‘The OA’ Star Kingsley Ben-Adir on Working with Brit Marling & Filming Those Crazy Scenes

     March 31, 2019

Be aware there are spoilers for The OA Season 2.

Anyone who watched the wild, unpredictable first season of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij‘s hyper-bingeable Netflix series The OA knew to expect surprises in the second season. Boy did it deliver with robots, tree internet, and a telekinetic octopus, just to name a few. But the most welcome surprise of the new season is the addition of Kingsley Ben-Adir as a new co-load, Karim Washington, a private detective with a dark past who gets tangled up in OA’s (Marling) world of interdimensional travel and metaphysical wonders.

With second season recently debuted on the streaming service, I spoke with Ben-Adir about joining in the mind-boggling mysteries of The OA. The actor discussed what he loved about Karim, the challenges of filming the hallucinogenic scenes inside the house on Knob Hill, working with Marling and Batmanglij as creative collaborators, the film noir detective that inspired him, and more.

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Image via Netflix

What has it been like for you stepping into such a passionate fandom in the second season? 

KINGSLEY BEN-ADIR: It’s a much better feeling going into something that people are passionate about and are excited than going into something that people don’t like or kind of happens that doesn’t care about it. It’s been nice. The last week, I’ve been in New York. I’m just sort of engaging in something else, now. But I’ve had all of my friends from home have binged it and finished it or maybe finished it, which is cool and they’ve been sending me a lot of positive stuff, positive feedback and talking about how much they’ve enjoyed it and, different emails from different people. But yeah, I still haven’t seen the final few episodes. That’s something to do this week or next week. 

Oh yeah? Those are some special episodes. 

BEN-ADIR: I haven’t been home. I’m looking forward to it. Looking forward to seeing what’s on. 

What were some of the elements of the character of Karim, when you got this script, that you were most excited about and then what ended up being your favorite elements to play on set? 

BEN-ADIR: With Karim, it was the journey and the part genuinely becomes very intriguing when you’re reading it for the first time, trying to work out where this thing is going. And that each end of every episode, or different parts of each episode, it just keeps taking these turns that are just unexpected and interesting. Even a little predicament, he sets to find this body, and that’s a huge feat for him. He’s been dragged into this thing by a force that you can’t really explain. So yeah, it was a really intriguing investigation. And in terms of the character, he just felt sharp and imperative, interesting and cool, dynamic and different. It felt like a P.I. that I hadn’t seen before on screen. I like him, he just doesn’t apologize for himself. And he takes his space and I think he’s sort of driven by good and he needs everyone to find out what’s happened to this girl. 

I was just fun scripts and a huge opportunity, really, for me coming from Vera back home. It’s one of those parts, kind of the next breakthrough role, so it came at the right time. And I love his houseboat and his orange scarf. And these roll-up cigarette papers. And his wardrobe just became really interesting, as well. Zal and I spoke a lot about that, and how we can make him sort of colorful without being too flamboyant, how we can make him stand out. How we can just make him feel cool and different and like someone we haven’t seen on screen before in that role. It was a big cast. It was five months. It was a lot of work, and just a great opportunity. Yeah. Karim Washington. 

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Image via Netflix

Because it’s a Netflix show, we don’t really get to see much about the behind-the-scenes making of the show. What is the vibe on set and what is it like working with Brit and Zal as creative collaborators? 

BEN-ADIR: Working with Zal can be really intense because creatively he’s very involved, and he’s so passionate about The OA. And visually I think he’s interested in trying to find the most beautiful angle, and the colors and the lenses. He’s a real “filmmaker” filmmaker. He wanted to shoot it as much like a cinema movie as possible and we were always trying to make the shot look intriguing and capture it. That’s a really powerful thing to be around and I enjoyed it. And we’d get into big debates about if a moment didn’t creatively go where we wanted to go. We were filming a lot. There were long weeks, and we were trying to get a lot done relatively quickly. 

Brit, I worked with as an actor. So my relationship with her was an acting relationship. And as we started, I genuinely kind of forgot that she was a creator and an executive producer and that she’s written all of these things. I just looked at Brit as an actor and she’s a wonderful actor to work with. She’s kind and she’s just a wonderful human being. There’s something about Brit that just makes you want to be better as a person. So she’s fantastic to work with. 

We had a number of intense scenes but we had a lot of fun on set. My favorite parts of shooting were with Brit; when we meet at the clinic and then break out of the hospital, our scenes in the café and stuff, going through the house. Filming with Brit was just such a joy. I think they were my favorite two episodes to shoot for them when we talked together. 

Those are some great episodes. And throughout the season you get to do some really weird and unusual scenes to play. Which was your favorite moment to bring to life? 

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Image via Netflix

BEN-ADIR: That’s a really good question. I don’t know I guess this is not a very interesting answer. This is kind of like an actor’s answer… But in the big dialogue scenes, they’re the ones you really get to work on at home and try and get under your belt, and work out how you’re gonna say these lines. And they’re the real acting scenes that, I guess the stuff in the house they’re just like their moments that flashes. You sort of get to set and you’ve kinda got to work those out as you go along. 

The most fun stuff to film,  I loved driving the Saab around. That was a lot of fun. Driving the Saab. And the water tank was really all … that water was like Jacuzzi temperature because we were in it all day. When I come out of it at the end, it was really warm and I swear to god, I had such a nice day. I was just in a hot bath all day. And everyone was saying to me going, “Are you okay? You’re doing so well, you’ve been so well, you’ve been in the-” and I was like, “Guys you have no idea. I’m just in a hot bathtub all day.” And it was kind of elevated in the scene so it was like a silent, hot, warm bubble all day just floating around and getting to swim underneath it. And there were all these cool stunt guys who could hold their breath for three minutes at a time. So I had interesting conversations between takes. That was so much fun. So much fun. 

Oh, that was a tough day — the scene where he’s walking through the field where all the hands are going at him. That was a night shoot. And man, that was really physical. I was running, it was like an assault course that I was running. We got a million different angles and a million different takes. To try to edit that down into, I don’t know, a 20-second sequence. But we started shooting at 10:30 at night and we got back at 5:30 in the morning as the sun came up. And I think on my last run through, I was done. Like physically I could not move. My breath was gone, muscles done. It was over. So that one was hard, but … all the house stuff was great. All the stuff with Zendaya was super cool as well. She’s a really great person to work with. 

For a lot of the story, because he’s the detective, he’s kind of off on his own a lot. Who did you not get to work with this season that you really hope you get some scenes with next season? I know next season isn’t confirmed, but just assuming there’s a next season and you’re coming back and all that. 

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Image via Netflix

BEN-ADIR: I don’t kinda want to single anyone out, but. I think Emory … I’ll answer this question about Emory Cohen and all of them. They’re all wonderful performers. But I spent a fair bit of time with Emory afterward. And he’s just interesting — in acting and the process of acting, in a way that we’re able to engage in conversations about it that I find really interesting. I find him a really interesting dude. I think his family has ties in the acting studio in New York. He’s a real New York sort of method-y kind of actor. I don’t know if our paths would ever get to cross. We’ve been working with the same acting coach as well. I would just love to play some scenes with Emory in anything. Maybe it’s on OA, or in a different movie. I’d like to work with him because I just love his work I think there’s a real power about him. So, yeah, Emory. 

But all of them. Dave, Patty, Ian, and Phyllis. I mean what Phyllis does in season one, she just broke me up. That woman has some serious power. Her emotional capacity … I just found her performance in season one so moving. Loads of people. My problem is I want to work with everyone. 

A good problem to have. 

BEN-ADIR: Yeah! 

I find that this is one of the few shows I watch that challenges the way I think while I’m watching it. Did you find that after you’ve wrapped filming that dealing with all these philosophical ideas and far-reaching questions affected the way you think? 

BEN-ADIR: 100 percent. Dreams, what they mean. I’ve been listening to my dreams a lot more. When I can be bothered and when I can remember, I try and write them down and I try and remember them.  I’ve become interested in what they mean and what they’re telling us. Do you ever wake up and you’ve had a dream and you’re like, “Why the fuck was I dreaming about that person?” Or, “What the hell was that in my dream?” What’s going on in your subconscious is so complex and fascinating. And all this information that you’ve basically just been taking in from two or three years old, when you can first kind of remember stuff. And it’s cool that we carry that around without knowing.

And what’s real and what’s not, and how … Knowing that you’re seeing someone who you’ve dismissed as crazy walking down the street or, someone who’s got OCD or, homeless or walks along lines. Just what are they seeing and what’s their reality? Where are they coming from? Why do I think what I’m doing is the right path? Who the fuck knows what the hell they’re doing here … what any of this means. 

That’s the only way I sort of know how to sum up The OA. I sort of just tap in that sort of territory. Which is kind of amazing. It really does sort of make you think. It doesn’t spoon feed you or drag you along … What was your question? Sorry, I just rambled off there. 

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Image via Netflix

No, I think you totally answered it. I was asking if the show has affected the way you think and, sounds like a big “yes.” 

BEN-ADIR: It definitely has, yeah. I mean I’m kind of interested in all that shit anyway. Me and my dad have always spoken about the power of feelings and talking about your feelings, and all that. Just the emotional capacity to kind of understand the way you behave and stuff like that. That’s always been in my language. But yeah, being around Zal and Brit, who are sort of fascinated by these ideas and trying to put these ideas into story form. You’re forced to every day. Especially with someone like Karim who’s on a journey of self-discovery. He goes off on this investigation for eight days and he’s changed forever. 

When you’re dealing with that kind of metaphysical, philosophical content as an actor, and you know you have this character who’s going to look out a rose window and change his perspective on everything he believes, was it a challenge to make any of that grounded for you to play on screen? 

BEN-ADIR: Oh man, do you what? I just locked myself away for a couple of weeks. I had his journey mapped out on my apartment. I mean, I went through that script with a fine-tooth comb as much as I could every day. I didn’t see anyone. Because it’s so much material, you have to constantly keep going back to it. Because we were shooting episode eight in the first week. We were shooting episode eight, and one, and four, all at the same time. So there was a concentration And this is the first lead that I’ve shot over so many hours. The concentration that that requires, I just have so much more respect for people. Anyone who leads for a TV show that goes over that long that’s not filming sequentially. It’s tricky. You have to kind of map out that journey and constantly keep going.  

Just sort of keep going over it and just follow your intrigue. And then you have your director there that you trust that can push and guide you. But you’re playing it from an acting point of view and they can see it on the monitor and you just kind of find that dialogue and try to find something truthful. But I spent a lot of time thinking about that final scene that’s when he goes and — I still haven’t seen it yet so I don’t know.  I’m not really interested in caricatures or over-acting or playing anything up for laughs. Trying to find the truthful version of anything is the only thing that makes this job interesting. So yeah, I hope it’s all still grounded and I hope it’s truthful and I hope he adds to the story in a way that’s useful. I look forward to seeing it next week. 

Since you get to play sort of the film noir detective in this, who are your favorite film noir detectives from film and TV? 

BEN-ADIR: Such an interesting question. Do you know what? I wasn’t really familiar with the genre before meeting Zal and Zal sent me over a bunch of films. I’d seen Chinatown but I watched Chinatown two or three times before we started. I just think that Jack Nicholson, he’s a phenomenon. I was lucky enough to work with Shirley MacLaine just before we started this, and she’s worked with Jack Nicholson a bunch. I would just ask her stuff I asked her about a movie they did together and I’d be like, “How did you find those moments, those little charming moments of this and that, and how did you do this and that?” And she was like, “The thing you need to understand about that is that he’s just like that. He is that guy.” So Chinatown’s definitely one with Jack Nicholson. 

 nd, god I’m terrible with names. There’s a film noir that Denzel did with Julia Roberts that I watched. I can’t remember the name I just saw it on DVD, which I really enjoyed. I liked Denzel’s performance in that. And Humphrey Bogart, I watched a bunch of his films. And I like the way he sort of just rattled off the language and was just unapologetic in the speed at which they speak all those big speeches. Just finding the right balance of emotion and brain work.

The OA Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.

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