Dev Patel on his 10-year journey to make “Monkey Man: ”‘Early on, I could never get access to a role like this’

The actor explains why he wanted to direct his "weird little gremlin of a movie," about a man seeking revenge against his mother’s killers — and how his experience unexpectedly compares to "Pretty Woman."

Dev Patel has wanted to make Monkey Man for a very, very long time. Since launching his career with Skins and Slumdog Millionaire, the now 33-year-old Brit has amassed an eclectic resume, ranging from shows such as The Newsroom to films including The Green Knight.

Now, Patel is officially stepping into action hero territory with Monkey Man (out April 5), a blood-spattered directorial debut that he says has been “10 years in the making.”

“Early on, I could never get access to a role like this,” Patel tells Entertainment Weekly. “If I was going to feature in an action film, I would be the comedic guy on the side, the tech dude, whatever. [But] to break the mold, you have to enter it. For me, it was like, ‘Okay, I’ll show them what we can do.’”

<p>Universal Pictures</p> Dev Patel directing 'Monkey Man'

Universal Pictures

Dev Patel directing 'Monkey Man'

The result is Monkey Man, a bone-crunching revenge thriller that cements Patel as both a rising action star and filmmaker. In addition to directing and co-writing, Patel punches, kicks, and bites his way through the film, starring as an anonymous young fighter named “Kid,” who earns cash by donning a monkey mask and getting repeatedly pummeled in an underground fight ring. But when he catches the trail of the powerful men who orchestrated his mother’s murder, Kid sets out on a mission of revenge, one that transforms him into an unlikely underdog hero.

Patel is a longtime fan of the action genre: As a kid, he obsessed over Bruce Lee movies, and he cites films such as Enter the Dragon as his “gateway into acting.” (He also studied Taekwondo as a child and medaled in international martial arts competitions.) But growing up, the young actor also immersed himself in classic mythology, and whenever his grandfather would visit from Kenya, he’d tell a rapt young Patel stories from the ancient Indian epic the Ramayana. Specifically, Patel fixated on the hero Hanuman — a legendary Hindu deity with the face of a monkey and the body of a man.

“Growing up in the U.K., I’d kind of run away from my culture in a way,” Patel says. “It was something that I would hide and maybe feel ashamed of, or worried about being bullied. This was something that I was like, ‘God, this is so cool, and I would love to be able to share it.’ It’s got so many parallels to comic book iconography, like Superman and all those guys.”

<p>Universal Pictures</p> Dev Patel in 'Monkey Man'

Universal Pictures

Dev Patel in 'Monkey Man'

Eventually, he started to sketch out ideas that would marry his love for Indian mythology with his passion for action filmmaking. “Slowly, it just started to build and snowball,” he explains, “and for over 10 years, I just kept adding and adding until it became this weird little gremlin of a movie.”

Patel finally got the green light in 2018, with plans to begin filming Monkey Man in early 2020. But even then, the film faced multiple problems and delays, as the pandemic threatened to shut down production again and again. Patel’s injuries also affected the shoot, especially after the film’s brutal fight scenes left him with broken toes, an eye infection, and a shattered hand. (Desperate to keep production on track, Patel flew to Indonesia to have a specialized surgeon put a screw in his hand, returning to work the next day and immediately throwing himself against a glass window.)

Even after wrapping production, the film seemed destined to languish on a streamer — until Jordan Peele watched an early cut. “I saw the film and immediately just wanted to jump through the Zoom and give him a hug,” the Get Out director explains. “As a director, I know how hard it is to do what this man did and how hard it is to do it in one’s first time as well.”

Peele quickly signed on to produce Monkey Man under his (appropriately named) Monkeypaw Productions, and he pushed to get the film a theatrical release through Universal Pictures, arguing that every punch and blood spatter deserved to be seen on the biggest screen possible. It’s a rescue that Patel says was well-timed.

“It’s like that scene in Pretty Woman,” Patel says with a laugh. “I remember when we got dropped by our studio. You know when she goes in with the credit card at the end, back into the store? It was like that moment. It’s like he was Richard Gere, I’m Julia Roberts, and I’ve got his Amex.”

The final result, Patel hopes, is an ambitious action-thriller that blends bone-crunching action with thoughtful mythology. After all, it’s the movie he’s been waiting for his entire life.

“There were times later on in my career, once I did some other films, where I got offered some stuff,” Patel admits. “In my head, I was like, ‘No, I can’t do it. I’ve got to wait for Monkey.’”

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