He's played Barack Obama. Now the actor is taking on Malcolm X in his new film, One Night in Miami.
Assuming there are a lot of actors in America who want to play Barack Obama and Malcolm X, it is surprising that both roles have recently been taken by a man from Kentish Town. He is Kingsley Ben-Adir, best known here for a recurring part in Brenda Blethyn's ITV crime drama Vera, but now, thanks to the civil rights leader Malcolm in the film One Night in Miami, being tipped for an Oscar. He gasps. "It's crazy," he says. The shock is understandable. Ben-Adir is not a new actor enjoying early fame — he is 34 and, until now, in a career that could have gone either way.
He played a doctor on Vera, starting in 2014, and cried when he got the call about that role. He was broke. It was 9pm and he was putting up stages at the Kerrang! awards. Late success, though, provides perspective. We met last month for brunch in London, when rules allowed such things, and he was entirely relaxed. Very tall too — a gentle giant who is sanguine about how he appreciates what he has now, but did not before. For instance, in 2019 he was fighting to be in a film he was not chosen for. It broke his heart, but had he got it he would never have met Regina King, who directs One Night in Miami. "Boy, am I glad," he says, laughing.
Based on the play of that title, which had a run at the Donmar Warehouse, the film takes place in 1964. It is a fictional tale of real, young and important men in a hotel room. They are Malcolm (Ben-Adir), Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) and the American footballer Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), with King, in her feature directing debut, meshing punchy dialogue with intimate character study to bring fresh ideas to well-worn icons. Malcolm in the film was based on his friend Dick Gregory's description of him in an article as sweet and bashful. Hardly qualities that are usually associated with someone often represented as the nightmare to Martin Luther King's dream.
At one point in the film Malcolm says: "Black people are dying in the streets." The film wrapped before the resurgence of Black Lives Matter last summer, but those protests are now to the fore. "I feel like I understood the stakes of this movie way before George Floyd or any of the [BLM] stuff," Ben-Adir says. Does he, though, think Malcolm — killed in 1965 — has a modern-day equivalent? "Malcolm was a one-off," he says. "I often wonder what he'd be thinking now if he was still alive. What direction was he going in? There is nobody like him now."
With Obama, Ben-Adir made the role his own for the glossy drama The Comey Rule, about the FBI chief James Comey. Ben-Adir's job is largely functional. He has to explain protocol to the incoming FBI man. Easy? Not so much. Obama is one of the most famous men on the planet and, unlike Malcolm, very much alive and constantly on TV.
"So much Obama anxiety was around sounding like him," Ben-Adir says. "Because his voice is so recognisable. With Malcolm I'm trying to explore a side we don't know, but I'm not playing Obama in a biopic where I explore different sides. I literally give information. So my job is to find a way to make it believable."
The Comey Rule and One Night in Miami were, of course, filmed in America. As were Ben-Adir's other acclaimed roles, in the Netflix show The OA and a television reworking of High Fidelity. There is also the forthcoming Soulmates, a TV drama about people finding their perfect match. (His fiancée is yet to see it.) A few years ago another black British actor, Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), told me he had to leave Britain for America because of a lack of decent roles in this country, and it seems Ben-Adir has had to do the same.
He squirms when I mention this. Which is unlike him. On screen, in person, his thing is unflappability. "I feel like . . ." he begins slowly, before finding a different way in. "Well, now I've played Malcolm, I pinch myself about the offers I get." US and UK? "Here and there, yeah. I want to enjoy that, and it's difficult to explain my relationship with the industry here without it sounding like moaning. I've thought hard . . ." Another pause. "Because, yes, I had to go to America, where opportunities are in a different league, but this film changed me. And I want to celebrate that."
Would talking about what brought him to this point be too negative? "I'm in a position now where I can build projects up about stories I want to tell. I can make it happen. And it's better to do that, rather than criticising any casting director who hasn't given me a chance. If me and you are here next year, talking about another film, there are so many things I would love to share with you about this. But at this time, partly out of respect to this film, that's not what I want to do."
On stage Ben-Adir has appeared in Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Mark Rylance, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Conversation, as such, moves on to colour-blind casting and the TV hit Bridgerton, in which actors of all races fill Regency England. He asks what I feel about such casting, and I simply say I'd rather have new stories than so many period dramas. "I feel like that as well," he says, before another careful pause, which I interrupt by mentioning last year's Emma — an all-white period adaptation that was criticised by some for its whiteness, whereas I wondered whether we needed another version of Emma.
"Straight up," Ben-Adir says firmly. "Why are we f***ing making Emma?" This is why he enjoyed High Fidelity. It was a story of people of colour in love, not being racially abused or inflicting violence. "Dramas about social justice have their place," he says. "But we need to do normal stuff too. You need people seamlessly existing in drama, without drawing attention to what colour they are . . ."
Again he pauses, before telling a story about The OA. In its second series he played the detective Karim Washington. "I remember talking to the [creators] Zal [Batmanglij] and Brit [Marling] about a bit where, randomly, I'm racially abused. I just asked if we needed this. Why do I need to be racially abused? And not stand up for myself?" Batmanglij and Marling said it was reality. "But," Ben-Adir argues, "if we're not fully exploring the issue, you don't need to keep throwing the idea in."
Ben-Adir finished shooting One Night in Miami just before the first lockdown. He came home to London, had a "huge rave", flew to Los Angeles for one meeting before the rest were cancelled, then spent months at home. His page on Wikipedia says he is of Moroccan descent, which he thinks is part of the reason he was cast in The OA, as they wanted someone of African heritage. In truth his mother's parents are from Trinidad and Tobago and his father is English, so there is nothing that African about him. He wonders when Wikipedia will be updated.
Mostly, though, he is grateful; a man on the awards hunt with a life full of stories about being far from that. Like the time he thought he would play Muhammad Ali in an Ang Lee film, but did not. Or when he was in Brad Pitt's zombie film World War Z as Soldier 1, only for Soldier 1 to be cut. (He got a line as a different extra later.) He is even calm about the Christmas film Noelle, alongside Anna Kendrick. There was a love story in the film between him and Kendrick, which is what he signed up for, only for it to be taken out in the edit.
"It was really disheartening," he says. "My main section is not in it any more." How can he stop that happening again? "Oh, that would never happen again," he says with confidence. "I was just very green."
One Night in Miami is on Amazon Prime.
Written by: Jonathan Dean
© The Times of London