British actor Himesh Patel, best known for his lead performance in Danny Boyle’s inventive Beatles celebration Yesterday, secured a spot in the competitive Emmy race for Lead Actor in a Limited Series for his nuanced and sensitive portrayal of good samaritan Jeevan Chaudhary in HBO Max’s dystopian saga Station Eleven.
After starring in the British soap opera Eastenders for almost a decade, Patel has busied himself with supporting roles in high-profile films like Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. With Station Eleven, Patel takes a leading role in an ensemble cast, nailing heart-breaking moments and generating surprising laughs as an aimless comic-turned unwitting healer.
The series received seven Emmy nominations and was adapted from Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel of the same name. It follows the stories of survivors of a pandemic that wiped out 90% of the world’s population as they try to rebuild and reimagine a world amidst all that had been lost. In the early days of the pandemic, Patel’s Jeevan becomes the unlikely guardian to a young girl named Kirsten (played brilliantly by actress Matilda Lawler) as they navigate the new world across two decades. The role of Kirsten as an adult is handled by rising star MacKenzie Davis (Terminator: Dark Fate).
Production for Station Eleven, created by Patrick Somerville, was halted in Chicago as the real-life pandemic sent the world into lockdown. Having completed only two episodes, Patel reunited with the cast and crew in Toronto a year later to resume filming under strict safety conditions.
“I remember walking onto the apartment set and thinking that everything that had happened that whole year, everything we’d been through, had disappeared and I was just back on set the next day of work,” shares Patel. “But it was an interesting challenge to hold onto that character over that period of time.”
Patel spoke with Awards Focus about gaining experience and education while working on Eastenders, coming back into production in Toronto after a year in lockdown, being influenced by joy in Jeevan’s journey, and approaching that reunion scene with MacKenzie Davis.
Awards Focus: I wanted to ask about your time on Eastenders. Many high-profile stars have come from a background of working on soap operas. What did you take away from that experience that has helped you in your career since leaving the show?
Himesh Patel: You’re naturally working very hard. There are upwards of 15 to 20 scenes a day, and you have to do them very quickly because you’ve only got a certain work day with three or four cameras that ring it all up.
Within that, you also want to find quality and do your best work. I certainly did. I was young and wanted to prove myself to some extent. I remember my parents telling me when I got the job that they were very proud of me, but also to not take it for granted because it could be taken away at any point.
I was lucky to work closely with actors who were about the work and wanted to do the same. They were very generous to me, a young actor, and taught me many things implicitly and explicitly about the craft.
AF: Since leaving the show, you’ve worked with directors like Danny Boyle, Christopher Nolan, and Hiro Murai. What have you taken away from those sets?
Patel: There must be so much I’ve taken away simply without even realizing. It’s so interesting working with some great directors who can quietly command the set and don’t need to raise their voices. They just know what they’re doing, and there’s confidence in it.
But there’s also a generosity and wonderful sense of humor with someone like Hiro. When I knew I was auditioning for him, I didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t seen many interviews with him, but he was a director I hugely admired and always seemed so artistically deep. I imagined a very serious guy, but he’s very serious about the work and doesn’t need to be a serious guy about it. I found it inspiring how funny and kind he was to be around.
You can be an artist, have artistic integrity, and be very serious about your work without having to be a nightmare. It’s inspiring to work with people like that.
AF: The pandemic interrupted production for Station Eleven for a year. When you came back to set, was there a change in the schedule and the production flow?
Patel: We shot episodes one and three simultaneously at the beginning of 2020, which Hiro directed while we were in Chicago. The idea was to go back to Chicago that Summer, and we would pick up Jeevan’s story and the traveling symphony, the bulk of the story, but that didn’t happen.
As you say, we got pushed to the beginning of 2021 when we finally sort of settled and started production up again, but what it meant was that we had to shift the whole show to Toronto instead. For fans of the book, that’s quite ironic because the book is set in Toronto, and we made it Chicago, and then we have to go and shoot in Toronto but pretend it was Chicago. So there’s a wonderful irony to that, which I love.
Ultimately, it hugely affected the schedule. But I think it gave [Showrunner] Patrick Somerville the opportunity to figure out the story to some degree. He had the time to watch what we’d done over two episodes and dig into what he wanted to say. So I imagine the show is richer because of it, you know?
But it was weird because I had to put a character on hold while still keeping him alive somehow and then hit the ground running. Funny enough, the first thing we shot when we returned was episode seven, which picks up directly from what we finished shooting in episode one. So it was very strange.
I remember walking onto the apartment set and thinking that everything that had happened that whole year, everything we’d been through, had disappeared and I was just back on set the next day of work. But it was an interesting challenge to hold onto that character over that period of time.
AF: What was it like returning to the set and telling a story about a pandemic after going through such unknown territory in real life?
Patel: We trusted Patrick wouldn’t be exploitative because of what we were going through. I remember having a conversation with him and Hiro during the lockdown. My question was, what’s happening with the story? Are we going to have to make any changes? And they said the story we’re telling will always be the story we’re telling, inevitably. There might’ve been a few things they changed for sensitivity purposes, and I don’t know that for sure, but in terms of the story’s arc, it remained what it was. Any changes that were made were just story-based and character-based.
The thing for me is the coincidence between shooting episode one and the things that are in episode one that we could never have imagined would have the significance they have now. So it still really weirds me out.
AF: Did your approach to playing Jeevan change that year away from the production? What were the conversations around filling in the gaps in those decades that passed for Jeevan after separating from Kirsten?
Patel: I had a very good relationship with Patrick, so I could have those conversations with him about those gaps. He had some ideas and some very beautiful, specific scenes that he had written in a version of the script. He gave them to me, as it were, as ideas.
I found them beautiful in terms of the gap between what we see at the end of episode one, episode seven, and the beginning of episode nine. That was about a year, and it became about finding memories of joy and the ideas of why, up until that point, Kirsten and Jeevan had stayed together. Why does she continue to trust him? Is it simply that she has no choice? Does the bond actually exist, and what are the memories I could implant?
It made the heartbreak of it. I felt to some degree that there were these joyous moments they might have had together, and it was helpful. With that twenty-year gap between episodes nine and ten, I was a very new father, and I accessed some of that emotion because it profoundly changes someone when you become a parent. It changes your perspective on everything, and I think it certainly would’ve done that for Jeevan. It would’ve changed his entire outlook, so all those little things were important.
AF: You feel that weight of emotion in the reunion between Jeevan and Kirsten. How did you and MacKenzie Davis approach the scene?
Patel: MacKenzie and I quickly realized that our instinct must be silence. A stunned silence. You can’t fathom what’s happening, you know? How do you even perform a word? We were on the same page because it must feel so ethereal, like looking at a ghost. Patrick was up for it, and our director Jeremy Podeswa was all ears and shot it beautifully.