Himesh Patel on Station Eleven and his journey from Walford to Hollywood

Himesh Patel on Station Eleven and his journey from Walford to Hollywood

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Friday, 4th February 2022
Himesh Patel in Station Eleven (credit: Ian Watson/HBO Max)

In both of Himesh Patel's recent projects, his character is told the world is ending and has a panic attack.

As a satire of the climate crisis, Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up was obviously relevant. But the other turned out to be eerily timely.

Patel received the pilot script for Station Eleven – writer Patrick Somerville’s adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel about life before and after a pandemic - in 2019. “I just thought it was fantastic,” he says.

He was already flying out to Los Angeles to shoot Tenet (Christopher Nolan’s blockbusting time and mind-bending thriller about, you guessed it, a world-ending threat) so he flew a few days early to audition for the role of Jeevan. “I just recognised something in him straightaway: a lot of his insecurities and frustrations.”

Jeevan is the first character we meet in the series: an underemployed Chicagoan content creator nicknamed “Leavin’ Jeevan” by his family. He’s always “leavin,” says Patel, because “he is maybe a bit too wrapped up in his own lack of direction to be of any consistent and meaningful presence in his siblings’ lives.”

But when a flu pandemic wipes out 99% of the world’s population, it is Jeevan who is forced to play parent to Matilda Lawler’s young Kirsten.

The relationship is the beating heart of the series, so their chemistry as actors was essential. Patel’s part was cast first before screen tests were carried out with a handful of actresses, but he says that “Matilda was just far and above the best” and that their chemistry “felt natural.”

Lawler & Patel (credit: Parrish Lewis/HBO Max)

“Episode one has a very special place in my heart,” says Patel, “specifically that scene in the parking lot of the supermarket where Jeevan has to convince her to go with him. It really is the crux of their entire relationship.

“We saw that scene as him asking her to trust him. And in my mind, the show then goes on to test what that trust can withstand.”

It was also special, he says, because it was shot two years ago in Chicago as a real pandemic hit and eventually shut down production for a year.

When the team finally began filming again in Toronto, the first thing they shot was an episode which takes place entirely within Frank’s (Nabhaan Rizwan) apartment. The two week isolation period upon arrival had essentially forced them to rehearse the series’ isolation scenes in reality, and coupled with all the lockdowns they had lived through back home, says Patel: “we were all bringing a sense of cabin fever to the table.”

The coincidences didn’t stop there. Patel’s partner gave birth during the gap between shoots, and long before they broke the news to Somerville, he had started writing an episode which sees Jeevan helping to deliver babies at a birthing centre. “It meant that I was able to bring some of my experience of actually being a birthing partner and father to not just that episode but also the dynamic we had with Jeevan and Kirsten.”

Station Eleven caps off a run that any actor would envy, but it is especially notable as Patel is a rare case of an actor who has propelled himself from minor fame in a British soap (he left EastEnders in 2016) to major features in international blockbusters.

“It has felt very sudden but I guess it was a right place, right time sort of thing,” he says. “50% luck, 50% hard work, but I think I was definitely leaning more on the luck side of it.”

It’s a humble summation, as most would say it was sheer ability that won him the accolades. But Patel has previously spoken out against the widespread snobbery towards the soaps that holds back actors just as able. In his view, it is entirely undeserved.

When asked about his time on EastEnders as the fan favourite, lovable nerd Tamwar Masood, he refers to Walford as “a wonderful training ground” where he was “lucky to work with actors to whom making the work as good as it could be was important.” He says they continue to be good friends and mentors.

Though it could be tough going, with long consecutive days packed with scenes to shoot, he learnt an important lesson that continues to inform his approach to every scene. “With so much to do it can be easy to drop into a rhythm and just get the lines out. But it was always great when I was working with actors who were like: ‘let’s just take a second while they’re setting things up – is there any opportunity here to make things a bit more exciting?’”

Generally speaking, Tamwar set the tone for the parts that have followed, which Patel often plays deadpan but with, to quote director Hiro Murai, a “sadness behind the eyes” that lends his characters a winning warmth and sensitivity.

Danny Boyle called it a “soulful melancholy,” which he first spotted when Patel auditioned for his 2019 film Yesterday. Written by Richard Curtis, the caper follows a struggling singer-songwriter, Jack Malik, who, after a freak thunderstorm makes him the only person on Earth who remembers the music of The Beatles, passes off their songs as his own and gains overnight superstardom.

The audition came through while Patel was making steady headway in theatre, having moved to New York for an off-Broadway run of People, Places and Things.

“Credit to the casting team, I think they were just casting the net quite wide,” says Patel, “because I think Danny [Boyle] knew that you could go for a name – and I think they did go down that road – but it had to be the right person and there had to be the right feeling.”

After the play had finished, he flew back home to audition for Boyle and Curtis in person. Followed by another audition. And then a long nerve-wracking wait for the team to do their due diligence. “I think Danny had to do quite a lot of convincing that I was the guy, because it’s a big risk to take. But thankfully he won and it changed my life completely.”

Besides the big screen successes, he has since taken star turns in Armando Iannucci’s cosmic comedy Avenue 5 and the BBC’s adaptation of The Luminaries. Now, Station Eleven has hit UK shores, a series many critics are calling one of the best of the year. Patel is riding a wave that shows no signs of ebbing.

Patel (credit: Ian Watson/HBO Max)

Station Eleven is also an ode to art itself, with much of the series following a group of survivors – an older Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) among them - performing Shakespeare plays as part of a roving troupe called the Travelling Symphony. Much has been made of the main message encapsulated by the Symphony’s motto: “Survival is insufficient.” In other words: we must create art to live well. But Patel takes it a step further.

“It’s a celebration of all things really, but especially art. And though it is a call to arms, and [argues that] survival is insufficient, I also see it as saying art’s gonna happen anyway.

“We just have an instinct to tell stories, to paint paintings, to make music. And as long as humans are around, it’ll never go.”

He says he acts for the same reason: “It’s an instinct. In a way, it’s not really a choice.”

Station Eleven is now available on StarzPlay.

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In both of Himesh Patel's recent projects, his character is told the world is ending and has a panic attack.