Oscar-nominated Indian-origin British actor Dev Patel, who plays David Copperfield in a new film, says the “colourblind” casting in director Armando Iannucci’s movie has made Charles Dickens’ classic novel more representative of a Britain he grew up in.
Patel, 30, plays the title role in The Personal History of David Copperfield, which is slated to open in theatres on 28 August in the US and Canada, among the first movies to run in cinemas after months of lockdown due to the COVID19 pandemic.
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Dickens’ eighth novel chronicles its eponymous character’s growth from infancy to maturity as he journeys through Victorian-era England and Patel says the experience of playing Copperfield was incredible.
“The opportunity to kind of exist in this world and obviously the joys of sitting in the back of a horse and carriage and to wear the top hat ignited this childlike glee inside of me. The opportunity to play David Copperfield, the almost semi-autobiographical Charles Dickens himself is amazing,” Patel said during a virtual press roundtable ahead of the film’s release.
On the ‘colourblind’ casting in the movie, Patel said he is “tremendously grateful” to Iannucci for opening the doors and giving this opportunity to the entire cast of the film.
Iannucci said such casting “process has been going on in mainstream theatre or some time. Maybe (it’s felt) films should be more literal for some reason. I don’t know since it’s such a playful form. This just felt very natural really.”
On whether he hopes that with such a casting, more directors, producers and casting directors would be open to such possibility, Patel said, “I think the industry is really changing and there are brave voices like Armando that really lead the way and shine a light and show how it can be done successfully.”
Patel, best known for his roles in Slumdog Millionaire and Lion, said he had never read the book David Copperfield and “Charles Dickens was something we were force-fed in school and I hate to say it but it was very bleak.”
“With Armando opening up the world in terms of casting, it made it more representative of a Britain that I grew up in. And the opportunity for another young child not to miss out on this amazing tale because now they can really find a face that they can relate to on that screen.”
Jairaj Varsani, 11, makes his debut with the role of a young David Copperfield in the movie. Born in London, Varsani has a Gujarati, Tamil and Hindu Punjabi ethnic heritage and has appeared in several commercials and local theatre productions.
Patel added that it is not just about diversity. “It’s like Charles Dickens himself was kind of the writer for the everyman,” he said adding that Dickens’ craft was meant for the masses. “So by doing this, I think it actually makes it more relevant and commercially viable to a wider audience.”
In response to a question by PTI on releasing The Personal History of David Copperfield after months of lockdown and restrictions due to the pandemic, Iannucci said he is “just happy” that the movie, which has a “positive message and is about community, support, friendship and identity”, is releasing.
“I don’t know how it would have felt if it was The Death of Stalin that I was trying to sell in today’s circumstances. But I just want as many people to see it in one way or another as possible,” he said referring to his 2018 comedy-drama.
Iannucci added that one of the first things to shut and one of the last things to open amid the pandemic will be live performances, live music and live theatre.
While cinemas and theatres are slowly re-opening, films, reading, listening to music helped a lot of people cope with the pandemic and the lockdown.
“So it would be sad if the thing that gets us through lockdown is the thing that isn’t there when we come out the other side,” Iannucci said adding that several people across the UK have been trying to campaign for funding to “preserve a lot of these things that are in danger of being lost really.”
He added that he is pleased that the film will be out in theatres for some people. “It’ll be the first film they see going back into the cinema.”
The movie reimagines Dickens’ classic ode to grit and perseverance through the comedic lens of its award-winning filmmakers and gives the Dickensian tale new life for a cosmopolitan age with a diverse ensemble cast of stage and screen actors from across the world.