NOTABLY appearing as the quietly moronic Faisal in Four Lions, Adeel Akhtar is no less unsettlingly funny in real life. He seems to be both silently giggling and absolutely sincere – though it is hard to tell through the forest of hair covering his face. It is also hard to tell since, contra-Faisal, Akhtar jumps, lightning-quick, from one topic to the other, always frowning into the near distance, nodding, and making a lot of sense. Questions that aren’t questions – about shopping, psychoanalysis, filming – fuel the conversation, so that pretty soon bumping into Akhtar has taken longer than most peoples’ lunch dates. But this is not the kind of accidental conversation that fake phone calls were designed for. I find that I too am frowning into the near distance and trying to find some answers – why did he buy this T-shirt if he didn’t want it? Does editing your own creativity entail destroying something real?
In stark contrast to all this bohemia, Akhtar has just flown back from New York, where he is shooting Dictator – the latest film from the creator of Borat and Bruno. He will again play the fool in a film that amalgamates the worst dictators from history into another dark, Baron-Cohen style comedy.
After growing up going to a Cheltenham boarding school, Akhtar found himself studying law. This vocation by far from suited him better, however, and as a result he developed minor depression. He escaped the conventional post-law-school-career plan by re-locating to New York. In New York he cheered up whilst attending acting school, and soon found work to pay off all his tuition debts. But pretty soon he returned to London, wanting to escape a whole new kind of rat race. Here he began acting full-time, with his first major part as Lenny from Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. Unconcerned that he is often type-cast, Akhtar finds this often means his characters are able to highlight moral disparities through comedy. Often cast in the role of the fool, his characters are able to express truths that would be trite or controversial coming from anyone else. “You can be the wisest person in the world,” he says, “for ten minutes, until you get blown up.” Everything about Akhtar – his tilting head, frown, deliberate gesticulations – seem to suggest the same: he is actually a mastermind, silently giggling at us all.
When I bump into him, Akhtar is wandering Brick Lane, accidentally shopping whilst waiting for his girlfriend, Kaj. They live round the corner, in an ex-cookie factory, with a pretty interesting history of its own. It has not been an operative cookie factory (blissful a home as that sounds) since the nineteenth century. And that was about as blissful and homely as the site would get – since then it has undergone many transformations. The legends include (in its list of previous identities) a brothel, an opium den, a rave warehouse and a hang-out for Oscar Wilde. Akhtar previously lived in one of the studios that used to be an S&M club. Nowadays, it is a little less debauched – housing a bunch of London artists and with a club night on the ground floor.
In stark contrast to all this bohemia, Akhtar has just flown back from New York, where he is shooting Dictator – the latest film from the creator of Borat and Bruno. He will again play the fool in a film that amalgamates the worst dictators from history into another dark, Baron-Cohen style comedy. What’s it like working with the master of uncomfortably twisted comedy himself? Well, Akhtar is confused. He tried his usual method of being over-familiar in order to suppress any stuttering awkwardness when first meeting Baron-Cohen. But he was met with furious venom. Now, is the man an arsehole, or was he playing some complex actor’s mind-game in order to get the best performances from his cast? I suggest the term ‘trout-tickling’, and Akhtar takes to it immediately. His voice never rises as he talks me through the confusing alleys of possible scenarios. Is Baron-Cohen a complete megalomaniac who has no time for his less important cast? Is he in character as the evil Dictator? Is it that being a great comedian entails looking at the world in a particularly critical way? Or was he trying to get me in some kind of mood – was I having my trout-tickled? We have been talking for a long time and his pensive, confused, searching tone has not changed from the trivial to the profound. And that is when I begin to wonder – have I been having my trout tickled?
I frown-smile my goodbyes, in the only manner that seems appropriate, and he wanders on, off to find Kaj in the last of the evening sun. Brick Lane blurs into focus again as I try to figure out how much he was teasing me, how much time has passed and how to untie my brain from all these knots that Akhtar has just created.
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