Kingsley Ben-Adir had less than two weeks to prepare for the role of Malcolm X in One Night In Miami before filming began in New Orleans.
He spent most of that time waking up before sunrise and drilling the script into his memory, studying Malcolm’s dialect and consuming audiobooks and films on the revolutionary leader. There was physical preparation as well: he cut his food intake by three quarters to drop 20 pounds, achieving the most striking resemblance to Malcolm since Denzel Washington’s portrayal in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic, Malcolm X.
“I wanted to know that film like the palm of my hand,” Ben-Adir says, speaking via Zoom from the living room of the central London apartment he’s lived in for the last eight years. He’s wearing a copper-colored sweater, a lavender beanie and a shiny band on his ring finger--"an engagement ring," he says (his reps declined to comment further on that). “And I think part of it was terror. I think subconsciously there was adrenaline.”
At 34, Ben-Adir has starred in a number of acclaimed projects in the last few years—mostly in supporting roles, but he’s slowly building a reputation for the way he disappears into characters. His breakout moment may be here now: One Night in Miami imagines the real conversation that took place on the evening of February 25th, 1964 between Muhammed Ali (at the time still known as Cassius Clay), Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm X at Miami’s Hampton House Motel, one of the era's segregated African American hotels, after Ali’s title win against Sonny Liston. The film, which is also the actress Regina King’s directorial debut, is a compelling ensemble piece, delivering equal parts humor, camaraderie and introspection on the pivotal, legacy-defining decisions each man was wrestling with at that time. Ben-Adir provides the story’s emotional center, depicting the ardency of a conflicted man who would be murdered just one year later.
Portraying one of Black culture’s most revered figures is a tall order, but Ben-Adir has already been there: The most nervous he’s ever been was when he played Malcolm X’s political and temperamental opposite, Barack Obama, in Showtime’s recent The Comey Rule. He took three days off from filming Miami to shoot the miniseries in Toronto. “I was like, Jesus fucking Christ, what have I got myself into? I'm like, 25 years too young. But as soon as I got the words out it was fine,” he said. Ben-Adir’s casting continues the trend of Black British actors getting big roles as African-Americans that stretches through Thandie Newton in Beloved to David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma. There’s been backlash from Black American actors in the past, but King, speaking with GQ over email, is succinct about her reasons for choosing Ben-Adir: “I think the best actor for the role should play the role.”
Ben-Adir was born in the London neighborhood of Kentish Town, and when I mistakenly say Kensington, he’s quick to correct me. “Don’t say Kensington because Kensington makes me look like a real posh boy,” he says playfully. His mother, who is Black, and his father, who is white British, weren’t together but were both very present in his life. One of his earliest memories was spending every weekend and school holiday with his maternal grandparents, who relocated from Trinidad and Tobago in the 1970s among the early waves of Caribbean immigrants to the UK.
Kentish Town was a mostly working-class area when Ben-Adir was growing up, but nearby neighborhoods were wealthier. “In my high school, I was in classrooms with people who went off to Oxford and Cambridge. And I was also next to people who went to prison before the age of 15 and who are not with us,” he explains. “So there were definitely periods of my life where it was fucking really dangerous and rough growing up around here. I came out on the lucky side.”
Ben-Adir became interested in acting as a young teen, when certain shows and movies began grabbing his attention and triggering emotional responses. “I remember watching Good Will Hunting and getting a lump in my throat, but I was at the age where that wasn’t cool and I was glad no one was around.”
He was placed in a special drama class around the same time, created for students who had difficulties concentrating or behavioral issues. He didn’t go to university, instead remaining in Kentish Town, working with special needs kids and at a bar for a couple of years. He kept hearing about institutions where you could study acting and decided to enroll in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London in his early 20s, graduating in 2011. Like many British film actors, he began his career on stage, performing in nine plays back to back over three and half years.
Ben-Adir points to his upbringing to explain why he can be selective about the roles he takes. “I'm from a poor background, and my agents would hate me to say this, but I know how to live on a couple of hundred dollars a week, I’m on this hustle, '' he said. “I don't feel rushed into doing anything. I mean, if I’m not feeling the character or story I'll go work in a bar and just wait.”
That mindset is why, when he received the One Night In Miami script (written by Kemp Powers, who also wrote the stage play it’s based on) in 2019, he initially declined. “My agent sent it to me to read for [Cassius Clay],” he explains. “I remember feeling really strongly that wasn't for me, not because I was above it or anything, but I didn't feel connected to the part. And I think I was really curious about the debate that was going on between Sam [Cooke] and Malcolm.”
The film had “a lot of heat on it” in the acting community, but Ben-Adir told his agent that if the role of Malcolm became available, he’d be down. After an unexpected call back, many long conversations with King and a screen test with Leslie Odom Jr, who plays Cooke, the part was his.
“From the first conversations Regina and I were having on the phone here all the way to the end, it was just a really beautiful and stimulating process for acting and story,” he says of King’s first time helming a feature. “I think what sticks with me is her understanding of the acting process is so profound and so deeply rooted within her, that she just created this atmosphere on set for all of us to really play and discover together.”
When King saw Ben-Adir’s audition tape, she noticed something “undeniable'' in his presence. After meeting with him, she says she was confident that he could capture Malcolm’s strength and emotion. “Kingsley's work ethic matches his talent,” King said. “Both are exceptional. He is a leader that leads by example. His dedication to Malcolm inspired us all to work harder.”
Ben-Adir says his main focus while portraying Malcolm X was showcasing his vulnerable side. Some of the most gripping scenes in the film are the tense debates with Sam Cooke, where Ben-Adir displays Malcolm’s fiery passion for black liberation without neglecting the paranoia he was burdened with at the time. There are calmer moments too, where Malcolm quietly hangs back and observes as the other three men goof off, riding the high of Ali’s win.
In one scene, Malcolm is putting his daughter to bed over the phone in a booth outside the motel and notices his bodyguards surveilling him from the balcony while two white men (presumably from the government) watch from across the street. “He put his life on the line in a way that can only sort of be compared to fucking Christ,” Ben-Adir declares. “He put the fear of God in white America and he’s a bona fide genius. And I think when you study someone every day from five o'clock in the morning to the time you go to sleep, you spend as much time as I spent with Malcolm, there's no way that you can come out the other end of that project and not feel changed as a human being.”
The inevitable comparisons to Denzel Washington’s titanic performance aren’t lost on him. Before he was cast, he heard a rumor that some didn’t want to go near the role because of the pressure. “The actor in me was like, well, I have to do this. This is an incredible, once in a lifetime opportunity,” Ben-Adir says. “But then there was another part of me that was like, this could be a really fucking interesting take on Malcolm that we haven't seen before. So I was sort of riding on those two beliefs.”
Before playing revolutionaries and American presidents, the common threads on Ben-Adir’s resume were private detectives, federal officers (Noelle, The OA, Peaky Blinders) and love interests (Soulmates, Love Life, High Fidelity). Fans of High Fidelity—Hulu’s remake of the seminal aughts rom-com with Zoe Kravitz in the John Cusack role and Ben-Adir as Mac, her One That Got Away—had their hearts broken by its recent cancellation, and Ben-Adir shares their pain. But he recalls a conversation with Kravitz where they talked about how these moments can mean new opportunities. “It was the final lesson for me where I was just like, you've been doing this for a while now and you just have to give over to whatever the higher power is and know if it’s meant to be it will and if it’s not it’s not,” Ben-Adir recounts. And though Kravitz’s Rob revealed she cheated on Mac when we last saw them, Ben-Adir is going on record that Mac would have eventually taken her back. “He’s evolved and matured in a way that she’s not and in a way that I’m probably not as well,” he says smiling. “He is one of those guys who's above sexual jealousy and above superficial status-y things.”
In large part due to his swoon-worthy role on Fidelity, Ben-Adir is the subject of a growing dose of online thirst and dedicated social media accounts. But the man himself prefers to be more mysterious, with no accounts to his name. “What I'm learning is that with social media and those tools is that they become very addictive and a lot of your self-esteem and your positive feedback ends up coming from your machine,” he explains. “And I've got enough addictions and bad habits as it is.”
Ben Adir’s next role isn’t set yet. (Aside from getting back to work in 2021, he plans to stay healthy: in addition to kicking the smoking habit he’s had since age 11, he recovered from a mild case of Covid-19 last year where he lost his sense of smell for some time.) “I’m breaking down a lot of scripts at the moment and I'm probably going to be doing that for the next little while.” It’s more or less similar to how he spent 2020—alone in his flat, watching “mad fucking films.” The pandemic, of course, put a halt to his frequent returns to Kentish Town, where “his boys” and most of his favorite restaurants and pubs still reside.
“Listen, to be honest with you I really can’t complain,” Ben-Adir reasons. “I've had so much time to focus on work and so much time to read. Although I haven't been on set, the scripts haven't stopped coming in. I just feel like there’s just been nonstop work to do.”
Originally Appeared on GQ