You’d be forgiven for not quite knowing where you’ve seen Kingsley Ben-Adir before. He was, for years, a steady presence on the London stage, doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regent’s Park, Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic, and new dramas including Gillian Slovo’s The Riots at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn and Arinze Kene’s God’s Property at the Soho Theatre. But his work in television and film has been quieter, characterized by mostly supporting parts in projects like Peaky Blinders, The OA, High Fidelity, and, last year, Marvel’s Secret Invasion and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. (It was little more than instinct that pulled him away from the theater; in 2014, against his then agent’s advice, Ben-Adir declined an offer to make his West End debut in Shakespeare in Love, determined, he says, that he should “get some camera experience.”)
Yet it feels strange to call the 37-year-old a character actor—not only because of his marquee-idol good looks and reedy six-foot-two frame, but also because, over the past few years, Ben-Adir has developed a knack for playing Great Men. In 2020, shortly after appearing as Barack Obama in Showtime’s The Comey Rule, he popped up again as Malcolm X in Regina King’s One Night in Miami…, a part that won him the Gotham Award for breakthrough actor. (“I was like, ‘I didn’t know you could get nominated for breakthrough work at 34,’ ” he joked at the time.)
Ben-Adir continues the theme this winter with Bob Marley: One Love, starring as the iconic Jamaican reggae singer, songwriter, and Rastafarian opposite Lashana Lynch as Marley’s wife, Rita. Narrowing its focus to an especially turbulent chapter in his life, the film captures Marley’s near assassination in Kingston in 1976; his subsequent flight to Europe, where he recorded and toured Exodus, his ninth studio album, in 1977; and then his triumphant return to Jamaica for the One Love Peace Concert in April 1978—an event attended by over 30,000 people. (A few years later, in 1981, Marley would die from melanoma at 36.) King Richard’s Reinaldo Marcus Green directs, with Rita and two of her children, Ziggy and Cedella, aboard as producers.
The part was so plum—and seemed so absolutely wrong for him—that at first, Ben-Adir thought going up for it would be a waste of time. “Years ago you’d get sent an audition and you’d start going, There’s no point in me taping for this, because Leonardo DiCaprio is going to play it,” he says. “You can start smelling the sense of, This is kind of too good.” And, anyway, Ben-Adir couldn’t really sing, he couldn’t really dance, he definitely couldn’t play the guitar, and he’d recently bulked up to 215 pounds for Secret Invasion. “I’m like, Anything I do is just going to put them off.”
But the stakes changed when he saw an early version of King Richard, and understood that the Marley family would be watching his tape right away. “So then there’s a kind of pressure to it,” he says, flashing a sly smile. “There’s a bit of danger. So I thought, What’s the harm?”
It’s always been about a feeling for Ben-Adir. Also, often, tears.
We are at the Manhattan offices of Paramount Pictures, in a comfortable (if oddly oblong) room behind the studio’s private theater. Dressed in a marled blue quarter-zip sweater and tan joggers, a tiny gold hoop winking discreetly from one ear, he is vividly describing his teenage years in northwest London, as the late 1990s turned into the early aughts, when he was beginning to fall in love with performance.