Danny Boyle, Himesh Patel and Richard Curtis Talk 'Yesterday' and How Its Rising Star Channels The Beatles' Story

Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures
 Lily James and Himesh Patel in Yesterday.

When Himesh Patel climbed an English rooftop to perform The Beatles’ “Help!,” he felt as if he was surveying the scene through John, Paul, George and Ringo’s eyes. Gazing at 6,000 beachside extras for the film Yesterday, he laid into the Fab Four’s heartbreak classic -- and into the headspace of legends.

“It was one of the best days ever,” he tells Billboard with wide-eyed wonderment. “But you get some idea of how one can look at this amazing thing, but start to feel numb to it.” His cathartic, punk-rock version of “Help!” mirrors his character Jack Malik’s stupefaction at his sudden success -- and Patel’s profound awe at starring in his first major motion picture.

Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, due in theaters June 28, asks a seemingly unanswerable pop-culture question: what if The Beatles never existed? The film centers around Malik, a struggling musician who wakes up after a freak blackout to a Beatle-free world. Nobody remembers their songs but Malik -- which gives him the ultimate upper hand as a singer-songwriter.

Patel knew his Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road, but came to Yesterday simply as an actor on the grind. “I just got an email from my agent saying there was an audition for this film,” he says. Instead of being given a script, Patel was asked to sing and play a Coldplay song of his choice on acoustic guitar.

He could have gone bombastic; “Clocks,” “Viva La Vida” or “Paradise,” perhaps. Instead, he chose “We Never Change,” a low-key, stripped-down ballad from their 2000 debut Parachutes. His clean, simple and unembellished delivery was his ticket to the Yesterday role.

For Boyle, Patel was a breath of fresh air. “A lot of actors are amazing,” Boyle tells Billboard. “They try to bullshit their way through it. ‘Ride a horse? No problem, I can ride a horse!’” But to Boyle, music doesn’t lie. “He has this ability to make you feel them anew,” he says of Patel’s Beatles covers. “They’re familiar, but strange at the same time.”

Boyle just needed able hands to navigate that songbook -- in this case, those of Richard Curtis. A veteran screenwriter who made his mark with British rom-coms like 1999’s Notting Hill, 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary and 2003’s Love Actually, he helped weave the songs into a funny, affecting story.

Curtis didn’t dream up Yesterday wholesale; the germ of the concept was writer and producer Jack Barth’s. “I can’t claim credit for the initial idea,” he tells Billboard. “Still, every bit of its execution is me, plus quite a few notes from Danny.” Together, they wove a trippy, heartfelt exploration of the music many of us take for granted.

There was also the matter of licensing the Beatles’ songs -- an issue with a rocky legal history, to say the least. Luckily, the crew’s production company, Working Title Films, had previously made a deal with Apple and Sony that gave them more leeway. “We benefited from that,” says Boyle. “We could use a certain amount of songs… up to 15 or 18 per a certain price. You could use them two or three times, but not much more.”

It helped that they weren’t taking vast liberties with the material; a “drum ‘n bass remix of ‘Dear Prudence,’” as Patel jokes. Rather, Curtis sees the film as “a glass vase in which we pour the Beatles’ songs” -- and he agrees Patel is the right pourer. “Because he had this sort of translucent simplicity in the way he plays, you get that direct jolt of Beatles-ness,” he says.

As Jack Malik conquers the globe with Beatles classics, he feels like a fraud; this theme was plucked straight from the filmmakers’ lives. “There’s a lot of impostor syndrome meditation in this film,” says Curtis. “Me and Danny both feel like impostors. We both got very lucky in an early film and have gone on making big movies rather than little British TV shows.”

Yesterday isn’t just fan-fiction; it’s a surreal, emotional roller coaster, kept rumbling along via timeless melodies and comic appearances from pop superstar Ed Sheeran. The Beatles rose from obscurity in Liverpool to conquer the world in the 1960s -- a success story reflected with the casting of Patel, a little-known actor, in the film's starring role, rather than a Hollywood A-lister.

A 28-year-old actor from the small town of Huntingdon, England, Patel spent much of his young career in the BBC soap opera EastEnders, playing a gawky Muslim teen with stand-up comedy dreams. He had no idea that he’d star in anything this big or Beatle-scaled.

And in a way, the rooftop “Help!” scene sums up Patel and Malik both; youngsters with a massive audience before them, beholding a Möbius strip of fabbermost possibilities. Boyle, for one, wonders if Yesterday portends a Beatle-centric career for Patel. “He might fade back into a regular life, like his character does,” he says. “Or, he might go on and people might insist on him being the representative of all these songs.” 

The Beatles may have famously signed off on a rooftop, but after Yesterday, Patel may not want to climb down. The Fab Four’s ubiquitous, world-famous songbook still finds new ways to sneak up on him to this day -- even after filming wrapped.

“I continue to practice with some of the stuff we’re going to be doing during press, and at no point am I like, ‘This one again,’” he says as our interview wraps up, his eyes widening once again. “And I’m not tired of them! I’m not getting tired of them!”

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