‘I’ve had some hairy experiences’: actor Adeel Akhtar on racism, role models and feeling hopeful

Adeel Akhtar was living in a van, wondering if he should move back in with his parents. It was 2010. He’d recently appeared in Four Lions, the Chris Morris satire, in which he plays a Muslim extremist who, in an uncanny set of events, blows himself up in a Yorkshire sheep field. The film had been successful. (The New York Times called it “stiletto sharp”.) But it did not immediately become the career tipping point Akhtar hoped it might. So there he was: 30 years old, not well off, suffering after the break-up of a “messy” relationship, recording audition tapes from his van. The work had dried up, but he wasn’t hustling. Even when he got a gig, he sometimes wouldn’t bother learning his lines. “What is that?” he asks now. “Why would a person not apply themselves?” He shakes his head. “I don’t know. I suppose a not-nice way of looking at my younger self is that I was lazy.”

Akhtar does not seem lazy now. A few days before we meet, in a mid-market café near his south London home, he won Best Actor at the British Independent Film Awards, for his role in Ali & Ava, a Clio Barnard film about forbidden love. Akhtar plays Ali, a British Asian man – irrepressible, distressed, permanently on the edge of euphoria or breakdown – who falls for an older white woman. The film is set in and around the housing estates of Bradford, and across social and racial divides. At the awards ceremony, Akhtar praised Barnard for presenting ordinary lives as extraordinary, and for “looking at people who are traditionally overlooked”. This was important, he said, particularly for him, because, “I’m one of them.”

Facebook Twitter Fresh thinking: Adeel Akhtar wears shirt jacket and beanie both by Wax London; jeans by Levi’s; trainers by Veja; and Fabergé Altruist watch. Photograph: Sarah Cresswell/The Observer

Akhtar has made a successful career out of channelling and elevating the circumstances of underrepresented people, and of capturing the grace and power in everyday actions, even when those actions are questionable. When I ask him about being normal, he says plainly, “Well, I am that.” This is partly because of how he looks: the hangdog face, the dark eyes, a twinkly smile. But also because he understands that even in the smallest lives there are things at stake – a truth he holds dear. “There’s something that makes me realise that we need to see the world we’re living in as full and beautiful,” he says. In 2017, he became the first non-white man to win a Lead Actor Bafta, for his role in Murdered By My Father, a TV drama about arranged marriage in which he is by turns tender and maniacal. (He had already been Bafta-nominated for Utopia, the Dennis Kelly drama.) He’s since appeared in a string of A-list films and television series: as a compromised doctor in Sweet Tooth, the Netflix series; as brother to Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick; as a kindly neighbour in Back to Life, the Daisy Haggard comedy. It is likely you recognise him even if you aren’t part of the subset that already considers him a household name. When Haggard first approached him, she assumed he would be too busy to talk. “I ended up writing him a letter,” she told me. “I thought, well, it’s worth a shot.” When he said yes, she was amazed, and she began to jump up and down. On set, Akhtar would “do all these lovely things,” Haggard recalled, “and I’d think, ‘Oh, that’s gorgeous, I definitely didn’t write that.’”

Facebook Twitter Mane attraction: starring in Four Lions in 2010. Photograph: Alamy

When I ask Akhtar how he became all but homeless at 30, he veers off on a mazy tangent that is difficult to follow but fun to listen to – he doesn’t so much answer questions as use them as platforms for thought. After a few minutes he rolls his eyes and says, softly, “This is all to answer why I was living in a van.”

“You’re getting there,” I say.

“I’m getting there,” he agrees, adding, “Stories go on a bit longer than they should.”

Akhtar talks so much and so intensely that, at functions, his wife, Alexis Burke, a director, will amble over to whoever he is chatting to and say, “He’s doing it again, isn’t he?” The actor Claire Rushbrook, who co-stars in Ali & Ava, describes Akhtar as kind and playful as well as “cerebral” and “complex” – someone who becomes easily lost in thought. (“It’s hard to pin him down,” she told me.) Deep conversation seems necessary for Akhtar to understand the world in relation to the work he is making. When we talk in the café, and later while we stroll through a nearby park, in and out of welcome sunshine, he shifts quickly through topics – Leonard Cohen’s views on grace (“I’ve been watching YouTube”), the “well of expression” to be found in New York, Zadie Smith on empathy – trying to find connections, which seems to me like a game he enjoys playing. Barnard told me, “He’s verbose and he’s funny,” adding, “His mind just moves into very unexpected places.”

Facebook Twitter Kinda blue: jacket and trousers by Stella McCartney, top by Wax London, trainers by Veja, and Fabergé Altruist watch. Photograph: Sarah Cresswell/The Observer

Our conversation turns repeatedly to race. In Ali & Ava, Akhtar’s character must confront racism that has been passed down generationally, which he does smilingly, as though it can be rebuffed through kindness. (In one scene he makes a joke out of being attacked with a sword: “It’s like fucking Zorro in here!”) In real life, Akhtar has sometimes taken a similar approach. “I’ve had some hairy experiences,” he says. “And now I look back on them and wonder how I was able to normalise it.” In 2002, he was arrested and detained at a New York airport; he had been on his way to enrol at drama school and was mistaken for a terrorist. Later, during “the van years”, he wore a long beard that was yanked by a passerby in central London, resulting in “maybe my first fight”. Once, Akhtar and his wife were travelling up an escalator and came toward a group of men, “and all that nonsense started” – expletives, slurs. “You know, just this terrible shit you hear.”

These were all experiences when “someone has done or said something,” Akhtar says. Nowadays he often finds racist events to be more subtle, a kind of casual racism, including “the feeling of walking into a situation where it’s less overt” but no less horrifying. He gives the example of planning a camping holiday with his family, “and we’ll be going to a particular place, and we’ll stop off at a pub somewhere, and… I don’t know if it’s me projecting my past experiences on to that situation, but there’s an…”

He pauses.

“An atmosphere,” I suggest.

He nods.

“An atmosphere.” Then he adds, kindly: “The majority of people are doing the best they can.”

Facebook Twitter Look into my eyes: Adeel Akhtar wears jumper by Cos and Fabergé Altruist watch. Photograph: Sarah Cresswell/The Observer

Given he was once misidentified as a terrorist and held at a New York airport, it is a remarkable coincidence that Akhtar played a 9/11 hijacker in his first film role. (That film, Let’s Roll: The Story of Flight 93, came out in 2002, the same year he was detained.) But, since then, Akhtar has mostly avoided being cast as racial stereotypes. On the role of British Asian actors in current cinema, he says, “I think we’re in an exciting time, aren’t we? You see more and more Asian faces in roles you wouldn’t have seen them in before. I think it’s slowly happening. But I think maybe we have to sort of embrace the idea, or the industry has to embrace the idea, of being non-traditional in certain ways. To take a risk. We’re not used to seeing that…”

“It’s not often you see a British Asian man playing a romantic lead,” I say, of Ali & Ava.

“No,” he says. “Sure.”

Akhtar accepts he cannot deny who he is and the way he looks. Nor should he be required to. “You want people to look at you and see your differences,” he says, of appearing onscreen. “And then you want them to stop paying attention to them,” so viewers can enter a space in which they can discover the attributes they share with his characters. It is Akhtar’s job to create that space, he says, when “you’ve sort of rejected the defined terms of how somebody expects you to be” and “scooped everyone in”. In this way, Akhtar’s roles are “about being Asian” and then “not about being Asian”, he says. “This puts him at odds with other male British Asian actors, including Riz Ahmed, with whom Akhtar appeared in Four Lions, and Dev Patel, who have argued publicly that the “promised land” for brown-skinned actors is to play characters whose skin colour isn’t a factor of their casting. Akhtar thinks, Why shouldn’t that be a part of how he presents? Or, to put it another way: “There should be no denial of anything.”

Facebook Twitter Ordinary people: starring in Ali & Ava with Claire Rushbrook

Akhtar believes the film industry is at a point where Asian actors “can be afforded the space to do it all.” Ahmed is performing sci-fi; Patel is performing period drama. “We’re chipping away,” he says, though he admits, “We have to work harder to make it better. Maybe I just feel hopeful. That as long as we’re striving for it, it will happen.”

“Are you hopeful, generally?” I ask.

“My wife would say not.”


“Why? Let’s have a think. She’s the hopeful one out of the two of us.” Akhtar’s wife is a mixed heritage, Jewish woman from south London. “Maybe it’s because of our experiences growing up, you know?”

Akhtar’s mother is from Kenya. His father is from Pakistan. They met at Heathrow airport, where they both worked for a while. When Akhtar was young, the family settled in a village in Buckinghamshire, around 20 miles west of central London. “When we moved, when I was really little, I had stones thrown at me,” he says. On one occasion, his mother, who had witnessed an attack, stormed to protect him, nudging him behind her and using her body as a barrier. “I remember the look on her face,” Akhtar says, “of her trying to work out how to be herself in an environment that was essentially… I mean, who knows why they threw stones? Maybe it was because we were Asian. Maybe I’d had an altercation with one of the kids.” His mother’s response has stayed with him. “What is it like for somebody to open their door and walk out into the street and suddenly the world they’re looking out on becomes inhospitable?” At the time, he remembers thinking, OK, this is never going to end. “There will always be this idea of her working out how she can best fit in. But when the hostility of a place is so ingrained in how you live your life, if the restrictions in which you’re living your life are habituated…”

“You come to expect it,” I say.

“A step further even,” he says. “There’s no expectation – there’s nothing. It just is.”

Facebook Twitter Starring in Murdered By My Father with Kiran Sonia Sawar. Photograph: Des Willie/BBC

Akhtar thinks of his parents’ cultural assimilation as a creative act. “The creative endeavour it takes to come to a country, to have a thought about who you’re going to be, and then to endow that thought with your will – to try to do something – is like a novelist looking at a blank page,” he says. “But we never look at that as being a creative expression.” Still, he hasn’t always seen eye to eye with them. Akhtar describes his father, an immigration lawyer, as “quite a strict fella”. As a young man, it was drilled into him that, “You’ve got to be better than the white people around you. You have to work harder,” a mentality he came to reject. He later dismissed his parents’ attempts to impose an arranged marriage. For a time, Akhtar studied law, at his father’s insistence, but he soon realised it was making him unhappy. “There was a chunk of my developmental understanding that was not there because I felt I had to do this thing” – to be another kind of person – but “you break out of that, and you re-enter the world, kind of through the back door.”

Facebook Twitter Bring me sunshine: Adeel Akhtar wears shirt by Paul Smith, jeans by Levi’s, loafers by Tod’s, belt by Anderson’s, and sunglasses by Akoni. Photograph: Sarah Cresswell/The Observer

When he began acting, Akhtar came across the idea that you could reach viewers “who have had similar experiences and say, ‘You are in the world. You are seen’.” The characters of Ali and Ava are based on real people. To prepare for his role, Akhtar listened to audio recordings of a Bradford man whom Barnard had wanted to create a character out of. “Clio calls it ‘bio-nonfiction’,” Akhtar says of their approach to making Ali & Ava. (Both parties are aware the term “sounds like a washing detergent”.) “These are real people,” he continues – with real lives. But “we’re not just fictionalising it. We’re going to elevate it to a point of beauty.” Barnard developed the film with Akhtar in mind from the outset. “It kind of began with him,” she told me. “We built Ali together.” In the film’s early stages, Barnard and Akhtar talked and talked, and then talked some more. “A lot of in-depth, really careful thinking,” Barnard said.

This seems to me like the Akhtar I meet. At the end of our conversation, having spoken for hours, he frowns and worries, “Was that a slog?”

Truthfully, I say, “Not at all.”

“I sort of went off piste a little bit,” he says.

Then he starts talking about something else.

Ali & Ava will be released in UK and Irish cinemas on 4 March

Stylist Sabina Emrit Harper; styling assistant Sacha William; grooming by Esztier Hercsik using Maria Nila, Oil Can Grooming and Benny Hancock for Men; photographer’s assistant Jack Somerset; retouching by Vahakn at the-retouchers.com; shot at the Lemonade Factory