Kingsley Ben-Adir loved so much about Kemp Powers’ script for Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” the first time he read it: nuanced writing, emotional depictions of Black icons, and a scenario ripe for a rich reimagining. What he was not struck by, however, was the role he was initially asked to considering playing: a young, boisterous Cassius Clay, celebrating his first World Heavyweight Championship with three of his closest friends in a Miami hotel.
“Immediately, I knew that Cash wasn’t for me,” the actor told IndieWire during a recent interview. “I was playing Mac in ‘High Fidelity’ [at the time] and I felt that I was [now] playing someone who was evolved and older. He just felt so young.” Clay, soon to become Muhammad Ali, was young at the time: He had just turned 22 and Ben-Adir had already passed 30.
While the British actor didn’t vibe with Cassius Clay, he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the scenes that involved the boxer’s spiritual guide, then-Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X. “It was the debate between Sam Cooke and Malcolm that really caught my attention,” he said. “It was such good writing and the conflict was there. And then the vulnerability of Malcolm as it went on, I was just like, ‘This would be such a unique opportunity to show that Malcolm was, above all — in my opinion, anyway — a deeply sensitive and intelligent human being.'”
The actor was taken by the new perspective that Powers, who adapted the screenplay from his stage play of the name, had poured into a role that had very much been played before. And not just by famous actors like Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and James Earl Jones, there’s also the public perceptions that stemmed from the controversial man himself. “As an actor going into a role that has been done famously, you’re just praying that it’s a different take and a different version and a different vibe,” Ben-Adir said.
He saw the role as a way to get “away from the militancy, away from the archival footage, away from the lacerating demagogue, away from the ‘white people are devils,’ away from all of that shit” and to “just really focus on how compassionate and deeply religious he was.”
He continued, “The more I studied and investigated, the more that side of Malcolm just became so blatantly obvious to me. I was just like, we’ve all been tricked by this stupid-ass misconception that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the ‘good one’ and Malcolm was the ‘bad one,’ it’s just utter fucking crap.”
Ben-Adir told his agent that, while Cassius Clay was not the role for him, he’d love to try for the part of Malcolm. He added with a laugh, “‘And I’d love to audition for Sam Cooke, but I have a history of auditioning for Sam Cooke, I can’t sing, and I don’t want to put anyone through that misery again.’ So it was really Malcolm or no one.”
That was August 2019. Five months later — December 10, 2019, a date Ben-Adir remembers without prompting — “And then I got a fucking call! ‘The actor playing Malcolm had pulled out and, they’re taking tapes, do you want to put something on tape?'” He did, but they wanted that tape the next day.
“I was like, ‘You must be fucking crazy. It’s 15, 20 pages, I need at least a couple of days to do this justice. I need to do accent work,'” he remembered. They offered him a weekend to get ready, and Ben-Adir unplugged and immersed himself in learning Malcolm. “I just started watching and listening and watching and listening and learning and watching and listening and learning” — and shot an audition tape that, he felt, was “botched together.”
Even so, King saw something she liked. “We began a sort of ongoing two-week, 12-hour, back-and-forth conversation about who Malcolm was, who he needed to be in this film, who I was, who she was,” Ben-Adir said. “It really took a long time. I didn’t get that job straight away. I told her, ‘I’m 60 percent of the way there in this audition, there’s work to do. I’ve got 15 more pounds to lose. I need another 40 hours on the accent. I’m going to bury myself away over Christmas if you give me this opportunity.'”
In short, he was “trying to fucking persuade her that I was the right guy for the job.” Ben-Adir believes the combination of confidence and work ethic convinced King, another notoriously hard worker, to hire him. “There was no time to think about anything else, I had like 13 days, and every hour was of the fucking essence. Any time I felt worried or nervous, I just jumped straight back into learning or watching.”
Ben-Adir was particularly taken with the “fascinating” period of Malcolm’s life covered in Powers’ script. “It’s a very delicate moment,” he said. “Within a week or two, he would be completely banished from the Nation and he would have started his own organization. He and Cash wouldn’t speak again shortly after this. The FBI was just starting to follow him around. His relationship with Elijah Muhammad was crumbling. It was such monumental shifts and changes going on for him politically, religiously, emotionally, spiritually.”
The actor said he utilized a wealth of “gorgeous, rich historical information” that allowed him to get to the heart of Malcolm as a deeply feeling man. “You watch Malcolm for long enough, it really doesn’t take long to understand that there was such a sweetness about him,” he said. “So much of the archival footage [of him] is from the day after some horrific incidents, police brutality, murder. He’s impassioned and he’s trying to spread the word, but to me, that just translates as love and compassion for Black people and for humanity, and his desperate need to fix the injustices and to demand that white America take a really hard look at themselves.”
On January 4, 2020, he arrived in New Orleans “ready to play.” The shoot felt more like an extended rehearsal to Ben-Adir, a dream situation for a performer who first got his start on the stage, but one still fraught with nerves. “It required putting, and excuse the metaphor, your balls on the line in a way that felt a little bit different to anything that I’d done before,” he said with a chuckle.
Ben-Adir, who graduated drama school in the U.K. a decade ago, has steadily risen in the intervening years, locking major roles in series like “The OA” and “Peaky Blinders”; he recently played Barack Obama in the miniseries “The Comey Rule.” With “One Night in Miami,” he’s already won the Gotham Award for Breakthrough Actor; previous recipients include Timothée Chalamet, Taylor Russell, Anya Taylor-Joy, Tessa Thompson, Michael B. Jordan, and Felicity Jones. He laughs at the “breakthrough” designation, but he gets it.
“To say it was an honor to play him, just doesn’t sum it up. It was a fucking joy,” he said. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve never been that intellectually stimulated, ever. It’s just the last week or so, I’ve really been reflecting on what an incredible time I had.”
He praised his castmates: rising star Eli Goree, who brought such sensitivity to a role that Ben-Adir knew he couldn’t play, “very special human being” Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown, and Leslie Odom Jr., who turned in “fucking charged and energized and interesting and fascinating” scenes on the regular as Sam Cooke. His most effusive praise, however, is reserved for the Oscar- and Emmy-winning King, who made her directorial debut with the film.
“Regina is everything to do with…” Ben-Adir paused to consider his next words. “Regina is the only reason why we were able to achieve the most emotionally impactful moments, the only reason why we were — I have to speak for myself — able to have a consistent emotional throughline was because she let us play. … She set up to shoot so we could play. She put us first, she put the actors first. I have never experienced anything even close to that on a set before.”
Ben-Adir is forthright about the fact that pulling out big emotions at whim or crying on cue can be difficult for him if the setting isn’t right. He credits her directing, just nominated today by the Golden Globes, as what made his take on the emotional, sensitive Malcolm even possible.
“It must be to do with the fact that she understands exactly what actors need,” he said. “She knew exactly what to say to me every fucking day. She never did anything other than help me. I knew that at the time, but I’m just looking back the last week or two, and really understanding the gift it was to work with her. She fucking gets it. There was just a peaceful, calm, consistent, focused, acting-oriented energy every fucking day. … This is my first real collaborative experience with an active director. I want to do it again with her immediately. There’ll be another one.”
The film premiered at Venice in September before TIFF, London, AFI FEST, a limited theatrical rollout, and a streaming premiere on Amazon Prime. Only now, however, is Ben-Adir allowing himself to feel all the emotions that the job — and his “Malcolm or no one” dare — stirred in him.
“It was a life-changing process, a life-changing job, and I felt like everything just came together,” he said. “I felt like the last 10 years since I’ve been out of drama school, everything came together. It felt like all of the rejections, all of the joys, everything made sense. There’s not one part of the journey leading up to shooting Malcolm that I would change, because it all helps, and it all informs. That sounds a little bit fucking witchy-woo, but it really felt like that. It felt like I was at the perfect age and at the perfect time and had the perfect experience to be number one on the call sheet and enjoy it and really lead from the front. I left just going, ‘Fuck, I want to do that again.'”
“One Night in Miami” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.