Kingsley Ben-Adir (‘One Night in Miami’) on nailing the dialect and physicality of Malcolm X [Complete Interview Transcript]

Kingsley Ben-Adir stars as Malcolm X in the new film “One Night in Miami,” directed by Academy Award winner Regina King. He is nominated alongside his co-stars for the top film ensemble category at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Ben-Adir recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about stepping into the shoes of Malcolm X, working with King as a director and his awards buzz. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: These are big shoes that you’re filling, playing someone as iconic as Malcolm X. I’m curious what your understanding of him was before taking on the role, just the image you had of him in your mind? 

Kingsley Ben-Adir: Well, I think the famous archive footage and image of Malcolm as the lacerating demagogue, rabble-rousing, impassioned, I knew the broad strokes. The autobiography was on my shelf. I’d read it in my early 20s. I had a few years where the Black Panther Movement and Huey P. [Newton] and Martin Luther King, I took a deep dive into American civil rights in my early 20s, and my granddad would have spoken about Malcolm for sure, but I didn’t know as much as I thought. The process that Regina and I went on and the investigation into Malcolm, and particularly Malcolm at this specific time in the movie, my mind was blown. There was so much I didn’t know. 

GD: I read that before you signed on, you actually read for Cassius Clay. Can you talk about just what happened that landed you in the part of Malcolm X instead? 

KBA: It wasn’t actually Regina or Kim Hardin, the casting director, who wanted to see me for Cassius. It was my agent, because Eli [Goree] and I got very close to playing Ali in a different movie, an Ang Lee movie years ago, and we lost the money. So I think my team was very excited by another possibility of playing him but ultimately, I felt disconnected and a bit too old. There was something youthful and I just felt too old. I didn’t feel like I was the right person. So I didn’t even tape in the end because sometimes you just have an instinct, like, “I’m not going to get this.” The Ali that I was supposed to play with Ang Lee was a 33-year-old Ali, and completely different. I remember I said to my agent, though, I was like, “If anything happens to the actor playing Malcolm,” kind of half-joking, “I’d love to audition for Malcolm,” and then four-and-a-half months later, I got a call saying he’d dropped out and Regina was trying to find her Malcolm pretty quickly. “You need to take the tape down in 24 hours.” Yeah, that was how the Malcolm audition came about. 

GD: There’s a certain physicality to Malcolm X and a vocal inflection that’s important to try and recapture if you’re trying to really inhabit him. What kind of research did you put into the physical traits that Malcolm had? 

KBA: There was a way of making a costume that could have covered my size, kind of, and makeup could have done a job, but naturally, I sit around 210, 215, so, very close to Eli and Aldis [Hodge], and I said to Regina before she cast me, “I’m really going to have to lose the 20 pounds because in all of the images of us together, Malcolm has to feel like a different shape.” It was just really important, and his face is slim. I just thought there was something really important, especially on the roof, in the script, Kemp [Powers] says Jim hoists Malcolm in that fight. So Jimmy needed to really be able to just do that to me and stop me. Losing the weight, I think my instinct was just crucial, so I kind of stopped eating quite a lot. I didn’t eat very much at all.

The dialect, Malcolm has this very, very specific tone and sound and I worked in huge detail with three different dialect coaches, kind of all at the same time, just because I find that there are so many brilliant dialect coaches and they all offer something really different. So I just got a little bit greedy and had three and I was coming onto the project very last-minute. So I didn’t have time to mess around. I had 12 days to sort of dig in and get ready for day one of shooting. So there was a lot of work around the dialect and the physical.

I think from the moment Regina cast me, I must have hung up the phone and put Malcolm on and then for two-and-a-half-months, really, if I didn’t have him on a screen I had him in my ear, unless we were shooting. I’d say 85, 90 percent of the waking day, I had him playing in my ear. I remember Mark Rylance saying that years ago when he was doing “Jerusalem” that he would listen to the voice of the character he was basing it on, the dialect from where the character was from. So I guess I took that on on some level and it just made me feel safe. It just made me feel like I was always connected to him in some way. There was a lot of listening. Listening and repeat as well I found was really helpful, listening and then trying to just get the essence of the sound.

GD: Speaking of the essence, actually, the film really captures Malcolm X at a very interesting part in his life, as you said, where he knows that he’s being followed. He knows that his reputation is a certain way and he’s really facing his mortality and he’s thinking that the end might be near. I think you can really sense that urgency in him throughout the film and just that kind of anxiousness. So what kind of choices did you make as an actor to really reflect that sense of urgency and that anxiousness outside of what was being said in the dialogue? 

KBA: The reason for that was when you read Kemp’s script, there’s something about the language and the energy where you really feel that the vulnerability is at the heart of this thing, all of them. The love and the joy and the friendship, it just had a very particular heartbeat and I just started looking at what was going on for Malcolm around that time and my mind was blown. So many huge shifts were happening for him. The idea that his relationship with the Nation of Islam was really coming to an end and Elijah Muhammad is his father figure and mentor, really, that relationship was crumbling. The indiscretions about him and the accusations were coming to life and there was a real feeling that he was being pushed out of the Nation and as I started sort of building the character in the world, the more I felt like those very specific stakes, and internalizing those stakes, is going to be the best way to activate this language and really bring it to life in a way that felt active. And then, that conversation at the heart of this story could resonate and really be heard. So yeah, I can’t remember what the question was, but I was really invested in the stakes of what was going on for Malcolm at that time and the changes that were happening for him and his political and religious thinking. 

GD: Well, this is also based on a play by Kemp Powers, which, he’s adapting his own work here and it certainly has a theatrical feeling to it. Very conversational, mostly set in one room and I know you’ve done quite a bit of theater in the past, so I’m wondering if that was particularly exciting for you, considering your background and also just how you modulated your performance here to suit the medium of film, which is much more intimate. 

KBA: Yeah, I haven’t been on stage in seven-and-a-half years. It’s been a long time, but I definitely feel like when auditions come through, where what’s being asked of the actor is to prepare scenes that have a lot of language and scenes that go on for a lot of pages, I guess the theatrical instinct kicks in where you’re building and using language to sort of hold attention. I was really excited. Regina wanted 15, 20 pages for this audition and I was like, “Great, I’m up for it. I just need more than 24 hours to get the language in my body.”

I didn’t really think about this as a play. I was more just concerned about how to bring 15 pages of text to life on camera and what that was going to require and I feel like just really, as I said before, investing in the stakes of what was going on for Malcolm at that time and understanding the pressure that he was under and how isolating and lonely that must have felt and investing as much as I could in his friends and Cash and really needing them. I wanted Malcolm to be in a position where he was trying to wake them up to his reality and really needing to wake them up and the more I thought about that, the more it felt like it was feeling real. 

GD: You mentioned Regina there. She has directed episodes of television before, but this is her first film. Obviously, she has an extensive acting career and I know that a lot of actors-turned-directors are naturally quite good at directing actors because they’ve been there before. Did you notice anything distinct about her style as a director that was maybe different from other projects you’ve worked on? 

KBA: She had really strong ideas every day. Coming into the day, before we would rehearse and start shooting, Regina would talk about what idea she was bringing to the table and how she wanted to shoot and what she was going to be doing with the camera. She just offered up all her ideas and suggestions of what she thought the scene was and how it should be and they were always just really inspiring and exciting, like the prayer scene. She was talking about how she’s going to be outside the room and we learned the prayer last-minute and the scene around the bed at the end and clicking to the beat, they were all Regina’s ideas. Any time she offered an idea, it always excited me and we collaborated in that way where her idea enhanced my idea, so that was cool.

But then obviously, and I’ve said this a million times, I’ve never worked with anyone who understands the acting process so profoundly. She really gets it. She really understands. I’m not sure if I even noticed subconsciously at the time, but looking back, we had such an incredible acting experience because we were allowed to play and discover and figure it out. There was an atmosphere where we didn’t feel scared. We were able to just throw things out there and feel comfortable and safe within that.

Regina’s sensitivity around emotional performance was just like, “Oh, my God.” I’m so grateful for it because all of those really emotionally-charged moments in the film or some of the really tender moments or really some of the more delicate scenes or beats were all because of how Regina was able to steer us and talk to us. She knows how to talk to actors and she knows not to bombard you. She knows just the right amount of information to feed you before a take, because I guess she understands better than anyone what that feels like to be there before action and during action and “Cut.” She understands where you need to be to get the best out of actors. So we had that. We had someone who was was really able to get the best out of us. 

GD: Yeah, I get the sense of that just from her other performances and the way she is in interviews that that tracks, I guess I’ll say. And you’re spending so much time onscreen, obviously, with the other three guys, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom Jr. The film is really centered on these very thoughtful conversations and I’m curious, did the four of you put in the work to really create a bond beforehand, before you got to set, so that you would eventually have that level of comfort with each other? 

KBA: No, we didn’t. We really didn’t have time. I landed on the second of January and we were filming on the fourth. So, there was a day to settle in and then we came in to look at the set one evening and we blocked out the next day a little bit, but we were really rehearsing and figuring it out each morning and the preparation coming into this was most important for me. It was about turning up and understanding who Malcolm needed to be in the story and I feel like I prepared in a way where I wanted to turn up and start filming on the fourth and be able to jump into any moment of this film at any hour, and that proved really useful because we were shooting so out of sequence and so out of order. If it was raining, we’d have to come off the roof and we jump into the end of the film and then we’d go back to the beginning, so we were all over the place. So keeping the concentration on the mind map of the emotional journey was, I don’t wanna say difficult, but so much of the concentration was on trying to remember what we’d done there to make sense of what we were doing here and so on.

But no, we didn’t have any time to bond or connect, really. It felt like the filming process was just one extended rehearsal. We were constantly in a dialogue about just how to get the best out of each moment and the inquiry, the investigation into who these men were and what was going on at this time, we just stayed in that zone very tightly all the way through. It was never a moment where it was like, “Oh, we’ve got this.” It never became casual. Every day was a new scene to try and nail and try and get underneath, and Regina was keeping such a strong eye on all of our performances and she was able to stop us when we were gone too far and encourage us when we were not being dangerous enough. So it all just kind of came together by chance. 

GD: You’ve been getting quite a bit of awards buzz for your performance and you actually won the Gotham Award the other day for Breakthrough Actor of the Year. Not that this is your first role. You’ve been in the business for a number of years now. But what does it feel like to be getting this kind of attention and recognition for your work? 

KBA: I feel so flattered to be even brought up in this conversation and just to be connected to Regina at this time and to be a small part of her journey up to this point. And a little surreal as well. This is all kind of mad. But because the film comes out today, a few of my friends are on social media and stuff, they’re like, “Oh, my God, it’s all starting, man. People are being so nice about film,” and stuff like that. So that’s cool, and I feel like the more people who see it, the better. The Gotham the other day was really strange. I was here. I was just kicking back. I just had no idea. I completely put it out of my mind that my name was going to be called. I’ve never been so genuinely surprised. Maybe that was a mistake. Maybe I should have prepared for that. 

GD: Maybe next time.

KBA: Maybe next time, yeah.

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