Beneath a crystal chandelier, Dev Patel ponders budget car-buying. The 22-year-old actor, clad in a soft cotton V-neck tee, relaxed jeans and dirt-scuffed green sneakers, surveys two publicists, a photographer and a photographer's assistant at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons. "How much do you pay for car insurance? How much do YOU pay?"
Patel, who earned his driver's license in London last year, has cruised Los Angeles for months in a rented Toyota Corolla while costarring as blogger Neal Sampat in Aaron Sorkin's latest creation,"The Newsroom," which ends its much-discussed first season on HBO on Aug. 26.
A suburban U.K. native with Indian roots, he's now settling into Hollywood, hoping to build a series of unexpectedly attention-grabbing roles into a serious career.
At age 18, after a breakout stint on the British television hit "Skins"(his mother saw a casting call and pushed him to audition), Patel was thrust into the international spotlight with his performance in "Slumdog Millionaire"(it's also where he met costar Freida Pinto, his current girlfriend). Earlier this year, he won praise alongside British legends Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," an all-star, low-budget comedy that grossed more than $100 million worldwide.
Before resuming his supporting gig in Season 2 of "The Newsroom," Patel is tackling his next task — "Not a fancy car. An Audi" — with intensity, perfectionism and humor. It's the same hyper-energy he employs on daily tasks, the logistics of adulthood and new roles.
Director John Madden, who cast Patel as an Indian hotel owner in "Marigold Hotel" (though he originally intended to find a middle-aged man for the part), said the ever-grinning actor is "the center of every scene he's in." Patel makes the audience truly care about his character, cheer him on. The rebellious teen in "Skins," the precocious boy-hero in "Slumdog," the blogger hunched over his laptop in "Newsroom" share the same magnetic quality, the Dev factor.
"I didn't know until I auditioned him what he was capable of," Madden said. "I'd obviously seen him in 'Slumdog Millionaire' and I really, really liked him, but I had no idea that he was such a gifted comedian. Very natural, fantastic comic instinct — a very rare thing."
Patel brought enormous energy to the set — always talking, laughing, joking, launching into karate kicks, requesting extra do-overs to nail a scene.
"There were times I would've been grateful to get it in three takes instead of eight, but something amazing happened in every one of those takes," Madden said. "He's restless, always wants to be better, and he had the admiration of those acting with him. Veterans were dazzled by him."
Patel recalls holding his breath, secretly terrified, while shooting the movie's close.
"I'm on this moped, fist-pumping and I had to drive by Judi," he said. "I kept thinking, 'Please don't crash into her. Please don't crash into her.' I'd be the most hated man in England!"
Of meeting his legendary costars, Patel said, smiling, "I've grown up watching these guys, so at first it was a really daunting experience. But as soon as I got out there, I've never worked with a more graceful cast. I almost think that Judi's more precious than the queen of England."
After wrapping "Marigold Hotel," he leafed through Sorkin's script and considered a seemingly small part as an aspiring journalist initially mistaken to be an IT guy. Racial casting is a double-edged sword, Patel said: He may be recruited to fill an "Indian actor" role, but he uses the platform to present a complicated, multifaceted, expectation-bending character to the world.
"Me being who I am, I automatically get pigeonholed into some things," he said. "I do try to look for roles I can mold and change, and writers and filmmakers who aren't close-minded."
Patel's character in "Newsroom" slowly develops throughout the first season and is expected to blossom beyond "a nerdy blogger type" in the next.
"In one part, there's a shot of Neal rolling around in bed with a girl and he has to stop and grab his phone when news breaks," Patel said. "Of all the good-looking men on the show, [Sorkin] wanted me topless in the bed."
Not that "Newsroom" is full of hunks, of course — but modesty and self-deprecating humor just add to Patel's mass appeal.
"I'm not intelligent enough for this show," he joked, noting that he'd never blogged or tweeted or regularly read news before joining the cast. To understand Sorkin's highly detailed, often long-winded scripts, he turns to Google and Wikipedia. "That's how I learned about American politics," Patel said, laughing. "Wikipedia. Every night."
His dream role wouldn't require studying, Patel said, but research (with Glocks) on the streets: a prison gangster à la Tahir Rahim's character in Jacques Audiard's French film"A Prophet" — one of his favorite movies of all time. Currently, he's developing his own production idea, a sort of gritty coming-of-age story, which at this point he'll describe only as "a show about smuggling."
"I don't want to be a victim of the system — you know, an actor waiting for a phone call from his agent," Patel said. "I want to generate my own opportunities."