Growing up, Calgary actor Praneet Akilla describes himself as “a musical theatre kid who did theatre as a hobby in his spare time,” but before that as a kid completely mesmerized by Disney’s Aladdin, because it was the first time he remembers seeing someone on screen that looked like him. On the significance of that moment, Akilla comments: “If I hadn’t seen Aladdin, I wouldn’t have thought it was possible for me to do what I’m doing today.” This is also a part of his story we’ll come back to.
Throughout school, Akilla could be found absolutely loving performing on stage, but when the time came to choose a direction for his post-secondary studies, he comments that theatre wasn’t something he had considered, and that “looking back, I didn’t believe in myself at the time.” As Akilla finished high school, he made the move to Montreal where he completed a degree in engineering at McGill University. While at McGill, his love for performing continued to both take hold and evolve, from singing as part of an acapella group to discovering his love for film.
After graduating from McGill, Akilla moved back to Calgary and shortly after landed the title role in Front Row Centre Player’s production of Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical In the show’s penultimate number, on the verge of a breakthrough in his research, Dr. Jekyll sings: “This is the moment, this is the time, when the momentum and the moment are in rhyme!” In a case of life imitating art, playing Jekyll and Hyde was the “moment” in which Akilla found his way back to the stage and reignited his passion for performing. It was also the moment he decided to change the trajectory of his career. As Akilla comments: “Jekyll and Hyde was really the transition point for me and the main catalyst, because it gave me the opportunity to get back to my roots. I got back to what I was passionate about, and realized through being back on stage after a long time, that this is what it means to be happy.”
Over the last three years Akilla has found steady work in both theatre and film, and just two of his roles include Orlando in Shakespeare by the Bow’s production of As You Like It and the role of Odysseus opposite Canadian acting legend Seana McKenna’s Penelope in The Penelopiad at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario. In 2018, Akilla was also cast as a series-regular in Netflix’s adaptation of comic The October Faction, which Akilla describes as a mix between Supernatural and The Addams Family. To be released later this year, The October Faction follows a monster hunting family that moves back to their hometown after their patriarch dies, and soon after realize their town isn’t as idyllic as it seems and that they may have to continue the family business. Akilla plays the character of Phillip Mishira, who he describes as a complex character coming to terms with his own identity.
In our conversation, Akilla also mentions that his role in The October Faction is the first time he’s been cast in a role where his ethnicity has nothing to do with the casting choice. “The industry is changing” he comments. “But a lot of the parts I’ve gone out for, somewhere or other my ethnicity figures into the storyline of the character – you’re brown, therefore you must have an arranged marriage problem, or you’re brown therefore you must be driving a taxi, or you’re brown so your parents want you to be a doctor. A lot of the storylines, even though it seems like progress has been made, and that there are a lot more South Asian leads, in reality those storylines are still very stereotypical. Screen time doesn’t necessarily equate with improved diversity and representation - there’s a difference. Representation means seeing ethnic character storylines that are three-dimensional. We are not what our skin looks like, we all share the same problems, fears, wants, needs, and happiness, and our stories are told through a universal lens, as opposed to "oh he is brown...therefore he can only have these issues."
As Akilla continues: “In The October Faction, my character is clearly South Asian but my ethnicity doesn’t figure into the storyline at all, and I really want to credit the writers and the producers of the show, and Netflix for doing that because it takes people like that in positions of power to initiate those type of changes.”
And what does it mean to Akilla to now be the Aladdin to kids who see him on stage and the screen? “It means the world” Akilla comments. “And it’s a responsibility I take very seriously, because I get to help blaze a trail for younger artists that are South Asian. It shows them that they can pursue this as a career and that they can play any character they want.”