The year 2019 has begun on a ‘high note’ for Himesh Patel. The young British Indian actor is the face (and voice) of Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle’s new musical drama, “Yesterday,” headlining the cast as Jack Malik, a struggling singer-songwriter in a tiny English seaside town, who rises to fame with The Beatles’ beloved songs that no one, except him, has heard before.
Malik, who is trying to make his mark with the support of his childhood best friend, Ellie, played by Lily James, in a strange twist of fate, ends up in a world after an accident where no trace remains of The Beatles and only he remembers their songs, thus setting in motion his journey to fame which could come at a cost.
“Yesterday,” which had its world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival in New York and garnered rave reviews, is a film that will catapult Patel to global superstardom. He delivers a towering lead performance in the film which has the feel-good power and all the makings of a hit – a unique concept, a funny and heartfelt storyline, and Boyle’s masterful direction.
“I think people really enjoyed it. They really laughed. It was what I had hoped for. I really had no idea what the reaction was going to be. It was a fun crowd,” Patel told India-West after the screening. “Cinema is that kind of communal space where we all come together and when there’s a joke everyone laughs at the same time. That’s one of the best feelings in the world.”
Being the star of a Danny Boyle film feels “very surreal,” Patel told India-West.
“It’s becoming very real now, with the screening last night and other things. It’s quite crazy,” he gushed. “‘Yesterday’ is a film about miraculous events and what one does with the responsibility of being the only person in the world who knows the music of The Beatles and what do you do with that? Do you lead yourself in a spiral of fame or do you concentrate on what matters to you, on love, fans and truth?”
Patel confessed that he knew a bit of The Beatles’ music before but after being zeroed in for the role, he spent about two months prepping for the role.
“I knew it fairly well but not like hugely. I’d listened to two-three albums and you know, the kind of singles that everyone knows,” he told India-West. “But now having listened to all of the albums and fallen in love with them and really enjoyed them. Their music is pretty magic. It’s been a journey for me of discovering.”
The film, which releases June 28, also features new versions of The Beatles’ most beloved hits. So being a part of this musical tale also involved learning to play various instruments.
“We had to create a new version of the songs and kind of make them our own, really so that we may do justice to those songs,” said Patel. “It was learning them, of course, improving my guitar playing, which required quite a lot of improvement, my piano playing and learning the songs and making them alright and, of course, enjoying it.”
The film, described as a “rock-n-roll comedy about music, dreams, friendship, and the long and winding road that leads to the love of your life,” is from Richard Curtis, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Love Actually” and “Notting Hill.”
Patel also shared with India-West how he was discovered for the role.
“I did a self-take, and then I had an audition with Danny and Richard, where we did a few scenes from the film and a couple of songs. That was really fun and then I had another audition a little while later with Danny, where I sang another couple of songs and then I got a call and Danny offered me the part. Those were a wild few months but I had fun,” he told India-West.
Auditions can be unnerving for even the most seasoned actors but Patel implemented a positive approach and stood out in a sea of talent.
“You never know. I think you have to go in with a certain amount of belief or just self-belief that you are doing the best you can do,” Patel told India-West. “I had to go into my first audition with that mindset because I was about to spend some time in a room with Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis singing Beatles’ songs and I just thought, ‘You know what, this is never going to happen again. You’ve got to just enjoy it rather than be too worried about it.’ I think that served me well. I had fun and it was a cool audition.”
During the second audition, Patel recalled to India-West, the thought process was the same but he was a bit nervous since the “stakes were much higher.”
“It was the next stage. I didn’t feel that it went as well but I think since Danny had already decided that I was his guy, so he was like, ‘Anyways, it’s cool.’ But I thought I had messed up, but obviously not,” Patel said.
In the film, after fans get swept up in his music, his work also comes on the radar of singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, who plays himself.
“Collaborated is the right word,” said Patel. “He really was out there, learning and having fun and kind of playing around with the work. He is so down to earth. He was just like any other actor, who comes for rehearsals and just has fun.”
He added that filming “Yesterday” turned out to be a very “special” time in his life.
“Being able to do their songs but also working with so many brilliant people and collaborating and just having the joy of the music kind of percolate through the entire film and through the entire process,” Patel said. “And that just meant that we’re all having so much fun making the film. It was a very special time in my life.”
Before he made his way to the set of “Yesterday,” Patel was known for starring on the long-running British show, “Eastenders.” And while the fundamentals of both the mediums remain the same, TV and films differ on so many levels, Patel noted, adding he fell in love with the process of creating a cinematic experience.
“The scale just grows exponentially (in films), especially when you are in a film with Danny, who can command a certain kind of scale of filmmaking. In films, you have more time to rehearse, to prepare, to work through the scene on the day which working on a TV show like I did, you had so many scenes to film in a day and you got to keep going and the camera set up is also very simple. What’s thrilling about cinema is the scale is huge. That’s what Danny does so well, connecting energy of cinema… It’s been a great year of that world opening up to me.”
Patel stated that he was “thrilled” to have gotten this part which was offered to him after he was considered the perfect fit for it. But he is also glad that his ethnicity had no role to play in this casting, and that, he said, is a welcome sign for a more diverse film world.
“I was thrilled to get this part. And then I’m a British Indian guy who got this part, but I’m also really proud of that fact that we didn’t make it a part of the narrative,” Patel told India-West. “I played the role as anyone else would’ve played. Nothing was changed narratively to highlight Jack’s foundation. So, that I think is a really great step.”
Patel continued: “This role demands quite a lot of different things. Understanding the songs, singing, playing different instruments so they had to cast a net wide. And they auditioned all sorts of actors for the role and so it was a real thrill that I was to one who was deemed right for the part, so that means now the door opens for young British Asian leads in romantic comedies. And that’s the kind of thing that happens when filmmakers are open to casting their net wide and exploring different options.”