To say that Kingsley Ben-Adir had a significant 2020 would be a bit of an understatement. The 34 year-old British actor was, quite literally, everywhere, breaking hearts as Mac on High Fidelity, getting presidential as Barack Obama on The Comey Rule, and, most recently, generating Oscar-buzz for his turn as Malcolm X in Regina King’s directorial debut, One Night in Miami. Ben-Adir’s standout year landed him on the Hollywood Reporter’s Next Gen Talent list and his performance as the famous human-rights activist, a role he has described as “the deepest honor of my life,” earned him the 2021 Gotham Independent Film Award for Breakthrough Actor. Ben-Adir Zoomed with Vulture from London to chat about his big year, the incredible responsibility of playing a titan of American history, and how working with Regina King has showed him a whole new way to work.
I’ve got to say congrats on the Gotham Award. How did that feel? Where were you when you found out about that?
Thank you. I was in this hotel. I was on my own. I’ve never been nominated for anything. And I … I really fucking did a great job of putting [awards] out of my mind.
I didn’t put it to the back of my mind. I put it out of my mind. I’m 34. I was like, “I didn’t know you could get nominated for breakthrough work at 34.” [Laughs]. So I felt like I’d won when the nomination came through. When they said my name, bro, I was drunk and I was completely in shock.
This year seemed to be a really big turning point in your career with your roles in Love Life, The Comey Rule, and High Fidelity. Did you feel that 2020 was a breakthrough year for you?
Well, High Fidelity was such a significant chunk of my life. It was seven months of New York, and I loved [it]. And then I came back to London. And Soulmates, Love Life, The Comey Rule, and One Night in Miami, all happened within three-and-a-half months. I shot them all from the end of October … [takes a beat to count] Yeah, three and a half months to the middle of February.
I’ve never worked that much. I’ve never done that many jobs in such a small chunk of time. Then we went into the pandemic. This is the first time I’ve experienced having so many things come out at the same time. But really and truly, all of those jobs were in support to working with Regina and playing Malcolm.
While One Night in Miami was clearly adapted from a play, it still felt cinematic in nature and scope. How did Regina King strike that balance between staying true to the play and turning it into a full-blown movie experience?
Well, what Regina was doing in terms of the camerawork and the production design and the editing and the color and all of that stuff — I mean, as an actor, I don’t have a clue what the fuck’s going on with any of that. I really just jumped on the Malcolm train. I was in my own one-man Malcolm X exploration, and I just kept bringing my ideas and my inspiration for what Malcolm’s experience was in the movie every day, knowing that Regina had her eyes firmly on the overall picture. I understood the movie I was in, and I understood how important the vulnerability and the friendship and the love and the joy between these men needed to be. My job was to try and activate those scenes. The rest is over to Regina and what she did.
Regina had just won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in If Beale Street Could Talk when you shot the movie. Did you feel her experience as an actress influenced the way that she directed the film?
One hundred percent. I was looking at Regina today, and I was like, Oh my God. It was an actor who cast me. I’ve met hundreds of directors. I’ve got close to playing lead roles many times and not [gotten the role]. But it took an actress to [make it happen]. It was the actor’s connection between me and Regina that made this so special, and her sensitivity around emotional performance — her deep, deep, deep empathy for the Black male experience. She guided us.
Is there any particular moment with Regina on set that stands out?
Yeah, the scene with me and Aldis [Hodge] around the table.
That’s my favorite scene, actually.
Regina handled that. We really prepared it in a completely different way. Aldis and I just started running the lines very gently as they were setting up the cameras. We were running them really quietly, really slowly. And then something happened, and Regina saw it, and we just went in the other direction. That direction just sent us off on this completely different emotional path. We played with it for a few hours, and we tried many different versions, some that got more emotional, some that got less. Some that ended up on our feet, some that ended up all the way on the other side of the room. With Regina we were allowed to play, and we were allowed to try things out. She allowed us to really be free.
I love that scene in particular because it shows a softer side of Malcolm. What was it like to take on the task of having to humanize a truly larger-than-life historical figure?
The deepest honor of my life. Not only to get to spend that much time with Malcolm, as one of the handful of people who have had the honor of getting to play him, but getting to play him with Regina King directing — it was such a mind-blowingly awesome combination of luck, you know? I feel like I’m still processing the experience now as we talk. I’ve had moments today where I’m like, I worked with Regina and played Malcolm, I guess because the film’s just come out and it’s out of our hands now. You know, it’s not really complete until it’s out. But it’s changed my whole perspective of how I look at the work, how I look at character now, and story. The experience of working with Regina and connecting with her and learning from her? As awesome as you think it was, times it by 100, and it’s still nowhere near.
While One Night in Miami is a largely fictionalized story, the film is filled with interesting pieces of real history. I had no idea that Malcolm X enjoyed photography, or of the historic legacy of the Hampton House Motel. With Black History Month coming up did you find that you learned anything new about the civil-rights era?
All of those details that you mentioned, they were in the script. I was figuring out and learning as I was reading that the Hampton really existed. And the more I dug into Kemp Powers’s script and was trying to connect it with the history, the more I was blown away by the accuracy of so much of it, despite [the story itself] being a fictional conversation. The stakes for Malcolm at this time and what was going on for him, and his need to stay in the room and to keep Cassius Clay in the room. For anyone who has the bullshit notion that Martin Luther King was good and Malcolm X was bad …
I think some people, especially some white people, actually think that’s true, which is crazy.
Yeah, for anyone who’s unknowledgeable enough to have that preconception, this was a great opportunity to show Malcolm as a father and as a husband and reflect on-screen a human being people could connect with. The reason why Malcolm is such a goddamn hero is because he felt the fear and still faced it. He must have felt scared, and he still demanded that white America take a really hard look at themselves. He was turning the civil-rights movement into a human-rights issue. This is a fucking revolutionary we’re talking about.
The film takes place a year before Malcolm X was assassinated. Did that impact your performance in any way?
Only in the moment on the roof. I think understanding on some level, intellectually and emotionally, that Malcolm may have understood that his time was coming to an end was helpful. I don’t think I necessarily came to any firm decision about whether it was just a feeling or whether he was 100 percent certain — but the feeling that his life was in danger was one of the major, major stakes that I had. [Another] was that his 12-year relationship with the Nation of Islam was coming to an end. His father figure/mentor, Elijah Muhammad, their relationship was crumbling. His life was in danger. His wife and his children’s lives were also in danger. Yeah, the stakes were pretty mad.
The central debate of the film is an ideological one over how Black men are supposed to live and work and survive and thrive in a world run by white men. Were you able to draw any parallels between that debate and your own life as a Black actor working in Hollywood?
I feel like the political act for me in this project was turning up. The best way I thought I could honor Malcolm was to put in every second of every minute of every hour of every day that I had. The responsibility for me was in the preparation and turning up for him. As a storyteller, as an actor, the political act is in the choices. As in: What the fuck you do when you come on to set? I went fully in, you know.
Can you talk to me a little bit about the preparation? I read that you spent three days alone in your room preparing for Malcolm.
That bullshit. The three-day thing that [a Hollywood Reporter journalist] wrote was so negligent, especially in this time when everyone’s locked down. That was for the audition process. Whenever I have a really special audition, I’ll turn my phone off from Friday to Monday, and I’ll stay in my apartment and dive into the world and try and get underneath it. So for Malcolm, they wanted the tape in 24 hours. And I said, I simply can’t prepare 15, 20 pages in 24 hours. Not for Malcolm. So the producers gave me the long weekend, and I turned off [my phone], and I spent those three days preparing for the audition. That was for the audition.
So how did you prepare for the actual role?
I had 12 days over Christmas to figure [it] out. I came in very last minute. Someone dropped out. And literally [Regina King] had a few weeks to find her Malcolm. I just did a deep dive in, and it was a bit of a whirlwind. I was trying to lose the weight and trying to get the accent and trying to read as much as I could and watch as much as I could and … Yo, I felt like I was winging it, you know? Like I had no set process. It was just about trying to find a way to connect as much as I could to his spirit and his point of view and what it must have felt like — what it might have felt like — to have been him on this night.
The chemistry among you and Leslie Odom Jr., Aldis Hodge, and Eli Goree was so strong. Did you have time in rehearsal to create that chemistry, or was it just like, you got on set and it was there?
No rehearsal time. We didn’t know one another at all. We did a table read the night before, and we blocked one of the scenes. We were rehearsing as we were going along. I think the chemistry really was down to Regina. She handpicked us.
You’ve now played Barack Obama and Malcolm X. Did you feel more pressure with Barack, or is it impossible to compare the two?
You definitely can’t compare the two. There was a different pressure with [each]. With Malcolm, I wondered whether the community would accept seeing him in this way. I wondered whether the vulnerability and the emotion — whether the community, in particular, was gonna buy that. If I felt any pressure about anything, it was, you know, some nights I wondered if I went too far. But Regina had her eyes on that. And I trusted her completely.
With Barack, I felt like I didn’t have time. It felt like a whirlwind. I hadn’t said a word of [Barack] out loud. To myself I had, but not in a room with other people. So I think that was the most nervous I’ve been, when I first got there. But as soon as I looked Jeff [Daniels] in the eyes, you know, we were set.
It’s hard to look forward right now but is there anything — roles or types of projects — that you haven’t done that you’d like to do?
Oh, I mean, I feel like I’m just starting now. This feels like my first job in so many ways. I feel like the past 10 years have sort of come together on this. Regina showed me a way to work, the way I want to work moving forward.