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 of 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 himself by the British Academy, becoming the first non-white 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 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 Cleo are two different breeds of director. Cleo’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. (THR)