While a place in Marvel’s iconic superhero lore remains a lifelong dream for so many actors, Harish Patel, who portrays the valet Karun in the franchise’s latest film, “Eternals,” admitted that he couldn’t quite call himself a fan of the cinematic universe.
“To tell you frankly, no,” Patel laughed, when asked if he had ever seen a single Marvel film before his. His only references for the franchise came from his 4-year-old grandson, who thought grandpa had been cast as Captain America, he told NBC Asian America.
So when Patel, who essentially plays a human sidekick to Kumail Nanjiani's fantasy Eternals character, emerged opening weekend as an unexpected fan favorite, the actor said he wasn’t prepared.
The veteran Indian actor, who had been relatively unfamiliar with Marvel’s cultural reach, was still wrapping his mind around the deluge of praise in the days that followed, during which he had been anointed the G.O.A.T. on social media.
Marvel posts about his character were among the most popular regarding “Eternals,” racking up almost 30,000 likes on co-star Nanjiani’s Twitter account alone. Social media users flooded the comic franchise with calls to bring Patel back for future films and this week, it was revealed that Karun had been given his own Twitter emoji.
“I have no words. I can’t even, in my native language, think of what to say,” said Patel, who watched the film this past weekend in North Carolina among other moviegoers who were quickly converted to Karun stans. "I’m so happy, really. I’m telling you, I’m so happy, especially after watching the film with the audience, with the public and with the response and the way they loved me after the show.”
Patel may not have had much screen time, but his character, a rare human among fantastical beings, left a deep impression on audiences. Much of the movie follows Eternals, a group of ancient, alien immortals, who surface after years of living among humans to reunite and protect the world from their enemies, another race of age-old beings called the Deviants.
The overzealous Karun tags along on their critical mission. When he's first introduced, he’s referred to as the valet of Kingo, one of the Eternals played by Kumail Nanjiani. But Karun is also revealed to be an obsessive documentarian as well, using his arsenal of cameras to document every second of action in Kingo’s life.
While Karun doesn’t have the remarkable powers that those in his adopted oddball family of Eternals do, his range of human emotions stands in contrast to his fantasy counterparts. His documentarian work reflects the lives on the social media generation, and he can’t help but show awe and fear when the Eternals demonstrate stoicism in scenes of complete upheaval. Nanjiani himself dubbed Karun the “real hero” of the movie.
The actor, who is known for his work in Indian cinema and theater, said he felt like a mortal among superheroes on set.
“I felt my legs shaking,” Patel said. “When we were filming it was so real and they all were in their characters, so you would look at them and you’d feel as if you don’t know what they will do to you.”
Though Patel hadn’t had any previous Marvel expertise, he’s no newbie when it comes to film. His past in the Indian entertainment world, in films like 1998’s “Gunda” and stage comedy “Rafta, Rafta ... ,” makes him uniquely suited for his role. In the scene in which Karun is introduced, Kingo, who spent years blending into the human population as a Bollywood superstar, is filming an elaborate dance number.
Patel said while filming the scene, he was transported back to the dance productions he’d been a part of, in which hundreds of dancers would film for days capturing the intricate choreography. The actor, who’s done most of his work in India and the U.K., said he was moved, knowing that a slice of his culture would be shown in front of global mainstream audiences, including the U.S.
“It was so real. It was so authentic. And it was so fun, because the dancing is fun, the atmosphere,” he said. “I was very proud and … I even thought they could’ve shown more.”
Though he didn’t start off as a Marvel fan, the actor has since fully embraced the comic universe. He admits that now he’s hooked. So far, there’s no word on whether Patel will appear in future films. But just as Gemma Chan, who plays an Eternal named Sersi, had been approached “out of the blue” while promoting the 2018 rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians,” Patel said he’s holding out hope that Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige will surprise him.
“I want more!” Patel said. “I have that dream that he walks up to me and says, ‘Harish, you are in our next film!’”