British actors to know: Adeel Akhtar

Adeel Akhtar in Sherwood (Image credit: BBC/House Productions/Matt Squire)

Whether Adel Akhtar had yielded to paternal pressure, he could have followed in his father’s footsteps and become an immigration lawyer. The London-born son of Pakistani and Kenyan immigrants actually studied law. But luckily for us, his mother secretly enrolled him in classes at the National Youth Theater, and his love of theater never left him. Akhtar eventually put aside the career of a lawyer and chose to become an actor instead.

In 2002, while traveling to New York to audition at the famed Actor’s Studio, Akhtar was misidentified as a terrorist, resulting in his arrest and detention at JFK. Perhaps that’s why, for the most part, the actor has avoided being typecast in such roles, aside from his first TV movie screen credit, Let’s Roll: The Story of Flight 93. The first non-white actor to win the BAFTA award for Best Lead Actor in a TV Series, Akhtar’s first big breakthrough saw him playing a terrorist of a different kind.

four lions

four lions was one of the few comedies to take on Islamic terrorism without resorting to demeaning racist caricatures. The 2010 BAFTA-winning satirical farce follows a group of local Yorkshire jihadists who dream of the glory of martyrdom. Luckily for the innocent citizens of England, they turn out to be an incompetent and quarrelsome group of terrorists. Akhtar plays Faisal, a trusting, dimwitted soul who thinks he can train crows to become suicide bombers.

Utopia

Utopia, recently remade for American audiences on Prime Video, is named after the manuscript of his cult graphic novel around the world. The comic brings together five strangers in this 2013 dystopian drama produced by Channel 4. When the group find themselves hunted by a ruthless establishment known as The Network, they must devise and defeat the organization’s plot against Utopia to get rid of targets.

In a BAFTA-nominated performance, Akhtar portrays Wilson Wilson, a survivalist and conspiracy theorist who erased all traces of himself from the world. His paranoia and idealism create an inner conflict that eventually splits Wilson’s loyalties.

Murdered by my father

Akhtar broke barriers when he won the Best TV Lead Actor BAFTA award (the first non-white actor to win this particular award) for his role in Murdered by my father. In the 2016 BBC film about honor killings. He plays Shahzad, a widower who does his best to raise his two children on his own. When her teenage daughter Salma (Kiran Sonia Sawar) keeps her new boyfriend a secret from her dad, it triggers a set of circumstances that lead to humiliation and, well…murder.

The night manager

The 2016 AMC Emmy-winning JOhn le Carré spy thriller, The night managertells the story of an ex-soldier (played by Tom Hiddleston) recruited by intelligence officer Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) to infiltrate the inner circle of an arms dealer. Akhtar plays Rob Singhal, one of Angela’s colleagues working on Operation Limpet, a very unpopular case with MI6.

swimming with men

The slogan of swimming with men has been “The full Monty in Speedos”, which wasn’t wrong. This 2018 underdog sports comedy begins with Eric (Rob Brydon), a man struggling with depression brought on by a midlife crisis. When he encounters a ragtag team of male synchronized swimmers at his local pool, their acceptance serves as a lifeline. Akhtar’s performance as Kurt, one of the fraternity of swimmers training together for a competition in Milan, was voted one of the best in film.

Wretched

Masterpiece viewers may recognize Akhtar from his appearance in the 2019 BBC production of the Victor-Hugo epic and musical theater blockbuster Wretched. He embodies Monsieur Thénardier, the scavenger turned owner, whose irresponsible comic character soon becomes dark and disturbing. Fun fact: this is the second credits on this list where Akhtar is stage partner with Olivia Colman.

Enola Holmes

In 2020, Akhtar was cast as Inspector Lestrade in Netflix Enola Holmes movie, starring Millie Bobby Brown as Sherlock’s younger sister. The star-studded film (which features Henry Cavill like Sherlock and Helena Bonham Carter as the matriarch of the Holmes family) features the teenage Holmes investigating the disappearance of her mother and the attempted murder of a young aristocrat. Enola also spends the film trying to avoid being apprehended and sent back to school by the ever diligent (but not very intuitive) inspector.

Kill Eve

Although Akhtar’s British intelligence therapist character, Martin, was only introduced Kill Eve Season 2, her character slowly rose to prominence as Eve’s psychiatrist. By the show’s final season, Akhtar found himself with his own major arc. Most notably, he is kidnapped by the Assassin Extraordinary, Villanelle, who asks him to provide therapy for him the same way he did for Eve until her psychopathology is cured.

sherwood

Set in a Nottinghamshire mining village, the 2022 BBC crime drama sherwood tells the story of two shocking murders that spark a massive manhunt. In it, Akhtar plays Andy Fisher, a shy and fragile widower still struggling to cope with the death of his wife. He relies on his son for emotional support but fears losing him to his son’s fiancée, Sarah (Joanne Froggatt). The series debuts in the US next month on BritBox.

Akhtar’s list of impressive credits goes on for days, but we have to stop somewhere. Considering Mr. Akhtar is only in his early 40s, we look forward to many years of entertaining and touching performances.

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