For generations, Black women in Hollywood have labored both in front of and behind the camera to widen the lane for Black talent. They’ve fought to make sure that future generations would have a path where they could soar. Though there is much more work to be done, we are finally beginning to see the fruits of that labor as a new crop of mega-talent faces rise and take their place on the big and small screens. Newcomer Akira Akbar is ready to take center stage. Though the dimple-faced actress has had some small appearances on shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Criminal Minds and she’s modeled for everyone from Nike to Levi’s, Akbar made a huge splash recently when she appeared on NBC’s acclaimed series, This Is Us as Young Beth.
In the Season 3 episode entitled “Our Little Island Girl” — we finally learned more about Beth Pearson’s (Susan Kelechi Watson) backstory, and we got to meet her as a child and as a teenager. The episode, which also starred the incomparable Phylicia Rashad as Beth’s mom Carol and Rachel Hilson as Teen Beth, addressed the trope of the “Strong Black Woman” and is still being discussed and analyzed more than a week later. With such a breathtaking performance and her upcoming role in Marvel’s Captain Marvel, Shadow and Act sat down to chat with Akbar about stepping into the spotlight.
“I began modeling first, and my mom saw how I love to be in character and make skits and do videos with my sister, so she put me into acting,” Akbar said. “I’ve just loved it ever since. I like working with the people and being different characters —even if they’re not me. I can just go home and be myself, but once I’m on set, I’m in action.”
On This Is Us, Young Beth is an extremely talented dancer who hopes to take her gifts to the world’s renowned dance companies. Luckily, Akbar is extremely comfortable on the dance floor —even with the extensive ballet training she had to undertake to play Beth. “I’ve been dancing since I was four, so I knew some things, and I got taught some things, which is pretty cool” she explained. “Some of the ballet moves were kinda hard, but Beth is kinda like me as a person, so that was nice.”
Like her older counterparts, Kelechi Watson and Hilson — the curly-headed actress wanted to make sure she mastered her character and all of nuances and mannerism of Beth. “I binge watched [This Is Us], and I tried to get into character,” she revealed. “I didn’t really get to speak with Rachel because we didn’t have any scenes together, but I did get to speak with Susan. She ran up to me and gave me a big hug and was like, ‘Mini- me!’ We’ve been talking on Instagram, and she was like, ‘I’m super excited that you played my role, you did such a great job.'”
With such a sensational debut as Young Beth —we’ll be seeing a lot more of Akbar in her recurring role on This Is Us. But before then, the pint-sized actress is about to take a massive step into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Monica Rambeau, Carol Danvers’ precocious niece in Captain Marvel.
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“The audition process is very top secret, so I didn’t really know it was Captain Marvel until later,” Akbar explained about the project. “After school, my mom picked me up and told me that I got Captain Marvel and I was screaming so loud, but I didn’t know it was Monica until I got my script.”
Akbar had been a fan of the MCU having seen Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War —but being on the Captain Marvel set was a new and empowering adventure in and of itself. “I had a really great bond with Brie [Larson] and Lashana [Lynch],” she revealed. “Brie gave me the nickname, ‘Sis.’ Lashana Lynch and I, we spent time together on and off set. She took me to her favorite chicken spot in Louisiana even though she’s a vegetarian. I really had fun every day. On the last day, I brought a big cookie for everyone and they were super excited to eat it. I asked the cookie place to draw Captain Marvel on it in Captain Marvel colors. It was amazing.”
Now that she’s actually stepped into the MCU, Akbar has her own ideas for the perfect superhero. “If I could create any superhero her name would probably be Teleportra,” she giggled. “She would have teleporting powers.”
In addition to This Is Us and Captain Marvel —you can also catch Akbar opposite Tia Mowry-Hardrict and Loretta Devine on Netflix’s upcoming sitcom, Family Reunion. Until then the tiny fashionista is using her spare time for school and to create YouTube. “I’m really into fashion,” she said. “I really like to go shopping and look for new trendy styles to wear. I’m also really into makeup, so I’m always looking up makeup tutorials and stuff.”
Captain Marvel comes bolting into theaters, March 8, 2019.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide