Dev Patel’s big-screen portrayal of David Copperfield looks a little different than what Charles Dickens had in mind when the novelist published his eighth book back in 1849.
Opening in theaters Friday, "The Personal History of David Copperfield” is a new version of Dickens’ masterpiece reenvisioned by director Armando Iannucci. The film features a diverse cast including Patel as the titular character.
Patel made his feature film debut in 2008's Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire". He also starred in both "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" movies and was nominated for an Oscar for 2016's "Lion."
In "The Personal History of David Copperfield," he plays a young man trying to make his way through Victorian England. Despite numerous setbacks, he eventually becomes a successful author.
Growing up in England, Patel was “force-fed” Dickens in school but never read “David Copperfield.” He relates to the character’s anxiety, imposter syndrome and desire to fit in.
“It's very much a coming of age story, and it's only when he can embrace his real truth and his past — his own stories — I guess that he finds triumph,” Patel says. “And in this case, it's as a great writer.”
In the humorous, charming film, Copperfield meets Dora, played by actress Morfydd Clark, and the two fall in love. During the scene where the two first meet, Patel feels he was able to key into the awkwardness.
Growing up in an immigrant family living in the U.K., he says had to switch between his British and Indian identities to get through tough times at school. In a similar sense, Copperfield changes “the skin he’s in” after losing his family’s wealth and trying to gain it back, Patel says.
Copperfield is also a comedic character — much like young Patel, who used humor to win over bullies growing up. The character’s humor makes him a great novelist who uses his skills as an observer to garner laughs.
Patel starred in “Slumdog Millionaire” at age 17. The film showed that even in 2008, a mostly non-English film without any movie stars could win Oscars, he says.
“In a way, it made my career,” he says. “And it showed even back then, however many years it was, that diverse stories could resonate on an international scale.”
In a traditional movie set in the same time period, Patel believes he’d only get the opportunity to play a background character. With this film and other works such as “Hamilton,” audiences look past the actors’ identities and engage with the story, he says.
When he first met Iannucci, Patel told the director how much the opportunity to play Copperfield means. Only time will tell if this wave of projects with diverse casts will stick around in Hollywood, he says.
Patel asked if Copperfield’s dad is also Indian, but Iannucci explained the decision to cast the best actors for the roles. Working alongside Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton and Benedict Wong, Patel says every actor brought their “own unique truths” to the characters.
For Patel, the diversity in the film makes it “more representative of the Britain that I grew up in” than the original novel. School kids in North West London and elsewhere can watch this film and relate to the faces they see on the screen — which makes the film more relevant and the subject matter more potent, he says.
This version of "The Personal History of David Copperfield” will reach wider audiences than a more traditional adaptation would, he predicts.
“It's just me, being a guy with Brown skin feeling like an outsider. It carries a different weight to it, I think,” he says. “There's a different history innately that I bring to that role.”
In this tale of embracing hardship to achieve something in life, Copperfield uplifts and acknowledges the people who helped him once he finds success, Patel says. Despite everything the character goes through, he stays afloat thanks to friendship and community.
“In a world that is increasingly designed to sometimes make you feel very depressed and there's a kind of cynicism out there now, this is a very hopeful film,” he says. “There's a real optimism to it and a joy that's unabashed.”
This segment aired on August 27, 2020.