Himesh Patel: Refusing To Be Defined By Barriers

Himesh Patel, best known for playing Tamwar off Eastenders, is a masterclass in comedic deadpan. His ability to look off to an invisible camera whenever something dick-ish is said is perfect. I chased him to be in a short film I wrote called Two Dosas in 2014 because I was convinced he’s one of the country’s best comedic actors. And he is. He really is. As he enters his ninth year of Tamwar and is starting to branch out into other projects, contributing an essay to my collection The Good Immigrant, I’ve been thinking that this 25-year-old man is probably my muse. Whenever I write, it seems to be with his face and his mannerisms in mind. So, here I get to the bottom of Himesh Patel. And the top. 

Your first job was Eastenders. How does that even happen?
I had a lot of energy when I was a kid. I would always be impersonating my favourite film/TV characters. I did a play at school when I was 11 and a teacher told my parents that I had a knack for acting. So they signed me up to local youth theatre and soon, I fell in love with performing. I think acting became my respite from reality - I always found it hard to fit in and understand human behaviour so I escaped into imaginary worlds. On the penultimate day of my GCSEs I got a call about the EastEnders audition. I did my last exam and dad drove me down to Borehamwood. The first audition was with the casting assistants, and it went well. I left the audition room and my Dad popped to the loo. One of the casting assistants saw me waiting and asked me to quickly come in and read again in front of Julia Crampsie, the casting director. She immediately told me to come back in a week. So basically I got the role because my Dad needed a wee. 

Given you played a prominent Muslim character, does it ever feel weird, as a brown actor, you end up being generically South Asian? Or do you feel like, actors wear many coats, many faces, and the many iterations of the South Asian diaspora are all part of that?
The aim as an actor is to convince people that you’re the character - the person behind the facade should fade away. The best actors are chameleons but there is, motion-capture aside, a limit to how far you can convincingly change your appearance. So if the aim is realism, I’m always going to be playing someone from a South Asian or perhaps Middle Eastern background. It depends how much that plays in the story. With Tamwar it’s a key part of his identity, but overall I think what endears people to him has very little to do with his ethnicity. It’s nice to see actors like Riz Ahmed in Nightcrawler, whose ethnicity is not part of the narrative. At the same time it’s important to have characters who are somewhat defined by their ethnicity. With Tamwar I think I had a bit of both.

Image credit:  Aria Alagha

Image credit: Aria Alagha

I remember you saying that you didn't really feel like there was an issue around diversity until you heard actors around you talking about it, and it made you see things in a different light. Have you ever felt like there are roles you simply can't go for because they're no-go areas? Also, given the movements started by Lenny Henry and Idris Elba, do you see things changing?
I was insulated from issues of race. I grew up in rural Cambridgeshire in a tiny village where we were the only South Asian family for miles in any direction. I never felt ostracised or particularly different. We were welcomed into a primarily white society with open arms. Then I got the role on EastEnders and slowly a different reality dawned on me, one in which there is a struggle for acceptance and inclusion. It just seems to be this absurd situation where our media hasn’t caught up with reality. I felt a little bit baffled and confused by it.
I haven’t felt like there are any roles that I can’t go for, at least not because of my ethnicity. I refuse to let that be a barrier, even if the industry tells me it is. You have to be realistic about the kind of roles you’re right for though. I can confirm I’m not in talks to be the next James Bond. That’s nothing to do with me being brown - I’m just too much of a scrawny 25 year old. Give me ten years...

Tamwar I've always felt has been very funny. You've had the opportunity to be very funny. Who are some of your comedy heroes?
Ricky Gervais was probably my first big influence. Extras started on TV when I was 14 so I saw that first and then went back and watched The Office. I still find myself Brent-ing (saying things like David Brent) with friends - that character has infiltrated our culture on an unprecedented scale. Around the same time, my sister bought my Dad Monty Python’s ‘And Now For Something Completely Different’, so I watched that and then the rest of the Python films - that was a revelation. 
I absolutely love realism in comedy - The Thick Of It is probably my all-time favourite comedy - but I also love absurdity. What I’ve realised is, the best comedy is always saying something underneath all the laughter. I recently discovered Brass Eye and The Day Today - satire at it’s best. Then there’s Peep Show which was just a really special show in how it brought out all those neuroses that we all have and laid them bare. Good comedy is all in the writing I think. Even if you’re improvising, it has to be based in something on the page. 

We couldn't have a conversation without some navel-gazing. When I wrote the character of Pavan in our short film Two Dosas, it was you. Tell us about the experience of making that film?
It was a lot of fun and a really nice break from what I knew on EastEnders. We worked really fast, with four cameras and 16 scenes a day. So it was refreshing to have the time to try different things, improvise moments and have a laugh doing it. Plus, for a film fan like me, the focus on the cinematic image was a real thrill. We had the camera on a 30 foot track and a sofa being pulled along with a rope - Sarmad Masud, our director, is a real talent and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Also, it was great to be part of a story that explored the dilemma of being a British Indian, being stuck between two cultures and wondering which one’s more valid. It’s something that I think my generation is only just starting to think about and it’s a story that we need to explore on a bigger scale. I think it’ll feed into the debate around telling diverse stories. The ethnic landscape of the UK has undergone a monumental shift in a relatively short space of time and I think we need to take a step back and reassess what that means for our national identity.  

Image credit:  Aria Alagha

Image credit: Aria Alagha

In terms of storytelling, what really gets you going? Like, what sorts of stories do you find yourself drawn to? I often find myself drawn to Spider-Man-type stories - where young people who feel outside the norm, experience some sort of personal tragedy and have to navigate their way in the world while maintaining integrity.
More and more I find myself drawn to truth, to writing that doesn’t shy away from the reality of the human condition. That’s something that you can find in all genres and all sizes of storytelling. On one hand you have a film like ‘Spotlight’ that tells a story about a harsh reality and tells it in a naturalistic way, then you have a film like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ that’s a cinematic epic spanning the entirety of life on and off Earth but is still based in the truth of the human condition. Storytelling’s like a hall of mirrors, everything’s warped in different ways but ultimately it’s the same reality. 
I was socially awkward as a teenager and I still sort of am, although getting the role on EastEnders, moving to London and finding my independence has boosted my confidence  immensely. But I didn't get bitten by a radioactive spider and gain awesome superpowers, which I’m still very annoyed about. 

What's the funniest thing that's ever happened to you?
There’s one thing that happened to me nearly 20 years ago now but I still haven’t forgotten it. It wasn’t funny at the time but in hindsight it’s absurdly hilarious.
I must have been in Year 2 at school. It was lunchtime and we’d all been running around the playing fields. The bell rang and we lined up to go back inside and as I stood in line, I put my hand in my pocket and felt something squishy and soft. I pulled my hand back out to find it covered in fresh bird poo. 
Now, I think that’s stayed with me because not only was it disgusting but I still have absolutely no explanation for how the bird poo got to be in my pocket in the first place. Either some demented child scooped it up and slipped it into my pocket or a bird somehow managed to excrete directly into my pocket from high up above. It’s a mystery, but it makes me laugh because I think I just kind of left the poo in there for the rest of the day and tried to act like nothing was wrong. My mum can’t recall it at all. I probably didn’t tell her, then she later found bird poo in my pocket and questioned what the hell was happening to me. I moved school soon after. 

 Himesh Patel is starring in a new short film 'The Fox', which is being crowdfunded here.