[WATCH] Malachi Kirby (‘Roots’) on playing Kunta Kinte: ‘The hardest challenge of my life’

“Suddenly it dawned on me: this is happening now. How am I going to do this?” admits Malachi Kirby as we chatted via webcam (watch above) about how overwhelming it was to be cast as Kunta Kinte in the History Channel’s remake of “Roots.” “I didn’t have any idea how to begin to embark on this journey. A lot of praying was needed.”

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Kirby says he feared he wouldn’t get the chance to take this that journey as he thought he’d botched his first audition. “I didn’t know my lines, although I was very sure I’d learned them. My accent was all over the place, literally – everywhere except West African. It was ridiculous. I kept apologizing to the casting director, and then I left.” He was surprised to get a callback, but when he did he nailed it. “It felt amazing, it felt like something else took over in the room that I wasn’t in control of. Whatever it was I needed to understand about [Kunta] just clicked in that room that day.”

[WATCH] Anika Noni Rose (‘Roots’): ‘Not simply for black Americans, this is a story for Americans’

But once you’ve landed such an iconic role, how do you follow through? “It was the hardest challenge of my life,” Kirby explains, but something clicked again during the powerful scene in which Kunta is whipped until he relinquishes his African identity. “His strength comes from something way bigger than the physical pain he’s going through. It’s the strength of his spirit, the strength of his ancestors that came before him.”

[WATCH] Emayatzy Corinealdi on ‘Roots’: ‘Belle has not only a fortitude but a beautiful vulnerability’

“Roots” premiered over four consecutive nights from May 30 to June 2. Now that it’s out in the world Kirby hopes viewers “receive a sense of clarity, peace, understanding and forgiveness, that people will be able to let go of shame and guilt. I want it to birth a desire for knowledge. This is just the beginning of something.”

‘Roots’ reviews: History Channel miniseries is ‘as necessary today as it was almost 40 years ago’

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