Akili McDowell

16 August 2021

It seems today, more than ever, there is mounting pressure on our young people to sever the ties to their youth and fold into a frame that society accepts, way beyond their years. Perhaps it’s because our young people are continuously exposed to exalted expectations embedded in the foundations of their social networks, or simply because those above them are not up to the job. David Makes Man lead actor Akili McDowell reminds us why today, more than ever, as we rebuild the world, we must learn from our mistakes, "take care of each other but most importantly ourselves and make sure we're living right so we can do right by other people."

As a native Texan, Akili may be unfamiliar with the earthy expanse of LA, but as photographer Elizabeth Weinberg soon discovered, Akili can command Franklin Canyon just as easily as he can command the camera, softening his surroundings as he stands strong in the fortune of flora and fauna. As golden hour glistens on the bank of the glimmering pond, an army of turtles ambushes Akili, ambling amongst the sand as they surrender in the sun for a moment to rest and destress. Perhaps their actions symbolize Akili's own during the pandemic, where he "tried to maintain [his] safety and mental stability" - in short, take care of yourself and your people.

Stylist Luca Kingston amplifies the eighteen-year-old's bold and avid aura, for each shade serves to radiate another side of his light and luminosity. As we reflect on his lessons from David Makes Man, we'll be watching closely as Akili Makes Man, embarking on his own journey into adulthood and continuing to fill in his flourishing filmography.

New episodes of 'David Makes Man' stream every Tuesday on OWN.

Let's start with an intimate one. Who is Akili?
Akili is an 18-year-old young man on his way into the industry. Started off on David Makes Man, it's a great way to start out and I'm very grateful, I'm looking forward to the future.

You portray the teenage prodigy ‘David’ in David Makes Man. Season Two is now out, but let's go back to the beginning. Tell us about the journey to landing the part?
Well, I landed the part, of course, doing self-tapes and sending them all the way from Houston, Texas. Shout out to H town, I'm an H town native, born and raised. I'm the middle child of three, so with me being the middle child, I connected to David in that way. In season one, David is always identifying himself as a man first, and secondly, he's always just trying to be the man in the house and be there for his mum, so I related to David in that way.

David has quite the polarised life, to say the least. What kind of preparations do you make to play a character who lives two very different lives?
Well, I start by making adjustments when I know I have to play a character that's so complex; that's young and constantly juggling two separate lives, he's kind of like a chameleon in the way he switches, trying to fit into each scenario at school and at home and in between shots. I try to draw similarities between these characters to myself and I can do that by filling in their shoes and doing my research as well. That is very important when doing my vocal warmups and acting exercises and things of that nature.

Tell us about your on-set routine. Is there anything you do to get in the zone?
Of course, I just really jump into the script - shout out to the writers, Tarell Alvin McCraney, the whole writer's room, Dee Harris-Lawrence - they do an amazing job putting the script together. Really, just going over the script and just knowing the character and knowing the objective of the scene gets me in the right frame of mind.

As a young queer black boy growing up in the projects in America, life is undoubtedly difficult for David. What are your hopes for David as he becomes a man?
Well, my hopes for David - we see it throughout season two - he's still learning and growing as a man and just trying to be there for his family whenever he can. But you know, he still has other problems along the way that we'll see. And notice throughout the season as well, new problems develop as we get older, so we need to just learn to draw from these experiences and lessons throughout David Makes Man to make the world a better place.

Has portraying David taught you anything about yourself?
Oh, absolutely. I've tried to draw from all the lessons from the show and there's really a backstory and a lesson you can learn from each of the characters, from David and Gloria to JG. You see that in season one, Gloria's progress was attached to her family. Whenever Gloria was doing well, the family was doing well. But whenever Gloria didn't have things together, when things are falling apart, that's when things were falling apart for David and even JG as well. So it was cool to see the writers put that together.

You also portray ‘Savion Williams’ in season five of Billions. What are the biggest differences between David and Savion?
Well, you know, Savion Williams was a New York kid and because he's from New York, I had to drop my personal perspective and ask my New York friends about some of their experiences growing up in New York and things of that nature, you know - being a Black young man there. Also, the vibe on Billions was different from David Makes Man, and being on the fifth season, it was an opportunity for me to learn a lot.

Where does Akili sit in relation to these young men?
Well, I feel like we're mostly different, but I do also compare to those characters just by being a Black young man growing up in America, just that by itself. But breaking down the characters, it's different things that make each and every one of these characters especially unique and that's the joy of building these characters.

You've been cast to play ‘Bill’ in the upcoming film adaptation of More Than Rivals. What are you most excited about in this new endeavor?
More Than Rivals
is a basketball film feature that I have coming up this spring, and it should be amazing. This is the first time that I get to explore a character that's actually somebody you know, a person that's living and that's going to be cool, getting to do my research and study them and do things - building that character should be an interesting and cool experience.

What does acting mean to you?
Acting and performing is everything. I feel like I can express myself as it can kind of feel like a form of therapy sometimes. I can speak for other people that don't get to speak out as much, you know, the people that don't feel comfortable speaking out but can relate to these scenarios, these little scenes, these characters. I do it for them as well. So that's just very dear and important to me.

You landed your first role as ‘Zavier Gibbs’ in The Astronaut Wives Club back in 2015. How do you feel you've changed as an actor in the last six years?
I've grown tremendously I feel, you can see by the people I'm surrounded with; so many great mentors, peers around me throughout, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Kiel Adrian Scott, Erica Watson, Michael Francis Williams, Oprah, there's just so many people that I can name that I can go to whenever I need something, and that is so valuable to me. I love them for that and I appreciate them for everything.

How, if at all, have you had to adapt as an actor since the start of the pandemic?
It was definitely interesting completing David Makes Man season two in the midst of a pandemic, but it was great. Everyone on set had to adapt, but I'm glad we had the opportunity to film it and get it out to you guys because it was important that we have these conversations on TV, especially with the predicaments in the world right now, everything that's going on, it was just important that we start getting good content out. People need to see things, people need that mental break, they need stuff to watch, that's important so I'm glad that we gave them that.

Without TV, without films, without Netflix, I don't know how I would have occupied myself...
Imagine a life without Hollywood, imagine life without TV and films and great things like music, especially over the past year. Things would have been so much harder for people if they weren't able to take a break from reality and I'm grateful I got to be part of that escape.

Even with all those great things, the pandemic has still been a difficult time for everyone. How have you looked after yourself over the past 15 months?
Like everybody, I just tried to maintain my safety and mental stability, taking care of myself and my family, just making sure that the people around me are alright - take care of your people. I tried to get more rest, work out, I try to work out as consistently as possible when I'm not busy filming auditions or for a show.

How have events in the past year shaped you as a person?
Well, you know, these major events definitely have an impact mentally on young Black men across America including myself. It definitely caused me to be aware of my surroundings, to be more cautious, things are different now. Things have gotten better of course over the years but it wasn't too long ago when my parent's parents were going through racism and all these other awful things like that - but it's many nationalities, not just Black people, Asian people are being treated unfairly, too. I feel like the way to help everything and the problems around the world is always to talk to each and every individual. We have to take care of each other but most importantly ourselves and make sure we're living right so we can do right by other people.

Do you believe the on-screen portrayal of masculinity is changing in the industry?
Oh, absolutely. The toxic masculinity that's been really prominent in today's era is no longer cool. Once something's not cool, people choose to steer away from it. That's what I like about David Makes Man: in season two we expand and go over things like that and try to break the mold of what a man is and should be.

Can you tell us one thing many people don't know about Akili?
One thing many people don't know about me is that I'm a huge football fan. Growing up, I was a football player. I love football, and I'm a football fanatic. I could probably tell you anything about any NFL team.

Are you still playing football or is it difficult fitting it into your schedule?
I can't really play football because of my acting. It kind of hurt my heart when I found out I had to put the football down and focus on acting. But acting has opened so many doors and has taught me so many things. Acting is my number one but football is my number two, you know! If I had to choose one, I don't know which one I would choose right now. I guess…no, I would choose acting for sure. But it's a close one.

Where is your happy place?
My happy place, I feel like it's really just being right. Being in a good environment, good energy, and taking care of my people. I feel like that's really what everybody in this world should be about nowadays; loyalty is very important.

If you could go back 10 years, what advice would you give your eight-year-old self?
Man, if I were to go back 10 years, I couldn't even imagine, I couldn't imagine myself in this position. 10 years ago, looking at me now as an actor in this position, I'm just so grateful. But I'd definitely tell myself to never give up, stay encouraged, listen, and don't get too bigheaded.

Let's jump ahead to 10 years' time from now. Where do you hope to be in 2031?
Dang, I don't even... I can't even imagine myself in my 10 years. I just hope I'm continuing to act. I would love to continue my career and have a really flourishing one. That's one of my longtime dreams and goals. I just hope to accomplish great things, but who knows what God has planned?

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Above Left: Akili wears Shirt by Double Rainbouu
Above Right: Akili wears Jacket by Martin Asjborn, Top by COS

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Above: Akili wears Suit by Martin Asjborn, Top by COS and Shoes by Gola

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Above Left: Outfit as Before
Above Right: Akili wears Jumper by Christian Wijnants, Jacket by Todd Snyder, Trousers by Citizens of Humanity and Shoes by Thursday Boots.

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Above Left: Akili wears Suit by Golden Goose, Shirt by Rag & Bone and Shoes by Casbia
Above Right: Outfit as Before

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Above Left: Akili wears Shirt by Double Rainbouu, Trousers by AG Jeans, Shoes are Stylist's own and watch by Omega
Above Right: Outfit as Before

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