Today’s streaming landscape often feels like an endless sea of new shows and films that the average person will never catch up on, forcing them to be extra precise with the content they do end up committing themselves to. In spite of these slim odds, one show, in particular, has built a reputation for itself out of the sheer word of mouth. Station Eleven on HBO Max tells a story so intimate and soul-wrenching that it’s powered a lifeline strong enough to carry it as a current Emmy hopeful in the highly competitive limited series category. Now that audiences have had enough time to digest all 10 episodes since its finale in January, it’s no surprise that more and more people are rooting for this underdog and its well-rounded cast, to which British actor Himesh Patel provides a crucial piece.
Adapted from the 2014 novel of the same name, Station Eleven introduces a dystopian society born out of a global pandemic. Viewers follow series lead Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) in both the past and present. As a child, she navigates the early days of the pandemic as people are wiped from the face of the Earth with the help of a stranger turned guardian in Jeevan (Patel). In the present, now separated from Jeevan, she explores what’s left of the country in a Traveling Symphony of actors and musicians. In following dual storylines, the growing relationship between Kirsten and Jeevan becomes the emotional backbone of Station Eleven, as the two fight everything from viruses to deadly cults in their journey to finally reuniting one day. Many have compared this tale to other post-apocalyptic stories like The Last of Us, and while such comparisons are fair, this HBO Max original boasts many more qualities all to its own.
Himesh Patel is perhaps more known for his leading role in Yesterday, Danny Boyle’s 2019 imaginative musical on The Beatles. Since then, Himesh has kept himself busy with supporting roles in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up. Quite the trajectory to go from such major projects to a new fan-favorite mini-series like Station Eleven, but of course, getting to this point wasn’t easy. We had the pleasure to sit down with Patel himself and discuss the long and winding road of this HBO Max limited series. The fact that a story about a pandemic has managed to be this successful in today’s times speaks to its quality and emotional resonance. We cover this with Patel and how the show’s journey isn’t just over yet.
Mild Spoilers for Station Eleven follow!
You’ve often talked about how you enjoy seeing your projects grow a life of their own after they’ve been released, and Station Eleven, like all profound mini-series programs, has earned its due with many calling it one of the absolute must-sees on HBO Max. Why do you think Station Eleven has resonated with people in this way?
Himesh Patel: As you say, there’s a natural tendency for limited series programs to build audiences over time through word of mouth and as people slowly take off all the other shows they’ve got on their lists. But I think, given the subject matter, Station Eleven may have warded some people off initially because, you know, it follows the aftermath of a global pandemic. We were aware of that going in to do press and everything, and that the release towards the end of last year maybe would have been a sort of sticking point for people. But we had confidence in the material and in the work that we had all done. So it’s nice to see that paying off and see how the show has really resonated with a lot of people. That word of mouth has spread and it’s found a really great audience.
Station Eleven manages to capture something very raw and intimate about our shared experience in the pandemic, and not a lot of other similar projects have managed to do that so well. I can only imagine how cathartic it must have been filming the series and then seeing it released after the times that we’ve been through, can you talk about this?
Himesh Patel: It’s surreal, I still can’t quite wrap my head around the coincidence of it really. I would say episodes 1 and 3 are the two episodes that veer closest to what we’ve all lived through, in terms of being about the day that the pandemic really takes hold and starts decimating populations. And both of those episodes were shot in January and February of 2020, so just before COVID-19 took force across the world. It’s so strange even now to be talking to you about it in that way, it’s just the oddest of coincidences.
I heard Patrick Somerville, our showrunner, recently saying that had we not managed to shoot those two episodes before March 2020, we probably wouldn’t have the show because it would have been deemed too risky to make at that point. It was the fact that we had those two episodes in the bag and they were of such great quality – there was clearly a story to tell that wasn’t about a pandemic – that meant that we got to tell the rest of our story. I think it’s important for people to know that we shot episodes 1 and 3 before COVID-19 really took its hold across the world. Otherwise, it may come across as insensitive or exploitative. But I’m glad that, ultimately, we did get to finish telling our story because it’s one of hope. It’s one of how you rebuild the world in a better way.
There’s been a few recent projects that have tried to tackle the pandemic or similar themes of isolation. Out of curiosity, have you seen any? I’ve seen a few that were perhaps a bit too insensitive. The action flick Songbird comes to mind, where in the future the virus has evolved to COVID-22 and it’s satirical about it.
Himesh Patel: Honestly, I haven’t seen anything like that, especially not anything recently. I remember when the pandemic first hit, a lot of people started watching Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. I love Steven Soderbergh, but I haven’t seen that movie. And in a way, maybe I never will because it might just seem too strange now, you know? Again, if it was made post-March 2020, it’s very much on the nose for me. It may come across as a bit strange.
So Jeevan goes through quite the extensive journey across all 10 episodes of Station Eleven, and the material itself really speaks to people, specifically, artists of all kinds, that even in the worst of times, we’ll find ourselves within our art and passions. Did this affect your approach to playing Jeevan?
Himesh Patel: It was great to feel that I was part of a story that was celebrating that. My character in and of himself doesn’t get to take part in that kind of way. He’s figuring out who he is and how to express himself, but to be part of a show that richly celebrates that and holds it up as a light was fantastic. I suppose that when everything is lost, we will still have art. As long as there are people, as long as there are communities, there will be art, there will be theater, there will be music, we simply have to express ourselves in that way. It almost brings into light the very reason why artists do what we do.
Lately, speaking as someone British, I think the authorities are really challenging that notion as if to question if art has any worth at all? And it does have worth! That’s why people flock to theaters, live concerts, and watch TV in huge numbers. We need that and at the same time, we as the people who make art need to express ourselves in that way. So even when everything’s lost, we’ll find a way to do it. In a way, it’s defiance. You can never take that away from us.
Looking back at Station Eleven now, is there a scene or moment that stands out as the hardest you had to shoot, especially given the emotional journey that Jeevan had to go through in particular?
Himesh Patel: To broaden it out for a second, after COVID had started, we started filming again in the midst of the height of the pandemic. We shifted the whole thing to Toronto, having shot episodes 1 and 3 in Chicago, and it was a huge challenge for everyone. We had all gone through the pandemic until then, and we all had these huge shifts in our lives in different ways. It wasn’t easy to get everything back up on its feet and work in this new way with masks and advisors, and not knowing each other’s faces. Having to stay away from each other outside of work and that sort of crazy stuff I’m a bit more used to it now, but back then it was really new and a bit dry.
So those are the broader aspects of what made it difficult. But, specifically, all the stuff that we shot in episode 9 was in the snow. All the snow that people see in episode 9 is real snow, it’s all literally four feet of snow in a Canadian winter, and I had to crawl through it with a wolf having bitten my foot off. Just dragging myself through the snow, it wasn’t pleasant, but in a way, there’s a part of me that enjoys doing that sort of thing. You just kind of throw yourself into it and commit.
Around roughly the same time, you also had to shoot Don’t Look Up with Adam McKay under those same protocols, right?
Himesh Patel: I shot my bit in January of 2020 for Don’t Look Up, then I went straight onto the rest of Station Eleven. So Don’t Look Up was my first experience. I flew to Boston, quarantined for eight days, and then I shot for two days. I next flew back home for a few days before flying back out to Toronto. So, in a way, I’m quite thankful that I got a little taste of what it was going to be like for the next four months.
It was kind of strange working with Adam McKay; I knew what Adam looked like but I never saw his full face in front of me until the premiere at the end of last year. He was wearing his mask the whole time on set. The other actors I only saw during takes; the crew, I never saw. You know, there are probably people that I worked with on Don’t Look Up that I could walk by in the street and wouldn’t know because I never saw their faces. Looking back, it was a strange episode in our lives.
Not every actor today can say that they’ve had a trajectory like yours, having already worked with huge names like Christopher Nolan, Danny Boyle, and Adam Mckay. I have to ask, how have you taken in these experiences and seen yourself grow?
Himesh Patel: I feel very lucky that the stars have aligned in that way. I can give myself props that I auditioned and got the rolls, but at the same time, these things have to line up so that everything works out. There was a question at one point as to whether I’d be able to do Don’t Look Up because Station Eleven was about to start. I got lucky that the people made it work. So I appreciate my good fortune in that regard. And I just hope that I’m doing what I hope to do with any job really, which is to learn. It’s a privilege to work with great filmmakers and great actors. I feel that the least I can do is learn from them, be observant, and be open. Hopefully, that continues to help me grow.
You mentioned at the very beginning how there may have been viewers who avoided Station Eleven at first. The phrase you usually hear is something like “I just lived through that, so why would I want to see it?” So for someone who still hasn’t seen it yet, why would you tell them to watch the show?
Himesh Patel: It really is a story of hope. It’s a story of the best of people and how we can overcome huge challenges. And it’s also about celebrating the connections we have with each other and realizing that we need each other to survive. It gives you hope in a dark time, really.