By Piya Sinha-Roy
April 10, 2019 at 01:50 AM EDT
Gabe Ginsberg/WireImage

It’s rare for soap stars to make the leap into movies, let alone as the leading man in a Danny Boyle film, but that’s just the way the stars aligned for British actor Himesh Patel.

Before he was cast as the lead in Boyle’s musical tale Yesterday, Patel’s biggest role had been on long-running British soap Eastenders, in which he played a Muslim teenager put through a flurry of emotional trials as he came of age in the fictional town of Walford in London’s East End.

“I wasn’t used to seeing people from soaps in big movies until my friend Ben Hardy was in X-Men [Apocalypse] and Bohemian Rhapsody recently, and it was great to see that,” Patel told EW. “I was so glad that I got the opportunity as well, I’m glad to see that’s changing and that people are realizing that soaps can foster some really interesting young talent.”

The February trailer for Yesterday, penned by Richard Curtis, debuted Patel as Jack Malik, a struggling singer-songwriter on the brink of giving up his dreams when he gets into an accident and wakes up to find a world in which The Beatles never existed. As the only person in the world who remembers the band, Jack decides to sing their songs, quickly catapulting him into pop superstardom and even attracting the attention of one Ed Sheeran (who plays a version of himself in this film).

Patel spoke to EW at CinemaCon in Las Vegas last week, after he performed for the first time in America on stage at the Colosseum to the audience of movie theater owners, singing a soulful rendition of The Beatles’ “Yesterday.” It was his second-ever live performance, the first of which was on stage at an empty Wembley Stadium, the iconic London concert arena, for a scene in Yesterday.

“I’m probably one of the few people who can say that I’ve played an empty Wembley Stadium,” he quipped.

Patel, 28, discussed acting alongside Sheeran, becoming a Beatles connoisseur and being a South-Asian lead in a role that makes no mention of his ethnicity.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How well did you know The Beatles’ catalogue before you made this film and how did the movie change your relationship with their music?
HIMESH PATEL: I knew a bit of it before, I knew Sgt. Pepper’s [Lonely Hearts Club Band], I knew a bit of the White Album and a bit of Abbey Road and obviously the singles that everyone knows like “Hey Jude,” but I wasn’t a muso about it. Now I’m getting closer to that point, having worked with the music producer and director, who worked with me on the guitar and learning the songs and creating the thing we had to do, which was to create a new version of the songs because, in our story, they never existed. In talking with him about the intricacies of their music and the beauty of everything they crafted and how that changed music as we know it today, it gave me a real appreciation of the artistry and how special the connection was between the four of them.

There’s this sci-fi element to this film with Jack waking up to a world that has erased all traces of The Beatles, but it’s also a very grounded story centered on the very average Jack – what was it like to balance those two elements?
It’s funny because our story doesn’t concentrate too much on the event. The event happens and then we follow Jack and his way through, and every now and then we’d often think about it, going “is anyone going to question what happened?” But it’s not really the story we’re telling, and I think it becomes global through Jack’s eyes and it’s amazing to see it grow from such a normal story to something huge but it always has that heart to it, that’s what Richard [Curtis] is so great at doing, it retains that beautiful British heart of something that Richard has written, but then the cinematic scale of Danny, which is a perfect combination.

What was it like to have a star like Ed Sheeran involved in a movie like this, which is very intimate and grounded despite its fantastical concept?
In a way, Ed’s journey is one like Jack’s – he was just a local lad and then suddenly he was the biggest star in the world, so it felt like it was right to have him as the gatekeeper of the story in a way, and it was a joy to have him around, he’s so down to earth, terrifyingly down to earth for a man who is the biggest star in the world basically. He invited us to one of his gigs and me and Danny and Richard were just backstage and someone said, “you ought to go on stage and watch this guy, this normal guy go up in front of 60,000 people and have them in the palm of his hand,” so it was really important that he let us into that world, because it gives us an idea of the journey of our story.

What are you most excited for people to see in Yesterday and connect with?
The optimism and the hope and the joy that The Beatles brought to the world, I hope our film brings that to the world and that we can share that. In today’s world, I think it’s important to understand that love is a very important thing in all of its different forms.

We don’t usually get to see a South-Asian lead in a movie like this and Jack’s ethnicity is never referred to, which I loved. What is the impact of having that representation in a film like this?
I like the fact that it’s not brought up in the story – there’s one moment where it’s kind of brought up in a very subtle, funny way during the boardroom scene, but otherwise, it is what it is and that’s the way we need to go. Obviously, there should also be stories where [ethnicity] is important to the story, but there are stories like this where it’s not important to the story. The story we’re telling just happens to have someone who’s South-Asian and that’s what’s fantastic, and I’m so glad that I was the right person for the role. They didn’t just pick me to tick a box, it had to be someone who was right for the part and I’m glad that I was that person and that we’ve got this now – we’ve got a story like this in a really great film like this that has someone who’s South-Asian at the center of it.  And when the first trailer came out, the reactions that we were seeing online, it was really moving to see young and not-so-young South-Asian, British-Asian, American-Indian people saying “wow, it’s so great to see someone like this at the center of this story,” and long may it continue.

You’re starring in The Aeronauts (alongside Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones) and in mini-series, The Luminaries – are your roles in these movies drawing on your ethnicity?
No, not in the story. Tom Harper [director of The Aeronauts] and I worked on a backstory for my character that doesn’t pertain to the story at all. It’s nice to know that that was there, but it’s nice to see it in a period film. In the last year, I’ve done this and then The Luminaries (set in the 1860’s New Zealand gold rush), Dev [Patel] is doing David Copperfield with Armando [Iannucci] and Riz [Ahmed] has just done The Sisters Brothers and is doing Hamlet, it’s so great to see. When it comes to period stuff, I think it’s great to see South-Asian actors get their foot in the door there, because it’s nice to tell period stories and tell it in a way that reflects the world now.

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