Himesh Patel isn’t the first ‘EastEnders’ actor to end up in a romcom penned by Richard Curtis, but he’s certainly the first actor of colour to play the hero. Directed by Danny Boyle, ‘Yesterday’ casts him as Jack Malik, a struggling musician who wakes up after a freak accident to find he’s the only person who can remember The Beatles. Jack wrestles with the challenges of sudden fame – but the softly spoken, thoughtful Patel seems ready to handle it.
When did you get the call for ‘Yesterday’?
‘I was doing a play in New York and my agent emailed me about a Danny Boyle movie with musical aspects. I had to do a Coldplay song of my choice, then I met Danny and Richard in London. It was kind of terrifying going into that room.’
When did you first come across their work?
‘I was banned from watching ‘‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’’ at home’
‘The first film of Danny’s I saw was “28 Days Later”, then I watched everything. With Richard, I remember there was a VHS [tape] of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” in the cabinet at home and I wasn’t allowed to watch it. Weirdly, I only saw it about three years ago. It’s hilarious.’
How into The Beatles were you growing up?
‘I wasn’t a devotee. But “Imagine” is my mum’s favourite song and I remember her talking about it when I was a kid, so I knew who John Lennon was. It was a while before I listened to “Sgt Pepper”. I remember when George Harrison passed away; my mother said that he was very into India, so that was interesting to me.’
His guitar gently weeps: Himesh Patel in ‘Yesterday’
Would you say your casting is ground-breaking?
‘I suppose it is, and I’m proud. But I’m most proud that it wasn’t because they needed to tick a box, I was the right guy for the part. It was really moving when the trailer came out and people were like, “Wow, it’s so cool to see a South Asian guy playing this role.” I know that would have meant the world to me growing up. We had that thing: “Mum, hurry up there’s a brown person on TV!” It was so rare.’
It seems especially significant that your character’s race isn’t part of the narrative.
‘That’s another thing I love about this story – and again with my next two projects, it’s not part of the narrative. With ‘‘The Aeronauts’’, it’s something I discussed with Tom Harper, the director, but it was just for us, not the film. The same thing with the series ‘‘The Luminaries’’, which I just finished in New Zealand. I love the fact that I’ve spent the last year playing characters called Jack, John and Emery.’
How was filming with Ed Sheeran for ‘Yesterday’?
He was great. He was playing himself, of course, but I think that’s harder. He’s the most un-intimidating guy, he’s just so normal, really funny and kind. My dad visited the set on his first day and he was very nice to my dad.
‘For me, it’s ironic that this film faced the same issues as the story’
I’m about to start work on Armando Iannucci’s new series which I’m excited about, I'm dying to get onto set. He’s a director I’ve admired for a long time.
Is there more comedy in your future?
‘Yes, and other things as well. I don’t want to let myself be defined by a certain aspect. My ‘‘EastEnders’’ character seemed comedic but I was given the time and space to explore dramatic things as well, so for that and for many other reasons I’ll always be thankful for that. It means you don’t get stuck in a rut.’
Are you a fan of London?
‘I love London and I imagine it will always be home. I love what it represents: inclusivity, diversity and caring for your neighbours – community. That’s what makes London special.’
Any last message for the Time Out readers?
‘Grab your Time Out from the person who’s carrying them, rather than off the stand, and make sure you say thank you. There’s a bit a community for you.’
‘Yesterday’ opens Fri Jun 28. Read our review here.