Kingsley Ben-Adir is playing two American icons. Back in the U.K., ‘there is no work’
Once Kingsley Ben-Adir finished filming his scenes in “The Comey Rule” — Showtime’s two-parter based on former FBI Director James Comey’s book “A Higher Loyalty,” which premieres Sept. 27 — the classically trained, 33-year-old actor flew back to New Orleans to resume filming “One Night in Miami.” Directed by Regina King, the Amazon acquisition (premiering Sept. 7 at the Venice Film Festival) imagines private and still-too-timely conversations among newly crowned boxing champ Cassius Clay, singer Sam Cooke, football star Jim Brown and activist Malcolm X — the latter also portrayed with care by Ben-Adir.
“I knew it was only going to be seven weeks of no sleep,” he said of the combined preparation time and overlapping shoots. “As soon as I’m thinking about a character, you get an adrenaline rush from just constantly inquiring and investigating. Your mind is so active, so there’s no rest anyway, you know?”
Ben-Adir — who also appears in AMC’s sci-fi anthology “Soulmates,” premiering Oct. 5 — spoke with The Times from London about portraying President Barack Obama and Malcolm X concurrently, playing American icons as a Black British actor and lamenting the cancellation of Hulu’s “High Fidelity.”
What’s the most nerve-racking part about portraying Obama?
Going into it, I did think, “This is probably one of the most recognizable voices on the planet — you could play his voice anywhere without the visual, and people will know who he is just by hearing him for a second or two.” So that was, you know, no pressure. I watched and listened to him a lot, and I had a fantastic dialect coach.
And then you go into deep thought about where he’s operating from as a human being — his fears, his dreams, his intentions. I think the function of Obama in the piece is to provide contrast to Trump, as an example of a president who operates from decency and kindness, someone who just wanted to leave the country in a better place than when he found it. There’s only a handful of moments where we’re with him, so a lot of work went into making sure I nailed that.
How do you ensure that comes across in just a few scenes?
I will say, I’ve never gone into so much detail about how I would be physically, because his physicality is so specific: The way he crosses his legs, the way he stands, his general physical ease. If he hunches, it means something; if he leans forward, it means something. And I felt like his physical positioning was a way to allow the audience to feel what he was feeling, especially in these two very different situations.
When I first spoke with Billy [Ray, the director] about the role, I wasn’t lean enough yet. But the scale was definitely telling me that there was a big difference by the time I had to shoot. Luckily, Obama and Malcolm came in at a similar weight, so that was good for both of them, since I was filming both of them at the same time.
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How is that even possible?
Basically, Leslie Odom Jr. has a section [in “One Night in Miami”] where he’s at the Copacabana — one of the few parts of the film that Malcolm’s not in. So I flew to film my scenes at the White House, and when I got back on Monday, we went straight back into it. It’s a little bit of a blur, but it was something like 36 days of nonstop filming between New Orleans and Toronto. Lots of caffeine and no sleep.
I’ve always been quite organized since I was young, so structuring those weeks in terms of time management was very satisfying for me. There’s a cliché of actors being messy, scatterbrained artists, but I’m the opposite to that. I sort of thrive on discipline and pressure; the wishy-washy free time is where I get a bit more lost.
“One Night in Miami” spans a single evening in 1964. How did this timeframe affect your take on Malcolm X?
What a treat to get to investigate such an incredible human being at such an interesting moment in his life. The stress he must have been under, the monumental change in his thinking, the feeling that he was being pushed out of the Nation [of Islam], the hypocrisies that were becoming clear of Elijah Muhammad. The FBI were following him around, the death threats had begun.
At this point in his life, he’s in a true spot of vulnerability, and this felt like an opportunity to play him in a way we haven’t seen before. And the debates he has with Sam were just way too interesting that I had to play him, even though they first sent it to me to audition for Ali.
Is that because you were previously cast as Ali for Ang Lee’s boxing movie?
Yeah. The film that we that we were going to shoot, “Thrilla in Manila,” was a completely different story — one that I fell in love with and spent two years of my life chemistry-testing, screen-testing, reading and training for in the Philippines. I was living in a boxing gym there and then we lost the money. Ali in this movie, it’s a wonderful part, but it just didn’t feel right for me. It was him 10 years younger. And I just connected to Malcolm in this story in a way that doesn’t happen very often.
How did you prepare to portray him, especially amid your Obama preparation?
I wanted to make sure that I used every minute I had, because I didn’t have a year to prepare. I really only had two weeks over Christmas, and there was no taking Saturdays and Sundays off. I needed help learning the lines, so this guy who just graduated from drama school and was working in a supermarket would come around at 7 in the morning and stay until 6 or 7 o’clock. We did that for 10 days. At the same time, I was working with my dialect coach and trying to read as much as possible.
I listened to all his interviews and any audio of him I could find. As soon as I woke up, it would be playing, all day, every day, up until the last day on set. I’ve never spent that kind of time with a person before; I’ve never thought about one human being that consistently. It’s a weird experience coming out of it. I didn’t want it to end, actually. I really fell in love with him and the beautiful human being he was. He really was taken away from us way too young.
You’re a British actor portraying two American icons. Are you prepared for a backlash?
I know about the conversation. Look, no disrespect to Americans, but America is the center of its own universe — culturally. It’s understandable that Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t have a clue what it’s like growing up as a Black man in inner-city London; he probably thinks we’re all sitting around drinking tea with the Queen, and it’s not the truth. The accent can be quite deceiving. It comes with a feeling of privilege and an air of everything’s rosy. I can tell you for a fact that standing up in a court of law here, in front of a white judge, as a Black man, you are nine times more likely than your white counterparts to get a stiffer sentence.
Here’s the other thing: [James] Baldwin and all these Black people, coming over to Europe in the ’60s and going back to America and talking about how wonderful it was, were coming over as famous people. They weren’t experiencing what it was like for my grandparents coming off those boats from the West Indies in the ’50s, being spat on every day. They both worked as nurses in this country for 50 years. My grandma would talk about people bugging out because they thought she was the devil, and they’d have breakdowns because they didn’t want Black skin touching them.
Our histories are more similar than we know. The enlightening thing about how the George Floyd murder went worldwide was watching the Māori community in New Zealand talking about people who died in custody over there, the Aboriginal community in Australia, the Black community in France, all saying the same thing.
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How does that debate affect your approach to such roles?
I always try to go in with the maximum amount of sensitivity. Regina and I had a big discussion about this before she cast me, because it was a big decision for her. I had to explain to her that I get it, I understand what this means, and I get what Malcolm stood for.
And listen, I’ll just keep it mad real with you: There is no career for me in this country. There is no work. I haven’t read a good script with a leading role or a decent solid role coming out of the U.K. for me in two years, and I went through my emails yesterday to make sure that that was fact. I spent my early 20s waiting to get to 30 so I could come to America and play interesting parts. They send me “Gangs of London” here, and I’m supposed to get excited? You get a few scenes in a show on ITV and you’re supposed to be grateful?
The opportunities here for me don’t really exist; they never knew what to do with me. I’d fly to New York to meet with Ang Lee and then come back to London for an audition for “Holby City.” That’s the difference. And I could go on, I could write a 10,000-word document on the difference between the industry here and the opportunities in America. And it’s like, what am I supposed to do?
How do you feel about “High Fidelity” getting canceled after only one season?
From a selfish point of view, I think it’s a shame because I had such a good time working with Zoë [Kravitz]. From what I read when I first went for it, she elevated it and really brought it to life as an executive producer. She was involved in everything: the tweaks, the rewrites, the edit, the detail, the reshoots, the rock, all of that stuff, that’s all Zoë, a super-talented person in all areas of storytelling, doing her thing.
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I also enjoyed building that relationship with Zoë so much. It’s a little bit heartbreaking because we were playing this Black couple onscreen but no one goes to jail, and no one’s brother or dad is in prison. We were just two Black people in love, and we never spoke about that fact. It’s important for all people to see Black people represented in a way where it’s just like, “We’re just normal, we just do regular things too.”
Annoyingly, Season 2 was really gonna be a Cherise-focused season. She [Da’Vine Joy Randolph] was gonna become the lead of the show, and the story was leaning toward being about where she’d come from, her heartbreaks and her family background. And they stopped it just as that was about to happen.
But we move on.
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