Dev Patel pondered a logical question when he was asked to star in “The Personal History of David Copperfield.”
Why was he chosen to portray the famed Las Vegas illusionist onscreen?
Patel, 30, quickly learned he wasn’t meant to star as thatDavid Copperfield, but the titular hero of the famed Charles Dickens Victorian-era novel.
“I’m the doofus that totally missed this literary classic growing up,” Patel admits to USA TODAY during an interview with his director Armando Iannucci – who uses his star’s literary miscue to explain why he made the most wildly madcap adaptation of the Dickens novel ever.
“I don’t care if you haven’t heard of the book, or the 19th century or Charles Dickens. It’s fine. This movie is for everyone,” says Iannucci. “If you do think it’s about the magician, you’re in for a surprise.
There are many surprises in this “David Copperfield,” opening in 1,300 theaters nationwide Friday. Here’s what you need to know.
Toronto Film Fest triumph: Here’s how Dev Patel’s ‘David Copperfield’ makes Charles Dickens fun again
This is the most diverse ‘David Copperfield’ ever
There have been screen and TV mini-series versions of Dickens’ 1850 novel. But none have been diverse like this, starting with the lead casting of Patel, an English actor of Indian descent.
Iannucci says he saw the vulnerable, perpetual outsider character David Copperfield in Patel through films like his 2008 breakout “Slumdog Millionaire” and 2016’s “Lion.”
“As soon as I’d cast Dev, there was this conversation of, ‘So is Dev’s (onscreen) father from India?’ ” says Iannucci, who forgoes expository explanation in the film. “I said, ‘I’m casting Dev because he’s the best person for the part. And that’s how we should cast everyone.’ ”
Iannucci followed through on that with colorblind casting for normally lily-white Victorian England – from Rosalind Eleazar starring as love interest Agnes to Benedict Wong as drunken Mr. Wickfield.
“If we’re going to keep making these costume and period dramas we can’t be saying it’s only meant for a certain type of actor and not another type of actor,” says Iannucci. “And this is a story about how it doesn’t matter where you come from and how you look or what you wear. It’s who you are that’s important.”
This ‘David Copperfield’ is two hours of extreme eccentricity
It’s not surprising to see “Veep” creator and “Death of Stalin” director Iannucci pull off rolling scenes of ridiculousness. But fans of Dickens’ novel may be surprised by how fully eccentric the comedy gets. Iannucci’s version focuses nearly entirely on the book’s comic elements.
The 629-page novel has so much material, it’s often adapted into a miniseries. But the 2-hour movie hones in on extreme quirky moments and characters like decapitation-obsessed, kite-flying Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) and the donkey trespassing-consumed Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swnton).
“I love it when people say, ‘The bit where this happened, that wasn’t in the book,’ ” Iannucci says. “And I tell them, ‘That’s word-for-word from the book.’ That’s what I love about Dickens. He’s such a modern, inventive writer. He wrote this timeless comedy that doesn’t age.”
One frenetic scene features the poverty-stricken Copperfield stuck in a stiflingly small apartment with Trotwood and Dick, along with the creditor-dodging Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) with his family (featuring real crying babies).
“Armando had the kids in there with all the actors and was just spinning plates,” says Patel.
“We did very little rehearsal and just packed everyone in. I just said, ‘Let’s just go for it!’ says Iannucci. “And amongst the chaos, we’ll see what we can find.”
Patel threw punches, suffered from donkey karma
David Copperfield is a flawed hero who falls in and out of love throughout his story and has his share of brawls. One choreographed fight with an insulted butcher’s boy (Aston McAuley) was particularly intense.
“He came onto set very Daniel Day-Lewis, very method,” Patel recalls. “I was like, ‘Whoa, wait!’ That was a real look of fear on my face.”
In another scene, Patel’s Copperfield wallops his bowl-haircut nemesis Uriah Heep (Ben Whishaw) triumphantly. He pulled it off without injuring his fellow actor, or himself. Oddly, Patel’s only on-set pain came in a scene where Copperfield continues Trotwood’s tradition of chasing donkey-riding shortcut-seekers off their pastoral property.
“My only injury was running out to scare off those donkeys. I think I was a little over-enthusiastic,” says Patel. “I sort of hyper-extended my knee.”
He blew the knee for a good cause. Critics have loved “David Copperfield,” which premiered to plaudits at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and boasts a 94% positive review rating on RottenTomatoes.com.