If anyone is going to be fatigued by Zoom calls after the past year, it’s definitely Kingsley Ben-Adir. Since the US premiere of his film One Night in Miami last September, the 34-year-old has been on a relentless promotion tour, mostly without leaving his London living room.
When we speak, it’s a few days before the BAFTAs, at which Ben-Adir is nominated for the Rising Star Award. It will mean dialling into another virtual event, albeit from a hotel room and decked out in a Dior kimono suit. He’s showing no signs of flagging, though: “I’m feeling excited to have an excuse to drink champagne from 11.30 in the morning!”
Another actor might be miffed that their big break has coincided with a global pandemic but Ben-Adir is unfazed. “I don’t know any different because I’ve never really done it before,” he says. “Not to sound pretentious or anything, but there’s so much mad shit going on in the world this year for everyone that I’m more than happy to be doing this on Zoom.”
He’s also more than aware that getting the break at all is a blessing. “As a jobbing actor, you know on some level you have to wait for a huge opportunity and a huge role to come along. And understand that that probably will never happen, because it doesn’t for most actors.”
Opportunities don’t come much bigger than playing Malcolm X in Oscar-winning actress Regina King’s directorial feature debut – a role that Ben-Adir won after a whirlwind audition process when another actor dropped out. Adapted from Kemp Powers’ play of the same name, One Night in Miami tells the story of an imagined meeting between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, soul singer Sam Cooke and NFL legend Jim Brown.
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“For Malcolm X, I found it such a brilliant challenge… It was just alot of fun being in his orbit and in his presence, even though it was on YouTube most of the time”
In the end, Ben-Adir had under two weeks to prepare for the role of his life, during which he lost weight, mastered the accent and watched videos of Malcolm X’s speeches “over and over and over and over again”. To make things more complicated, he was simultaneously filming his role as Barack Obama in the TV show The Comey Rule. “I have to be honest, Obama felt a bit stressful because I just didn’t feel like there was time. For Malcolm, I found it such a brilliant challenge… It was just a lot of fun being in his orbit and in his presence, even though it was on YouTube most of the time. I found out things about his humanity that just blew my mind. He was a dude, you know?”
The intense preparation suited both the character and Ben-Adir himself, who knew that if he lost focus, “the fucking thing just falls flat”. He is effusive in his praise for King’s sensitive direction: “She didn’t micromanage any of our decisions. They were always helpful nudges in a direction. The emotionally tender moments or the emotionally explosive moments were only really possible because she knew how to handle us.”
It makes sense that Ben-Adir relished every second of the experience. Born and bred in north-west London’s Kentish Town (RANKIN’s studio is on the same road he grew up on), he has an impressive CV that includes roles in Peaky Blinders, The OA and the ITV crime drama Vera, but he has also had his fair share of knock-backs. In 2017 he was inches from stepping into the ring as Muhammad Ali in an Ang Lee feature (ironically also the role King originally considered him for in One Night in Miami), when he received word that financing had been pulled. “I’d just come back from the Philippines. I’d been there for three months in a boxing gym,” he remembers. “That was a big blow. I didn’t spiral but there were a few months where I lost focus a little bit because I’d been dragged along on that one for a couple of years. And I was convinced it was gonna happen because it was Ang Lee. I was fucking convinced! I remember Ang telling me, in a car on the way to the boxing gym one time – he was like, ‘We might not get the money.’ And I thought, ‘Come on, mate, you’re Ang Lee. Of course you’re gonna get the money.’”
Understanding that not everything works out is part of “the game”, as Ben-Adir calls it, and surviving it is all about resilience, even when your ego is “beaten and bruised”. “The thing is those things keep happening. They don’t stop. There’s always a version of that disappointment. Even last week there was one, genuinely. I guess unless you’re Leonardo DiCaprio, there’s always going to be some version of that. Your name is on a list and where you are on that list is moving and changing, depending on where you’re at.”
One place his name is currently at the top of the list is Marvel Cinematic Universe, where he will be joining Samuel L Jackson and Ben Mendelsohn in the Disney+ series Secret Invasion. Despite Marvel being notoriously tight-lipped, Ben-Adir isn’t too worried about letting details slip, because “genuinely, from the bottom of my heart, it’s all very much still in development. It’s really early days.” He is excited though, impressed with “the guys over at Marvel”, who are “ambitious as fuck”, and beside himself at the prospect of his new costars: “Obviously Ben Mendelsohn is one of the great character actors, and I think Samuel is… you know, he’s a hero of mine. That performance in Pulp Fiction is one of the most magnetic screen performances of all time. So the combination of working with those two alone was just like, fuck me, man, I’ve landed on my feet here!”
But whether the next opportunity is Marvel or something a little smaller in scale, as with One Night in Miami, Ben-Adir will throw himself into it wholeheartedly, following treasured advice he received from Al Pacino, when he spoke at his drama school, Guildhall. “Al Pacino came in to talk to us. I could not fucking believe what was going on! One of the things he said was that any audition he had was an opportunity to act. Any time you get a chance to put a tape down or go into a room, that’s an opportunity to act and learn,” says Ben-Adir. “It felt really inspiring that he was able to find inspiration, even in the struggle moments. So every time a tape comes, just fucking get on with it and enjoy it.”