“I think, in the long run, people need to take risks."
Aki Omoshaybi’s entry into the acting industry wasn’t entirely planned. Growing up in Portsmouth, it was football, not theatre, that was his true passion. He only got involved in youth theatre to meet girls, he admits. Fast forward to 2020 and he has performed on Broadway and in London’s West End, appeared in front of the Queen and in Burberry campaigns as a dancer, and picked up film roles in Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi and The Riot Club, as well as indie releases such as 2019’s Burning Men. Recently, he won acclaim as a writer-director with his debut feature REAL, as well as securing a nationwide release for this emotionally intelligent take on modern romance in times of austerity.
Your first love was football – what happened after you realised you wanted to pursue acting?
I went to drama school and knuckled down, because I was so far behind everyone who’d been acting and doing musical theatre since they were kids. Being working class and from Portsmouth, it was a very new experience to move up to London to go do Shakespeare.
Did you find drama school difficult to navigate as a working-class actor?
Yeah it was, but I think it’s opened up a bit for students now. I remember I had to do speech lessons the summer before I started because my speech was so “bad”, apparently. And it wasn’t just class – I think I was also the only Black person in my year.
You’ve appeared in UK-produced films such as Burning Men, Faces and The Riot Club. What’s most exciting about the British independent film industry right now?
British features are less formulaic than what you see from the studios. We’re offering different ways of telling stories – British films have depth in a different way.
Are there any particular social issues you want to highlight as a filmmaker?
I just like to tell stories with heart and hope. REAL features two Black protagonists but it’s got nothing to do with race or violence, which are the kind of stories that tend to make it from Black British filmmakers.
It’s rare to see two Black protagonists in a romantic drama like REAL, or for a film in this genre to centre on working-class protagonists.
It was important for REAL to be from a different perspective. It seems like romantic dramas are always about people from an affluent background – someone living in a house in Notting Hill while being a “struggling writer”. What about a single mum living on a council estate who wants to fall in love? That story is important, too.
Is there anything that needs to change for the UK film industry to move forward?
Sometimes it can feel like a bit of a closed club. Because of austerity and the subsequent lack of funds, everybody’s trying to do a short bet and play it safe. I think, in the long run, people need to take risks – that’s what smaller films that have broken through recently have done.
21 May 2020