By Chancellor Agard
August 25, 2020 at 04:34 PM EDT

The Personal History of David Copperfield

Dev Patel never thought he’d headline a British historical drama.

“Truthfully, I thought the closest I’d get to being in a period film would be holding a tray or being 
a waiter,” says the 30-year-old 
London-born actor. “There are 
certain stories from the circuit of auditioning back in the day you 
just never go up for.” And yet here he is, starring as the titular hero in Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield.

A buoyant adaptation of Charles Dickens’ socially conscious 1850 novel, the Victorian England-set film unfurls a coming-of-age tale about a romantic young man who goes from toiling in a bottling factory to becoming a successful author—and discovers himself in the process. “It’s [about] him embracing his past and his troubles and owning them, so that he truly finds success in the future,” says Patel.

The Personal History of David Copperfield
Credit: Searchlight Pictures

His casting was crucial to the film’s success. According to Iannucci (Veep, The Death of Stalin), the Oscar-nominated Lion star was his first and only choice for the role of David. “I didn’t have a backup,” says the director. “I’d never met him, but I’d seen him often enough and I just felt he had the spirit of the character.” Patel also inspired Iannucci to take a color-blind approach to assembling the rest of the film’s multicultural troupe, including Benedict Wong as Mr. Wickfield and Rosalind Eleazar as his daughter, Agnes.

When Iannucci and Patel discussed the role, they realized they related to David in the same way: As children of immigrant parents 
in the U.K., both constantly worried about fitting in, something David struggles with throughout the movie as his fortunes rise and fall.

“I remember going to school, and suppressing part of my Indian cultural roots in order to fit in,” says Patel, recalling the embarrassment he felt when his parents couldn’t afford luxuries like the “cool pair of sneakers” his classmates had. “We struggled growing up. I guess there’s threads of this—those small insecurities you have to overcome as an adult [that] you learn to embrace.”

Beyond his personal connection to the story, Patel loved getting the opportunity to flex every acting muscle he had, literally. “It’s not even a secret: I’m just a goofy guy, and Armando was all for it,” he says. “[Armando talked] to us about Buster Keaton and [Charlie] Chaplin. We’re really going for the physicality and the physical gag, then in the very next scene, you’re just trying to bare your soul. The variety of that was really enjoyable.”

And a bold, fresh take on Dickens’ striving hero.

The Personal History of David Copperfield opens Aug. 28.

A version of this story appears in the August 2020 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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The Personal History of David Copperfield

  • Movie
  • Armando Iannucci