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Why Mr. Ajayi From Netflix's Heartstopper Looks So Familiar

"Heartstopper" is an unassuming show, but that hasn't stopped it from quickly gathering a loyal fanbase. Its frank portrayal of queer love, sensitivity toward the turmoil that comes with figuring things out during your teens, and excellent cast have also made it a critical favorite. Currently, the series has a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It has also been renewed by Netflix for a second and third season (via The Verge)

Based on Alice Oseman's graphic novel, "Heartstopper" tells the story of Charlie, an out-and-proud gay teen at Truham Grammar School in England. After Charlie falls for his classmate, rugby player Nick, he is shocked to find Nick reciprocates. Nick then has to grapple with his own sexuality and all of the feelings of uncertainty that come with learning and facing who you really are.

Helping them along is Mr. Ajayi, Truham's art teacher, an openly gay man with a dry sense of humor and genuine care for his students. Mr. Ajayi has quickly become a fan favorite. An article on Netflix's Tudum blog describes the outpouring of appreciation for him on social media from viewers who wish they had, or have a teacher like him. He is clearly a "Heartstopper" favorite.

If Mr. Ajayi looks familiar to you, it's probably because the actor who plays him has had his share of recognizable roles in recent years. Here are a few.

Fisayo Akinade starred in Russell T. Davies' Cucumber, Banana, and Tofu

British-Nigerian actor Fisayo Akinade plays Mr. Ajayi in "Heartstopper," and he mostly spent the first few years of his career in theater after attending the prestigious Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Then, in 2015, he landed a supporting role in "Cucumber," Russell T. Davies' tragicomic portrayal of 21st-century gay life, as the flighty-but-fun Dean Monroe, and as the same character in Davies' follow-up series "Banana."

Akinade also appeared (as himself this time) in the documentary web series companion to "Cucumber" and "Banana," named "Tofu." All three series were praised in Britain for their frank and original exploration of the complications of love, anger, and betrayal, all through a darkly comic lens. Akinade's performance caught plenty of attention too. Of "Banana," The New York Times' Mike Hale wrote, "It's useful if only as an opportunity to see more of Fisayo Akinade's buoyant performance as a blithely naïve teenage mailroom worker."

Akinade, who is also gay, said in an interview with CultBox that he was pleased with the success of the series. "I'm glad they've started debates about why we need more drama centered around the lives of gay people on our screens," he expressed.

He was in The Girl with All the Gifts

The following year, Akinade brought his classical theater training to the small screen too, appearing as Flute in Davies' television adaptation of William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for the BBC.

Also in 2016, he got his feature film debut, acting alongside Glenn Close and Paddy Considine in one of the more original post-apocalyptic zombie movies in recent years, "The Girl With All the Gifts." Akinade played Private Kieran Gallagher, who is among the more sympathetic of the soldiers hanging on for dear life a decade after the world fell apart, and one of the few with any sympathy for half-human-half-fungus-zombie Melanie (Sennia Nanua).

But then, one of the things that made the film stand out in what can be a very paint-by-numbers subgenre is the insistence on every character's humanity, even those who are considered villains. In a short interview with Box Office Buz, he said, "I think the relationship between Gallagher and Melanie spoke to me the most... There's a lovely moment when Melanie reads one of Gallagher's favourite books to him. Something that he's yearned for is given to him by a girl he should be terrified of." Unfortunately this doesn't stop Gallagher from meeting a pointedly sticky end.

He guested in an episode of Atlanta

The bulk of Akinade's work has continued to be in television, including a quick turn as Clive Otunde in 2018's "A Very English Scandal" (via IMDb). Most recently, Akinade appeared in the long-awaited 3rd season of "Atlanta." He only appeared in one episode, but it's a memorable one: Episode 6, "White Fashion." Akinade's Khalil is an influencer and non-profit owner who, alongside Brian Tyree Henry's Alfred aka Paper Boi, joins fictional clothing company Esco Esco's diversity advisory board to help bounce back from a racially insensitive flub that made its way onto a sweatshirt.

The episode features all of the subtly surreal satire we've come to expect from "Atlanta," with Alfred and Earn (Donald Glover) the only ones who can see how absurd events have become. Akinade's Khalil stands out as one particularly absurd example, and his off-hand aside to Paper Boi — "Is this your first time apologizing for white people?" — establishes the episode's primary theme in the show's off-kilter signature. 

From classical training to the consummately modern, from comedy to drama to horror, it would seem that Fisayo Akinade is a highly capable and versatile actor. It will be interesting to see what more he can do, both in "Heartstopper" and well beyond.