Himesh Patel didn’t set out to court the apocalypse. It just sort of happened. Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, he had joined the ranks of two fictional end-of-the-world projects, the evocative HBO Max series Station Eleven and the Adam McKay-led comedy Don’t Look Up. He’d only filmed a few scenes of Station Eleven, a tale about a devastating pandemic adapted from the book by Emily St. John Mandel, by the time production shut down, and he’s spent the ensuing months in a headspace that can only be described as weird. How do you make sense of these coincidences, if we’re to call them that? How do you reflect on the art you’ve made, when it edges unnervingly close to autofiction?
When we meet in December 2021 at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Midtown Manhattan, Patel looks much like Jeevan Chaudhary, his Station Eleven character, ruminative and dressed in a casual flannel, pulling at his beard. We order an overpriced bottle of sparkling water and sit for an hour as Patel attempts to poke at the absurd psychology of making apocalypse stories in a time of—well, maybe not apocalypse, but no one can argue things have gotten rough. Throughout our conversation, Patel—who spent many years of his early acting career on the British soap opera EastEnders—sprinkles in a self-deprecating humor that strikes me as ironically optimistic. Below, we discuss why there’s still reason for optimism, his favorite experiences on set, and the talent yet to be tapped in the world of soaps.
When you returned to filming Station Eleven after the pandemic lockdown, you said you had to switch your mindset. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
I guess in the sense that there were, of course, similarities between the narrative of the story of Station Eleven, and what we are living through now. I had to separate them, and not let myself think about any of the parallels, because we had to make sure that we were telling the story we were always going to tell.
There was no way any of us were going to exploit what was happening and continues to be happening around the world in order to make a story even more relevant or whatever. The book is the book, and our TV show is our TV show. And it was being made before the COVID pandemic. So I think [show creator Patrick Somerville] and [executive producer/director Hiro Murai], we had a chat during lockdown, over Zoom, and they were like, “We’re not changing anything.” Unless it’s anything that they might want to change for sensitivity purposes.
When did you first learn about this show?
September 2019. The audition came through my agents, as always, but they sent a pilot script along with it, and I was blown away by what I read. And then I got the book—I hadn’t read the book at this point—and finished that in about three days. I was flying to L.A. anyway, to go shoot Tenet, and so I flew a few days early. I landed and auditioned for Patrick and Hiro the next day. I was offered the role a few days later. The plan being to shoot in January. Which we did. For a little bit. But it was always the plan to shoot January into February, which is what we did, and then go on a little hiatus and then come back to Chicago, where we were originally based, in the summer.
And yeah, we never went back, obviously. Very strange how it all panned out.
I feel it’s rare to find television adaptations that take the risks that Station Eleven does with its source material. How did you think about the changes between the book and the show, particularly when it comes to Jeevan’s character?
Obviously I read the book, loved the book, but had questions as to how much of the show was I going to be in? Because [in the book] he’s there in the beginning and then he’s definitely not there, and then a mention of him at the end. But Patrick gave me assurance that [one of the] changes he wanted to make was he really elevated Jeevan’s character. And so I already knew that, for me, personally, it was a very different story. And I really loved the changes. In a way, I didn’t see them as changes. The show stands on its own.
Part of the difference between the Jeevan of the show and the Jeevan of the book is exemplified in the way you, as Jeevan, played off of Matilda Lawler as Young Kirsten. How did the two of you develop such an excellent rapport?
I adore her. She’s already just an incredible actress. She’s so young. Should she choose to continue, she’s going to fly. And I mean she’s going to fly because she’s got the talent. She’s also got such a great outlook, such a great head on her shoulders. She’s playing a precocious young actor, but she’s not that way in any way. She’s just like any other actor. She has opinions; she has ideas. She listens to notes and really thinks about them. And I learned so much from working with her. She’s phenomenal. I really, really loved it. As I said, we did these chemistry reads, and I’m so glad that I did those because we all knew straight away it was her. Head and shoulders above anyone else.
When you watch the show now, do you find there’s a particular element you’re most proud of?
It was hard making the show in Toronto. It wasn’t easy for anyone. Toronto was in lockdown the whole time. So we just had to sit, do our work, go home, not go anywhere. There was nowhere you could go, really.
On my last day, the producers got cupcakes for everyone. It’s funny, I look back on it and I go, “Is this a moment to celebrate that I’m leaving, giving everyone cupcakes?” [Laughs.]
But we were shooting outside, so everyone pulled down their masks and had a cupcake. And I was like—I’m losing my mind. These people I’d worked with for four months, I was finally seeing their faces. And what I realized, especially as I got towards the end of the shoot, was that we’d never shut down. We never got a COVID case that we had to shut down. So many other shows had to do that. I was just so proud of everyone because you never make anything on your own. With actors, you can sometimes be made to feel that you’re more important than everyone else. But you never make a TV show or a film on your own.
There are hundreds of people that are all making the effort. And it was really highlighted to me when we made this show. We were all getting tested three times a week, and we all had to be careful, not just at work, but it meant that when we went home, we had to be careful about where we went, how we did things, and forego some of the freedoms that we may previously have wanted to exercise—because we had to look after each other. And it was just a real reminder for me. You really are carrying each other when you’re making anything.
So when did Don’t Look Up first hit your radar?
Just after I got back to London from shooting the pilot for Station Eleven. So I did a tape and then I got asked to do another tape. So I did another tape. And then the world ended.
And so it went quiet. Then, as we got towards the end of the year, sort of autumn, fall time, it started hearing up again: They’re offering you a role. And at this point, I only knew that Jennifer Lawrence was onboard and that Leo [DiCaprio] was onboard. And then, funny enough, they announced [the full cast list] on my birthday.
And I was just staggered. What am I doing on this list? They must have made a mistake. So it’s a nice time, really, just to finally be talking about these projects because they’ve been in gestation for such a long time.
You know every writer who writes about you is going to latch onto the fact that you filmed two end-of-the-world projects during the “end of the world,” right?
I think it was always on the pulse. I said to my team two years ago, “The world’s going to end, guys. Let’s get it done.” [Laughs.] It’s strange. And in both [projects], I get told the world’s going to end, and I have a panic attack.
I was going to mention that, too. You get to hyperventilate repeatedly.
Yes. It’s a new niche.
Was that part of your contract?
Yeah, yeah. “Must have breakdown.”
In all seriousness, what was that like for you mentally? You have to place the real world aside; of course you do. But how do you process everything we’ve collectively been experiencing and then live a version of it within a character? And not only one but multiple characters?
I guess you’ve got stuff to draw on. In a way, it’s hard not to see it as some sort of processing of trauma, really. Especially Station Eleven. Because we were making it during a really difficult time, and I think we’ve all—we’ve got things that we’ve been through over that time. But I’m just really glad that we’ve come out the other side of it with a great TV show.
Have you watched the whole show?
I’ve still not seen episode 10, weirdly. I don’t know why I’m waiting. It’s almost like I don’t want to say bye to the show.
The episodes you have seen, were you able to experience them as a viewer would? Could you set aside your own feelings?
I think there were episodes that were easier for me to just sit back and watch because I’m not really in them. I’m still trying to figure out whether it’s a good idea for me to watch my own stuff. I’m hyper-critical of myself. I think it was a good sign for me that, when I watched Station Eleven, I really…I was pretty proud of it. And largely proud of my work in it. And there’s always stuff to analyze. There’s always stuff that I’ve always ended up thinking too much about. But no, I think with this one, I was able to enjoy it.
Seeing Jeevan in the birth center in episode 9, surrounded by all these women, was one of my favorite parts of the series that didn’t originate from the book. What was it like on set while filming that episode?
It was a very surreal experience for me because I now have a one-year-old. And so during the lockdown, obviously, she was on the way. And I told Patrick I’m expecting a baby. And he said, “Just wait ’til you read episode 9. You are not going to believe this.”
So I’ve done some inadvertent research about birth and all that it entails. And especially what ends up happening in the show, obviously, which is largely natural birth without any drugs. But it gave me a real insight into just how incredible it is—and also how precarious it is and how precarious it feels to the mother, especially. It felt precarious to me as well. It’s an amazing thing. It was emotional shooting it. It was the most hopeful moment in the show, in a show that’s about the death of so many people.
When people sit down and watch this show, is there a certain reaction you want them to have, after the two years we’ve just experienced?
That people recognize the value of things. The things that will remain if the world ends. Family, community, art, love. You can break it all down into a handful of concepts and connections that will remain. This show, I think, celebrates the best of us and how that can triumph ultimately.
Did you like working on end-of-the-world projects, or are you ready for something a little less intense?
I mean, one of them was intense; the other one wasn’t. Having a laugh with Adam McKay, I’d happily do that for three months. But no, I definitely want to zigzag now. Do something different. But I don’t know what that is yet, which is nerve-wracking but exciting at the same time.
You’ve talked before about your acting evolution since doing soaps, and your desire to get outside the box that environment can put you in. Do you think you’ve accomplished that now? Have you gotten to where you wanted to be at this point?
I mean, I currently feel like I am somewhere I never thought I’d be. What I hope I can do, by doing the work that I’ve done since [leaving the soap opera world], is change perceptions. And I think this is specifically a British thing, if I’m honest. I can only speak to it from a British point of view. There is snobbery, rife snobbery toward soaps and actors who work on soaps, especially actors who work on soaps for a long time. I was on [EastEnders] for nine years. I’ve managed to leave and forge a career that I’m very proud of. But it’s because someone took a chance on me. It shouldn’t feel far away for anyone, I think, especially a young actor who’s on a soap, to feel that they are losing the ability to do anything more after that.
I think perceptions need to change about where our actors come from and where young actors can grow up and learn their craft. Because I think we are missing out, in the U.K., on a huge, huge pool of talent that I worked with. And some of whom are happy to remain working in [soaps]. So that’s great. But there are a lot who I think are scared to move on because they’re told that they won’t succeed if they do. And I think, I hope, that I can change people’s perceptions with that. Because there’s a lot of untapped talent.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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