- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
As part of what seems like a mission to continually highlight the relentless passing of time, Facebook recently reminded Adeel Akhtar of a photo dating back to February 2011. It showed the actor at the BAFTA film awards ceremony collecting the award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer on behalf of Chris Morris, who directed him in the darkly comic terrorism satire Four Lions.
“It was just me in this string tie, looking a little bit unshaven, in a borrowed suit and not knowing which camera to look at,” he recalls. “And you blink and it’s 11 years on and I’m in the same ceremony. And in the category that I remember looking up at and thinking, ‘Oh, that’d be nice.’”
The category in question is the one for leading actor, in which this year Akhtar finds himself for the very first time. Nominated for his performance in Clio Barnard’s charming and heartfelt romance Ali & Ava, he’s rubbing shoulders with Will Smith (King Richard), Leonardo DiCaprio (Don’t Look Up), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog), Mahershala Ali (Swan Song) and fellow first-timer Stephen Graham (Boiling Point). Nice indeed.
Much has happened in 11 years since his debut BAFTA appearance. Although he admits there was a “quiet period” in the immediate aftermath, a steady crescendo of work since has seen Akhtar become increasingly sought-after in both film and TV, both at home and abroad, and across a hugely electric range of roles and genres.
Small-screen work includes shows such as Utopia, The Tunnel, River, The Night Manager, Les Miserables, Killing Eve and Netflix’s fantasy comic book adaptation Sweet Tooth, while in film, his unmistakable hangdog face — one seemingly perfectly suited for that broad territory between drama and comedy — has popped up in The Big Sick, Victoria & Abdul, Murder Mystery (he recently shot the sequel), Enola Holmes and last year’s The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (alongside his fellow BAFTA best man nominee Cumberbatch). He’s also been feted by the British Academy, becoming the first nonwhite man to win the BAFTA TV award for lead actor in 2016 for Murdered by my Father, without question his most serious and hard-hitting part to date (he plays the titular father in a powerful story about honor killings).
But Akhtar acknowledges that this latest recognition by BAFTA marks something of a career landmark. And it’s a career he says can be traced back to 2011 and his turn as the comically inept wannabe jihadist Faisal in Four Lions, still regularly listed as one of the best British comedies (and a film which also helped give a major break to fellow Brit star Riz Ahmed).
“That was my sort of introduction to the whole thing,” he says, speaking to The Hollywood Reporter from Auckland, New Zealand, where he’s shooting Sweet Tooth‘s season 2, reprising his role as the embattled cure-seeking doctor Aditya Singh (a job that sadly means he’ll miss the in-person BAFTA ceremony, although he’ll be tuning in remotely). “That was the start of the journey, my first professional film.”
Interestingly, Akhtar finds distinct links between both Four Lions and his latest feature, Ali & Ava, despite obvious differences. “You have these directors who just love the idea of exploration. Chris and Clio are two different breeds of director. Clio’s much more in the world of social realism, but there are — weirdly — some similarities in that they both just want you to be free and have fun. And they’re also both in charge of their own scripts.” Both films, it should be noted, were based and shot in Yorkshire, the northern English country Barnard calls home and where she has made all of her films to date.
Akhtar admits he purposefully tracked the director down at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival. In town with Stephen Frears’ royal period drama Victoria & Abdul (he played Abdul’s homesick assistant), while Barnard was there to premiere her third feature, Dark River (starring Ruth Wilson as a woman who returns to her family farm to confront memories of abuse), he called his agent to arrange a quick drink. He quickly found a kindred creative spirit.
“I know I had lots of other things I was supposed to be doing afterwards, but five minutes turned to half an hour, and then an hour, it kept on going, and we were just chatting about everything — life and films and music, all of it,” he says. “And then I thought, OK, maybe that’s the end of it. But she rang up, we met up for dinner, and said she had this idea for a film based on some real-life characters.”
Ali & Ava, which Akhtar says Barnard once described as “bio-fiction” (although she then joked that this sounded “like washing powder”), chronicles the quietly blossoming relationship between a music-loving British Asian landlord and an older local teacher (Claire Rushbrook), both sweet and happy-go-lucky souls but both dealing with the emotional clouds of their previous marriages. It’s a film that marks a slight change in direction for Akhtar. His first significant leading-man role is also a character firmly placed in the world of socially realist British indie cinema that initially drew him away from a potential career in law in his 20s.
“When you first start acting you sort of know the type of thing that you want to do, and for me, it’s always ever been that world of film, the Andrea Arnolds, the Clio Barnards, the Joanna Hoggs, the Ken Loaches and the Mike Leighs,” he says. “It’s only ever been that for me, because that’s the cinema that I love.”
Thanks to the attention garnered by Ali & Ava and his rising status, Akhtar now hopes to keep making more films in this mold. While he admits his work on the likes of Enola Holmes and Murder Mystery are a lot of fun — “it’s nice to just be silly sometimes” — he says he’s using the opportunities he’s recently gained to “knock on people’s doors,” almost like he did with Barnard in 2017, to see if they can work together, rather than wait for roles to come his way. The doors of several directors have already been knocked on, he says (without revealing which ones).
“Because those films have always made me feel happy, happy that they’re in the world and happy about myself, and I just want to be doing more of that sort of stuff.”
And Akhtar’s picked a fortuitous time. The distinctly British cinema he’s looking to make more of has — this year — earned a far greater share of the BAFTA limelight than usual, the awards for the first time in decades appearing to have established a clear distinction over the Oscars. Homegrown indie films, which previously would have battled for recognition almost exclusively in the outstanding debut or outstanding British film categories, have broken out into the top rungs of the ceremony.
Alongside Ali & Ava, there are multiple nominations for Aleem Khan’s immensely moving exploration of loss and identity, After Love (also nominated for both best director and best actress for Joanna Scanlan), and Philip Barantini’s intoxicating one-shot kitchen drama Boiling Point, whose lead Stephen Graham is going up against Akhtar for best actor. While Hogg may have missed out — perhaps surprisingly — for The Souvenir Part 2, Arnold’s Cow finds a space in the documentary category.
“There’s something very special about these very British films alongside really heavy Hollywood hitters. There’s this really undefinable British quality that I can’t really put my finger on, but those films all have it. And it’s just lovely to see them there because I think it gives people a sense of pride,” says Akhtar.
“It’s difficult for me to objectively talk about it, because I’m in the mix of it. It’s almost like there’s this amazing change that’s happening, but you’re so a part of it that you can’t take yourself out. But I’m buzzing.”
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day