Perspectives on performance with Adeel Akhtar (MetFilm School Masterclass)
By Elise Czyzowska
22 June 2022
Adeel Akhtar began his MetFilm School Masterclass at the start of his acting career: standing in as a scene partner for his girlfriend’s audition to a New York acting school. Plans to complete a Legal Practice Course and follow in his father’s footsteps as a lawyer soon fell to one side as the school offered him a place of his own and, after years of smaller jobs and playing stereotyped roles, Chris Morris’ Four Lions came his way.
This film was his first ‘big break’, and since then, Adeel explained that he has been simply ‘chipping away at making [acting] a career’, an understated way to describe his 15+ years in the industry, which include a BAFTA Leading Actor win for Murdered by My Father (bookended by two further BAFTA nominations), a 2021 Best Actor win from the British Independent Film Awards for Ali & Ava, and nominations from both the Royal Television Society and Screen Actors Guild.
MetFilm School students were lucky enough to hear Adeel speak at a recent Masterclass, and today, we’re sharing our favourite takeaways from the session…
Drama school & method acting
Looking back on his time at the Actors Studio Drama School in New York, Adeel explains that his biggest takeaway was the importance of figuring out what worked for him:
‘For the first year, we’d drink an imaginary coffee cup for days and days, doing sensory work with it, and I think what I learnt was… just use a coffee cup. Not to be glib about it. You learn what you need, and you learn what you don’t need.’
This idea of performance came back time and again throughout the session, with Adeel sharing a different perspective on the acting process than we are used to seeing in the media. Rather than claiming to be ‘Method’ (or going the opposite extreme and totally blocking out the process), Adeel tries his best to take things on a project-by-project basis. He adapts his style and his techniques to suit the role he is playing: when faced with difficult accents, he might opt to stay in character off-camera to practice and master the skill, while for characters that he helped to flesh out, such as Ali in Clio Barnard’s Ali & Ava, he is more able to simply ‘fall into the film’.
Working with heavy material
The project for which Adeel won his first BAFTA, Murdered by My Father, tells the story of an honour killing of a British Asian Muslim girl by her father, written by MetFilm School graduate Vinay Patel. Adeel plays Shahzad, the father, and Radio Times described his performance as ‘so brilliantly human you can’t quite believe he’ll really do it’, the ‘it’ being the murder of his daughter, who narrates the TV film from beyond the grave.
‘I remember seeing the script and thinking, I’m not sure if I can do the coffee cup exercise with this,’ Adeel told our students, thinking back to his days in drama school. ‘My method training told me to “live the character”, but I wasn’t sure that I could live in that territory for too long.’ So Adeel took a different approach to the project, marking out the emotional beats that each scene would need him to reach, and focusing only on meeting those marks, nothing else.
Dark, psychological projects are known for bringing actors into equally dark and intense methods of preparation, but Adeel’s process sounds far healthier, as well as more sustainable for his career. After all, as he added, ‘you want to know that if an opportunity like that comes up again, that you’ve got the ability and skillset in a place that you can revisit’.
Taking a step back and distancing yourself from the material does not always come easily, especially as an actor who wants to give their all in every role. This is why it was so empowering to hear Adeel speak about Murdered by My Father with our students, many of whom are aspiring actors themselves – it reinforces the idea of listening to what you need:
‘Compartmentalising like this can make you feel like a cop out, like there’s a lack of mystery if you’re not working on all cylinders to envelop yourself in the world of the characters. That was something I struggled with. I asked if I was giving myself “an easy time”. But the actors that I really love, they’re always just quietly doing their thing. There’s something mysterious about that, as much as there is about showing your craft off to everyone.’
Finding creativity through disappointment
At this point, it is clear why Adeel has had such success in the industry: he is truly passionate about his craft, and through this passion, he has found a way to manage the tricky balance of focusing all his energy on his current project, while also shaping the larger career he wants for himself.
His line-up for the next few years reflects this. Adeel joined us virtually from New Zealand, where he is shooting season two of Sweet Tooth, a fantasy series for Netflix, and after this is complete, he hopes to take part in ‘a really beautiful short film’ that found its way to him, as well as some more independent British projects.
Towards the end of the session, students asked Adeel how he maintains this passion for his craft, and how he deals with the disappointment that is so interwoven with the life of an actor. In response, he highlighted the importance of surrounding yourself with people, especially creatives, who can really relate to the ups and downs that you’ll surely experience:
‘You can share with those people, and once you start sharing like that, you’ll find that you start generating a feeling or an idea out of the disappointment. I wish I had leant on my community more than I did at the start; I really think it would have made the disappointment less.’
An ‘esoteric’ ending
Finally, Adeel spoke about how he kept the faith during the early years of his career: by recognising that the things people were doing on stage and on screen weren’t all that dissimilar to what he was doing in smaller parts and advertisements.
‘It’s about redefining your notions of what it means to be – and this is going to sound a little bit esoteric, but I’m going for it… redefining your ideas of excellence. Excellence is something that is beyond you and out of your reach, but you can be excellent around the things that you’re doing, and that’s ok as well.’
‘So that’s how I kept the faith,’ he summarised. ‘It was realising that it was all proximate to where I was anyways.’