Regina King was key to tackling the role of Malcolm X, says Kingsley Ben-Adir
Many actors are lucky to have an opportunity to play one major figure in history over their careers. Very few get the chance to play two figures of that ilk over a lifetime. Even fewer get to portray icons in the vein of Malcolm X and Barack Obama at the same time, in two different productions. In fact, perhaps only Kingsley Ben-Adir has had that honor.
“These are both roles that you dream about the situation of getting to play both of these guys,” Ben-Adir says. “And I think in the lead up to auditioning and the anticipation and waiting to find out if you’ve been cast is a nervy period that never changes, but then once you’re cast, the adrenaline kicks in. And for me, it’s just pure excitement.”
For the British actor best known for his role on Netflix’s “The OA,” however, it was not a clear-cut path to the two projects. He’d been cast as Muhammad Ali half a decade earlier for the Ang Lee project “Thrilla in Manila,” which never came to pass. But his year committed to research of Ali put him on the radar of the casting director of “One Night in Miami,” a film that features Cassius Clay on the night of his title fight with Sonny Liston — just before he fully embraced Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
So who better to play Clay than someone who’s already researched him for a year, right? Wrong.
Unfortunately, when Ben-Adir read the script, he felt he didn’t connect with this younger version of Clay as he’d been prepping to play the older Ali. That heavyweight role eventually went to Eli Goree. But “Miami” centers on that real night in 1964 when, after the fight, Clay met up with friends Jim Brown, the celebrated Cleveland Browns running back (played by Aldis Hodge), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and civil rights activist Malcom X. Should that last role become available, Ben-Adir told his agent, he’d love to be considered.
Months later he got his wish but found himself stretching a request for a self-tape within 24 hours into a full weekend just to prepare properly. He recalls, “I locked myself away for two or three days and just spent as much time as I could with Malcolm and the dialect and just getting as much of the history and the energy into my body.”
First-time director Regina King eventually made the savvy choice to cast him, but there were a couple obstacles. The toughest was that Ben-Adir had just found out he got the role 12 days before filming began. That prompted a methodical investigation into a well-known public figure over a compact period of time. One item that he felt was inherently relevant to the script was a conversation he read between a journalist and comedian Dick Gregory, who was a dear friend of the civil rights activist.
Three-time Emmy winner Regina King is up for a fourth for her lead turn in HBO’s “Watchmen.” And she directed her first film.
“That stereotypical image of Malcolm, Dick said that it was really a character that Malcolm slipped in and out of. It definitely didn’t represent who he was,” Ben-Adir says. “But really, and this is where I quote, he said, ‘Malcolm, he was a sweet and bashful man, and if Malcolm was here now hearing us talk, he’d be embarrassed.’”
The actor’s deep dive and commitment to the character onscreen paid off and he gives a tremendous amount of the credit to King, in her feature directorial debut, no less. Her willingness to let the cast “play around” with the material had unexpected benefits. One being a scene between Malcom X and Brown that became much more powerful than it was written.
“I know that scene with Aldis and I around the table, there was nothing in the movie that suggested anything to do with the emotion. That was all just found between Aldis and I with Regina guiding us and shaping it as we went along,” Ben-Adir says. “That’s what I loved about Kemp Powers’ script. In a way, he’s never telling you how any of the characters should be feeling. He just gave you the words.”
But there was still that other obstacle. Ben-Adir had already been cast as the 44th president of the United States in Billy Ray’s miniseries “The Comey Rule.” To make the conflict work, he spent 42 days traveling back and forth between New Orleans and Toronto filming both projects. He notes, “It was just a short period of time with not very much sleep and lots of caffeine.”
His incredibly collaborative experience with King was worth the effort. He not only expects to work with her for many years to come but appreciates the closure her casting him in “One Night in Miami” gave to a previous chapter of his life.
“When ‘Thrilla in Manila’ fell through, it stung in a way that was really hard, but I look back and I’m glad for the experience, and I’m glad that film never got made,” Ben-Adir says. “It wasn’t meant to be. And Malcolm was the one that I was supposed to play.”
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