Stage and screen actor Jimmy Akingbola is carving out a tidy career for himself and in doing so, has earned the accolade of showbiz’s Mr Nice. From humble beginnings, Jimmy is making a name for himself in Holby City but has also played with some of our theatre greats…

Some people say that you get nowhere in life by being nice but, in the world of acting, Jimmy Akingbola is single-handedly shattering that theory. The young actor, who has been dubbed Mr Nice by all who know him, is carving out a handy career in television and theatre, as well as jointly running a down-to-earth networking event called The Happening where actors and writers can meet to work and play.

The showbiz world is a far cry from Jimmy’s more or less normal upbringing in Plaistow, East London. His parents divorced when he was a baby and by the time he was three, he had been fostered by a white family after his mother became seriously ill. Jimmy says:  ‘My childhood was great, and consisted of playing a lot of football as I wanted to be a football player. I have two sets of folks – a foster family and my natural birth family. I had an amazing upbringing with my foster family – in fact both families came together a lot. I feel very blessed.’

As far as Jimmy has ascertained, he is the first in his family to pursue a career in the arts. His paternal grandmother was a great storyteller – and this may be where he gets his gift for communicating.  His brother is a percussionist with the jazz/funk band Jamiroquai so the artistic gene must be strong in this generation! This is why, perhaps, Jimmy did not immediately think of a career in acting. He is unconnected to the theatrical world and he did not go to drama classes. Jimmy says: ‘At primary school, I did a lot of poetry and speaking and I enjoyed doing that. I remember being in the Christmas plays and trying to make people laugh. I loved school but I could have done better – I was lazy but I just wanted to have fun.’

This is a theme that recurs throughout our conversation. While Jimmy now has a zest for learning and improving, at school, he was a teenager like most others – not working quite to his potential. His GCSEs were average except for a single A in drama. Jimmy thought Macbeth was boring when studied in English yet loved it when brought to life in drama classes led by his late teacher Steve Tyres.

Jimmy says: ‘A lot of people have just one teacher who helps them push on, who wants to help them achieve and most people have a teacher who inspired them. For me, it was Steve.  He used to take me out of maths for me to help him with drama lessons. I was very open to working with him– I enjoyed doing that. I still didn’t want to be an actor – I wanted to be a footballer! Steve passed away before the last year of secondary school then I decided to take a BTEC National Diploma because I realised I’d been doing so much of it. I just thought, ‘Let’s follow this A in drama because it’s the only positive thing on my CV!’

This is when the moment of revelation happened, as Jimmy recalls: ‘I remember the first week I went to Epping Forest College, they gave us an assignment which was to write a monologue – fact or fiction – and then to perform it in front of the whole department. So I knew straightaway after a week you had to put yourself out there. I wrote a piece based on the time I was arrested with my brother in the West End. There had been thieves in the area for months and they thought it was us. I wrote this whole story about hanging out at the Trocadero and I did it as a stand-up/monologue like Eddie Murphy, mixing it up, making up bits. It went so well. I was surprised by the amount of laughter, and about my ease and control. The main thing was at the end I got people clapping and stamping their feet and it was at that moment I knew this is what I wanted.’

Lack of application almost scuppered the next move – to drama school. Jimmy used the piece from Macbeth he had worked on with Steve as a 13-year-old when he went for his audition at Trinity Guildhall. He had not prepared as thoroughly as he should have and was shown the door. It was a lesson Jimmy has never forgotten. ‘I wasn’t at all prepared for the audition. At that point I realised I couldn’t afford to muck about. I learned a lot of harsh life skills! I applied for the Academy for Live and Recording Arts (ALRA) outside of UCAS because I realised I wanted to do the drama school route – you get the agents coming to see and it’s more practical (the degree course is more academic).’

Jimmy is so jolly and enthusiastic he gives the impression his career has happened in spite of himself. But he has learned the hard way – knowing that this is a world where connections can be as valuable as talent. If he, a simple foster boy from Plaistow can make it, so can anyone. But Jimmy works hard, and is not afraid to take advice. He explains: ‘Getting my first paid work was amazing and after I graduated I got two jobs – one at the Half Moon theatre and the other was at Birmingham Rep for Nativity by Peter Whelan. I remember telling my agent I didn’t want to do Birmingham because it’s a long way away. I gave a load of excuses but something in me made me call one of my old directors who told me: ‘Jimmy, phone Birmingham now and say yes!’ Great parts have followed – from Othello in Frantic Assembly’s acclaimed production to Jimmy Porter at the Almeida’s controversial version of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Jimmy also graces our screens  in Holby City, Doctors and the comedy Rev.

So what style does he prefer? ‘My first love is theatre – the buzz of being live on stage in front of hundreds of people. It makes demands on you physically and vocally and you have to create a truth. There is no room for short cuts. There are amazing moments from when you can hear a pin drop to the times when you hear young people coming in and saying,‘I hope it’s not long’. Jimmy has worked with acting greats like Kathy Burke and Sir Ian McKellen. He recalls: ‘The first day I could barely speak to Ian but he’s so open and even asked me about his performance! Ian McKellen asked me!’

And that just about sums up Jimmy Akingbola. A hard-working actor who makes it look easy, amazed by his success, but never complacent. And that is so refreshingly…nice!

A few of my favourite things 

Play:  If it’s a play I’ve been in, that would be Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall. Best play I’ve seen is Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis at the Almeida

Book: The Burglar Diaries by Danny King – so funny.

Music: I like soul, R&B and jazz. I like a bit of drum and base and jungle. You can never have too much Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley and Michael Jackson.

Television: I watched The Wire, which was brilliant. And I love Heroes.

Relax: When I’m not working, I go and see theatre, watch films, go to the gym. I love to veg out on the PlayStation!

Get in on the act

When Ink Pellet caught up with Jimmy, he had just returned from the ‘pilot season’ in the States. This is the annual ‘actors’ cattle market’ and not for the faint-hearted. Jimmy shares a flavour of the experience: 

Pilot season is the time when hundreds of actors go to make one-off pilots of TV shows. As a British actor, if you get a part in one of these shows and it gets picked up, there’s a possibility it could change your career if it becomes a hit. There’s nothing guaranteed,  so they make the pilot. If it doesn’t get a good response, they kill it. If some characters are liked less than others then the actor gets pulled out or they just remove the character!

I have a nice career here in the UK but I’ve always wanted to go to America and I thought I would go over and test the water. It’s a good test for an actor because you can see whether you like it. A lot of actors don’t – it depends what you want and how you want to go about it.

If you’re the type of person who wants to grab an opportunity then it’s worth going to strike up contacts! You can spend loads of money and not get anything so you’ve got to be aware of the pitfalls and the possibilities, and pilot season is one way of doing this.