In normal times Akhtar comes to this pub – and to the Anchor and Hope and the Camberwell Arms, part of the same local group – quite often. He traces the habit back to a memorable evening when a mate brought another friend, Sam Soan, back to his flat after a somewhat drunken evening and they felt peckish. “I mean, this honestly isn’t typical of what’s in my fridge,” he says, “but I had these partridges in there, which I’d bought at the butcher that day on a whim and not been sure what to do with, and Sam rustled up this amazing late-night meal. Later I went to the Camberwell Arms and discovered he was the head chef there, so I’ve been a fan ever since.” We scan the menu of seasonal plates, cod cheeks and rabbit leg and lemon sole and wild mushroom tart, and drink warm ale beside the heat haze of traffic.
The day before, I’d watched Akhtar in a preview of his most recent film, Enola Holmes, about Sherlock’s sleuthing kid sister, in which he plays a befuddled and bewhiskered Inspector Lestrade. The film stars Millie Bobby Brown (from Netflix’s Stranger Things) who, aged 16, is also one of the film’s producers. “I don’t know if it’s me getting older,” says Akhtar, “but the more I see of that generation of teenager, it seems they are on to something. They have all this information coming at them and they process it in a really effortless way. They can test out what it’s like to be one thing, and then another. Whereas for my generation, what you could be seemed so much more prescriptive.”
Akhtar is 40. His acting life to begin with was defined by not being the son his father imagined. His parents, then both recent immigrants – his father from Pakistan, his mother from Kenya – met at Heathrow Terminal 3, where they both worked. After his father became a successful immigration lawyer, Akhtar was sent to board at Cheltenham College. The expectation was that he would become a lawyer, too, and a pillar of his parents’ home counties Muslim community, after an arranged marriage. He managed to avoid all those fates, though he studied law at university.
“I really tried,” he says. “But there was an element of me that was completely resistant, I just couldn’t retain the law stuff. I kept on failing exams.”
His mother has been an inspiration in his career in other ways, too, he has lately come to realise. One of his diversions in the months of lockdown has been to write little fragments of family history, to make sense of that past for himself.
“My mum came over when she was 17 and stayed at the YWCA in Notting Hill,” he says. “It was winter and she was sharing with three young Irish women. She goes to bed lonely one night and the next thing she comes round in hospital. There was a gas leak and she nearly died; none of which I knew until I found a newspaper report that she had kept.”
When Akhtar heard his mother tell that story for the first time, it was, he says, like hearing the opening line of a novel, or watching an artist put a brush stroke on a blank canvas. He likens the process of assimilation that followed for her to making art – imagining a future, and then having it happen. “We don’t give any of that the same weight as we would somebody who writes a classic novel,” he says, “but they are both deeply creative endeavours, and one is far more high risk.”
Sitting in the hot sun, asking for refills of the water jug, our conversation as we eat covers a lot of ground – the nightmare of having to die in front of Judi Dench (in Victoria and Abdul); the bits of advice received from the perennial actors’ guru Stellan Skarsgård on the set of the BBC’s River (“once you are a professional actor you are always trying to go back to being an amateur, right?”); the ways in which Chris Morris proved terrorism should be a subject for comedy – but it returns a few times to these questions of belonging. Akhtar received a brutal lesson in racial profiling on a trip to New York in 2002, when he was hauled off a plane and arrested as a terror suspect, in a disturbing case of mistaken identity.
“Those hierarchical structures are everywhere present, you know,” he says at one point. “It’s just whether you want to pay attention. Most days you can go by and not have to worry about them. Other days they are so present that you can’t ignore it.”
I wonder if in recent years, with greater acceptance of colour-blind casting, and commitments to greater diversity in front of and behind the camera, he has noticed a shift in the industry. Are things changing quickly enough?
“I think we’re sort of muddling our way through a conversation,” he says. “It’s complicated. It’s the equivalent of saying to somebody, ‘I want you to look and acknowledge my differences and my history.’ But at the same time, in the same instant, you must try and make that not matter. The good thing is I think people are ready to stretch their ideas on that, a bit more than they ever were.”
Enola Holmes is out now on Netflix