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‘Roots’: How History Found Its New Kunta Kinte, And What Made Him Special

Star Malachi Kirby and producers Mark Wolper and Will Packer dig into the miniseries' physically demanding quest for authenticity.  

Malachi Kirby in "Roots."

Malachi Kirby in “Roots.”

Kareem Black/HISTORY

History’s captivating new take on “Roots” brought a whole new audience into a story that spans generations, but begins with the abduction and enslavement of one Mandinka warrior.

Remaking an iconic piece of TV history was a risk, but so far it has paid off for History, in terms of critical praise and strong ratings for the miniseries’ May 30 premiere. A vital part of recreating “Roots” for a modern generation was to utilize, according to executive producer Will Packer, “a completely different style of filmmaking,” with a fully new set of resources.

READ MORE: ‘Roots’ Review Roundup: Modern-Day Remake Is Praised Across The Board As Uncompromising And Timely

Indiewire spoke with Packer, executive producer Mark Wolper and star Malachi Kirby in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival, where the first night of “Roots” screened.  While the original 1977 miniseries remains a television classic, the scale of the production was very different for this new edition.

“If you’re going to take on a project that is as iconic as this, you’ve got to do it right,” Packer said. “And what right means today in 2016 is making sure that the attention to detail, the minutia, the scope, the scale… Every element of contemporary filmmaking that we could have available to us was there.”

For example, while much of the original was shot “on a Disney ranch in California,” according to Packer, this new version traveled to actual authentic slave quarters in Louisiana — and built an entire slave ship from scratch.

“An actual ship down in South Africa,” Wolper said. “We needed to be historically accurate and we couldn’t find the right ship anywhere. It had to be 80 feet. It had to be a slave boat. The wood stakes that go into the sails were hand-carved because there were no machines to make them.”

In that same quest for authenticity, the “Roots” team spent months searching for the actor who would take on the role originally made famous by LeVar Burton. Kunta Kinte’s determination to hold onto his name and keep his family traditions alive against incredible odds is the cornerstone of “Roots,” and informs every episode of the miniseries, after the focus shifts to later generations.

Malachi Kirby in "Roots."

Malachi Kirby in “Roots.”

Steve Dietl/HISTORY

“‘Roots’ doesn’t live and survive and thrive unless Kunta Kinte is powerful, authentic and in the moment,” Wolper said. “The journey begins with Kunta.”

The production team, including casting director Victoria Thomas, estimates they auditioned about 4,000 people on four continents, before settling on Kirby. “My very first audition for this was easily the worst audition of my life,” Kirby said about the experience. “Everything went wrong. I felt like my accent was all over the place. I learned my lines and then I didn’t know them in the room. I was trying to read and it was just gobbledegook. I kept apologizing to the casting director for how bad it was going. That’s how bad it was.”

Fortunately, the story didn’t end there. “But somehow,” he said to Packer and Wolper, “You guys saw something else and I came to the second one and that was the complete opposite for me. Something powerful happened in that room and I went beyond anything I tried to prepare. I could feel all of us feeling it. It was bigger than me. And that was easily the best audition of my life.”

Said Packer: “You hear about actors that are dedicated to the craft and take their work ethic extremely seriously. Usually it’s not a project like this so when you hear that a young man who goes in and literally gives 1000 percent to a role like this, I know that just from a producer standpoint, it inspires everybody around him.”

Kirby’s performance was driven by many factors, including a commitment to staying in character to the point of physical discomfort. “If we didn’t really go to the depths of that darkness, we wouldn’t be telling the truth,” he said. “There had to be moments where, at least for me, actually I could get as close to safely experiencing that pain as I could.”

“And he did!” Wolper exclaimed. “We would be standing on the deck of the boat, wind machines going, rain machines throwing water on top of him. It was icy cold and we’d say, ‘Come over here. Let’s put a blanket or a coat over you.’ And he’s like, ‘No no no.’ He wanted to be in a moment. ‘Really, we don’t need you to get sick.’ He’s like, ‘No no. I don’t want anything.’”

Kirby said the comfort actually made it harder to tell the truth. “Having a chair and having a blanket and having a warm jacket, all of those things made it harder for me to go through his experience,” he said. “They were actually distracting.”

Malachi Kirby in "Roots."

Malachi Kirby in “Roots.”

Steve Dietl/HISTORY

Kirby’s commitment even extended to mealtimes. “He would sit at dinner and eat on the ground, squatting with his food in front of him, because it was the traditional Mandinka way to eat,” Wolper said.

“Which is actually incredibly hard, by the way,” Kirby laughed. “It’s easy to stay down there, but as soon as you try to get up, then you have problems. I felt like an old man.”

For Kirby, the journey was also a spiritual one: “I found that there were things that God could reveal to me that I could never get myself physically. I was thinking, ‘What is it about Kunta Kinte that allowed him to live such a long life?’ For me, what came down to it was his spirit and his knowledge of self. So, for me, prayer was an essential part of this. Everyday, just filling myself with his spirit.”

With any project featuring a relative unknown in such a prominent role, there’s always a risk that the person hired might be hard to work with. In this case, the risk paid off. “Sometimes, you’re just blessed with somebody that says, ‘You know what? I’m going to eat in the true Mandinka way. I don’t want the modern comforts of the film set. I am going to go in with the best I can to embody Kunta Kinte.’ That’s what we got,” Packer said.

Kirby said he was inspired by the ultimate message of “Roots”: “It’s a story of empowerment, how a select group of people survived slavery through their knowledge of themselves and where they came from. For me, it far goes beyond this idea of slavery. It’s more than that. It just so happens that it’s within the context of slavery that we’re telling this story.”

The final part of “Roots” airs tonight on History. 

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