Express & Star

Wolverhampton-born actor Antonio Aakeel talks Eaten By Lions ahead of premiere at Birmingham Indian Film Festival

He was born in New Cross Hospital. And he lived in Wolverhampton, Smethwick, West Brom, Walsall and Birmingham before the bright lights of London drew him away. But award-winning actor Antonio Aakeel doesn’t spend too long in The Smoke. Whenever London becomes too intense, he heads straight back to the Black Country to chill out.

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Antonio Aakeel

Given the speed with which his career is taking off, it seems Antonio might have to return more often. For Antonio is one of the fastest-rising young actors in Britain. In recent times, he’s starred in the BAFTA-winning BBC TV mini-series Three Girls, alongside Maxine Peak; he’s presently in the Warner Bros’ Tomb Raider Reboot, alongside Alicia Vikander and later this month he’ll feature in the world premiere of new British comedy Eaten By Lions, alongside Johnny Vegas. Antonio takes the lead in that film, which will receive it’s Midlands film premiere in Birmingham as part of the Birmingham Indian Film Festival 2018, opening on June 22 for 10 days. He’s thrilled.

“We have our world premiere for Eaten By Lions at the Edinburgh Film Festival, then we’re at the London Indian Film festival, then we’re in Birmingham and then we’re in Manchester. The film is a heart warming family story about brotherhood. It’s about identity. It has so many themes in it – it’s very universal. Everyone has suffered from grief and loss or who has been affected by the pressures of society will identify with it.

“My character is the lead, Omah, and the story is about him. After the death of his grandma, he and his half-brother go in search of their estranged father who is living in Blackpool. On their journey from Bradford, they meet comedians such as Johnny Vegas and Kevin Eldon. I don’t want to tell you too much though, you’ll have to go and see it.”

Antonio’s passion for the stage was forged here in the Black Country. He started to act as a youngster, while living in Wolverhampton. His first production was in a nativity line, where he was given one line.

“I loved it. I’d have been eight or nine. When I was a kid, I was always moving – from Smethick to West Brom, then Walsall to Birmingham. But when I went on stage, I instantly felt at home. I just enjoyed it. I got loads of compliments from friends’ parents and it made me happy. I felt alive. I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

His West Midlands upbringing has been a distinct advantage. It’s helped him to keep his feet on the ground and maintain a sense of perspective while others have become carried away by the hullaballoo of showbusiness.

“The Midlands has taught me to be grounded. When you go down south, a lot of times there’s a different way of thinking. Also, the Midlands moves at a slower pace to London and I like that. The Black Country has taught me to stick to my working class, salt-of-the-earth roots. I won’t get blindsided by the glitz and glamour of London or Hollywood.”

Antonio Aakeel

Antonio was a star pupil who achieved a rare A-grade in drama during his A-levels. It set him on the path to high-quality work and he now splits his time between London and the Midlands. The work is in the Capital, but his heart is very much in the Black Country. He’s much in-demand and was thrilled to be part of the BBC’s Three Girls team that won a BAFTA for their portrayal of grooming and sexual abuse in Rochdale. The show described how the authorities failed to investigate allegations of rape because the victims were perceived as unreliable witnesses.

“To be part of that team was incredible. It was encouraging to be in something with Maxine Peake because she’s a working class hero of mine. I love what she represents and what she stands for. Three Girls was about telling a really authentic story. Our job as actors is to tell stories but if we can educate people as well then it becomes really special. When art becomes a service to the community, you know you’re onto something good.”

Antonio had already cut his teeth on Skins, the British teen drama that follows a group of teenagers in Bristol through the two years of sixth form. The show gave him invaluable experience and also cemented the idea that he could become a full-time actor and spend the rest of his life on the stage. He secured an agent, was inspired by other actors and instilled in himself some belief.

“Belief is so important in this industry. You really have to believe in yourself and you really have to understand how it works. You have to know that you have something to offer. A lot of actors hold themselves back because they think they’re not good enough. But I don’t have that mindset. You know, for me, it’s great to have done some really good work in the early part of my career; particularly by taking the lead in Eaten By Lions. The chances of being a non-white actor being cast as the lead in a film like that are virtually non-existent, so I’m very happy.”

Wolverhampton’s much-loved actor-writer Meera Syal and the former West Bromwich actor Dame Julie Walters are two of his biggest heroes. Both rose from working class Black Country roots to establish themselves in one of Britain’s most competitive professions. “I met Meera Syal and she was incredible, she was everything I wanted her to be. I think we have the same way of thinking, in that we are from the Black Country and so feel like outsiders. But we are determined, we persist and we try to succeed.

“As a kid growing up in the Black Country and Birmingham, knowing that people like Meera Syal and Julie Walters made it spurred me on. They gave me the idea that it is possible. When you were raised in Wolves people imagine you can’t be an actor.”

Another role model is the Dudley comic Sir Lenny Henry, whose work to support BAME performers has been transformational. “His example really resonates with me. Being a person of colour I’m fully aware of the glass ceiling and how it’s affected me. I have a responsibility to be vocal about that and shatter those perceptions.” That’s why a film like Eaten By Lions is so important. It’s not about race. I’m not playing a doctor or a terrorist. It’s not about black, white, Asian, muslin or Christian etc. It’s about family – and that’s something that connects with everyone.”

TV and film have been kind to Antonio, though he hopes to develop a career in theatre too, when opportunities arise. For now, however, he’s busy with films. In addition to Eaten By Lions, he’s soon to feature in another film, Granada Nights, in which he again takes the lead role. That movie will be released next year and follows the experience of a sheltered young tourist who goes to Spain to be with his girlfriend.

“I’m pleased with the way things are going but I definitely want to write, like Meera, and create more opportunities for myself and for others. There are stories that I want to tell. There are scripts that don’t reflect my experiences and so I feel like I have something to offer. It’s important to be responsible and inspire the next generation. I want to help the other kids from the Black Country and Birmingham so that they know they can live their dreams if they work hard enough.”