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Yesterday star Himesh Patel: I'm a bit baffled by everything that's happening

Danny Boyle, Richard Curtis and The Beatles... film newcomer Himesh Patel couldn't wish to be in better company for his big-screen debut, Yesterday. But, as he explains to Gemma Dunn, with the right backing behind him, he's learning to take it in his stride

Fame game: Himesh Patel in Yesterday
Fame game: Himesh Patel in Yesterday
Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis

By Gemma Dunn

He's no longer steering Bond, but Danny Boyle is set to tackle another British institution, The Beatles. The Academy Award-winning director, who stepped down from the 007 franchise earlier this year, has paired up with rom-com master Richard Curtis for the fantasy film Yesterday.

A "rock 'n' roll comedy about music, dreams, friendship and the long and winding road that leads to the love of your life" is how it's billed.

While Boyle's not afraid to genre-hop, the film isn't what you'd expect from a man who made his directorial debut with Shallow Grave more than two decades ago and who has since been celebrated for often surreal, quick-paced and fast-edited epics.

"It's true that you wouldn't expect a romantic comedy (from me), but I've always loved Richard's work," says Boyle (62), who took home the Oscar for the feelgood hit Slumdog Millionaire.

"You've got to remember that Richard produced and wrote Blackadder, which is one of the pinnacles of British comedy and subversive comedy as well.

"To be able to collaborate with him was a real joy.

"He's remained in a slightly narrower corridor than I (have) and he's dedicated his life to romance and comedy - I really admire that.

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"To work, they (romantic comedies) have to look effortless, but they're not effortless.

"He's spent a career trying to perfect them, so you can't help but learn by working with him."

Yesterday tells the story of Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a struggling singer-songwriter in a tiny English seaside town whose dreams of fame are rapidly fading, despite the support of best friend Ellie (Lily James).

Things take a turn, however, when, after a freak bus accident, Jack wakes up to discover that The Beatles never existed.

Bizarre, maybe, but fast-forward and, with the help of American agent Debra (Kate McKinnon) and roadie Rocky (Joel Fry), he takes the band's music to the stage himself.

Featuring new versions of The Beatles' most beloved hits - expect a soundtrack album eventually - the concept was a dream for screenwriter Curtis, who happens to be a massive fan of the Fab Four.

"My life has been about The Beatles, really," he says, "from (the age of) seven, when I stood outside a hotel in Sweden waiting for them to come out onto the balcony, to 62, on my last birthday, when we had a 'what's our favourite Beatles' song?' countdown with six friends of mine.

"Someone rang me up and said, 'I've got this script which has this plot', and I said, 'Stop right there. If you let me write my version, it will be the happiest two years of my life'."

Pairing up with Boyle also had huge appeal.

"If you saw us together, you would think, 'Oh yeah, actually they're both quite perky'," Curtis says.

"We were born within a week of each other. He's a huge music fan and is, actually, a softy like me, really.

"He loves people and life, so it worked out really well.

"It's just he's a much better director than me - I was never going to direct it."

One thing the film-making duo, who also produce the movie, weren't clear on, however, was who would play the film's reluctant hero, Jack.

They needed a name who could sing and act but wasn't massively famous.

Enter Patel, a household name to EastEnders fans - he'd grown up on the prime-time soap, having played Tamwar Masood for nine years - but a 28-year-old newbie to veterans Boyle and Curtis, who were taken by his first audition.

"He played Back in the USSR on acoustic guitar and it was one of those 'bing' moments," Boyle remembers. "As soon as he sang it, I knew.

"There were other, more obvious candidates for the role, but I knew then.

"It was like I'd never heard that song - a song I love - before. He had taken it over.

"He was utterly respectful with The Beatles' songs, yet free with them as well."

It's a hard job to find the right person, admits Curtis. And as someone who has written everything from the Bridget Jones films to Notting Hill, Love Actually and About A Boy, he should know.

"It's interesting," Curtis says of recruiting someone relatively under the radar. "I wanted to cast somebody not famous in Notting Hill. I thought it would have been really exciting to have a total newbie with Julia (Roberts), but we got bored after a day of auditioning and gave it to Hugh (Grant).

"It was a wonderful moment when Himesh walked in because it could have been a much more famous actor, but we'd found the right person - Danny and I absolutely loved him.

"He was witty and charming and he stuck to this beautiful clarity that let The Beatles' songs breathe on their own.

"We loved the fact that he wasn't particularly famous - unless you're a fan of EastEnders, in which case he's one of the most famous people in the world."

Patel's casting would draw more parallels, too, for the decision to catapult him into the global spotlight mirrored the rise of The Beatles themselves.

John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison hailed from Liverpool and created something extraordinary.

Did he take it all in his stride? "It is a bit odd," Himesh says. "I am a bit baffled by everything that's happening, but I am supported well by Danny, by Richard, and I have been from the start, really.

"I never felt that pressure when I was preparing songs and trying to learn them.

"It wasn't like Danny was knocking on the door every five minutes going, 'Have you learnt it yet?'

"I was well guided through it and that's carried forward to now.

"So yeah, it's crazy, it's kind of mad, but you keep your loved ones close, which is kind of what the story tells us.

"(It tells us) that, no matter what success or fame comes your way, you need those people who know you."

Yesterday is in cinemas now

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