Kingsley Ben-Adir on a Busy 2020: Playing Obama and Malcolm X, While Also Finding His Soulmate

     October 6, 2020

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None of us expected the fall of 2020 to look like this, but that’s especially true for Kingsley Ben-Adir. “There’s this whole other thing that happens after you wrap, where they put the thing together in a dark room, which you’re not part of. So it always comes as a little bit of a surprise,” he told me during a recent phone interview. “I had no idea this was going to happen. The release dates have only sort of become clear in the last month or so yes, a little bit of a coincidence really.”

Within the span of just a few weeks, three very different projects featuring Ben-Adir have premiered in some way: He stars in the first episode of the AMC anthology series Soulmates, while also playing a significant role in Showtime’s The Comey Rule and beginning to rack up rave reviews for his performance in One Night in Miami, currently making the film festival circuit.

Those latter two projects feature Ben-Adir transforming into two very different but quite iconic men: for The Comey Rule, he had to embody Barack Obama in the midst of his presidency, while One Night in Miami features him as a 1964-era Malcolm X. Meanwhile, Soulmates features him in a less historically significant role as Franklin, a family man whose marriage to Nikki (Sarah Snook) is shaken by the invention of a futuristic test that determines your scientifically accurate perfect match (who may not be your current partner).

What all three performances have in common is how they showcase his craft, about which he goes into detail below, including how he and Snook worked together to make their Soulmates marriage feel real, why he didn’t end up auditioning for The Comey Rule, and how he approaches playing real-life historical figures.

Talk to me a little bit about how Soulmates came to you.

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Image via AMC

BEN-ADIR: [Creators Brett Goldstein and Will Bridges] sent the script over as an offer and with Sarah already attached — I read it and I was just blown away by the concept. It’s a really interesting idea, with the possibilities with the relationship between Nikki and Franklin, and playing opposite such great actors. Sarah was just a really interesting and exciting prospect.

What’s so interesting about the episode is that it’s such a complex relationship, and the little slings and arrows really stick out. How did you go about building that with Sarah?

BEN-ADIR: Do you know what, it’s funny because of the relationship and the fact that they’ve been married 15 years and have two kids, there are so many ways that you could go into it and decide to play Franklin, and we did a table read and had a really big discussion and kind of got very specific about all of the points. Without giving too much of the plot away. It’s kind of hard to speak about without spoilers, but my feeling was that the deeper I play Franklin in love with Nikki, and the more we can find ways to get the audience to root for these two as a couple, the bigger the emotional impact or the punch possibly could be. So I think we’re just trying to explore ways to make the love between them as palpable and as strong as possible, so that the audience feels it with them and root for them and relate to it and relate to them.

What was really interesting about the pilot, what jumped off the page was the idea of restlessness in relationships — long-term relationships in particular but all relationships, depending on who you are, that natural thing that happens where you questioned whether you’re with the right person or you’re not with the right person. I thought this was a really interesting look at that and in Nikki’s behavior and the pilot, I got on to thinking about how normal that was and how it’s something that we, I guess we have to suppress in order to protect the person that we’re with and actually, if you’re really honest about, I think it’s actually much more normal than we might think and maybe healthy too. So I just thought it was just an interesting look at all of that, love, long-term relationships and soulmates question, “what does that even mean?”, “what is a soulmate? “What is a healthy relationship?” I just found, not even just after the first group, but just as we were filming, it was just a really interesting exploration of that.

So you only read the pilot, which is for your episode. How much were you told about the world of the show beyond that? About this new society that’s been created as a result of the test?

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Image via AMC

BEN-ADIR: There was a pretty thorough breakdown of the concept and the overall idea. I didn’t learn anything specific about the other episodes until I got to set and I met Will and I met Brett and then we sort of had long conversations about what episode two, three, four, five, six, and seven were going to be, and I was like, Oh wow, this is really interesting. Like I thought it was interesting, but now it’s like, another level. But there was a pretty clear breakdown of the idea of the test and us being in the world of the test and being 15 years in the future where there was this sort of scientific database that takes DNA from your eyeball and tells you who your perfect match is.

Yeah. I think the most fascinating thing for me about the show is that the question of whether or not the test is… The test seems infallible. All the dramas are really just about what would happen to a world where this was a thing.

BEN-ADIR: Yeah and I think that’s what’s really interesting about the pilot, is that it’s exploring a relationship. It’s exploring the relationship where the test is just sort of being heard about socially, through her brother and her friends, and at the dinner table. So the idea of the test is being imposed on them from outside sources, which I thought was interesting when you look at the other episodes.

Beyond Soulmates, I recently had a chance to talk to Billy Ray about the Showtime miniseries The Comey Rule, and he told me that he cast you as Obama without actually knowing whether or not you could do an Obama impression.

BEN-ADIR: Because I was on Soulmates. I was on Soulmates and they wanted an audition tape within like a day or two. And I was so busy and I was much, much heavier than Obama. And I was just kind of like, I would love to be a part of this, but whatever I throw down on tape in the next 24 hours is not going to reflect the work that I’m going to do over the next eight weeks. So I requested to speak to Billy and I put my case forward. And I said, “Look this is what I would do. This is how much weight I would lose. These are the amount of hours I’d like to put into dialects. And this is kind of the rough journey that I’m going to go on over the next couple of months. And I promise you that when I turn up on set, like this is what I’m going to bring.”

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Image via Showtime

And he took a leap of faith and trusted me, really. I think he’d seen some audition tapes I did for something else through the casting director. And he just was like, “All right, cool.” I think I gave him a little taste taster. Like, I listened to a few sounds and I just… I was sort of teaching him or coaching him about the specifics of the dialect and what it needed. And I think he heard a few sounds in my voice that sounded a bit like Obama and he was like, right, I’m sold. So, he gave me a shot, which was really kind. And I was grateful for it.

In terms of playing real-life figures, you of course also have One Night in Miami now making the festival circuit. When you take on a real-life person, especially one who is pretty well known, how do you approach finding your version of that person?

BEN-ADIR: I feel like deep preparation is the only way to go and you just need time, where you can really dive into the world and read up on the history. And we had just enough time, I think, to make that happen. It’s really difficult to sum up what that process is, because it was ongoing. I can only really describe it as a deep dive in, and you, once you get that part, once you book it, you’re kind of on a journey. And when it’s a real person, when it’s someone like Malcolm, it’s a spiritual one and you kind of, you’re trying to take on as much as possible. You’re trying to get underneath what possibly he might have been going through at that time on that night and just I thought overall, it was such an interesting opportunity to explore him in a way that we haven’t seen him before, which was like… He’s really in a true spot of vulnerability in this movie, or at least that’s the interpretation that I made from the script and, and what was going on at the time in 1964.

But I spent just a lot of time with him, watching him and listening to him. I had him on from the moment I woke up all the way through to when I went to sleep for, 12 weeks. It was intense.

Soulmates airs weekly on AMC.

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