Paul Risker chats with River star Adeel Akhtar…
The creative process is often spoken of in the context of a never-ending voyage of discovery, alongside which filmmaking is contextualised as a vast collaboration. For Adeel Akhtar who plays John Rivers (Stellan Skarsgård’s) straight laced partner in the BBC One mini-series River, both the learning and collaborative processes are not only embraced, but were acknowledged by the actor when he joined Flickering Myth in conversation to discuss the series. As Akhtar explained: “I think that’s the thing that has impacted me the most – just being with these amazing actors and knowing how to conduct yourself when you are telling a particular story or when you have such a gruelling schedule as we had.”
A series that is difficult to boil down into a simple description, on one level it is a detective, crime and mystery story that looks to feed the audience’s enduring appetite for this variety of drama. And yet beneath its surface River will be seen by some to feature a supernatural edge that could to the more observant eye be put in the context of less the supernatural and instead a deeper and more penetrating psychological dimension that fuels the angst and instability that seems to be a pre-requisite for the contemporary onscreen detective.
Akhtar shared his thoughts on having the opportunity to play a part in telling this story, the importance of allowing both the characters and the audience to breathe and the nature of television in comparison to the nature of film.
Paul Risker: Why a career in acting? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Adeel Akhtar: Well I studied law before I went to drama school. My girlfriend at the time was auditioning for a drama school over in New York and I went over there as her scene study partner. They then phoned me up and offered me a place, but I was going to go on and qualify for my law degree, and so essentially I was going to become a lawyer. But I always thought that I was eventually going to go to drama school, although maybe after I had got a degree and so the opportunity actually came quicker than I thought. I enjoyed acting as a kid when I was sixteen or seventeen, and then I went to The National Youth Theatre during the summers. So that is where it all started and that’s how I got into acting.
PR: I have spoken with actors and non-actors about how it is in our nature as humans to perform on a daily basis depending on who we are with. Talking of this early appreciation of acting, what was it for you that piqued your interest?
AA: I don’t think it was the performance side of it, rather it was more the feeling of being somebody else, of creating a world and a reality around that. And that fed my imagination in a way that I don’t think anything did before or has since. It is something that makes me more appreciative of the world around me, and allows me to inhabit these different worlds and create these different realities for myself, which I find an exciting thing to do.
PR: When you first read the script for River, what was the appeal of both the character and the story?
AA: Well the honest truth is that I am doing alright acting wise and jobs are coming in now where I can pay the bills and pay my mortgage. But I’d done Kudos stuff before that and so I sort of knew Kudos were attached to it and I knew Abi [Morgan] had written it. We don’t get the scripts in all at once – we got a few of them in and I knew a bit of Stellan’s work. So I guess the position I was in career wise it seemed like a dream come true really that all those things were part of the job: Stellan was in it, Abi was going to write it and Kudos who I had worked with before were producing. It just seemed amazing and I couldn’t believe they would ask me to do it. So it was just that really, and also from what I read of the first few scripts I just liked the direction the character River was going in. And knowing that Ira was a mirror, somebody who would be sort of holding a mirror up to him or maybe the audience’s perspective of River’s psychosis or his mental state was an appealing aspect of the part as well.
PR: Detectives such as The Killing’s Sarah Lund on the continent are eccentric and also have these heavy psychological issues. Often there is a character positioned in relation to them that is generally more straight and stable in their personal life and career, and that’s the role of your character in River. These characters are an important prop or peg that holds up a character such as River because without you he inherently loses something. Having created the character of Ira I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how those kinds of archetypes play-off against one another.
AA: I suppose I had never really thought about it that way, but I suppose it is yeah. I suppose that’s why I like River and Abi’s work because as much as it plays on those archetypes a little bit, I don’t think in crime dramas you get people talking to their fellow colleagues. And even when they are limited or are quite weak there is still this appeal about them, and there is still this strength that they have. But the one thing I like about River and the one thing Abby is good at doing is putting his fallibilities or weaknesses at the forefront of things, and everything is still to do with that. As a main character who is pushing the narrative he is quite fragile and brittle, and I don’t think you really get that in most other crime dramas. So I agree that it plays on archetypes, but I think it doesn’t rely on them.
PR: There are moments in which your character is trying to build a connection with River that are depicted through shared silences. I find it interesting how in storytelling we are still looking back to silent cinema and silent storytelling to the point that it remains a significant influence.
AA: I think when a writer, a producer or somebody who is head of the channel is confident enough to have those sorts of dramas or even comedies with those moments that allow the character’s to just breath a little, and therefore allow the audience to take a little breath as well to make up their minds as to what’s going on, then I think that shows a level of confidence which is really important. Otherwise you get an hour long drama or an half an hour comedy in which all you are doing is trying to fill it with jokes or information. I think those moments of silence or those moments of reflection show a level of confidence where the writer is saying: look you can meet me in the middle here or you can have space enough to think your own thoughts, rather than me telling you what you should be thinking right now. And I love playing those moments if they are earned or they are necessary.
PR: As you say it is about allowing the audience to breath, but also silence is an invitation for the audience to interact and to contemplate. And in a crime drama which is by nature a game of cat and mouse, those silences increase in importance, allowing the audience to digest and go through the process of keeping up with all the revelations as they actively seek to work out the mystery.
AA: You really do, and you need people to have the time to catch-up with themselves because if not then all you are going to do is to create a frustration in the audience where they think they are not clever enough to keep up with the narrative. So I think you are right and that’s important.
PR: Having worked in both film and television, how does the long versus the short form process impact or influence you as an actor?
AA: I suppose it would impact me in the sense that with TV it is just a longer narrative arc, and so it means you and the audience have to invest that bit more than you would do for a feature length film for example. But that doesn’t mean any one medium (TV or film) is anymore impactful than the other. I think there are terrible TV shows and there are some terrible films. There are some amazing TV shows and there are some amazing films, and so in that sense I suppose it would come down to the writing. If the writing is good then it makes a good film or TV show.
I mean it’s long doing TV stuff and it is quite a gruelling thing. You are trying to get a lot of stuff done in a three or four month shoot, which sounds like a long time, but it’s not considering all the stuff that you’ve got to do and which they are trying to fit it all into the schedule. It is quite a long process, whereas with film you have a little bit more money if it’s a big budget film and you can then take your time with certain scenes and really explore emotions and stuff like that. But as far as what I prefer, I think either one as long as the writing is good.
PR: You previously mentioned how in TV you don’t get all of the scripts at once and so you are almost discovering as you go along. Unlike in film where you know what will happen from beginning to end, this creates in television a greater synergy between you as actors and your audience.
AA: Sometimes yeah, but I think it’s true of film as well. It is just that the director and the writer have to be a bit more clever in how they create that synergy, but I don’t necessarily think that you can’t achieve that in film. It’s definitely achievable and it’s exciting with NetFlix and everything else that we can have such a long form way of telling a story, and we sort of get it straightaway and we live ten hours of this world. I think that is a really exciting thing, but I don’t think that synergy is impossible to create in film… I think it is still possible.
PR: When you look back on the experience of River how has it impacted you both personally and professionally?
AA: The story has obviously impacted me and it was just amazing to be a part of that group of actors telling this story. I suppose the thing that has impacted me the most was being with some amazing actors who have done such amazing work. To be honest with you I wouldn’t even have imagined I would have been in the same room as Eddie Marsan, but there we were and we were filming on the same day. We had one scene together which I was coming into the tale end of something he was doing. I was sharing a green room with him and just chatting about the stuff that he had done. And yes Stellan, just being around somebody who has that much… I think that’s the thing that has impacted me the most – just being with these amazing actors and knowing how to conduct yourself when you are telling a particular story or when you have such a gruelling schedule as we had. It was just amazing to watch them work really, but I think that is what I will have taken the most from it.
River is released on DVD & Blu-ray on November 30th.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Film International, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.