Adeel Akhtar: ‘People are ready to stretch their ideas on diversity’

Idon’t know if it’s the heat – it’s 35C on the late summer day we meet for lunch at an outside table at the Canton Arms on south London’s busy Lambeth Road – but there’s an enjoyable sort of maziness to conversation with Adeel Akhtar. He prefaces nearly every response to a direct question by saying, “I don’t know if this is a connected thought at all”, or “I’m going to answer that by talking about something else entirely”. The lightly evasive manner fits with Akhtar’s beguiling screen presence, you can never quite pin him down; his resting face is a mournful tragic mask, which means he is capable of generous comedy as well as convincing pathos and despair. He’s stolen tons of scenes on film and TV, but if you picture him in a couple of defining roles, they might include Faisal, the most vulnerable of the slapstick jihadis in Chris Morris’s Four Lions (famously strapping improvised explosives to “Brother Crow”), or as the homicidal dad in Murdered by my Father, one of the great recent BBC performances, for which he won a Bafta in 2017 – the first and only non-white best TV actor winner.

He’s arrived on a bike and is mouthing apologies for being five minutes late while he locks it to a railing – he’s flying to New Zealand for Covid-free filming the next day with his wife and two young sons and things are a bit frantic at home. (The godsend of lockdown for him, he says, sitting down and getting a breath and a beer, was his wife’s inspired decision to buy a very large trampoline early on. “To start with, every time I looked at it, I got really agitated because the garden is now just a really massive trampoline. But she was right. The boys are four and two. It’s got us through.”)

In normal times Akhtar comes to this pub – and to the Anchor and Hope and the Camberwell Arms, part of the same local group – quite often. He traces the habit back to a memorable evening when a mate brought another friend, Sam Soan, back to his flat after a somewhat drunken evening and they felt peckish. “I mean, this honestly isn’t typical of what’s in my fridge,” he says, “but I had these partridges in there, which I’d bought at the butcher that day on a whim and not been sure what to do with, and Sam rustled up this amazing late-night meal. Later I went to the Camberwell Arms and discovered he was the head chef there, so I’ve been a fan ever since.” We scan the menu of seasonal plates, cod cheeks and rabbit leg and lemon sole and wild mushroom tart, and drink warm ale beside the heat haze of traffic.

The day before, I’d watched Akhtar in a preview of his most recent film, Enola Holmes, about Sherlock’s sleuthing kid sister, in which he plays a befuddled and bewhiskered Inspector Lestrade. The film stars Millie Bobby Brown (from Netflix’s Stranger Things) who, aged 16, is also one of the film’s producers. “I don’t know if it’s me getting older,” says Akhtar, “but the more I see of that generation of teenager, it seems they are on to something. They have all this information coming at them and they process it in a really effortless way. They can test out what it’s like to be one thing, and then another. Whereas for my generation, what you could be seemed so much more prescriptive.”

Akhtar is 40. His acting life to begin with was defined by not being the son his father imagined. His parents, then both recent immigrants – his father from Pakistan, his mother from Kenya – met at Heathrow Terminal 3, where they both worked. After his father became a successful immigration lawyer, Akhtar was sent to board at Cheltenham College. The expectation was that he would become a lawyer, too, and a pillar of his parents’ home counties Muslim community, after an arranged marriage. He managed to avoid all those fates, though he studied law at university.

“I really tried,” he says. “But there was an element of me that was completely resistant, I just couldn’t retain the law stuff. I kept on failing exams.”

There was a good chance he would have carried on regardless, as his father wished, but after he graduated his then girlfriend was invited to New York to audition for the Actors’ Studio drama school. He went along just to be her scene-study partner but he ended up being offered a place at the school. The luck of that endorsed the faith of his mother who had sent him along to National Youth Theatre workshops in school holidays, without the knowledge of his father. (“She was interested in me doing something I enjoyed,” he says. “It didn’t have to be acting, it could have been badminton or whatever.”)

His mother has been an inspiration in his career in other ways, too, he has lately come to realise. One of his diversions in the months of lockdown has been to write little fragments of family history, to make sense of that past for himself.

“My mum came over when she was 17 and stayed at the YWCA in Notting Hill,” he says. “It was winter and she was sharing with three young Irish women. She goes to bed lonely one night and the next thing she comes round in hospital. There was a gas leak and she nearly died; none of which I knew until I found a newspaper report that she had kept.”

When Akhtar heard his mother tell that story for the first time, it was, he says, like hearing the opening line of a novel, or watching an artist put a brush stroke on a blank canvas. He likens the process of assimilation that followed for her to making art – imagining a future, and then having it happen. “We don’t give any of that the same weight as we would somebody who writes a classic novel,” he says, “but they are both deeply creative endeavours, and one is far more high risk.”

Sitting in the hot sun, asking for refills of the water jug, our conversation as we eat covers a lot of ground – the nightmare of having to die in front of Judi Dench (in Victoria and Abdul); the bits of advice received from the perennial actors’ guru Stellan Skarsgård on the set of the BBC’s River (“once you are a professional actor you are always trying to go back to being an amateur, right?”); the ways in which Chris Morris proved terrorism should be a subject for comedy – but it returns a few times to these questions of belonging. Akhtar received a brutal lesson in racial profiling on a trip to New York in 2002, when he was hauled off a plane and arrested as a terror suspect, in a disturbing case of mistaken identity.

“Those hierarchical structures are everywhere present, you know,” he says at one point. “It’s just whether you want to pay attention. Most days you can go by and not have to worry about them. Other days they are so present that you can’t ignore it.”

I wonder if in recent years, with greater acceptance of colour-blind casting, and commitments to greater diversity in front of and behind the camera, he has noticed a shift in the industry. Are things changing quickly enough?

“I think we’re sort of muddling our way through a conversation,” he says. “It’s complicated. It’s the equivalent of saying to somebody, ‘I want you to look and acknowledge my differences and my history.’ But at the same time, in the same instant, you must try and make that not matter. The good thing is I think people are ready to stretch their ideas on that, a bit more than they ever were.”

At the time he received his Bafta, the overwhelming feeling, he said, was one of sudden, immense opportunity. When I ask if that feeling has proved to be true he circles the answer and talks about some of the things he has been proud of doing lately. Such as a film with the director Clio Barnard, Ali and Ava, a love story between an English woman and him as her much younger boyfriend; the stage version of A Christmas Carol, where he played Bob Cratchit to Jim Broadbent’s Scrooge, in a production that drew parallels between the disenfranchised of Dickens’s time and our own. In both cases he liked the way that the roles “might get under the defences” of the audience, and find ways to ask subtle questions about difference and connection. “But,” he says, “to answer your question, finally, I think I’ve got a lot more to give.”