Kingsley Ben-Adir Reflects on His Breakout Year Playing President Barack Obama + Malcolm X

“I’ve been waiting for something like this for years; you dream of that moment.”

“When I first did drama in school when I was 14 or 15, I really didn’t like it,” Kingsley Ben-Adir admits with a chuckle. “I found the idea of having to get in the space and be seen quite stressful. It was very tense and nervy. My memories of it were not that enjoyable.”

Some 20 years later, it’s mind-boggling to imagine Ben-Adir disliking the craft for which he’s now getting major awards buzz. Calling from London on a calm Sunday in November, the actor’s passion for his work—and wonder at his landmark 2020—jumps through the line: “It’s all unraveling now, and I guess it hasn’t really sunk in yet.”

The British actor is a relatively fresh face in film and on television, first booking series regular roles on ITV’s long-running “Vera” and Fox’s “Deep State” before landing on popular BBC series “Peaky Blinders” in 2017, then Netflix’s “The OA” and Hulu’s “High Fidelity”—both beloved, both prematurely canceled—back-to-back in 2019 and 2020. Audiences will recognize him most recently from AMC’s anthology series “Soulmates” and as former President Barack Obama on Showtime’s take on recent history, “The Comey Rule.” But it’s his thought-provoking and surprisingly vulnerable turn as Malcolm X in Regina King’s critically acclaimed “One Night in Miami,” hitting theaters Christmas Day and streaming on Amazon Prime Video starting Jan. 15, that has everyone talking. 

The film has already been heralded as one of the year’s very best. Following its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, “Miami” screened at TIFF (where it was runner-up for the People’s Choice Award), the BFI London Film Festival (which Ben-Adir cites as a “personal triumph,” considering “it was around the corner from [his] house”), and others on this year’s unorthodox awards circuit. Based on the 2013 play by Kemp Powers, who also wrote the screenplay, the film fictionalizes a real night in the lives of Black icons Malcolm X, Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) as friends and contemporaries hanging out in a Florida hotel room, unpacking their lives and roles in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 

Ben-Adir’s voice catches the wind when he reflects on his experience making the film. Though he originally was asked to audition for the role of Clay, “the debate between Malcolm and Sam was really the conversation that fucking jumped off the page,” he remembers. “For me, it was the really interesting part of the movie, and I didn’t feel that I connected with Cass in the same way.” He informed the production team that the proposed role wasn’t for him, but he also made it clear: “ ‘If for any reason, the part of Malcolm becomes available, please give me a call, and I’ll do whatever I can to get in that room and show Regina some stuff.’ Four and a half months later, I got a call saying that Malcolm had become available and they wanted to see something within 24 hours.” 

But the London-born performer, out of respect to King and the material, wanted more time. Massaging a prior relationship he had with one of the film’s producers, he negotiated for a full weekend to prepare. With that go-ahead, he locked himself in his room to watch archival videos of Malcolm X on a loop “and just did a deep dive into the dialect and sent the tape over to Regina.” 

His insistence on putting in the work marks a reverence for character-building that Ben-Adir charts back to performances he saw and plays he read in his youth, ones that later inspired him to reconsider the stress he felt as a younger actor. 

“Jeffrey Wright is always the first person who comes to mind,” he says. “He’s one of the few people where, every time I watch him, there’s this truth and internal dignity. Everything he does is always so different and so connected; he’s someone who I’m always excited to find out what they’re doing next and what they’re in.” Alongside Wright, Ben-Adir praises Anthony Hopkins and Robin Williams, and recounts being reluctantly dragged by his father to see Jim Sheridan’s 2002 film “In America” only to have his eyes “filled with water” by the end. 

“I think all of these experiences—you don’t really know what’s going on at the time, but they’re all building in you. They’re building blocks to the passion,” he says. That high he felt watching Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton onscreen is what he hopes to capture in his own roles, and it’s what led him to training at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama at age 21. 

“I applied when I was working, and I got into a bunch of schools, so that’s really how it started,” he says. “One thing just led to the next, and I got into Guildhall and did three years training there, and then just took one step at a time.” 

“My only responsibility to myself and to the projects [is] you have to use every single minute that you have to make sure you put every part of your mind, body, and soul into this. You have to give it everything that you can.”

Guildhall also gifted him with a level-headedness about what success can look like in this industry. He recalls a “big speech” from voice coach and professor Patsy Rodenburg in his last week there. “She said that the first five years of your career, for those of you who are lucky enough to have a career for the first five years coming out of this building, is just practice. She said [to] use them to learn, [and that] after 10, that’s when everything will really start kicking in.”

Fast-forward to 2020: Ben-Adir has just hit his 10-year mark, and everything is indeed sliding into place. “When you’re starting off, you’re so eager for everything to happen straight away, to get these big lead parts straight away,” he posits. “It didn’t really happen for me like that; it’s taken a bit more time, and I feel like Malcolm came exactly at the right time, when I was ready.”

Once the role was his, Ben-Adir promptly began to put in the work required to tackle the historic figure, refusing to let Denzel Washington’s iconic, Oscar-nominated 1992 performance intimidate him. “There was this really awesome opportunity to play Malcolm in a way that I felt that we might not have seen before. Because it is just four men in a room speaking, so much of the arc of the movie is this huge emotional undercurrent that Malcolm is going through. Trying to map out that journey with Malcolm just required such a full and deep concentration.”

The actor wanted to “look into an examination of his humanity—the father, the loving husband, the friend.” He read a lot from Dick Gregory and even put the comedian’s analysis of his good friend up on the wall so he’d never forget it. Gregory described the “lacerating demagogue” everyone knew, for instance, as “a character that Malcolm slipped in and out of. It wasn’t all of who he was.”

“He was really a sweet and bashful man. If he could hear us talking now, he’d be so embarrassed,” Ben-Adir says. “Around this time, he was being pushed out of the Nation [of Islam], his relationship with Elijah Muhammad was crumbling, and the FBI was beginning to follow him around. I was just like: This is the way to play Malcolm in this story.”

He only had 12 days to prepare before filming, and Ben-Adir’s meticulous process became his entire life for those two weeks. Perhaps his most outlandish—but productive—practice during this time was paying a friend to come by at 8 a.m. every day to train. “We just ran text, ran lines, [and] talked about Malcolm. He was doing a bunch of reading for me, I was reading as much as I could, and then on lunch breaks, we would go into deep discussions about the politics of the time and just [try] to get as much in as possible.”

That’s not to mention the physical transformation, which saw Ben-Adir shedding close to 20 pounds. Fortunately, he was already dieting to play Obama. “I’d been cast as Obama maybe four weeks before, [and] I’d already started to lose weight. I was already fasting and chain-smoking and trying to drop 20 pounds, really, as quickly as I could. So I was halfway there.”

About that chain-smoking: A diet of “cigarettes and coffee can be helpful if you have to do it really quickly,” he says. But Ben-Adir doesn’t necessarily recommend his weight-loss technique, should others find themselves in a role with similar demands. “If there was more time, I would have done it in a much healthier way. I think there’s a way to do it that’s kind to your body, but because there wasn’t that time, it was just really fasting…. I wouldn’t advise anyone to do that. I’m not suggesting that that is the way to do it, but with all of the lines that I had to learn and the research that I had to do and the dialect I had to get, there wasn’t the time to hire a dietitian to help.”

Still, Ben-Adir admits that the process of acquiring the required physique was exciting for him. “Secretly, I’ve been waiting for years for a part where you get to do a full transformation,” he says. “Transformative acting is something I’ve always been so keen to have an opportunity to do, so I was really excited. It’s the perfect opportunity to have a go at trying to transform into someone who’s not yourself. Each day you achieve your goals, you get a buzz from it that really encourages you on to the next day.”

It helped, too, that the pressure was on. The cultural weight of a story like “One Night in Miami” isn’t lost on Ben-Adir; when else have we seen four powerful Black male figures speaking candidly about how race shaped their experience in the public eye? Considering the groundswell of support for Black Lives Matter in 2020, it’s a story that’s even more timely today.

“After we wrapped, we went into lockdown. And then George Floyd happened, and the world sort of flipped upside down,” Ben-Adir says. “There was this feeling that [we] wanted to get this film cut and put together and out as soon as possible because the message in the film is really important for now, for these times.

“There’s something about that responsibility and that pressure and the significance of this project—not only playing Malcolm, but playing Malcolm with Regina, was just so deeply, deeply exciting. I’ve been waiting for something like this for years; you dream of that moment. It was a huge honor. My only responsibility to myself and to the project [is] you have to use every single minute that you have to make sure you put every part of your mind, body, and soul into this. You have to give it everything that you can.”

Now having completed his most impactful project to date, Ben-Adir only hopes to continue his journey and his career with the same guiding mentality in place. 

“I think as time moves on, so much of the love for this thing is trying to find projects to be involved in that have that power to move people to laugh or cry or think—just cool fucking stories that can touch people,” he says. “I think that’s beautiful.”

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Photographed by Zoe McConnell at the Ministry in London