When Asheq Akhtar answered a small ad calling for non-professionals to take part in a film, he could not have predicted the results. After three week’s training in method acting he was out on the streets before a full feature film crew. And no one who saw the movie Self Made will forget his barely scripted attack on a pregnant woman.
“It was a really hard day in Newcastle,” recalls Akhtar. “It was cold. It was bitter. It was in the same place I grew up in where my mum was abused by this ex boyfriend of hers. So I had all these memories, all this stuff to contend with.”
And for anyone who needs reminding, he adds “I’d never seen a film crew in action like that. It’s a very challenging environment to work in if you’ve never shot a film before.”
Plaudits and brickbats for this striking piece of reality cinema have since fallen the way of artist and director Gillian Wearing. And many said that her cast of novices, who all played out challenging psychodramas, were victims of an exploitation flick.
“When I watched it I thought people are going to read this the wrong way and it was a real worry for me,” says Akhtar, who sounds nothing like a psychopath when we talk on the phone. “I was thinking what have I done. What have I actually done? What are people going to take away from it?”
But as the DVD release approaches, he advises me the film “takes repeat viewing” to get a better sense of why he might want to play out such a brutal denouement. And a year and a half on from the premiere, he can laugh about the controversy it caused.
“It’s been a mixed reaction,” he says in a tone of understatement. “It’s very difficult for my family to watch and they were the people I was most concerned about. I had a lot of talks with them about it”.
Turner Prize-winning artists are just the latest thing his family has had to contend with. “[They] have been through so much: from the days of the partition in India, to the Bangladesh civil war, from migrating over to the UK and there’s been so much history.”
Some of this may explain the anger in Akhtar’s performance, yet the mild mannered Londoner explains that the final cut of Self Made makes his experience look harsher than it really was. “I found it very liberating,” he says cheerfully, “very enlightening and very interesting”.
If anything, the worst part were those accusations of cast exploitation. “It’s strange how people never gave us the credit to know what we were doing and know what we were getting ourselves involved in. And I think that’s been the most painful thing.”
“We just wanted to do something to express ourselves,” he continues. “So someone provided us with an option, with a choice…They asked do you wanna take part in it? Absolutely! We could have pulled out at any time.”
In fact, the closest art lover Akhtar came to dropping out was when he heard about the involvement of YBA Wearing. “And all of a sudden I was absolutely terrified,” he admits. “I thought why am I even going to go to this audition.”
But his controversial debut may be the making of a new career. For the next two years he continued classes with the film’s drama coach, Sam Rumbelow. He says now he is a “wannabe, struggling actor”, albeit one who has recently landed an agent.
“So that was my training,” he says of the chain of events kicked off by the film, “I’d definitely like to be an actor, but it’s not where I envisaged ever ending up at all.”
Along with his own astonishing performance, the coming DVD offers the chance to watch two of his group’s end scenes, which didn’t make the 90 minute edit, plus a workshop in which all the group reflect on their experience.
“I look back on those times so fondly,” says Akhtar who is still in close touch with the film’s other stars. “I think we were such different people back then, two or three years ago. It will be interesting to see that stuff now and say, ‘Isn’t it amazing how far we’ve come?’”
Self Made is out on DVD on March 26. It is available from www.cornerhouse.org and from The Whitechapel Gallery shop to coincide with Gillian Wearing’s upcoming show.