Kingsley Ben-Adir Knows People Doubted His Bob Marley Performance — & He Gets It

Photo: Manoli Figetakis/WireImage.
Kingsley Ben-Adir is extremely offline. Despite starring in two of the biggest pop culture juggernaut films of the past 12 months (Bob Marley: One Love and Barbie respectively), and being the inspiration for countless memes and heated discourse, Ben-Adir doesn’t know what a “hot take” is. When I drop the phrase in a question, the 37-year-old actor looks genuinely confused. He calls himself an “old soul” and despite being a millennial, he has completely opted out of the social media game. “I think WhatsApp is social media,” he admits while sitting across from me at the Maybourne hotel in Los Angeles. “Is that bad?” He asks with a sheepish grin. His salt and pepper hair is cropped close, the opposite of the flowing dreadlocks he sported while playing Jamaican icon Bob Marley, and his demeanor is introspective and introverted, antithetical to the boisterous himbo he nailed as sidekick to Ryan Gosling’s Ken in Barbie. It’s fitting that these two parts have catapulted Ben-Adir to both an official Internet Boyfriend and simultaneously an in-demand Respected Actor because they couldn’t be more different. And the most impressive thing about Ben-Adir is his range. He’s expertly played historical figures like Barack Obama (The Comey Rule) and Malcolm X (One Night In Miami), he’s shown off his romantic chops in Love Life season 1, Noelle, and High Fidelity, and his villainous edge in Marvel’s Secret Invasion
Ben-Adir is no stranger to the pressure of playing a beloved legend (Obama and X) but in Bob Marley: One Love, he found his biggest challenge to date. It’s not just that Marley is one of the most recognizable musicians of all time, or that his voice raised generations, or that he’s synonymous with the cultural fabric of a country Ben-Adir isn’t from — it’s all of the above. And when Ben-Adir was cast, Jamaicans were (rightfully) skeptical. After countless examples of non-Carribbeans butchering the region’s accents onscreen (see How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Cool Runnings, Luke Cage, just to name a few) and the lack of care and respect Hollywood has consistently shown when it comes to depicting Patois specifically, it’s understandable that the casting of Ben-Adir, a British dude with Trinidadian grandparents, was met with an outcry of criticism and cynicism (it’s a good thing he doesn’t read comment sections). But those cries were quieted by the power of his performance. Ben-Adir is magnetic as Marley, capturing the lure and lore of the icon, while also grounding him in subtle instances of tenderness and humanity. Even when the movie doesn’t, Ben-Adir meets the moment. And his Patois is impeccable. After my press screening of Bob Marley: One Love, I stood outside the theater with a group of Black journalists, most of us Caribbean Canadians, in awe of what Ben-Adir pulled off. It was an impossible task and he did it. Now that the film is a certified box office smash, and is reaching a whole new audience with its digital release, Ben-Adir is enjoying a very specific moment in his career, the one we’re going to look back on — when he’s winning awards and starring in whatever he wants — and say that this was his much-deserved, and slightly overdue, breakthrough.  
Here, Ben-Adir talks about why he stands by those initial Bob Marley doubters, the support he received from co-star Lashana Lynch as Rita Marley, and why talking about Regina King makes him cry. 
Unbothered: Let’s run through some stats real quick: Bob Marley: One Love has grossed $90.3 million in the United States and Canada, and $71.2 million elsewhere, for a worldwide total of $161.5 million. How much have you paid attention to that? What does it mean to you if anything that it’s been so successful? 
Kingsley Ben-Adir: Has it really? You know what, over the weekend I was like, people know more about this movie than I do! What's going on? And LA is really specific because people will be shouting [at me] from their cars. I’m like, how’d you see me when you were going so fast? [laughs]. Bob is really known around the world. As when I was filming it, I stopped thinking about him in terms of being an icon and how famous he was. I kind of put that to bed. It was not useful from an acting point of view because it's always about trying to find or connect with his internal dilemma, or the internal moral struggle of whatever character you're trying to play. So I was just thinking about Bob in terms of that. And then technical things with the language. So, in answer to your question, the last few weeks for me have been a reminder of how significant Bob is to so many people, because he's been so significant to me. The last two years, he's become the person I think about all the time, every day. 
Photo: Courtesy of Paramount.
To be in this moment, now, it's really interesting. I feel very calm, I feel very relaxed, [and] it’s that kind of feeling of relief. Like, thank God, we did the work. It’s a nice feeling when you've given everything that you possibly could. There's a feeling of no regret — success or not. Success is something that's out of all of our hands. Our job is to do the work when we're doing the work. And so there's a kind of a release and a relief.
Maybe I’m just a petty person but I would also feel vindication. I feel like you proved some people wrong. 
KBA: I know but you gotta be careful of ego. You gotta be careful that ego doesn't come in. Because I really always stood by those people.
You stood by the people who were doubting you because you’re not Jamaican? 
KBA: Yeah! I'd be that as well. If I was watching from an outside view, with someone else, I would have been the same. So I was like, I get it, but it encouraged me. They encouraged me to work hard. I needed that. I needed the reminder of that pressure. Because it was never going to be easy. And you're walking into the fire, like, you don't mess with Bob. Don't mess with him if you're not going to at least try and do a proper ‘ting. And so I knew when I spoke to the family and the studio, that we were going to try and do that. I respect that people should be appropriately cautious and suspicious around me. Because they don't know me. I'm just the English guy who's done some TV and film and then thinks he can come and play Bob. That was the vibe. It’s like who are you? What are you doing with Bob? What do you think you know about Bob? I get it. It makes me smile. 

They encouraged me to work hard. I needed that. I needed the reminder of that pressure. Because it was never going to be easy. And you're walking into the fire, like, you don't mess with Bob.

kingsley ben-adir on his "bob marley" doubters
This lady gave me a B+ in Jamaica. She said, ‘I give ya a B+. Ya did [alright].’ I was like, yeah, that's cool, I like that. B+ is great! A B+ is a good pass. And that was always going to be the challenge: can I pass? There's never really going to be anything that's that challenging in that way [than] there was to play Bob, because I do not look like him! We're not the same height, we've got a different depth of voice. There's nothing really [similar] apart from the fact that I'm half white and Bob’s half white, which I'm surprised a lot of people don't know. That's it. So really, the exercise was essence. Can you really tap into the spirit and an essence of someone that famous? And have him be believable? I always watch things and think it's about the essence. But then suddenly, when it was on me, I was like, No, I want to look like him and I don’t. And so all of that was really frightening.
Photo: Courtesy of Paramount.
Well, I‘m half Jamaican and I think you did tap into that essence. Some of my favorite moments in the film where that essence shone through were the quiet moments between Rita and Bob. Lashana Lynch is so incredible. “Turn Your Lights Down Low” made me weep. Talk about bringing their love story to life. 
KBA: Lashana and I started working on the script and the parts with Rita and Bob from months before, and so we spoke about unconditional love. And the complexity of Bob and Rita's relationship. We knew we were not going into the gossip. It's not important. The theme of love is the message of this film. That's what we're dealing with here; the theme of love and safety and inner safety and connection, and family and togetherness, all these different branches of love. With Lashana, we were like, what is unconditional love? How do we explore it? And how do we find it without needing to say it? So we spoke about it for months and as actors, we were like, well, it's in the silences. How do we come into a room and allow the audience to come into this feeling with us? We just kept talking about it and talking about it and talking about it. And do you know what it was? It was taking out language that wasn't necessary. If there were no words in this scene, what would happen? Because when you've known someone for that long, and there's that deep love, you don't need to talk, you can be in each other's space without words.
Tell me about the support off screen that you gave to Lashana and vice versa. Because with stories like this, it’s easy for the Black women to just become a side character who's overlooked.
KBA: I can't say that I offered Lashana any support, because I was in my own madness. But what I can say is that without her I would have crumbled. You would have to ask Lashana if I did [offer support]. I tried not to stress people out as much as I could. But I was on an inquiry that required my full energy. And if it didn't feel right, we weren't moving on. I think Lashana could see when I hadn't slept. She caught me just at the edge of a breaking point. And she would remind me, or try to remind me anyway, to have something to eat and to sleep. I’m just talking about me as a person on set. And listen, there was not really a day where I wasn't on set. Everyone else had more time [to themselves]. When you’re number one on the call sheet for any film, there's not really much time. It's intense. And Lashana knew that. She's just the best. She's the best. Her work speaks for itself. You feel it. I love her.
Photo: Courtesy of Paramount.
Someone else that you've worked with that you also talk really highly of is Regina King who directed you in One Night In Miami — one of my favorite films of the past decade. I was watching a recent interview of yours that got me emotional because of how emotional you got speaking of her. Why did talking about her bring you to tears and what is it about Regina that is so special?
KBA: When you just said that, it made me emotional. I don't know. It was just such a significant experience that I wasn't able to fully understand at the time. Because prepping [to play] Malcolm [X] in two weeks, and going to help lead that film was intense, in a great way. I guess looking back now, I had a life-changing experience with her on a personal level that was connected to the work of course. And I remember her generosity, which is kind of a cliche, generic word but her grace, her patience, her kindness and her brilliance when it came to focusing in on acting performances, and how she had a vision for the movie that she held. I've never had that before. I think she trusted me and she let me run. And that's a beautiful thing. I'm just trying to break it down but I don't want to over analyze it. When I think of that time, it makes me go, wow, I was so lucky [Ben-Adir pauses as tears well in his eyes]. Because it almost didn't happen. You know, like any film, someone else gets the role, they drop out. It was so random and so last minute. Had I not had that experience, my life would have been so different. I guess I just feel so grateful to her.

I had a life-changing experience with [Regina] on a personal level that was connected to the work of course... I think she trusted me and she let me run. And that's a beautiful thing... When I think of that time, it makes me go, wow, I was so lucky.

kingsley ben-adir on regina king
Thank you for sharing that. I appreciate your vulnerability. I'm going to lighten it up a bit. 
KBA: [laughs through tears] Please! 
After your “I’m Just Ken” performance at the Oscars, there was a tweet saying, “Could everyone on TV tell just how much Kingsley Ben-Adir was *living* for this performance?” with a video of you. Were you having the time of your life? 
KBA: [laughs] Aw, mate, I lost myself! ‘Basketball Ken’ or whatever his name is — he doesn’t need a name, he’s just that guy — I love him. You know, he’s so lost. But when the moment takes him, he’s just there. That character, whatever Ryan’s Ken is feeling, he has to feel just a notch more. So if Ryan’s really excited, I’m f*cking excited! If Ryan’s really sad, I am devastated. I live to just hold things for him. I have no brain really. So it was great when I came out, I was thinking, How'd you do that in this dance? And so he was feeling it, so I'm extra feeling it. And that's really fun to play. 
It was fun to watch! Let’s end on some rapid fire questions. Favorite Bob Marley song?
Biggest thing playing Bob taught you?
KBA: Be still. 
Favorite word or phrase in Patois?
KBA: I can’t say because you’re going to have to bleep it out. 
A song you listen to every day? 
KBA: There hasn't been a week that's gone by where I haven’t listened to Bob since we started filming.
If you weren't an actor what would you be doing? 
KBA: Cooking.
Three words to describe your style. 
KBA: Gucci, Gucci, Gucci [laughs]. Just because I'm wearing Gucci, but my style is like comfort pajama loose bagginess.
Advice you’d give your 29-year-old self? 
KBA: Chill out. 
Your dream rom-com co-star?
KBA: Florence Pugh. She's hardcore. Always go for the best actor. And I don't know if there's anyone better. 
Some of my favorite work that you've done is when you get to flex that romantic muscle, like in Love Life Season 1 and High Fidelity, or even that episode of Soulmates you did. I really would like to see you in another romantic role, definitely a rom-com. 
KBA: I’d love to do one if someone will have me. Let's make it happen.
Finally, how do you celebrate your wins? 
KBA: Try and treat them in the same way that you treat your lows.
Bob Marley: One Love is available to buy or rent on digital now (and on 4K Ultra HD on May 28).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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