If you don’t know the name Malachi Kirby now, you’ll want to remember it after the Memorial Day premiere of History’s Roots remake. The 26-year-old Brit stars in the four-night miniseries as Kunta Kinte, the young warrior who fights to keep his identity and his family’s spirit alive after being captured by slavers, and his performance is full of pain, strength, inspiration, and grace.
As we learned when the actor visited Yahoo TV during his first-ever trip to New York to attend the Roots premiere screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, he’s surprised to see himself in the iconic role originated by LeVar Burton in the 1977 miniseries. Partly, he says, it’s because he could never imagine growing up to be an actor: as a child, he was so shy, he had to whisper into his mechanic father’s ear to speak for him to family members at his own birthday party.
But mostly, it’s because he thought he blew his first audition for Roots so badly, there was no way producers, including Burton, would ever pick him. “It was the worst audition of my life. Everything went wrong. My accent was all over the place. I learned my lines and then didn’t remember them. When I tried to read off the script, it was like I couldn’t speak properly. It was all horribly bad,” Kirby says. "I left, and was like, ‘I need to forget about that. I need to forget it ever happened.’ And then five months later they got in touch. My agent was like, ‘Oh, you must have done something good because they want to see you again,’ and I was like, ‘Dude, you don’t know what happened. You don’t even know.’”
But he went back. “And that was one of the most amazing auditions I’ve ever had in my life,” Kirby says. “It was like something else just kinda took over in that room and I ended up doing things I didn’t plan to do.” He moved on to the final round, which was a screen test in South Africa. Two days after that, the role was his.
Malachi Kirby (Credit: History)
Perhaps it was Kirby’s resilience that producers admired. It’s a part of who he is. Ask him if he likes challenges, and he explains how he came to run the 400-metre dash in school. “I never got picked for the athletics team for about three years. I was in my third year, and I really wanted to join, and I kept basically knocking on the door of the PE coach. ‘Can I join? Can I join?’ He’s like, ‘No… No.’ And then one day, he’s like, ‘Okay, you want to race? Cool. We have a free spot for you. You’re gonna be doing the 400,’” Kirby says. “I don’t know what that means at that time. Everyone’s looking at me and laughing. I was like, ‘What’s funny?’ He’s like, ‘You’ll see.’ We get to the race, and I realize it’s once around the track and I’m thinking, ‘Okay, that’s easy.’ What I didn’t realize is once around a track at a sprint kinda kills you. I felt like I died at the end, but I loved it. I loved the way that it pushed me. So that was the race that I ended up doing, because no one else wanted to do it. I started training and took it on to club level, and then started acting, and then realized I couldn’t do both.”
Kirby is also a “pretend” musician, who’s been known to do spoken word and sing with his guitar at festivals in the UK. While Roots didn’t inspire him to write any music, “I did find myself singing a lot between takes. I think it helped me to get through it,” he says. “I couldn’t tell you what I was singing; a blues and gospel kinda sound just kept coming out of me as I was doing it.”
He admits he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be part of the remake when he first heard it was happening. “I’d recently watched the first one, and I was like, ‘What are they doing that again for?’ Because the first one was still affecting me,’” he says. When he asked producer Mark Wolper, son of original Roots producer David L. Wolper, that question, Kirby agreed with his answer: “He sat down with his kids and he tried to get them to watch the first Roots. They watched it, and they were honest with him: They said, ‘Dad, we don’t connect to this.’ In the same way that maybe a 10-year-old wouldn’t connect to their parents’ music that they listen to, they didn’t respond to it, whether that’s the quality of the picture, or the actors that they don’t recognize. But Mark felt like this was a story that they needed to know. For that reason, it was like, ‘Okay, we need to do this again because there’s a whole generation of people who won’t be able to access this original and relate to it as well and actually receive it. So we need to tell it afresh with a new picture and a new sound and actors that they recognize, so they can really know what happened.’”
Roots premieres May 30 at 9 p.m. on History, and airs four consecutive nights.