‘Yesterday’ Star Himesh Patel Was Delivering Papers Not So Long Ago
“I’ll have the pancakes, please,” Himesh Patel told the waiter at the Crosby Street Hotel, the morning after the actor’s film debut, “Yesterday,” earned a standing ovation at the Tribeca Film Festival. “And an English breakfast tea with a bit of cold milk.”
Then his beverage arrived — with warm milk. The British Patel was perplexed. “Is this an American thing?” He started to pour the milk anyway, then remembered he’s a movie star now. “I should turn over the table,” Patel joked. “I plan to start doing things like that.”
You could hardly blame him for getting a big head, given his high-profile turn as Jack Malik, a singer who rockets to superstardom in “Yesterday,” a high-concept comedy that opened Friday. In the film, a worldwide blackout renders Jack one of the very few people who remember the Beatles, and he claims their songs as his own.
The movie has been earning mixed reviews, but Patel had the critics in his corner, with The Daily Beast calling his performance “a star-making film debut,” and A.O. Scott in The Times praising his “winning mixture of moodiness and wit.”
The film’s director, Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), described the actor’s audition — he played “Yesterday” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.” — as an epiphany. “It’s only happened to me two or three times in casting,” Boyle recalled. “Leonardo DiCaprio could’ve walked in and proved himself a brilliant singer, but it wouldn’t have mattered. This guy had to play Jack.”
Like his character, Patel has been overwhelmed by his newfound celebrity status, he admitted. “It feels too good,” he says. “I can’t spend too much time thinking about it. I just concentrate on the job at hand.”
But it’s hard to maintain your cool when you’re suddenly mingling with A-listers. At the Tribeca Film Festival, “it was like, ‘Oh, hello, Meg Ryan. Hello, Zachary Quinto.’ Then, ‘Hello, Robert De Niro.’” He marveled at meeting the festival’s co-founder. “I mean, I knew he would be there, but you really can’t play that one down.”
As if on cue, his “Yesterday” co-star Kate McKinnon, who missed the premiere because of her “Saturday Night Live” duties, walked into the restaurant and gave Patel a hug. “It was insane,” Patel told McKinnon. “I was just saying I met Robert De Niro! I know that’s normal for you, but it’s a big deal for me.”
Fame isn’t entirely new to Patel. He spent eight years on the popular British soap opera “EastEnders,” leaving the show in 2016. But his Indian immigrant parents, who own a corner chocolate shop, made sure he kept his feet on the ground. “When I was on ‘EastEnders,’ I still had a paper route until I was 21 and left home,” said Patel, now 28. “I hated it at the time.”
Aside from one throwaway joke about the White Album, the new movie makes no direct mention of its main character’s heritage, which Patel said he found “pleasantly surprising.” Still, his very presence as the romantic lead in a mainstream musical comedy is quietly revolutionary.
“When you look beyond just the normal white guy, you might find someone else, and then something shifts,” Patel said. “I hope all kinds of people will see me in a role like this and say, ‘Of course I can do that. The door’s open now.’”
Even before the release of “Yesterday,” Patel had landed three more major roles: in the “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci’s new HBO outer space comedy, “Avenue 5”; the big-screen hot-air balloon epic “The Aeronauts” (opposite Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones); and Amazon’s gold-rush mini-series, “The Luminaries.”
“It’s been really weird how things have lined themselves up in my life over the last three years in such a way,” Patel said. “I went to America for the first time with my mum when I was 7, and I loved it. I remember wanting to see the Hollywood sign, and then there I was, shooting a scene right by it for ‘Yesterday.’”
He’s “interested and terrified” to hear what Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr think of the movie. “I hope we’ve done their work justice.”
Soon, he had to excuse himself to prepare for another fancy event. “I’m having dinner at Stephen Colbert’s tonight,” Patel said. The comedian was the host of a screening of “Yesterday” at the Montclair Film Festival in New Jersey. “When my dad visited me while I was doing a play in New York City two years ago, I took him to see ‘Late Show With Stephen Colbert.’ Now I’m going to his house. It’s surreal.”