Ever since his on-screen debut playing speccy, unassuming Tamwar Masood – dressed in a top buttoned shirt and dated (even then) rectangular frames – in BBC soap, EastEnders, Himesh Patel has been hammering the roles. But through no choice of his own, the actor has been taking a well-deserved break in the wake of Covid-19. “I needed a bit of time just to reset, but it’s been a lot stranger than I could have ever anticipated,” the 29-year-old says from his London home. Overall though, “it’s important to have this time to reflect and consider things.”
Patel was raised in Cambridgeshire by his Gujrati parents who ran a newsagent (like a good kid, he did a paper round for them as a teenager). At school, he experienced his first taste of acting when he was cast in a production of This Is Your Life Santa Claus – a play based on L. Frank Baum’s 1902 children’s book.
“The drama teacher told my parents I seemed to have a knack for it, so they enrolled me in the local youth theatre. That’s where the journey began,” Patel recalls. He worked his way up to a role in EastEnders (he won an Inside Soap Award for “Best Wedding” in 2011!) and was a permanent character on Albert Square until 2016. Patel then won parts in comedian Jo Brand’s dark comedy Damned and BBC sitcom Motherland, a satire on middle-class trials and traumas (used lightly) in modern Britain. He then made a massive step up from the small screen to big, landing the lead in Danny Boyle’s romantic comedy, Yesterday, a film that featured reworked tunes by The Beatles (including some soft and sweet renditions by Patel himself).
Since Sunday, Patel has found himself back on the Beeb, playing Emery Staines in the channel’s adaptation of The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton’s widely successful Man Booker Prize-winning novel set in New Zealand’s Gold Rush in 1866. It’s a complex mystery of lies and deceit, wealth and class, revenge, family and foreignness. Patel says he immediately chimed with the character, in particular Staines’ light positivity and romantic nature – something the actor enjoyed seeing in a programme generally fraught with darkness. “He’s got a hopeful nature and defiance, which stands in opposition to everything around him,” Patel says. “It’s a story about greed and desire, and it’s about the two directions in which desire can take you.”
Next month, the actor goes back to the blockbusters, appearing in Christopher Nolan’s spy super film, Tenet, alongside John David Washington and Robert Pattinson. Many of Hollywood’s biggest releases ground to a corona-induced halt, but the release of Tenet was pushed back a not-so-paltry 10 days to the last day of July. Patel keeps tight-lipped about his role in the film. “I won’t say anything specifically about my role, but viewers can expect the scale and innovation we’ve come to expect from Christopher Nolan.” It’s set to be massive — the director’s back catalogue includes Hollywood heavyweights The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010) and Dunkirk (2017), while the budget for Tenet came in at a staggering £200million.
Since he left Albert Square in 2017, Patel has found variety and success in an industry where BAME actors are all-too-often typecast to meet a fixed criteria. He’s played a young Muslim Londoner, a romantic singer-songwriter, a social worker and the lead in a period drama – a genre that’s typically totally white-washed. Patel thinks real change is coming for his fellow actors: “I believe there is a power that we have as entertainers that we can represent our society in the stories that we tell. We need to encourage actors, storytellers, directors and writers of various backgrounds, and that will [start] changing perceptions. I’m hopeful people will continue to listen.”