Adeel Akhtar interview: Utopia, Four Lions & more

Interview Louisa Mellor 8 Mar 2013 - 09:00

Days before the DVD and Blu Ray release of Utopia, we enjoyed a brief chat to the wonderful Adeel Akhtar, aka Wilson Wilson…

Warning: contains Utopia spoilers.

I’d take a bet, right now, that somewhere in the country is a new-ish puppy, guinea pig, or goldfish named Wilson Wilson. I’d take a similar bet that someone, somewhere is using Neil Maskell’s unvarying delivery of the line “Where is Jessica Hyde?” as their mobile ringtone. Finally, I wager that the next time a flu epidemic hits the headlines, Twitter will be standing room only thanks to gags about Mr Rabbit.

Such is the ardent affection that six-part Channel 4 drama Utopia provoked from fans earlier this year. The show splashed a can-full of acid yellow paint onto the greyness of a UK January, rousing us from the post-Christmas slumber with a nasty and morally complex tale of conspiracy and dreadful pragmatism.

Written by playwright Dennis Kelly, directed by Mark Munden, Alex Garcia and Wayne Yip, and with a beautifully atmospheric score by Cristobel Tapia de Veer, Utopia did exactly what new drama should; it shook us up, and left us rattled. 

Few of its characters were easy to like. There were maniacal scientists, shady big pharma bosses, pervert professors, child-killers (and, coincidentally, child killers). The gang of normal, useless people thrown into the multi-layered global conspiracy was threaded with so many secrets and double-crossings that the audience was denied an easy moral avatar, someone they could support uncomplicatedly. Someone who evoked real pathos. 

Enter Adeel Akhtar, part of Chris Morris’ magnificent Four Lions, Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, and the actor behind Utopia’s conspiracy theorist, Wilson Wilson. Here was a character - nuclear bunker and paranoid theories about CIA-invented caffeine notwithstanding - we understood. Wilson was clever, funny, and loved his dad. More importantly, once he’d had his eye gouged out by a torturous maniac, he looked like a psycho pirate, which is never a bad thing.

We were lucky enough to chat to talented actor, er Akhtar (nominative determinism, do you think?) for a tantalisingly brief ten minutes against the backdrop of a noisy pub. If anything, it was more a tease than an interview, as Utopia and his previous work is so ripe for dissection, we’d barely started to discuss it when the timely PR intervened and sent us packing. Still, here’s what was said (and for anyone wishing to recreate the ambiance of our talk, read this whilst standing next to someone restocking the J20s and shouting incomprehensibly in a crowded Soho bar and you’ll be golden). 

Thanks very much for speaking with us, we loved Utopia so it’s a real pleasure to talk to you.

That’s okay. I’ve read all the Den of Geek reviews on it

Blimey, have you?

Yeah, they’re really nice.

That’s good to hear. Always a bit terrifying when you realise people actually read the stuff you write…

I’ve been following what you guys have been saying about it, so thanks for saying such nice things.

Out of everyone in the UK, you were in a privileged position with Utopia, because you knew what was going on right from the beginning didn’t you?

Yeah. I was doing a Metro interview, and he kind of took what I said and sort of, not misquoted, but I think he misunderstood what I was saying. Plot-wise, I knew exactly what was happening. It’s a very difficult question to answer because obviously you’ve got the emotional journey of the character, and then you’ve got the plot and the main arc of the whole story, so I suppose I knew where the story was ending up plot-wise but in regards to character journey, and the emotional journey of my character in particular, I wasn’t sure how it would be presented. Because we did so many different takes and I was doing so many different things it was difficult to know how people would respond to him. Plot-wise though, I knew exactly what was going on.

And Wilson Wilson isn’t dead of course…

Well we don’t know. Who knows? 

Both you and Dennis Kelly have done a lot of stage work in the past. Had you come across his plays before?

I was living in New York for a little while when I was drama school, and I went to see a play called After The End that was set in a bunker. It was basically about two people who were in this sort of makeshift shelter, and the fella was telling the girl that it was the end of the world and because of that she wasn’t allowed to leave this bunker that he’d made.

I only twigged that that was Dennis’ play when I was rehearsing my stuff in the bunker for Utopia, I was like ‘This is a lot like After The End’ and then it made a lot of sense. Lots of things went off in my head and I was like ‘That’s the reason that he’s doing this story’, and this is the thing that he wants to say.

What was the audition process like for Utopia?

I had three auditions, the first with the casting director, the second with Mark Munden, the first director of the first three episodes. It was one of the more enjoyable auditions I’ve had, I think. 

Did you realise at that stage what a unique look Mark Munden would bring to Utopia?

No, but not because he was being hidden or covert about it, it’s just that I thought I’d got what was going on, but then it’s only in the doing that you sort of recognise that it’s more nuanced and layered than you first realised.

Had you seen storyboards? [the pub noise seems to have caused Akhtar to mishear the question as ‘Were there storyboards?’]

You’ll have to ask him that I think. I suppose when the director does all his work away from the script, we’re not privy to that stuff are we, performers and actors. 

Dennis has generously said in interviews that Neil Maskell created Arby’s character almost as much as he did. How much input did you have into Wilson?

My input into Wilson was… I didn’t have a chat, or a sit-down conversation with either Dennis or Mark about ‘This is where I think Wilson should…’, I just kind of did what I did with what I had. More because I was just really happy to be a part of it, so I just wanted to do the best job that I could. When you’re in a new situation, you kind of don’t want to make too many waves, you just want to do the best you can so I didn’t really say ‘This is where I see him going’.

After the first series, if it does come back I might be able to have a little bit more… because I think I’ve got more of an understanding of what he’s about now. 

A second series hasn’t been announced yet has it? Was it always the plan for Utopia to continue past the series one finale?

I don’t know really. I’m only just figuring out about episodic series TV stuff at the moment. There are a lot of boxes you’ve got to tick, you’ve got to tell a good story, you want to have fully fleshed-out characters, you want to have the audience engaged, but you also want to know that it doesn’t end, because if it ends then everyone’s had that kind of cathartic thing, like ‘Yeah, that’s it’.

I don’t know what their plan was, you’d have to ask Dennis or the producers, but I think it’s important that we know it never ends, it keeps going.

Both this and something like Four Lions, and maybe even The Dictator to some extent, are refreshing for staging proper ethical and moral questions inside entertainment. It’s rare isn’t it?

Yeah. It is. The Dictator, well that was just a comedy, and I suppose the morality was incidental. It was just something to try and make people laugh rather than being a serious thing. With Four Lions though, I think Chris [Morris] has got more of an understanding of making a comment on society or on the current issues. With Utopia definitely it’s more the idea of trying to put across a message rather than just entertaining the audience. It’s entertaining as well but there’s also a lot of other things that are going on. 

Wilson enacts one of those ethical problems, by eventually coming around to The Network’s point of view in Utopia. Is his choice something you can empathise with?

It depends on the point you’re looking at. I was looking at indoctrination in general and how people kind of skew their identity in pursuit of a particular ideology. It always takes a certain… there’s always a pattern to it, and usually it’s someone in a moment of crisis looking for some kind of answer, so in that sense I can empathise with anybody who makes a decision like that in pursuit of something. So yeah, I suppose I can, because it’s people who are looking for answers.

[At this point, we’re interrupted and asked to wrap up]

Agh, last question. Okay, since Utopia was on, have people stopped you in the street and asked you “Where is Jessica Hyde?”

No, no. Not so much that. I’m getting lots of people who are just really happy that the show’s been put on. It’s rare. I’ve done lots of stuff, but it’s rare for people to come up to you and be happy about the fact that it’s been put out there, that it’s something a bit different, something creative.

Adeel Akhtar, thank you very much!

Utopia series one is released on DVD and Blu Ray on Monday the 11th of March. Read our spoiler-filled episode reviews, here.

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