Interview: Actor Adeel Akhtar reflects on Victoria & Abdul; working with Judi Dench and Stephen Frears

Starring Judi Dench and Ali Fazal, Victoria and Abdul is Stephen Frears’ latest film, chronicling the unlikely friendship of Queen Victoria and her Indian attendant, Abdul Karim, in the late 1800s. The film was released on DVD and Blu-Ray this week, and to get some more perspective on the project, I caught up with British actor Adeel Akhtar, who plays Mohammed in the film.

He’s had a pretty remarkable year, featuring not only in this film, but also the critically acclaimed The Big Sick, and he won a BAFTA for his work in Murdered by My Father. I caught up with the British actor to talk about working with Dench, Ali, Frears and took a moment to look back on his work in Pan.

Victoria and Abdul came out earlier this year, garnering a good deal of critical praise as well as box office receipts. Now that the cinematic run as come to an end, how do you feel it all went?

I think it landed very well, generally people who I spoke to about it seemed to appreciate what the story was about, and I think generally people enjoyed it and the unravelling story of these two unlikely people finding a kinship between themselves.

Was it a story you were familiar with before you took on the role?

No, I didn’t know anything about it. I don’t think many people did. But as soon as you start researching it you find out all these other aspects of Queen Victoria’s personality that I wasn’t aware of before, but I learnt about once I did the film.

What was it that attracted you to being a part of the film? I have to imagine working with Stephen Frears had to be a major draw.

From when I was growing up, he’s always been making films that I’ve watched and really loved, so that was a major draw to being in the film. I remember when I was really young there was a televised version of My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) that came on. For me that was a very influential film; you saw an Asian person as the lead, firstly, and secondly it was such an original story.

In between shooting scenes it was really fun to break down that film with (Frears) and ask a lot of little things about it. So that was a major draw. And then just to be in the atmosphere of Judi Dench, was a pretty amazing thing. Just watching what she does was amazing. She’s amazing as a person, let alone as an actor. So those two things mainly.

Was it intimidating at all being in Dench’s atmosphere?

Yeah, but the same with Eddie (Izzard) as well, they’re a generation of actors who you realise, while a lot has probably changed about them over the years, their working practice is probably the same. Which is quite a nice thing to think about. That they just go on their instincts, on how something should be done. And they just get on with the job really, which is something nice to remind yourself of. You can forget that as an actor, through your own insecurities you substitute not doing the job for lots of other things. It’s a good reminder that in its simplicity if can make something quite beautiful and original and complex. Just trying to follow those emotional truths in the scene.

In the film you have quite a strong report with Ali, was that a bond that formed naturally off screen?

Yeah. And a lot of what you see on screen was mirroring what was happening in real life. Like in the film, Ali was going to a lot these places for the first time, while I’d been there before… so the human reality was mirrored what was going on in the film. So yeah there was a lot of that. I think that came through in the film.

Your role in the film is quite comedic – as are often your roles in films – and Frears has always directed that comedic role well, no exception here. Have you always wanted to bring a comedic edge into the roles you play?

Whenever you do try to control how someone perceives something you’re doing, usually they don’t perceive it that way. So I came out of drama school, I went to a very method school, in New York. So I left taking myself very seriously, and it ended up that it looked very funny. So I ended up doing more comedy. And the more comedy I did, while I was establishing myself in the UK, the working roles started to come my way. But now there are so many opportunities that you don’t really need to pick one side or another. I think this film is a good example of that – there’s comedic elements as well as dramatic, heartfelt moments to it as well. Lately I haven’t had to made a decision to pursue comedy of drama, because the things I’ve been in have done both really well.

It’s the beard I think. It lends you the flexibility of genre.

Yeah, yeah, maybe *laughs*. It allows you to hide too. It’s a barrier between yourself and everyone else. Oh and it keeps your face warm!

You mentioned My Beautiful Laundrette, that came out in 1985, and you mentioned all the opportunities you’re getting as an actor now. How do you think the landscape has changed over the last 30 years? Because I imagine you would have seen My Beautiful Laundrette, and you must have thought “there must be so many opportunities for Asian actors!” – but of course that wasn’t the case then, outside of the typecast roles anyway.

I think audiences now are more nuanced than they were in the 80s and 90s now… as you said, back then the roles were a little more hard to come by. Now I think people are just less likely to be fed a stereotype, they’re more aware of the variety of stuff out there. There’s still a long way to go in regards to representing people from certain minorities in a way that they can be elevated so you look through their race or culture, to the work that they’re doing.

I think there’s more work to do, and I’m a victim of it as well. I can rarely be colourblind to the performance that someone is giving, so I know that problem lies with me as well. So I do agree with you that we’ve come a long way, from every Asian person playing a shop keeper, or when everyone with a dark face you saw on TV was a terrorist. I’m really happy with where we’re at, but there’s still work to be done.

Well it’s wonderful to have you leading the charge with some fantastic performances. And I have to imagine that’s inspiring the next generation of kids as well. Did you have many come up you following your role as Smee in Pan?

Yeah, straight after Pan, that all kicked off then. But I think it didn’t do as well as it should have in the box office, so not loads of people went to see it, but it was fun to be a part of a story which was really fantastical… I really liked it. So it didn’t happen much, but it was nice when it did happen!

Victoria & Abdul is available on DVD and Blu-Ray now.