We interviewed BAFTA winner Adeel Ahktar to talk to us about babies, identity, colourblind casting and The Big Sick

29th November 2017

Revered Judd Apatow coma comedy drama The Big Sick, released last June is now seeing its DVD release this month. The film follows Asian American Kumail trying to navigate between his conservative Muslim Pakistani family forcing him to marry, a relationship with Emily who is unacceptably white and a burgeoning desire to be a comedian. Things go horribly wrong once the conflicted Kumail unwillingly breaks up with Emily; only for her to fall so seriously ill that she needs to be induced into a coma.

To celebrate the DVD release and to tell us more about the film; we talked to Adeel Akhtar who plays Naveed, Kumail’s brother-in-law and perhaps the only semi-supportive family member. British born Akhtar is of half Pakistani/ half Kenyan descent and sporting a super impressive CV, which includes the first non-white lead actor in TV show to receive a BAFTA for his role in BBC's Murdered by My Father; a one off drama about honour killing of a British Asian Muslim teenage girl by her father. Akhtar has also appeared in numerous films such as Pan, Victoria and Abdul and TV shows The Night Manager and Apple Tree Yard, to name a few.

We spoke to Adeel earlier this week amidst babysitting duties of his new-born in LA where he is presently after just wrapping up filming for new Fox series Ghosted.

Hi Adeel where do we find you now?
Right now its morning, I’m at my flat, which is near Venice Beach in LA on baby duties; so it’s all up for grabs if I can see this interview through. We’ve just wrapped up on new supernatural TV feature Ghosted. And I’m back in the UK on Friday.

Your IMDB page is super impressive and you have won the best BAFTA for leading actor, a first time for a non-white actor earlier this year. You must be at a happy place right now?
It feels great overall. Life is weird though; one moment I’m at the BAFTA’s getting an award and the next thing I am at home looking after my toddler. To be honest I find myself unable to articulate what is going on and what it all means to me.

The Big Sick is out on DVD. You play Kumail’s brother-in-law. Would you say you’re more like Naveed’s character or more Kumail?
I am many people, I’m a bit of both and much more. Having mixed race heritage, dad from Pakistan and mum from Kenya; I’ve been brought up super traditional. However, I consider myself as liberal progressive.

For Naveed, he seemed like the only person in the family that accepted Kumail as he was. Did Naveed secretly want to be like Kumail?
For someone like Naveed perhaps the status quo suited him, but also he resigned to his current life a while ago and is trying to make the best of it. We are living in an exciting time now. I was talking to my wife earlier, about a Syrian refugee who I saw in the documentary Exodus; who set up an App that allows you to be matched up with a refugee in your area, so that he teaches you smoothing like play the guitar or cook for you in return for teaching him/ her English. That to me is tradition in a sense meeting forward thinking technology. There all these non-defined ways of understanding identity. Things are just amazingly integrated with modern life. So, coming back to your question, it’s an ongoing conversation with the traditional part of yourself and the more forward thinking part.

You mentioned in a Guardian interview “There has to be more opportunities for Asian or black actors. We want to be colour-blind in the best way, not in the liberal progressive way.” What did you mean by that?
It’s another difficult thing for me to articulate conclusively. I'm still trying to work that one out. I think of myself as a liberal, progressive person. I guess when I think about the reasons why I wanted to be an actor; it was things that I saw on TV and film that necessarily wouldn’t make any sense for who I was as a person from my upbringing.
I weirdly bumped into Gary Oldman, the other day; a person that I admired all my life. Or getting to meet Mike Rylance someone that I loved through the theatre for a very long time. Receiving the BAFTA…. and then you go…. OK? Is this happening? I’m so thankful and respectful of everything. But there is also conversations to be had of being an actor, just an actor without the ethnic connotations. I am in lucky position now, that I feel I’m less type-casted. There is a tendency in an attempt to be fair and then that actually creates more pigeon holing as oppose to looking at the actor in front of us. You want to be good actor not an ethic minority actor. But then again there are inequalities that need to be addressed. It’s an ongoing conversation and that’s a good thing.
That question that you ask, is not a question that you would naturally ask a white actor like Mark Rylance. Why would a question like that mean more to me than say Mark Rylance?

I guess the question was in relation to colour-blind casting. Although some people might be more purist about roles and want things to be depicted in a way they know and expect.
I guess if colour-blind casting is done in a way that you are too conscious of it, it doesn’t work. I did Hamlet with Ian Rickson years ago; I was cast in the part of Guildenstern. In that instance, you could see it working, because you could see the reasons behind his directing; there was something undefinable and bit mysterious to the whole production. The Big Sick is a similar sort of thing in that way. You see that each character belongs in the storyline because they are at the edge of a particular time socially and telling a particular type of story that appears to not have been told before, in this way.

The Big Sick, treads on numerous wonderful areas: it’s a traditional romantic comedy, it’s Judd Apatow comedy, it’s also a heartfelt story between Kumail and Emily. The film is concentrating on being an original story which makes other questions of identity and cultural background less important. Still present, but less important.

In way with The Big Sick you have equal representation of the Asian and white families.
Both representations are authentic and very much in line with the story. Nothing is put in the film as a token. The Big Sick is undefinable as a piece of film, as its many different things. It gives an insight into an Asian family transplanted from the usual stuff like their beliefs and their traditions and are given this weird scenario that they have to deal with. Its also a beautiful, romantic comedy with quotable lines with the whole Judd Apatow silliness and improvisation. It’s not a film that is trying to give answers like “this is the Asian experience”. It’s not that sort of film. What it does is worry about nothing apart from being a funny.

Yes, I can see that. However the ending doesn’t provide much closure, which I thought was quite realistic.
Well yes that’s what the say “if you want to make a realistic film, you keep the ending sad”. However, even if it did have a happy ending and there was acceptance of Kumail’s life choices etc etc I don’t think it would have fallen short either, it’s that sort of film. I think if you made the same film, but set in the UK it would be even more sad (laughs). Even in its limitations its still celebrating something.

Would you say there would be a completely different take if the film was made in the UK?
There is the filmmaker Gurinder Chadha who makes such films. Although she has been criticised for the way she approaches filmmaking. She has a massive following and all she wants to do make films, were people sing and dance; sort stereotypical stories. At first I judge her and then I think why not, people need some escapism and that’s fine. The flipside is a film like Murdered by My Father (for which Adeel received the BAFTA) which is all real, depressing and issue based. Sometimes that is too much. It’s like we have these defined categories of which we can tell Asian stories. Its either singing and dancing or real gritty drama type cinema. But The Big Sick mixes it all up.

From your own background, as I’ve read online, your dad was a little troubled about you becoming an actor just after you finished a whole law degree. When was the moment you choose to forsake family pressures and pursue your own goal of acting?
I don’t think I ever had that moment. The idea of guilt is not necessarily solely about race or coming from a particular background. Or about any particular singular thing, it’s for many things. The feeling is always present, but some moments its more strongly felt than others. Every decision and action has a repercussion and that’s ok.
Where do we find you next?
We just finished TV show Ghosted, a supernatural story about two investigators who investigate paranormal activity. I play Dr Barry Shaw, who wears really high waist trousers, little round John Lennon glasses and tight polo necks. It’s very funny. Then I’m doing a BBC adaptation of Les Miserables with Tom Harper who did War & Peace. So, more drama from me. But also I will be working together with the Donmar theatre for a production to come out in 2019, which I super excited about. It’s an adaptation of Berbarian Sound System. Should be good!
The Big Sick DVD is out now.

Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_

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