TV

Fool Me Once star Adeel Akhtar: 'Drama school felt like running away and joining the circus'

As a law student, he felt that his life had been mapped out for him, but then the road Adeel Akhtar eventually chose to go down surprised even him

Image: Sarah Cresswell

Adeel Akhtar was born in September 1980 in London. After receiving a degree in law from Oxford Brookes University in 2002, he became an actor, training at the Actors Studio Drama School and then at The New School, New York.

His first major role was as an extremist in Chris Morris’s 2010 film, Four Lions. More film work followed (The Dictator, Ali & Ava), as well as key roles in acclaimed TV shows including Utopia, Murdered By My Father (for which he won the 2016 British Academy Television Award for Best Actor), Killing Eve, Back To Life, Sweet Tooth and Sherwood (for which he won the 2022 British Academy Television Award for Best Supporting Actor). Adeel Akhtar also recently starred in runaway Netflix smash Fool Me Once, adapted from Harlan Coben’s novel of the same name.

Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to My Younger Self, Adeel Akhtar reflects on going against his parents’ wishes, breaking stereotypes and graitude.

I was 16 when I first found the idea of performing. We were doing Hamlet at school and I got a smaller part than I wanted. But I still got the gravedigger, who is really good. I enjoyed it and wanted to do more, so I got together with some mates and we put on a production of The Homecoming by Harold Pinter in the tiny little theatre at school. I remember feeling like I was connecting with lots of people. And that’s a really lovely feeling. At the start of The Homecoming, we put on a track called The First Big Weekend by Arab Strap. This was the first time I was getting into music as well. Bands and plays – my brain was opening up to something I would only revisit later on. 

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A lot of stuff was mapped out for me. But I was not sure the stuff that was mapped out for me was the path I wanted to go down. Depending on your perspective, some might say I had quite a moderate upbringing, but we were practising Muslims and others would say it was on the stricter side. I knew things were laid out for me by my dad, in the sense that acting definitely wasn’t an option. My dad was the kind of dude that, essentially, filled out my UCAS form and said what I was going to be doing. 

You look to your parents and your culture to understand more about the path you want to take. My parents were immigrants and had to battle against a lot and they understood their path to get to a situation where they could afford to give us a really good life. So that, for them, was a template of how I should live. In terms of who I would eventually end up with, there were these sort of arranged/non-arranged-y sort of situations with marriages within our culture at the time. It was all up in the air, but you were gently guided to follow a particular path. And sometimes not gently guided, sometimes actually told what you were going to be doing. 

I went to quite a posh boarding school from the age of 11. I was a minority. There weren’t many Asian or non-white kids at Cheltenham College. But that was the place I was being educated and I just normalised it. My understanding of what society is was quite narrow back then. 

Adeel Akhtar in his first major role in Four Lions, 2010. Image: AJ Pics / Alamy

I would tell my younger self to be loyal to your first instincts. But also, don’t stress out about it, because there are cultural pressures and societal pressures that get in the way of figuring out who you fully are. It was a complicated time. He was trying to understand about himself, his family’s culture, the society he was in. One thing that I would say for my younger self is that I never ran away from that. I’m doing a spot of writing at the moment and it’s fertile territory – understanding that people and characters and the world are beautifully nuanced things. I look back and my younger self was starting to understand that. 

My dad is from Pakistan and my mum’s from Kenya so politics was wrapped up in everything we were doing, from the small to the big. Whether it was ‘what does it mean to be a citizen of a country?’ or ‘did you notice the way that person spoke to you?’ So for me, the idea of being political is all around and in the choices we make, the way we communicate and listen and share opinions.

Going to drama school felt like running away and joining the circus. My girlfriend at the time was auditioning for drama school in New York and I had just finished my law degree and was going to do an LPC – a Legal Practice Certificate – to qualify my law degree. I only helped her audition, I was her scene study partner, but the drama school phoned and asked if I would like to take a place. I’d just spent three years doing a degree I didn’t enjoy, so that call was a real crossroads. I knew the opportunity might never happen again. So I packed a bag and ran away to get closer to the thing I took joy from. 

Moving to New York was the first step away from the ideas of what my mum and dad thought I would be. And I remember being quite terrified of that. I loved music, I liked art and literature, but by the time I got to New York, it was as if I had no clue about anything. That city is just humming and buzzing with all sorts of cultural things – it was vast and massive and overwhelming. As I was learning about myself, this city was growing up around me. It was about being in the world, keeping that level of curiosity. 

None of this was on the cards for me. My younger self wouldn’t have thought this was possible. It would have been beyond his understanding. I wouldn’t want to paint a picture of somebody who always kept faith in the potentiality of things. At times it was a real struggle. I lived in my van for a bit. The first thing to go is faith in your ability. I was feeling dejected, I didn’t feel motivated, I was getting roles, but not the ones I wanted and I couldn’t figure out how to do it. 

Adeel Akhtar with his wife Alexis Burke at the 2024 Baftas, London. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

Sometimes it takes somebody else to show you an understanding of who you are or your place in the world. When I met my wife, it catalysed something in me. The idea is to dedicate yourself fully to something and be completely present to it, otherwise you’re robbing yourself of an opportunity. When Lex and I got together, that’s what I felt. Love and relationships work the same way as my love for acting or for a place – it’s about remaining curious. As long as you remain inquisitive, this thing will grow around you in a way which is completely unexpected. 

Some stories I was doing early in my career could be described as being a bit stereotypical. Deep down I knew that the world we were living in was far more complicated and nuanced. And I knew I had an ability, if I got the right role, to express that. But if you looked a certain way, people had a very narrow idea of who you could be. 

In Utopia, a strange thing happened where the idea of what I looked like wasn’t front and centre. Once you play a particular role, it suddenly becomes easy to understand you can have an Asian male who is a lead character, who is an everyman, who has a certain name but is British and represents lots of things. The conversation has now evolved into a place where in the right role, you feel you’re not denying the idea of your cultural heritage, what you look like or where you’re from, but at the same time you can tell a story where you might be the everyman. And that’s an exciting thing. It can all be sort of mixed in there in this big soupy mess of humanity. 

2014: Adeel Akhtar as Wilson Wilson in Utopia, for which he received a Bafta nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Image: Collection Christophel / Alamy

Me trying to find a path into acting was a struggle for my parents, because it was so alien to them. But I really respect how, when they started something, they finished it. Their dedication. And they were really dedicated to being the best parents they could be. It might have been incongruous to where I was at, but it was a job they took seriously. And that’s something I take from them. Nobody’s perfect. But I try to be as dedicated as I can to being a dad and a husband. 

Everything about my life would surprise my younger self. This was never on the cards. But the moment I was living in my van, or when I was going out too much and not applying myself – I wouldn’t change any of it. Because every day, like having this lovely conversation with you sitting patiently and waiting for me to clumsily get to the end of a sentence, is a chance to reflect, which I hope I do. And I’m really grateful for it all. I would have been happy just to pay my bills. But now I’m in a situation where I’m able to do the work I always wanted to. 

Adeel Akhtar stars in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard from 26 April to 22 June at the Donmar Warehouse, London.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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