How Kingsley Ben-Adir juggled playing Malcolm X and Barack Obama at the same time: 'It was just a whirlwind'
It took perseverance and a bit of luck for the actor to land the part of the civil rights activist in 'One Night in Miami'
There must have been times when British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir thought he was destined to never appear in One Night in Miami.
The film, on Amazon Prime Video from Friday, is a work of fiction based on a real-life meeting between four stalwarts of the black community – Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) – in a hotel room on February 25, 1964.
The first time Ben-Adir, 33, tried to land a part was long before the idea came about to readapt writer Kemp Powers’s play, which imagines what these towering figures would have said to each other, into a movie. Ben-Adir auditioned to play Sam Cooke when One Night in Miami was being performed on stage at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2016. He did not get the part.
Powers, who is also the co-director of Soul, has now adapted his play, which was first performed at the Rogue Machine Theatre in Los Angeles in 2013, for the big screen. If that were not exciting enough, the film is also the directorial debut of Regina King, the exceptional actress who recently won an Emmy for her role in HBO’s The Watchman.
The second time Ben-Adir did not get a part in One Night in Miami was when King asked if he would audition to play Cassius Clay, the boxer who, on the Miami night in question, had fought and beaten Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight Championship belt.
Clay is full of nervous anxiety because the next day he’s going to announce to the world that he is converting to Islam and changing his name to Muhammed Ali. But playing Clay did not appeal to Ben-Adir because he felt the boxer was “too young, jovial and bouncy” for him to do the role justice.
Ben-Adir wanted to play Malcolm X, but King had already cast that part. “When I read it, that debate between Sam and Malcolm about furthering the civil rights movement; that really popped out. Sometimes I’m with Malcolm and sometimes with Sam. There was humour, softness and a private side to Malcolm. I was like, this could be interesting.”
But that wasn’t it for the story of Ben-Adir and black American stalwarts. He subsequently landed the small but pivotal role playing former US president Barack Obama in the limited TV series The Comey Rule, which centred on the relationship between former FBI director James Comey (Jeff Daniels) and President Donald Trump (Brendan Gleeson).
It was a challenge, but with remarkable frankness, Ben-Adir says: “It was a small part and its function was to set up Brendan’s character. For me, I thought, oh, this is an interesting challenge to see if I can play someone who’s real and famous.”
That air of nonchalance to playing Obama is understandable, if only because when Ben-Adir was preparing to play the role, the call came through that the part of Malcolm X was available again, after the other actor had to drop out. So he auditioned and waited, which left him angst-ridden.
“It was a few weeks before Christmas and they took a long time,” he says. “Every day that passed, I’m thinking that’s a day of preparation lost. I’m running out of time here. I thought that I would have a few weeks to prepare. When I landed the role, I only had 13 days.”
This was the break Ben-Adir had been waiting for since he first started landing television roles in 2013. His career had been in the ascendancy with parts in several acclaimed series. He played Karim Washington in the supernatural show The OA, Colonel Ben Younger in the fourth and fifth season of gangster drama Peaky Blinders, and Russell “Mac” McCormack in High Fidelity, but a film of this size was a first for the actor.
“You just have to do it, because the opportunity is too big. This is Regina King, and this is Malcolm X in a story where we get to see him in a way that we perhaps haven’t seen him before.”
In the film, we meet the civil rights activist in a state of flux. Malcolm X is at the hotel room to watch over Clay, and make sure he goes through with the announcement that he will henceforth be part of the Nation of Islam. But Malcolm X has his own doubts about the organisation.
At the time, he had started to distance himself from its leader, Elijah Muhammad, after discovering that Muhammad was having extramarital affairs and fathered several children out of wedlock, despite the Nation of Islam’s strict moral code.
In the hotel room, Malcolm X’s thoughts on how to best further civil rights for African Americans are played out as he questions Cooke’s fast life and partying, demanding that the singer do less for himself and more for the cause.
All of a sudden, life became super-busy for Ben-Adir. The actor was playing two high-profile black personalities at the same time. He had to juggle his schedule so he could film his scenes on The Comey Rule while also shooting One Night in Miami.
There was added pressure because he knew that both characters are so well known and loved by the public that not delivering exceptional performances would create an inevitable social media backlash – most notably as Malcolm X had been brilliantly portrayed by Denzel Washington in the 1992 Spike Lee biopic.
“Where there is an iconic performance of a character that is known so much, like a Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, there is no point doing it unless you are sure you can find a different take or version of it.”
To create his own on Malcolm X, Ben-Adir employed a drama school graduate, paying him £70 ($52) a day for his assistance.
“He got here at 9 in the morning, he was reading one of the biographies and I was reading another, and we were sharing information. We were running the lines, watching and testing, it was just a whirlwind. I needed to know the part like it was a play, understand the dialect and lose weight. It was a mishmash of trying to cram it all at the same time.”
On set, Ben-Adir would listen to or watch speeches by Malcolm X during the two-month shoot. He was also helped by the fact director King is such a brilliant actress herself, who ensured that she created an environment where the cast could excel.
“Regina gave us space,” he says. “She created an atmosphere where we could all come in, and fearlessly play and discover together.”
All of the hard work has paid off. Ben-Adir’s electric performance has sparked talk of Bafta and Oscar nominations. It’s a happy situation that can be overwhelming.
“It’s a wonderful currency, I get it, but I find the awards side of things pretty distracting,” he says. But he should be prepared for it because in the coming months, talk of awards is only likely to grow stronger.
Published: January 14, 2021 07:37 AM