Interview: Himesh Patel talks ‘Station Eleven’ and how being a new father affected his performance
A limited series can offer some of the best forms of television that there are. It often provides a story within a certain amount of episodes that don’t branch off into a second season so one can consume them rather easily and not have to catch up on any previous or subsequent seasons. This is especially true for HBO Max’s limited series, Station Eleven, which is anchored by a thoughtful performance from Himesh Patel.
Best known for roles in such series as Eastenders and Avenue 5, Patel plays Jeevan in the limited series. The series follows the effects and aftermath of a deadly pandemic that eliminates most of the population and how people rebuild the world through art. Jeevan finds himself becoming a father figure to a young girl, Kirsten, that he meets the night that the pandemic really starts to take hold, eventually losing contact with her before finally meeting up again as Kirsten is an adult. It’s a great role for an actor like Patel, who describes his thrilled reaction “that this brilliant hour of TV was going to be led by a brown character,” referring to reading the pilot script for the first time.
I recently had a chat with Patel where we discussed his role in the series, keeping a boundary between his character and real life (since the global pandemic struck right after they filmed the pilot), and how being a father affected his performance.
Tyler Doster: I just wanted to start by asking you, what was your relationship, if any, with the Station Eleven novel before you started filming?
Himesh Patel: I hadn’t read it. I’d heard about it. So when I was sent the pilot script ahead of my audition, I went and bought the book immediately and I read the pilot first, of course. That was my main focus, and then I basically flew to LA not long after, a matter of days after, to audition. So I devoured the book in those two days. I mean, it was easy to fly through it because it’s just so brilliant. So then I was able to have a more detailed conversation in a way with Patrick about the story and about how he was adapting it.
TD: Was your reaction when you read the pilot?
HP: I mean, just absolutely bowled over by it, bowled over by just the episode as a piece of work, the way it sets up the story, the beautiful relationship at the center of it. On a personal level, just really thrilled that this brilliant hour of TV was going to be led by a brown character, which I haven’t seen a whole lot of for me, especially growing up. So it really excited me. Then obviously to be the one who gets to do it is even more exciting.
TD: You guys shot the pilot back in January, 2020 before the pandemic hit, so I wanted to ask you: how was it like coming back to set during the actual pandemic while filming something like this?
HP: Yeah, it was strange and it was hard in a lot of ways for various reasons, some personal, some to do with the work itself. In terms of the work itself, I think it was just the new protocols that we all had to adhere to keep each other safe. It was challenging just on a sensory level. I mean, in terms of we all had to be wearing PPE, we had to wear masks and visors and goggles in some situations. So it felt like there was a new distance between us as actors, because we were the only ones who every now and then got to take our PPE off, obviously to be in front of the camera, but everyone else had to keep it on all day.
So there were people I didn’t see their faces until my last day of work when we were shooting outside and it just so happened that production got everyone cupcakes as a, “It’s Himesh’s last day,” sort of thing and they had to take their masks off to eat them and it was outside and it was summer so it all felt a bit more safe and we had the go ahead from the safety team and I was just blown away. Because people become family. Anything you make, your crew become your family and especially on something where you’re doing it for four or five months as we were on this and especially when you feel like you’re in this new place where you’re all relying on each other to stay safe. To finally see their faces after all that time was just quite emotional really. So leading up to that, you realize how much of a challenge it had been.
On a subconscious level, I suppose, I certainly wasn’t and I never witnessed anyone being outwardly upset by it because we all knew it was what we had to do, but on a subconscious level, it does something to the way that you interact with the people around you. I think we all ended up coming to terms with how strange it had been after the fact.
TD: I can understand that. Where I work, we hired new people when the masks were still required and there were months where I didn’t even see their actual faces. I had no idea what they really looked like so I wouldn’t have been able to recognize them in public.
HP: Yeah. This is the thing. For example, I worked on Don’t Look Up just before we picked Station Eleven back up and there are people I worked with on that [and] I don’t know what they look like, so I could literally walk past them and I couldn’t tell you. Strange.
TD: Because of the pandemic, was it easy or difficult to keep a boundary with your character’s reality versus the actual reality of what was going on in the world?
HP: To be honest, the closest that we get in our story to the reality of what we’ve all been living through and continue to live through to some extent was episode one for me. I think episode three maybe as well but, for me, episode one. As you say, we just so happened to have shot that and got all in the can before the actual pandemic arrived, which is a strange coincidence that I still can’t really wrap my head around. But I guess episode seven, there are elements of the isolation, the being holed up in one place for a long time, which, which we’d all had to do. Funnily enough it was the first thing we shot when we came back and we’d all basically just done two weeks of quarantine when arriving in Toronto and then went straight into shooting three weeks on an episode where they’re in a flat in quarantine, basically.
So there was some of that spillover, unintentional research basically, but ultimately our story goes off in a different direction. Of course, on one hand you have the fact that it’s a far more devastating lethal disease that has killed 99% of the population in a matter of days, so that feels completely different. On the other hand, we’re talking about a society that’s rebuilding itself in an image of art and hope and joy, largely speaking. Of course, there are threats to that, but it felt like a story that we could tell in a very separate realm, while also having to understand that there are now going to be similarities we couldn’t have foreseen and being sensitive to that. But I know that [creator] Patrick [Somerville] had made every effort to make sure that we didn’t change our story in any way that might have seemed exploitative because obviously that would be hugely troubling, and so we stuck to the story we were always going to tell.
TD: What was the most difficult part of portraying Jeevan?
HP: I think for me it was wrapping my head around the timeline because, for me, it’s a gifted role in so many ways, but especially the scope of what we get to do with Jeevan, to take him from one age to a much older age, to take him from episode one to episode seven is one jump, from episode seven to episode nine is one jump, filling in those gaps with as much detail as I could to really get to the crux of who he is at any given point. Then episode nine to episode ten, we’ve got a gap of 20 years and I really had to think about who he is and what’s happened there, talking obviously to Patrick about it at all points because I value his input.
HP: He’s the storyteller. I want to know what ideas he might have about what’s happened to Jeevan in that time, who he’s become. It’s a challenge in a sense of just keeping that whole map in your head. It’s not just we start on day one and we end his story on day whatever. We’re taking this over decades. So that’s a challenge, but it’s exactly the kind of challenge that I love and, as I say, it’s a gift of a role. To get to do that with a character is just amazing. Who knows if I’ll ever get to do that again, so it was a challenge to balance all that, to make sure I was being as truthful as I could at any given moment. Yeah, as I said, I can only hope that I get to do this thing again, but he’s a very special character, Jeevan, and I’d be lucky if I get to play anyone like that again, really.
TD: What was your relationship like with Matilda who plays younger Kirsten while you were filming? Did you guys have any, I guess, moments before filming that were helpful to your bond or anything like that?
HP: I struggle to put my finger on anything specific because it was that most special of things, which was just, I feel, an immediate connection. She’s a very special person. She’s very curious, very empathetic. She’s full of empathy. I’ll put it that way. She’s really full of a lot of joy as well and she loves her craft. She’s got a very old head on young shoulders, I think, and she’s really committed to being the best she can be at what she does and that is a great energy to be around. It basically felt like I was working with an adult. I didn’t at any point feel like I was working with a child. The only time that I was reminded that I was working with a child was when she had to not be on set for the way that we regulate their hours, and so sometimes I was acting with a double, or I think there were a couple of occasions where I was just acting with thin air.
But what’s special about her, she’d given me so much on her side of the coverage that I had this wonderful stuff to remember. In a way I’m really glad that we did episode one, that really got that bond together and it meant that then when we picked it back up a year later, we could just jump straight back into it. I’m not sure I would’ve had that with anyone else really, and to then go on that journey that we went on to go to those really vulnerable emotional places, it was just a really special thing.
TD: You also became a father during lockdown. Congratulations, by the way!
HP: Thank you.
TD: How did that influence your performance?
HP: Yeah, profoundly. Of course, when you have a child, it affects every inch of your life in every way, even in ways you don’t necessarily comprehend until you get there. Of course, there is the more obvious parallel that was just [a] really surreal coincidence. When I told Patrick in the midst of the pandemic that we were going to have a baby, he was like, “You’re not going to believe what I’ve written for you.” He said, “Just wait till you read this,” and he sent me the script for episode nine, of course, where Jeevan ends up becoming a birthing partner to a handful of women in this amazing euphoric moment where they all give birth and life comes back. It was really moving to read it, but also to think… there are just times where the universe, things happen in really strange ways.
It’s in a way what our story’s about, these coincidences, the movement of the universe that sometimes you just can’t comprehend. It felt like one of those moments. So obviously I went through my own personal experience of bringing life into the world and that obviously impacted on the work that I did in episode nine. But also beyond that there are elements to fatherhood that bring you frustration and that bring you moments of thinking you don’t know what you’re doing and you don’t quite have a handle on it and I think that’s what Jeevan’s going through, really. He becomes a father. He becomes a father and he wasn’t ready for it. He wasn’t planning on it. So that was the extra level that I had to add on. But those feelings were immediately accessible. It was the first six months of fatherhood for me when we shot all this so it was quite raw and, in a way, it was a gift.
TD: During lockdown, were you able to spend more time thinking about your character as you got to read more scripts? Or were you trying to keep yourself a little separate from it while you were in lockdown?
HP: No. In some sense, I was trying to keep it bubbling, especially when I found out that we weren’t going to be canceled, that we were going to carry on. Because obviously initially there was a fear that maybe it would be deemed insensitive or whatever, but I think we’d got those two episodes, we shot episodes one and three, and it was just so good that it was like, “Let’s make this.” I’m eternally thankful that we got to do that. So then I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to keep this thing bubbling. I’ve got to make sure that I remember where I was at,” and I carried on touching base with Patrick and with Hiro about what Patrick’s plans were and Hiro was involved as well, of course. So it was interesting to go, “Okay, I can start to build an idea of where we are headed with this. I can start doing a little bit of research.”
As I said, a lot of my research ended up being inadvertent research, just coincidentally. It was really there because it was the most important thing that was coming down the line after my child, in a way. My child was on the way and then I was going to pick this character back up and we were going to get to tell this story again. So I wanted to make sure I was [as] prepared as I could be. To be honest, I’m eternally grateful that it gave me another focus during a time… it’s a huge privilege to have had that during that time.
Hamish Patel is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or TV Movie for Station Eleven.