Getting Ready for the BAFTAs with Kingsley Ben-Adir

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Getting Ready for the BAFTAs Kingsley Ben-Adir Dior
Photography by Misan Harriman, Courtesy of Dior

Speaking to Sagal Mohammed on the eve of the BAFTAs, the star of One Night in Miami describes how playing Malcolm X has changed him and his acting goals

Kingsley Ben-Adir is experiencing a career-defining moment right now. In the past year, the 35-year-old British actor has played two monumental roles that have catapulted him into critical acclaim, the most prominent being his portrayal of Civil Rights hero Malcolm X in Regina King’s directorial debut, One Night In Miami. The life-changing role earned him a nomination for this year’s BAFTA EE Rising Star Award, while welcoming him into the realm of Hollywood’s inner circle. Still, his feet are firmly on the ground: his ground being the streets of north London’s Kentish Town, a place he calls home. “I’m still here,” he tells me as we catch up over the phone a day before the 2021 BAFTAs. “I’m walking down Kentish Town Road as we speak.”

It was around Christmas time 2019 when Ben-Adir found out he’d been cast in King’s screen adaptation of Kemp Powers’ powerful 2013 play of the same name. Someone else had pulled out at the last minute and at the time, he was preparing to play Barack Obama in TV miniseries, The Comey Rule. He only had a matter of weeks to perfect the two biggest roles of his career simultaneously. The experience was an incredible yet surreal one for the “William Ellis boy” who initially fell into acting after almost being expelled from the Gospel Oak boys school aged 14. “I was going to get kicked out at the end of year nine because of behavioural problems but then the school made an agreement  that if I did one counselling session a week and joined the drama class then I could come back. So I was sort of thrown into acting that way. Looking back now, I didn’t notice at the time, but it was the first and only lesson in school where I felt engaged and present. I was forced to do something that felt risky and challenging. Those are the things kids should be experiencing.” 

Ben-Adir, who went on to study at the prestigious Guildhall drama school in London, has starred in a handful of big budget TV dramas. He spent four years acting in ITV’s Vera before being cast in Netflix sci-fi series, The OA, as San Francisco detective Karim for two seasons. He then appeared in HBO’s High Fidelity, a TV take on the cult 2000 rom-com, where he played Zoë Kravitz’s outrageously charming ‘one that got away’. But One Night In Miami is significantly different from anything he’s done before. “As an actor, much of it is you waiting for a huge opportunity,” he says. “A ‘breakthrough’ moment or  ‘rising star’ recognition comes from that, and for most actors these opportunities won’t happen. So I just feel very, very lucky to have had a chance to play someone as deeply rich and complex as Malcolm.”

The film, which is nominated for two Academy Awards, is a fictionalised account of a real-life meeting between four prolific figures in Black history on February 25, 1964. Following his historic win over Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree) meets up with football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) and Malcolm X as they discuss their responsibilities as successful Black men during the Civil Rights Movement. Ben-Adir’s performance is brilliant. He’s not the first to portray Malcolm X on-screen – both Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington have famously had their stellar turns – but he holds his own, effortlessly nailing both the mannerisms and Harlem twang of the iconic activist. “I watched and listened to Malcolm as much as I could in the time that I had,” he recalls. “Pretty simple but listening to him really helped. From a more technical side, I guess it’s always about trying to get underneath what the need of Malcolm was in the story and understanding the dangers and difficulties he was going through at that particular time and then trying to marry those ideas with the language in the script.” 

He’s full of praise for King, whose debut as a director earned her a Golden Globe nomination. “She created a special energy to work in. The best way I could explain it is that it’s very rare that you get to shoot a film with 10 to 15 page scenes where there’s so much dialogue, it’s really like a play. And in order to get the most out of those scenes, there’s a particular type of swing and flow you need. As an actor, you need real freedom to make that much language feel grounded and real. That’s where we were so lucky to have Regina the machine. She’s such a wonderful actor herself so she knows what it’s like, that’s why her direction was so specific. She never bombarded us with too much, it was always just a nudge in the right direction, creating a real spirit of play. Without that, none of the emotionally tender or the emotionally powerful moments would have been able to happen. She’s an acting treasure.”

With limitless talent, charisma and admiration for the craft in equal measures, Ben-Adir is constantly championing his peers. He followed the careers of Daniel Kaluuya, John Boyega and Damson Idris years before the hype and spent most of his BAFTA press tour rooting for his 19-year-old fellow EE Rising Star nominee Bukky Bakray, lead of Netflix’s harrowing Rocks. She ended up winning the accolade on the night, including a shoutout to “Kingsley, my brother” in her acceptance speech. “I’m really excited about Bukky,” he tells me. “Because I’ve been around a little bit and I’ve seen how the business works, I want to make sure she’s looked after and that she’s taken care of properly. She’s an extraordinary talent and her future is bright. I’ll be watching over with a keen and protective eye.” Reflecting on his own youth, Ben-Adir emphasises the importance of enjoying every moment of the process, a piece of advice he’d give anyone entering the world of acting. “Every audition and every script is an opportunity to act, to develop your skills and really hone in on them, so enjoy that. I forgot that sometimes in my twenties just because I was chasing this goal so aggressively at times that I wasn’t present to enjoy the moment and have fun with it. It’s still my advice to myself going forward.” 

Speaking of the future, Ben-Adir is only just warming up. Opportunities are already flooding his doorstep and he’s rapidly making a name for himself on both sides of the pond. Life looks different and so does his wardrobe. He was dressed by Dior in a custom menswear suit at the BAFTAs, a look he describes as “the most unique and comfortable” – two crucial conditions when it comes to his fashion choices. “The last six months have been a bit of a blast. I usually always wear what I feel comfortable in which is often oversized, loose clothes. That’s the stuff I feel good in but my stylists Zadrian and Sarah have opened my eyes and introduced me to new things. I love the direction Dior is going in right now.”  

As for his own direction, Ben-Adir is tunnel visioned on impactful roles. “Playing Malcolm changed me. I feel much more ambitious in terms of the stories and the characters that I’m going for now. I’m honing in and being as specific as I can and as varied as I can. I want to do my best to keep pivoting and not to get stuck in a box, because that’s what everyone wants to do.” He also has a specific ethos that he lives by, now more than ever: “The biggest lesson I’ve learned is something I was told years ago but this is the first time I’ve really needed to apply it properly in my life. It is to treat your highs, the same way you treat your lows. There’s something that feels quite right about that at this moment. It makes me feel relaxed.”

Kingsley Ben-Adir wore a custom-made Dior Pre-Fall 21 men’s collection black silk and wool satin notch lapel oblique suit, a black wool turtleneck with a black leather derbies to the 2021 BAFTAs. Styling by Zadrian and Sarah, Grooming by Liz Taw at The Wall Group, at the Corinthia Hotel, London.