Kingsley Ben-Adir: relishing the challenge | Snapshot

Fresh off roles in Barbie and Marvel’s Secret Invasion, Trinidadian-British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir takes on the title role in the Bob Marley: One Love biopic. Caroline Taylor reports

  • Kingsley Ben-Adir plays the title role in Bob Marley: One Love. Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures
  • Photo courtesy Misan Harriman
  • Ryan Gosling, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and Ncuti Gatwa in a scene from Barbie (2023). Photo by LANDMARK MEDIA/Alamy Stock Photo

You’d think turning in much-praised performances as two iconic American figures would give Kingsley Ben-Adir the confidence to jump at the opportunity to play Bob Marley. But despite having earned rave reviews playing both Malcolm X and Barack Obama, Ben-Adir hesitated.

“There were a lot of reservations,” he told EW. “I was completely convinced that there’s no point in auditioning for this. I can’t sing. I can’t dance.”

Eventually, however, he relented and sent in an audition tape, winning the role after an exhaustive, year-long, global casting process. He also faced immediate backlash.

Many Jamaicans expressed anger and disappointment that the role hadn’t gone to a Jamaican — or even one of Marley’s sons or descendants. Hollywood portrayals of Caribbean people have often been problematic, where everything from the accents to mannerisms and cultural nuances are lost or garbled entirely.

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (who helmed the Oscar-nominated King Richard, about the father of Venus and Serena Williams) said he felt sure they’d found the “right person for the job”. The producing team — which includes Marley’s widow Rita, their eldest son Ziggy, daughter Cedella, and daughter-in-law Orly — also supported the casting decision.

In a featurette promoting the film, Ziggy — who was regularly on set during production — described Ben-Adir as having done “a great job” portraying his legendary father “in an artful way … not trying to mimic [but] be true to who Bob is — how he speaks, how he acts, how he sees the world … Kingsley is bringing that human element, and not just Bob the legend, or Bob the artist, but the human side, the emotional side.”

In an interview with journalist Anthony Miller, Cedella acknowledged that the success of the film very much hangs on Ben-Adir’s performance.

“He is gonna surprise you. He did that to me,” she explained. “Overall the cast is very diverse. We have a lot of Jamaicans in there. We have a lot of children of some of the icons in there … And so we were very happy that we were able to have at least 98% of the cast being Jamaican.”

Born on 20 November, 1986 in London’s Kentish Town to a Black mother and white British father, one of Ben-Adir’s earliest memories is spending weekends and school holidays with his maternal grandparents, who had immigrated from Trinidad to England in the 1970s.

Ben-Adir came to acting relatively late, instead working with special needs students after leaving secondary school. But an interest in film and television began to grow through time spent with drama student friends, and he eventually enrolled in the Guildhall School of Music & Drama at 21, graduating in 2011.

After a series of theatre roles (including Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic alongside Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones), he landed a main role on the ITV series Vera (2014–18). Other significant television roles followed: Hulu’s High Fidelity (2020) with Zoë Kravitz; The OA (2016–19), and Peaky Blinders (2017–2019) — both on Netflix.

His big film break came in 2019 when he was cast in One Night in Miami — the directorial debut of Oscar, Golden Globe, and Emmy-winning actress Regina King. The film imagines what might have happened between Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), and Jim Brown on a night in February 1964.

Eventually, he sent in an audition tape, winning the role after an exhaustive, year-long, global casting process. He also faced immediate backlash

Ironically, the role King originally wanted him to look at — Cassius Clay — was one he’d been preparing for an Ang Lee project that never got off the ground. And by the time he was cast as Malcolm X, he had only 10 days to prepare.

Remarkably, he’d also been cast as Barack Obama in Showtime’s mini-series The Comey Rule. The two projects filmed simultaneously — One Night in Miami in New Orleans, and The Comey Rule in Toronto. They were also released months apart in 2020.

“In the end, I filmed Obama in the middle of Malcolm,” he told British GQ. “It turned into a non-stop 40-day Malcolm/Obama thing, and I just had to jump from one head space to another. I really ran myself into the ground, but in a way that I loved.”

His star was on the rise. Nominations for awards began to come in — as did wins. There was Oscar buzz for his turn as Malcolm X. More and more meaningful opportunities came. All continued to show his range, versatility, and work ethic.

In 2023, he featured in two significant international hits, playing one of the Kens in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie; and joining Marvel’s Secret Invasion on Disney+ (alongside A-list talent like Samuel L Jackson, Emilia Clarke, and Olivia Colman).

And then, of course, there was Bob Marley: One Love. The development of the biopic was announced in March 2021. Following Ben-Adir’s casting in early 2022, fellow British actor Lashana Lynch was cast as Rita. Notably, Lynch herself — known for The Woman King, No Time to Die, and as Maria Rambeau in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — is also of Jamaican heritage.

The film focusses primarily on the events of 1976–78, from the assassination attempt on Bob and Rita in 1976; his years of self-imposed exile and work in London; and his return home to Jamaica for the One Love Peace Concert — all against the backdrop of political and socioeconomic tensions on the island at the time.

Ben-Adir learned to sing and play guitar for the role, immersed himself in dozens of interviews with Marley to master Jamaican Patois, and performed all the songs with his own voice during filming. The final cut in fact blends his voice with archival recordings of Marley’s.

“Bob’s not someone you can choreograph or copy,” says Ben-Adir. “His singing and dancing is from an internal experience, so you really have to find your own version of that for yourself.”

As is becoming something of a pattern, he of course was preparing the role while filming another. He talks about setting up a “Bob station” to work on his transcriptions of Marley’s interviews in between filming his Barbie scenes.

Ben-Adir also seems to have become adept at approaching these roles, despite all the pressure and attention. “I think you kind of have to forget they are iconic and mean so much to so many people,” he told Shadow & Act. “At some stage, your focus has to be on just supporting the story.”

Bob Marley: One Love is scheduled for release on 14 February in the United States. And no matter how the film is received, Ben-Adir is prepared. “The best piece of career advice I’ve ever been given is to take your highs in the same way that you take your lows,” he says. “Just stay level.”

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