Photography by Sophia Spring
Kingsley Ben-Adir plays two American icons Barack Obama and Malcolm X – at the same time.
Clarifications: Kingsley Ben-Adir suspects he may have gotten some help landing one of his breakthrough roles, in the Netflix mystery The OA, from some misinformation on the internet. “Something online said my mom was white and my dad was Moroccan—I don’t know if someone from school was playing a joke and it ended up getting printed in a few places,” he says with a laugh. “I think that’s maybe partly why I got cast as Karim, because there might have been a misunderstanding that I was of North African descent.”
For the record, Ben-Adir, who called Hemispheres from London in mid-November, just a few days before his 34th birthday, is the son of a white English father and a mother whose parents were from Trinidad and Tobago, and he grew up in the diverse North London neighborhood of Kentish Town. “Where I went to school there were, like, 82 nationalities in the building,” he says. “It’s one of the most multicultural places on the planet.”
Finding the Path: His father was a professional piano player, but Ben-Adir still came to performing later than many actors. In his late teens and early 20s he was working at a school for children with special needs and fell in with the theater crowd “by chance.”
He ended up enrolling in the Guildhall School of Music & Drama at age 22, and while he admits he “didn’t really enjoy” the classical training regime, it led to stage roles in London, which in turn got him parts in TV shows including Peaky Blinders and High Fidelity.
History in the Making: Few actors get the chance to play a revolutionary figure such as President Barack Obama or Malcolm X, but Ben-Adir portrayed them both at the same time, traveling between the shoots for The Comey Rule (which premiered in September on Showtime) and One Night in Miami… (which was released in theaters December 25 and comes to Amazon Prime on January 15). The latter, Regina King’s feature film directorial debut, imagines Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Cassius Clay (soon to be Muhammad Ali) arguing about their various roles and responsibilities in the civil rights movement while holed up in a motel room for a night in 1964.
“As an actor, you’re dreaming and waiting for the opportunity to play two parts like this, particularly Malcolm in this story, because it’s such an interesting point in his life,” Ben-Adir says. “The stakes are deeply, deeply interesting, because his relationship with the Nation [of Islam] is coming to an end. My feeling was that this is a side of Malcolm that we haven’t seen before in a real spot of vulnerability, behind closed doors.”
Next Steps: Ben-Adir says that he’s reading lots of scripts but hasn’t signed on to any other projects yet. “It’s tricky,” he notes, “because it’s hard to find anything as interesting as a character study of Malcolm X.” What does appeal to him? “Stories that are unique, with characters where there’s richness and complexity and real arcs that make sense. I can’t pinpoint a genre or a style—it’s just to do with good writing and good characters.”
Next Up: A Stylish Next Act for Jenna Lyons