Jimmy Akingbola on sharing his foster care story and working in "cutthroat" Hollywood
The Bel-Air star reflects on his ITV documentary Handle with Care, what it was like revisiting his childhood for the personal film, and why there needs to be more diversity in the industry.
When Jimmy Akingbola was cast to play Geoffrey Thompson in Bel-Air – Peacock's dramatic, gritty take on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – it was, unsurprisingly, a major milestone in his acting career.
Like many of us, Akingbola had grown up watching the Will Smith sitcom, which is widely considered to be a watershed moment for Black television and tells the story of a West Philadelphia teenager who is sent to live with his wealthy uncle in Bel-Air. However, that wasn't the only reason why earning the role of the British butler was so significant.
"Will Smith is playing [Fresh Prince executive producer] Benny Medina. Benny Medina was adopted by a white American family. So as a kid, I grew up watching a version of myself," Akingbola tells RadioTimes.com.
"Will is playing me and I just didn't know it. This is a cultural, iconic, global hit sitcom that is still being watched today – that is a care story and now I'm playing Geoffrey in the drama version. You can't make that up."
While many regular TV-watchers will recognise the 44-year-old from ITV drama The Tower, superhero series Arrow, BBC sitcom Rev or even from his stint in Holby City, few will know of his experience in foster care. At the age of two, Akingbola was uprooted from his Nigerian family and adopted by a white British foster family, most of whom feature in his upcoming ITV documentary Handle with Care.
"This is probably the proudest thing I've ever made," he tells me over Zoom from his home in LA. It's 2:30am in the morning over there but he's full of life and chatty, keen to spread the word about this deeply personal project.
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"When I looked at care stories that I'd seen on TV or film or documentaries – just the way things are rolled out in the media, I just thought it was always negative. It was always a bit clickbait-y and mining trauma.
"It's not that I had a squeaky clean, nothing-bad-happened-to-me upbringing. There are things I've overcome, but overall, it was a positive experience and I've met other people where they've had positive experiences."
Losing multiple family members during the pandemic led Akingbola to reflect on his own upbringing and foster care experience. The London-born actor decided that it was time to "face his past", as he says in the documentary, and share his story.
"I wanted to tell a story that is celebrating and inspiring and has a hero element to it – that could be the parents that are fostering or the biological parents who try their best, like my dad. He's not the villain. He's still one of the heroes of the film."
When Akingbola was a toddler, his birth parents separated after his father suspected that his mother – who was unknowingly suffering with schizophrenia – had been unfaithful and that Akingbola was not his biological son. Looking after her son became too much to bear whilst battling a mental illness and in 1979, she handed him over to social services.
While the actor was loved by his adopted parents, East London family the Crows, Akingbola admits that filming the documentary brought up feelings of "sadness and abandonment" as well as "joy, laughter and great memories".
"I was still a young boy going, 'Well, where's my biological mum and dad?" and when you're about six or seven, that's confusing, you know? I didn't want it to be like when I say I had a positive upbringing that I didn't have to work through anything, that I didn't overcome any trauma. Of course [I did], and that's why I say in the documentary, there's always a bit of trauma there for everybody."
In the film, we meet both Akingbola's older biological siblings, who he reconnected with as he grew up, and his foster siblings – and while they were happy to take part in the documentary, he reveals that his foster mother Gloria took some convincing.
"I think it was a mixture of things, [like] 'I don't want a camera on me,' and I was like, 'It's a love letter to you and dad and everyone,' and she said, 'I know you love me, you don't have to do that.'"
Akingbola's adoration for Gloria, who he hadn't managed to see for several years due to work and the pandemic, is clear both over Zoom and in the documentary, particularly since she refuses to acknowledge that her fostering efforts were extraordinary.
"In the documentary, she's like, 'Ah, anyone would have done it,' and I was like, 'No – not everyone does this. Not everyone does it in a way that you did it,'" he says. "Over time, it generated discussion with my foster siblings and they would have conversations with mum over a cup of tea and I think she realised, 'Hey, this is an important story to tell.' It's about the universal story of unconditional love, and how a bit of love can save a child and change a child's life."
While Handle with Care is yet to air, the actor reveals that its screening has already inspired one family to look into adoption. "They messaged me saying, 'We were very moved and we've been thinking about it for a few years but after watching the documentary, we stopped thinking about it and we're going to definitely adopt a child in the next year.'
"I don't know how many people are going to do that but it was very nice to get that one message and it just reminded me that you never know how this will affect people in a positive way."
Akingbola's isn't the only story to be told in the film, with Line of Duty's Lennie James and Olympic athlete Kriss Akabusi also appearing – however, both celebrities had very different experiences of the care system, with Akabusi speaking of the abuse he received at the hands of various foster parents.
"I just DM'd [Kriss] on Instagram and he decided to share his story with me," Akingbola continues. "And actually, what I will say about Kriss's – it was negative but I had a talk with him, I said, 'Let's flip that.' That's why you hear him say that the children's home was his saviour.
"In some ways, you could say it's negative, or you could say it's positive that it saved him and you could say that his story is positive because he is the man he is today, he's come all this way."
There were other celebrities that Akingbola wanted to include, from Lorraine Pascale to Seal, but with only an hour to fill, it wasn't possible. "Maybe that will be for the Netflix one," he smiles. "Also what it did do was make me think about an American version as well.
"Tiffany Haddish has her own care story and I think of people like Sandra Bullock and Angelina Jolie, there's so many versions of that."
Taking Handle with Care to the US shouldn't be too hard considering the actor is already based in LA, where he's currently filming the second season of Bel-Air. On how working in the States differs to the UK, Akingbola says it's "a bit more cutthroat" in America.
"I feel like if you have a bit of a wobbly day off or a week off, unless you're number one, you can find yourself not in a job anymore," he says, before adding that he still can't believe he's working in Hollywood.
"I walk with joy in my heart," he adds. "I'm working on the Universal lot, seeing the Jaws set and the Back to the Future car."
However, he continues to return to the UK to film The Tower, the ITV adaptation of Kate London's Metropolitan novels in which he plays DC Steve Bradshaw. "The whole thing about the phone is still hanging in the air," he teases. "It feels gritty and different. I look at it and I'm going, 'This doesn't feel like a normal ITV drama.'
"What I love about this is it's a female-led drama. Gemma Whelan and Tahirah Sharif are amazing in it. Tamzin Outhwaite is going to be in it as well; she's amazing."
With The Tower, Handle with Care and his panel show Sorry I Didn't Know being ITV properties, Akingbola adds that he's felt "embraced" by the channel.
"I was talking to Tamzin Outhwaite and she's like, 'You're ITV talent. I never got the golden handshake deal.' Sometimes I thought the UK found it hard to nurture and embrace talent and it's very nice that at this point in my career that I feel ITV is embracing me as well as my production company.
"I just hope that increases across the board, that it's not a sense of just that production company or that actor. I think there still needs to be more diversity and inclusion across the board and funded by the company."
In the meantime, Akingbola is happy to be having an impact on the industry with Sorry I Didn't Know, which features an all-Black panel and fills "a very important gap", but also through Handle with Care.
"I'm a storyteller as well as an actor, I do produce and I'm an artist and I want to be able to look back and leave something behind that had an impact on the world."