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Challenging the Last Airbender: An Exclusive Interview with Dev Patel

For Dev Patel, playing the villain in a Hollywood blockbuster is about as different from starring in Slumdog Millionaire as he could get.
M. Night Shymalan’s The Last Airbender, which reaches theatres on July 2, is based on the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The film focuses on a world where the elements — Water, Earth, Fire and Air — can be controlled by those referred as “benders.” The Fire Nation is waging a war to control the other nations of the planet, and the only hope of stopping this war rests with a boy named Aang (Noah Ringer), who is the last Airbender. Aang is known as the Avatar, which is the physical embodiment of the world, with the ability to control all four elements and draw upon the combined power, knowledge and experience of the Avatar’s previous incarnations. Accompanied by Waterbender Katara (Nicola Peltz) and her warrior brother Sokka (Jackson Rathbone, of The Twilight Saga), and his animal guide Appa, Aang begins the journey to restore balance to their war-torn world. Their main obstacle comes in the form of Fire Nation Admiral Zhao (Aasif Mandvi) and Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), the banished prince of the Fire Nation who seeks to capture Aang in an effort to regain his honor.

Portraying Zuko is 20-year-old actor Dev Patel, whose career exploded after he played Jamal Malik in the critically and commercially acclaimed Slumdog Millionaire, for which he won a number of personal accolades and awards, including the Critics’ Choice Award.

In the following interview, Dev shares his feelings on The Last Airbender, emphasizing that starring in Hollywood blockbusters was not what he thought he would be doing with his career.

EARTH’S MIGHTIEST: I’ve read that the character of Zuko was something that you could connect with. In what way?

DEV PATEL: Physically lots of people would say I look like Zuka, because he’s a more comedic and humorous character. In interviews and in general I’m quite the joker and I don’t take myself too seriously. It’s very strange, but Night told me after watching Slumdog that he felt I would be really right for Zuko. I could quite understand that, because the characters in the two films are very similar. They both have this sort of one-track mind and determination to achieve something or gain something. Whereas in Slumdog he would kill himself to find the girl of his dreams and his soul mate, in this film, The Last Airbender, Zuko is going to do the exact same thing. He’s going to put his life on the line to find this boy, the last of his kind, and regain his honor in his father’s eyes. That’s basically his mission throughout the film. It’s really interesting, because they’re really similar in that way. They beat themselves up a lot and they go through a lot of emotional torture that they sort of inflict on themselves. Especially Zuko. They’re young and charismatic and I feel that I could sort of capture that essence of them, if that makes any sense.

EARTH’S MIGHTIEST: He’s the bad guy in this, isn’t he?

DEV: Yes and no. He is because he is going to catch the lead of the film, so you could say that he’s the bad guy. However, I think he’s on his own personal mission and he’s got this sort of Anakin Skywalker-esque feel to him, where he has this constant battle going on within himself to choose a path of good or to do bad. He has so much power as a young prince and it’s just about him discovering his path and, more so than anything else, discovering himself. It’s interesting, because when I was shooting I was 18 or 19 and that’s a time when you’re just bursting into manhood. He’s exactly like that. The thing with him is that he’s a young boy trying to grow up too fast. He thinks he’s a man; he’s trying to be intimidating and flex his muscles, when, really, he’s just a boy. That’s where this really interesting relationship comes into play between him and his uncle. His uncle is full of wisdom and has seen life and he’s just trying to teach my character how to take life slowly, one step at a time, and to enjoy it. It’s a really good dynamic between them.

EARTH’S MIGHTIEST: Did the cartoon inform the character at all for you, or did you put that aside?

DEV: I watched the first season, which the film is based on, and I really think he’s an impressive character and a cool one to play. I feel so awesome playing him, but he’s very hot and cold on the show. I tried to capture that in the film where he’s so erratic and he’s got this pent up temper that can erupt at any time. Hopefully when the film comes out it won’t turn out I’ve overdone it. I tried to stay faithful to that while trying to bring a more childlike side to him; that this is a kid that’s just dying to regain his honor and dying to have his father back and make people feel for him a bit more, hopefully. In the cartoon he’s quite temperamental and he and his uncle have a totally different relationship where he’s just totally annoyed that his uncle is there.

EARTH’S MIGHTIEST: As an actor, there must be a world of difference between shooting Slumdog Millionare and shooting a blockbuster like The Last Airbender.

DEV: To be honest, it wasn’t a route I planned to go down one bit. I did get one or two offers after Slumdog, because of the attention we all got. It was a really big roller coaster, but nothing really was adequate and I didn’t think it would stretch me at all. I was offered the same old Indian characters, the goofy sidekicks, etc., etc. But then this role came along and Night spoke to me. Even at the audition I was slightly reluctant, because I wanted to do independent films and I didn’t see myself working on massive productions. Now it’s totally proved me wrong. I would have thought I would have gone after really character-specific pieces where I can be stretched as an actor, but after speaking to Night everything changed. He totally won me over. People say you can’t really get much different from Slumdog than this, and it really is different. Everything is different and that’s really been my career so far: a series of me throwing myself into the deep end, from Slumdog being my first-ever film, then doing a $150 million film. This is Hollywood and big franchises and you’re working with lots of CGI, with millions of supporting actors and extras filling out the armies. It’s an interesting thing to do, and real fun. This is not going to be one of those films you’ll watch and be moved to change the world and make a difference, but it’s going to be a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining experience.
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