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Dev Patel is driven to succeed in Hollywood

| Friday, Aug. 24, 2012, 9:00 p.m.

Beneath a crystal chandelier, Dev Patel ponders budget car-buying. The 22-year-old actor, clad in a soft cotton V-neck tee, relaxed jeans and dirt-scuffed green sneakers, surveys two publicists, a photographer and a photographer's assistant at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons. “How much do you pay for car insurance? How much do you pay?”

Patel, who earned his driver's license in London last year, has cruised Los Angeles for months in a rented Toyota Corolla, while co-starring as blogger Neal Sampat in Aaron Sorkin's latest creation, “The Newsroom,” which ends its much-discussed first season on HBO on Aug. 26.

A suburban United Kingdom native with Indian roots, he's now settling into Hollywood, hoping to build a series of unexpectedly attention-grabbing roles into a serious career.

At age 18, after a breakout stint on the British television hit “Skins” (his mother saw a casting call and pushed him to audition), Patel was thrust into the international spotlight with his performance in “Slumdog Millionaire” (it's also where he met co-star Freida Pinto, his girlfriend). Earlier this year, he won praise, alongside British legends Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” an all-star, low-budget comedy that grossed more than $100 million worldwide.

Before resuming his supporting gig in Season 2 of “The Newsroom,” Patel is tackling his next task — “Not a fancy car. An Audi” — with intensity, perfectionism and humor. It's the same hyper-energy he employs on daily tasks, the logistics of adulthood and new roles.

Director John Madden, who cast Patel as an Indian hotel owner in “Marigold Hotel” (although he originally intended to find a middle-age man for the part), said the ever-grinning actor is “the center of every scene he's in.” Patel makes the audience truly care about his character, cheer him on. The rebellious teen in “Skins,” the precocious boy-hero in “Slumdog,” the blogger hunched over his laptop in “Newsroom” share the same magnetic quality, the Dev factor.

“I didn't know until I auditioned him what he was capable of,” Madden said. “I'd obviously seen him in ‘Slumdog Millionaire,' and I really, really liked him, but I had no idea that he was such a gifted comedian. Very natural, fantastic comic instinct — a very rare thing.”

Patel brought enormous energy to the set — always talking, laughing, joking, launching into karate kicks, requesting extra do-overs to nail a scene.

“There were times I would've been grateful to get it in three takes instead of eight, but something amazing happened in every one of those takes,” Madden said. “He's restless, always wants to be better, and he had the admiration of those acting with him. Veterans were dazzled by him.”

Patel recalls holding his breath, secretly terrified, while shooting the movie's close.

“I'm on this moped, fist-pumping and I had to drive by Judi,” he said. “I kept thinking, ‘Please don't crash into her. Please don't crash into her.' I'd be the most-hated man in England!”

Patel's character in “Newsroom” slowly develops throughout the first season and is expected to blossom beyond “a nerdy blogger type” in the next.

“In one part, there's a shot of Neal rolling around in bed with a girl and he has to stop and grab his phone when news breaks,” Patel said. “Of all the good-looking men on the show, (Sorkin) wanted me topless in the bed.”

Not that “Newsroom” is full of hunks, of course — but modesty and self-deprecating humor just add to Patel's mass appeal.

“I'm not intelligent enough for this show,” he joked, noting that he'd never blogged or tweeted or regularly read news before joining the cast.

Danielle Paquette is a writer for the Los Angeles Times

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