First things first: Himesh Patel wasn’t always a Beatles fan.
Growing up, he preferred indie rock (the Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys) and Bollywood (especially A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack to “Rang De Basanti”) to the Fab Four, even if “Imagine” was his mom’s favorite song.
That has now changed, says the actor, pulling up the leg of his pants to show off a pair of Yellow Submarine novelty socks. Patel, 28, was in Manhattan for the world premiere of “Yesterday,” a high-concept romantic comedy in which he plays Jack Malik, a struggling singer-songwriter who lives in a rundown seaside town in Suffolk, England.
After a mysterious accident, Jack awakens to find himself in a world where the Beatles never existed. He rises to fame by passing off their hits as his own but, in the process, alienates his adoring best friend and biggest fan, Ellie (Lily James).
Patel’s real-world professional ascent has been more gradual — and involved fewer freak occurrences. But playing the romantic lead in a film directed by Oscar-winner Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and written by “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Love, Actually” scribe Richard Curtis represents a major step forward for an actor previously best known for his role in the long-running U.K. soap opera “EastEnders.”
And like his character, Patel comes from humble origins: He grew up in Cambridgeshire, two hours north of London, where his parents ran a newsagent’s shop — “a candy and chips kind of place, the hub of the village.”
Though both are of Indian descent, Patel’s parents were born in Africa — his father in Kenya and his mother in what is now Zambia.
“They’re more British than they are Indian, I’d say. That culture is still very important to me in a lot of ways. My mom made sure we spoke Gujarati at home, but, at the same time, we embraced our Britishness through and through,” said Patel, who is so soft-spoken some of his sentences seem to float into the ether.
Patel’s parents enrolled him in drama lessons as a child, in a bid to channel his energy. That led to involvement in local youth theaters and, eventually, to an audition for “EastEnders,” a cultural institution nearly as entrenched in Britain as the Beatles. “Even if you don’t watch it, you grow up with it,” said Patel, who, at the age of 16, was cast as “nerdy misfit” Tamwar Masood. On a show known for its portrayals of white working-class families, the Masoods marked a major milestone: “the first successful, popularized South Asian family on a British soap,” Patel said.
In a memorable moment, Patel’s character explains to his white girlfriend what his Muslim faith means to him and reads her a chapter from the Quran. By a coincidence of timing, the scene aired days after the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015. “We got such an amazing response, people saying, ‘Thank you, it’s important you put that out there.’ I’m very proud to have been a part of that.”
Patel spent nearly a decade on the show, deciding to leave three years ago to explore other creative opportunities. “Things have kind of fallen into place terrifyingly well” since then, he said.
In December 2017, he was performing in “People, Places & Things” at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, when he got an email from his agent about a potential role in a project directed by Danny Boyle.
Details about the film were scant; he was asked to tape himself performing a humorous monologue from a play called “Not a Game for Boys” and sing a Coldplay song of his choice. (He did “We Never Change.”)
Patel had only basic musical training: He’d taken piano lessons as a child and as a teenager bought an inexpensive electric guitar and taught himself to play. So it was something of a surprise when he was called to audition for Boyle and Curtis in London.
To maintain control of his nerves, he tried to think of it as an opportunity to “hang out with these guys,” rather than try to impress them. He performed “Yesterday” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.” During the latter song, Boyle broke out dancing. “I was like ‘Oh my God, I’m singing the Beatles and Danny Boyle is dancing,’” Patel said. “I thought that second one had gone terribly actually. But it hadn’t, clearly.”
While Boyle was prepared to accept “anybody who could make the songs more than a karaoke singalong, so it wasn’t like ‘Mamma Mia,’ ” Patel “had that thing where he was playing me something I was absolutely familiar with — who couldn’t be familiar with ‘Yesterday?’ — but it felt fresh and new. We were very lucky that he walked in that day.”
The process had not been easy, according to Curtis: “Searching for the lead in films that I’ve done has always been complicated. In this film, we’d halved our chances by saying, ‘Well, you also have to sing,’ then we’d halved our chances again by saying, ‘You have to properly be able to play an instrument.’ ”
When it came to performing the Beatles’ music, many of the actors who auditioned “either smacked a bit of stage school, with an element of jazz hands” about them, or “put a very strong mark on the songs in a way we weren’t fond of,” Curtis said. In contrast, “There was something crystal clear about the way Himesh did it, a way that kept to the essence of the song but was full of character.”
The filmmakers were also intrigued by Patel’s understated comedic style and almost melancholy demeanor. It was “very modern, low-key, sort of delightful, very different from the pointed [style of] someone like Hugh [Grant],” said Curtis.
Neither gave a second thought to Patel’s background, which receives only a passing mention in “Yesterday.” Colorblind storytelling was “absolutely my instinct,” Curtis said, “but it was also Himesh’s instinct. He said, ‘I’m as British as you are. I come from a background that’s more like Jack’s than yours.’ ”
“I know they didn’t give me the part because they needed to tick a box. I just happen to be South Asian,” Patel said. “It is an example of, if you open your door and you get people from all sorts of backgrounds, one of them who may not be a white male may be the right person for the job. Someone like me in a role like this is something I suppose we’ve not seen. I’m really proud I got the part, but I’m also really proud we didn’t try to jam [my identity] into the movie somehow.”
Once Patel was cast, he sat down with Boyle and composer Daniel Pemberton to review the songs he’d have to perform in the film.
“I was like, ‘Look, I can just about play the guitar. I can maybe remind myself of a bit of piano. But please don’t be under any illusion that I’m some sort of virtuoso. I’m going to need some [help].’ ”
He spent two months working with music supervisor Adem Ilhan in a replica of Jack’s bedroom — complete with a bed, a piano, a Wurlitzer and posters on the wall. Together, they devised a way to put his own twist on the Beatles.
“I had to be respectful but not reverent to the originals — and have some element of originality because, of course, they don’t exist [in the film’s universe],” said Patel, who will follow “Yesterday” with roles in Tom Harper’s film “The Aeronauts” and Armando Iannucci’s upcoming HBO sci-fi comedy series “Avenue 5.”
Adding a degree of difficulty was Boyle’s insistence that Patel perform the songs live on camera rather than lip-sync. Because of small variances in tempo, the director couldn’t alternate between various takes, so every song had to be performed straight through.
“I didn’t want it to feel like miming on ‘Top of the Pops.’ Would you ask an actor to mime dialogue? You’re meant to believe this is happening in front of you for a moment in time,” Boyle said.
Yet Patel said he never felt the pressure of what they were doing. “At no point, did I feel anyone at my back saying, ‘You better get this right.’ It was just, ‘Enjoy it.’ ”
Naturally, some songs were easier than others. “In My Life,” for one, “got on top of me a little bit,” said Patel, who was, at first, intimidated by “The Long and Winding Road” but now considers it his favorite.
For Patel, who used to sing during his youth theater days but later lost his confidence, “Yesterday” hasn’t just catapulted him into romantic lead territory, it’s also helped him rediscover his voice.
“It’s been a real joy,” he said.
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