In the last few months, we’ve seen the British-born Kingsley Ben-Adir play two of the most famous Americans of the last century, Barack Obama in The Comey Rule, and now Malcolm X in Regina King’s wonderful One Night in Miami (which hits Amazon on Friday). The premise of the film, based on the night in which Muhammad Ali (then using the name Cassius Clay) beat Sonny Liston, has Ali (Eli Goree) hanging out with Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X. This night actually happened, but the dialog is imagined.
Obviously, there’s already a pretty famous portrayal of Malcolm X By Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s 1992 film, which isn’t lost on Ben-Adir. So how does one navigate that, while still being true to the role? Ahead, Ben-Adir explains this is a Malcolm X viewers might not be used to seeing.
Also, here’s a movie about four men with differing opinions, trying to come to an agreement about how to use their fame and influence for the greater good. In a time we are living through now, it’s a refreshing thing to see. And Ben-Adir does his best to make sense of what we are living through now in relation to the message of the film. (As I asked, I then realized what a heavy question that was. But he does a pretty great job answering it.)
It’s good to talk to you.
My pleasure Mike. How are you doing?
I don’t know how to answer that anymore.
How are you really feeling right now in this moment?
Pretty terrible, how are you?
I’m sort of feeling kind of a little bit in la la land, just because of lots of repetition and coffee, but that might be a good thing?
So, you’ve just played two of the most famous Americans to ever live. Do you think about that more than if you’re playing someone else? It seems really heavy.
No, I feel like it was. My memory of the experience of working both jobs, there was a real feeling of excitement. Yeah, I was buzzing. I was like, god, I’ve got an opportunity here to explore transformational acting and trying to figure out how to kind of play people who actually existed. As an actor, the challenge is really quite stimulating and exhilarating.
With Malcolm X obviously there’s a very famous portrayal already. I’m curious if that’s in your head or not, or if it’s just like, no, I don’t think about it at all.
I made a decision not to think about it when the audition came through, because I just felt like it wasn’t going to be particularly helpful trying to figure out how to best represent Malcolm in this film. Because the Malcolm that this movie was asking for was really a very specific moment in his life where so many things were changing. A moment in his life where his 12-year relationship with Elijah Mohammed and the Nation of Islam was really coming to an end. He was really at a moment where his political and religious thinking was shifting in such a monumental way.
Regina and I really connected on the idea that the vulnerability of Malcolm needed to be the heartbeat and center of this story arc. Regina needed to feel comfortable with the person she employed to play Malcolm in this film. She understood that Malcolm was a father and Malcolm was a husband, and trying to show this heroic figure in a place of real vulnerability. So, Malcolm’s humanity, people could see their own humanity in him. I think that was what was really important. I feel like this film was a really unique opportunity to explore that side of Malcolm. My job was to convince Regina that I was excited and fearless and up for the challenge. If I was feeling nervous at all, there was the pressure of playing him because Denzel’s performance is so iconic. I definitely did a terrific job of pretending I wasn’t nervous. I don’t know if I actually was or I wasn’t, I just knew that if Regina got any sniff that I was, she definitely wouldn’t have cast me.
I am curious how you get to that vulnerability. It’s still Malcolm X and he probably can’t be too vulnerable, for people who haven’t seen a performance depicting him before. That seems like a needle to thread.
You’re right, that there were moments where you sort of had to at least question whether we were going too far with it or what the right balance of emotion was. Regina definitely had a lot more heavier emotional versions of the character in the can. She constructed and built my emotional performance in the way that she thought was right. It was a constant conversation. We had to keep checking in about it. It was certainly one of those instances where thinking you knew what the answer was wasn’t going to be helpful. We had to just keep checking in and talking and checking in and talking and trusting that our intentions were healthy. Our intentions were to reflect Malcolm in a way where people could really feel his humanity.
I’m sorry to keep repeating myself. But that’s really what was crucial about this, that people understood that Malcolm, yes, he was a hero and yes he died for Black people in America and he stood up to white America and demanded respect in a way that was so incredible and moving. It was important that we wanted to show him as someone who probably did feel fear around this time. I heard that Malcolm had said to his friend Dick Gregory that he felt weak and he felt hollow and no one knew the torments he went through around this time. Dick really described Malcolm as a sweet, kind, bashful and good-humored man. The demagogue that we all know was really a character that Malcolm slipped in and out of. It didn’t represent everything about who he was. If Malcolm were here now listening to us talk he’d be embarrassed. So there was lots of wonderful things I found out about Malcolm as a man behind the cameras: private, and the games he would play with his children over the phone, and the love he had for his family. That was the Malcolm who I was interested in looking at. The other Malcolm you can just go on YouTube and watch the videos of. That’s where the process got really interesting.
You mentioned there were times you had had discussions about taking this too far? Is there a specific line or specific moment you remember?
Yeah, listen, the scene in the room with Sam Cooke, when we get back in from the roof?
There were versions where I went for his throat.
I mean metaphorically.
Okay, I’m glad you clarified that.
Yeah, there were just much heavier versions of so many of the moments and there were lighter moments. Because I trusted Regina so much I wanted to play around with some different versions sometimes.
I saw this movie back in September and have thought about it a lot since, especially in the last couple of weeks. It’s hard to not think, here are four powerful people talking through their differences. I don’t know how much you’ve thought about this, especially this week, and I know Britain has had its own issues the last few years. Are we past that?
What’s that? The message of the film?
Well, not just specifically the message of the film, but more just the idea are we getting past the point where people can just talk through anything anymore, after what we witnessed.
Yeah, I feel like I don’t know, man. Communication and listening to other people’s thoughts and ideas and decency and kindness and humility and love and sharing and … I don’t know man. Sometimes it feels like everything is a bit all over the place. I don’t want to talk too much on what’s going on in your country at the moment because for me it feels very surreal seeing it.
Oh, same here.
It’s literally unpacking as we speak. It’s pretty fucking nuts. But, I’m trying to answer your question, I feel, you know … I don’t know, man.
Sorry, I hit you with a really heavy one at the end.
It’s all good. It’s all good.
I’m not going to expect you to fix everything on that one last question.
I do not have all the answers for humanity, unfortunately.
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