Actor Himesh Patel is making a bid to brighten up your day

A man shielding the light from his eyes with his hand.

The star of Danny Boyles’ Yesterday and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is literally keeping it light in the TV adaptation of The Luminaries, in which he plays an embodiment of the sun

Words by Louis Wise Images by Danny Kasirye  Styling by David Nolan Thur, Jul 16, 2020

In his current role, Himesh Patel lifts your spirits – and he is aware, as we all are, that it’s something we need. For nearly 10 years he played the endearing nerd, Tamwar Masood, in the British soap and TV institution, EastEnders. Then, he got his Hollywood break as the lead in the hit Danny Boyle romcom, Yesterday, with Lily James. And now we meet the 29-year-old, Cambridgeshire-born actor in BBC drama, The Luminaries – a realisation of the book that broke records and won awards in equal measure. Patel plays the sunny hero, Emery, and says, ‘Ultimately, he’s a beacon of light. He’s the one who’s always trying to do the right thing... and that really appealed to me. I am a romantic at heart, really.’

Patel is speaking on the phone from his London flat, where he is on lockdown with his girlfriend. He has an affable, slightly hangdog tone; the sense of everyman sweetness is still there when he reveals that his main occupations are baking bread (‘just still a white bloomer for now’) and repainting his walls. He would never say, but perhaps it’s just nice to take a break. In addition to Yesterday, written by Richard Curtis, and The Luminaries, Patel has recently appeared in the period drama fantasy, The Aeronauts, Sharon Horgan’s Motherland, the Armando Iannucci-penned sci-fi comedy, Avenue 5, and Station Eleven. The last one on the list is, wait for it, set in the aftermath of a devastating flu pandemic. This was entirely coincidental; they filmed the pilot at the start of the year when COVID-19 felt very distant, and now they’re waiting to resume filming the first series. ‘It’s very strange,’ says Patel. ‘I’ve basically spent the whole of 2020 in some kind of pandemic.’ 
A man standing in a field with trees.
Patel is also in multi-Oscar-nominated director Christopher Nolan’s new movie, Tenet. It’s shrouded in secrecy and set to be (if all goes to plan) the first new cinematic release post-pandemic. Nolan is defiant that, while his peers all move their slate or transition to streaming, his film will be released this year on big screens. But, as is par for the course when working with Nolan, no detail can be discussed.

The son of shopkeepers in a rural town, little seemed to set Patel on a path to showbiz, except his innate hunger – or as he calls it wryly, ‘a certain energy and a certain volition to show off’. One of his earliest memories is of watching the original Disney movie, Aladdin – he was obsessed with Robin Williams’ Genie. Later, Patel remembers being avidly taken by actors like Jim Carrey and Steve Carell. He notes that, much like his own upward trajectory, all three actors are stars who started off strong in comedy, before showing serious dramatic chops, too. Clearly, he’s not against this career arc. ‘Maybe I recognised something in those actors that was funny, but there was something else going on as well.’

It was a weekend drama club that Patel attended that suggested he audition for EastEnders, in which he appeared from the ages of 16 to 25. ‘My formative years’, as he says now. In an alternate world, it’s possible Patel could have spent his time in dodgy celeb nightclubs or doing reality TV (the classic soap-star route), but a few things kept him on the straight and narrow. His parents, for one, who he lived with until he was 21 and made him do the paper round whenever he was home at the weekend. ‘I hated it at the time,’ he chuckles. ‘But now I realised that had I not been doing that sort of thing, I might have got a bit too big for my boots.’ Another was just his serious dedication to the job. And a final one, he thinks, is that he left EastEnders at a time when casting directors were mindful of needing more diversity in the industry, whether that’s across race, class or ability. ‘I feel very fortunate,’ he says now. ‘I always thought, “Oh, is this going to be it for me?”’
A man with a beard laughing.
Someone holding a pair of sunglasses.

‘Growing up, I was like, “I guess there’s not really any room for somebody who looks like me in this world [of acting]”. But that’s changing’ – Himesh Patel

Indeed, Patel’s is a decisively modern career, in that he may well have not had the same chances even 10 years ago. How many Asian, working-class actors would you have expected to see fronting Richard Curtis romances back in the day? And yet here we are. He remembers the experience fondly, but admits that one skill he hasn’t been nurturing at home currently is playing the guitar, despite having to learn it intensively for his role in Yesterday. In the movie, his struggling musician Jack, by a mad quirk of fate (or plotting), wakes up in an alternate world where the Beatles never existed. Jack then makes his fortune by reciting a string of Fab Four hits to an unsuspecting public. The effect has been deep: ‘I can literally play the same 10 songs over and over again,’ Patel laughs. But it looks like it will stay at 10.  

Traditionally, you might also have not expected to see someone like him in not one, but two period dramas set in the 1860s. Both The Luminaries and The Aeronauts take us back to a 19th century that for a long time, on film, were comprehensively whitewashed. Patel’s appearance in both (and not as the servant boy) is a long overdue kind of progress. He admits that if he ‘slightly hoped’, he could one day star in a period drama, it was something that ‘I doubted, especially growing up’. Back then, ‘it was like, “I guess there’s not really any room for somebody who looks like me in this world”. But that’s changing.’

The Luminaries, a complex murder mystery inspired by the signs of the zodiac, is notoriously hard to sum up (in book form, it’s 848 pages), but Patel promises that ‘for me, it wasn’t confusing – it was just a brilliant amount of things that [the writer Eleanor Catton] balanced in her writing. It was all part of a very rich tapestry.’ And in this astrological tapestry, where various characters represent Taurus, Virgo or Libra, Saturn, Venus and the moon, then Patel’s Emery is, quite simply, the sun. Hence ‘the beacon of light’. So, does it come naturally to him to be a beacon of light, then? He laughs. ‘I did my best.’

Patel is a new kind of sunny, a new kind of lead – not a saccharine, candy pink-styled romantic. Instead, can we say a romantic with a desolate edge? He lets out a surprised laugh. ‘Maybe.’ A pause. ‘I’ll keep that in reserve for my gravestone.’ Another pause. ‘There you go, you’re right,’ he laughs. ‘That’s it, we’ve nailed what 2020 needs in a leading man: “grim and romantic, together”.’

The Luminaries is showing now on BBC One; Tenet is out on 17 July
a man sitting in the shade of a tree.
A man sitting in the shade of a tree.

Patel wears: Coat, orange shirt, and belt (just seen), all Anderson & Sheppard. T-shirt, blue-and-ivory shirt, and trousers, all 45R. Boots, Crockett & Jones. Sunglasses, E.B. Meyrowitz 

A man walking up a hill towards a tree in a field.
Interested in becoming a member?