday 28 June