Brenda Blethyn and Jimmy Akingbola in KATE AND KOJI | ©2021 Britbox

Brenda Blethyn and Jimmy Akingbola in KATE & KOJI | ©2021 Britbox

KATE & KOJI has its North American premiere on the streaming service Britbox on Tuesday, April 13. The half-hour comedy ran its first season last year on ITV, and has already been renewed for a second season.

Jimmy Akingbola stars as Koji, opposite Brenda Blethyn’s Kate. Kate is the stuck-in-her-ways proprietor of a small English seaside café. Koji is a doctor from West Africa who is not allowed to practice medicine – or do any other paying work – while he waits for his asylum application to be processed. The two are unlikely comrades, but when Kate discovers an upside to having Koji around, they warily work out an arrangement.

The London-born Akingbola has worked all over the world, in Africa on MOST DANGEROUS GAME, in Vancouver as the villainous Baron Reiter on ARROW, and in Los Angeles on NCIS and SCORPION. He can currently be seen in another English-set comedy, Apple TV+’s Golden Globe-winning TED LASSO.

Speaking by phone from England, Akingbola talks about his role in KATE & KOJI, and more.

ASSIGNMENT X: KATE & KOJI hasn’t even premiered in the U.S., but you’ve already been picked up for a second season in England …

JIMMY AKINGBOLA: Yeah. We’re very excited to bring it back. We’re going to start shooting that either towards the end of this year, or in the next year, once COVID calms down. I’m excited to see what America thinks of it, because for me, it has elements of classics like FRASIER or CHEERS, or even some Chuck Lorre stuff, it’s got an essence of that. And yet, it’s very British, it’s very charming, and at the same time, it educates people without hitting them over the head about asylum seekers, and communities, that you can be from different backgrounds and places, and look different, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t come together and be there for each other.

AX: Koji is a doctor, and an asylum seeker, and from another country. So, did you do any research into being a doctor, or asylum seekers, and/or Koji’s accent?

AKINGBOLA: Yes, I did. I spoke to a young guy from Cuba who had been through the same experience as Koji. He really opened up to me, and I sat with him for hours to talk about how his journey had been through the U.K., and how he’s feeling now, and the things that had happened to him, to really understand the serious side. That was really important.

I’m not a doctor, but I did play a doctor for three-and-a-half, four years, on HOLBY CITY. And with [KATE & KOJI] being a comedy, I knew we wouldn’t have to go as deep into the medical stuff, so I felt like I was covered there.

I was born in the U.K., but my parents are from Nigeria, West Africa, and so there was that education, there was knowing that, I could bring that for free, in some sense. I understood what it was like for my parents to come here, the first generation of West Africans to come to the U.K.

And so, I felt like I was equipped with all the information and knowledge to really bring Koji to life in an authentic way, and to also challenge what people think of asylum seekers, because I think there is a really bad stereotype. And I love the fact that he was of the middle upper class, a bit pompous, and that he’s a man who’s highly educated, got his own life, got his own house, but because of the situation back home, he has to be here, and here is this seaside town where it’s really cold, and you’ve got Kate always going on at him. I think that’s a great set-up for a fantastic comedy, two people that are more alike than they want to realize, but will they ever be friends or not? That’s a very old-school thing of will they or will they not get together and be friends, and it’s been a beautiful journey so far.

Jimmy Akingbola in KATE AND KOJI | ©2021 Britbox

Jimmy Akingbola in KATE AND KOJI | ©2021 Britbox

AX: It’s almost like ALL IN THE FAMILY in a way, a Norman Lear culture-clash comedy …

AKINGBOLA: Mm-hmm. Everyone has a reference. When we talk about this show, everyone’s got a show where they go, “It’s a bit like this,” or, “It’s got elements of that.” And I agree with them. I love it. And that’s what I think is exciting. What is a new version of those types of characters and shows? How do we tell those stories via these characters?

AX: Do we know exactly where Koji is from?

AKINGBOLA: It never gets revealed. We talked about it a lot [with the writers], and so we know, but we don’t want to say. The show can be political in some areas, but we didn’t want to name a place …

AX: Because that would get into a discussion of a real country where people are having to flee for their lives …

AKINGBOLA: Yeah. And also, by not naming the place, it also keeps it open. The issue of asylum-seeking is much bigger than Africa. It’s across the whole world, so let’s keep it away from one specific place.

AX: Are you doing a Nigerian accent, just because that’s what you are most familiar with from your parents?

AKINGBOLA: No. I would say I was doing more of a [general] West African accent. West Africa is a big place, but you can have people from Nigeria and Ghana, like a mixture. I’ve done a lot of theater, so I’ve used South African accents, and American accents.

I wanted Koji to have a West African accent, but a crisp, clipped accent, in terms of, he loves the English language. If you hear the words he uses, and you hear his accent, it’s not that thick. I think with him being educated, and embracing, “I like the English language, I love Shakespeare, I’m highly educated, and I’m proud of where I’m from as an African, and so I’m going to have a slightly clipped African accent.”

That was research that I did for myself, in terms of, I feel that, again, there could be a stereotypical version of what Koji needs to sound and look like. I was like, “No, let’s go against that.” That’s not my world. I know Africans that are like this, in terms of how I’m portraying Koji. They’re smart, and they’ve got money, and they’re very proud.

AX: Even to just go to the café for tea, Koji wears a suit and eyeglasses. What do the eyeglasses do for your performance?

AKINGBOLA: For me, the glasses show age. The character also – I wouldn’t say I based him off of my dad, but my dad and one of my brothers, I loved them, they used to wear glasses. I like to create characters from people that I’ve seen or I know. And so, when I was trying to find this character, that element of the glasses and the education – my father was self-taught, but he was a very, very smart man. He loved a debate, he loved a discussion, he loved an argument. And so did my brother. And there was something in their mannerisms when they got passionate, and they would slightly twist their glasses, so that was what I wanted to bring to Koji. It represented maturity, it represented him like he reads a lot as well. I just felt like that’s something he should have, as well as the suit.

We had a lot of discussions about the suit. I was like, “African, stylish. They have money, and they do not mess around.” I didn’t want this broken asylum seeker African guy in the café, looking homeless. I know you might get some people looking like that, depending on where they come from, but that’s not everybody. I want to show, this is a guy who’s coming from a certain place, and he’s holding onto that status. Even though he’s an asylum seeker now, he’s like, “I can’t let go of the status. I need to stay clean and sharp, and be really polite.” Even if people are not being nice to him, he gets a lot of racist abuse, he’s going to rise above it, because that’s the type of man he is.

AX: How is working with Brenda Blethyn?

AKINGBOLA: Oh, it’s so good. Brenda is funny. I don’t laugh on set that much at all, but she would make me corpse [break up laughing] all the time. She’s a pro, she’s very generous, she’s done a lot of theater like myself, she’s very playful, and very open to trying new things. We became like best mates.

The whole cast is like a family, and it is like being in a theater ensemble company. We celebrated her birthday when we shot it last year, so that was really nice. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to do it again the same time this year, but she’s just amazing. She’s Brenda Blethyn, she’s a legend, because of, no matter what she does – if you see her in VERA, and then you see her in KATE & KOJI, you would go, “Are they the same person?”

I look up to her, and in some ways, that’s what I’m trying to do with my work. If you look at me as Koji, and you saw me in MOST DANGEROUS GAME, or even IN THE LONG RUN, or ARROW, you would be like, “Is that the same guy?” That’s the chameleon side.

AX: Do you do more drama than comedy?

AKINGBOLA: It’s almost fifty-fifty, actually, if I look at my CV. I’ve got my own rule that, if I do a comedy, I like to go back to drama, and if I do a drama, I like to go back to comedy. It doesn’t always happen like that – I might end up doing two dramas, then a comedy – but my career has been like that. I started out doing a sitcom called THE CROUCHES, and then my next big break was a police procedural called HOLBY BLUE, and then I went up to do REV, which was an award-winning BBC comedy with Olivia Colman and Tom Hollander, and then after that, I did another hospital drama, HOLBY CITY.

But I’ve been living back and forth between the U.S. and the U.K. now for the last six years, and during that time, ARROW was my biggest role in the U.S. Obviously, that was a drama, but then, at the same time, I was back in the U.K. doing a Channel Four comedy called BALLOT MONKEYS, which was written by Guy Jenkins and Andy Hamilton. It was a spoof about elections in the U.K., a bit like the Armando Ianucci film, IN THE LOOP. And so that’s my rhythm. After that, I came back to do a drama and a movie, and right now, over the last few years, I’ve been going between IN THE LONG RUN, and doing the Quibi drama MOST DANGEROUS GAME, and then, at the same time, I did KATE & KOJI.

So, it naturally happens, but I do like to keep an eye on it, because I don’t want to pigeonhole myself. I don’t want to just be the funny guy, and I don’t want to just be the straight serious drama guy. I think I’m very lucky to be able to do both. But also, I just like working with great people, like Guy Jenkins and Andy Hamilton. And with KATE & KOJI, I’ve said this so many times today, it’s a modern-day classic, I think. It’s a fantastic sitcom that I think surprised everybody in the U.K. It was a massive hit on ITV, and, thanks to Britbox, everybody in the U.S., my friends, my family, everybody going, “How do we watch it?”, are going to get to see it.

AX: You’ve worked in the U.S., and in Vancouver, and obviously, you work in England. Do you find differences in the way work is approached in the three countries, or is it pretty much the same?

AKINGBOLA: For me, it’s pretty much the same. I think maybe sometimes the [U.S.] working hours are a little bit longer, and the scale, the size of some of the shows in the U.S. is much bigger, which is very exciting. But at the end of the day, it is mostly the same. It’s about turning up, doing your work, and being the best that you can be, and treating everyone right, and making sure that at the end of it, we’ve created a show or a film that the audience is going to love. I love the fact that, as the world’s getting smaller, it’s about being an international artist now. Whereas before you could just be in your country [of origin], but I love the fact that you can work in America, Canada, South Africa, Budapest – there’s so much great content going on now across the world that I see myself more as an international artist. But I do love American shows, and working on stuff like SCORPION, and ARROW, or NCIS, or TED LASSO.

AX: TED LASSO is American-made, but it shoots in the U.K., so does it feel more like a U.K. show, or more like a U.S. show?

AKINGBOLA: It feels more like a U.S. show, because at the heart of it is Jason Sudeikis. I auditioned for that when I was in L.A.. TED LASSO is a bit like KATE & KOJI in some ways, because it’s a fish out of water, right? Him being American, and coming from American football, trying to coach a soccer team, it’s a bit similar in that way.

AX: What’s your character Ollie like in TED LASSO?

AKINGBOLA: I was actually filming MOST DANGEROUS GAME [when TED LASSO went into production], so they couldn’t use me as much as they’d have liked, but I got a great little cameo role. Ollie is Ted Lasso’s first friend in the U.K. I pick him up from the airport, and invite him to my house, and to my restaurant, and feed him very spicy Indian food, because my wife is Indian.

AX: And what would you most like people to know about KATE & KOJI?

AKINGBOLA: I would like people to know it’s on April the 13th, on Britbox, and it’s fantastic, it’s funny. If you’re a lover of U.K. shows like ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES, OPEN ALL HOURS, or DESMOND, and even U.S. shows like CHEERS or FRASIER, then you’re going to love KATE & KOJI. And I think you’ll see myself and Brenda Blethyn doing characters that you’ve never seen us do before, so it’s the one to watch.

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Article: Exclusive Interview with KATE AND KOJI actor Jimmy Akingbola on the Britbox series and TED LASSO

 

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