Just eight short years since his screen debut, Kingsley Ben-Adir has catapulted himself into a bonafide threat in movies and on TV. In 2020 alone, the 34-year-old actor graced us with staggering performances in Soulmates, The Comey Rule, High Fidelity and One Night in Miami. But it’s only now in the middle of a pandemic that Ben-Adir finally had time to reflect on his grandiose achievements thus far.
“I think I’m deeply, deeply ambitious,” he told ESSENCE on a call from his native London, where he had just settled down at his home for dinner and a glass of wine ahead of a night of movie-watching. Interestingly, Ben-Adir, who’s earning raves for his performance as Malcolm X in director Regina King’s One Night in Miami (in select theaters Christmas Day and available on Amazon Prime Video January 15), didn’t grow up with the dream to become an actor.
“When I was 15 or 16, I really found performing terrifying,” he said. “I didn’t enjoy it at all.”
His trepidations evaporated once he began to really engage with the characters he played, mostly in productions he did on stage at school. It came down to “the adrenaline and the fear of going into the space, sharing and then coming out of it,” he explained after contemplating his ambition for a long while. “There’s an exhilaration about it that gets really addictive.”
That elation intensified after watching the “transformative energy” of performances like Samantha Morton’s in In America and Daniel Day-Lewis’ in in the Name of the Father.
“I had so many experiences of feeling so gripped and filled with emotion in these films and I’ve just been obsessed with trying to figure out what that is and how to do that for quite a long time,” Ben-Adir continued. “My ambition is linked to a really deep curiosity about: How the f**k people do that? Because I think it can be really transformative.”
Clearly, he’s cracked the code, since his metamorphic performance as Malcolm X has entered the 2021 Oscar conversations. His portrayal of the icon in the fictional piece offers a rare glimpse into Malcolm X’s humanity, giving the actor a chance to give back to the audience what people like Morton and Day-Lewis gave to him—a transformative, magnetic energy from which you can’t peel your eyes away.
“I just find that all of the footage of Malcolm that we have—on the podiums in Harlem, Los Angeles, on chat shows—is in reaction to the most despicable instances of racism a day or two before,” Ben-Adir considered. He added that One Night in Miami is “Malcolm outside of the media, a private Malcolm. That was what was really exciting and nervy about it and exhilarating to play and discover.”
It was easy to tell even over the phone how ebullient he still is about the fact that he played one of the most fascinating figures in history and that he has cultivated a career that fills him with immense joy.
“Having the luxury to read scripts, explore stories, figure out characters [and] whether I’m the best person to service story this last year was such a treat—and to be so busy and work with such f**king cool people,” he said excitedly. “I learned so much about process. I feel like a lot of things, particularly playing Malcolm, finally came together.”