The stars of Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” have earned a ton of well-deserved acclaim since its world premiere at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. Kingsley Ben-Adir has already won a Gotham Award for his portrayal of Malcolm X and both Eli Goree and Leslie Odom, Jr., who play Cassius Clay and Sam Cooke, respectively, have also earned raves. But the secret weapon of this period drama might just be the man responsible for carrying the mantle of civil rights activist Jim Brown, Aldis Hodge.
It’s been quite a year for the “Straight Outta Compton” star who appeared in the box office hit “The Invisible Man,” shot the second season of Showtime’s “City on a Hill,” and was cast alongside Dwayne Johnson in the upcoming DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. picture “Black Adam.” During a conversation earlier this month, he discussed those opportunities, the pressure of playing the 84-year-old icon, and much more.
The Playlist: I spoke to Kingsley a few months ago he told me he had originally auditioned for another part. When you came in to audition, was it always for Jim? How was that process for you?
Oh yeah, I was auditioning for Jim always. But when I auditioned, I was in Australia, in Sydney, Australia. We were shooting “The Invisible Man.” So, I was on a very different time schedule because it was like 18 hours difference. I was working a lot. So I would do my auditions in between my lunch breaks or in between scene setups. I would go down and put myself on tape. Because luckily we were working on a lot out there, I think it was the Fox lot out there. They had an office where they had a camera set up. So I could just run down there, do my audition, 20, 30 minutes or whatever and then come back. When we were given notes and going back and forth, sometimes I’d be up at like 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning over there, because over here, in LA it was afternoon. My team is hitting me, “Do this, do this.” I’m like, “All right, cool.” So, you know, we just making changes. But it was a different sort of hustle put into the audition process, which I really enjoyed.
It was a process, it was not just a come in, do this once or maybe twice. It was Regina and the producers taking the time to really find the right actors for the roles?
Oh, absolutely. I think I auditioned twice, maybe? After the first one, Kim Hardin, our wonderful and brilliant Casting Director, put me on the phone with Regina, because she wanted to go over notes. That was a wonderful conversation where we talked more about culture and the meaning and the value of the film more than the actual acting notes. So, it allowed me to get a sense of her personality, which I thought was really awesome. Something she had mentioned to me in terms of the audition process because everybody had to audition they’re no straight offers. The reason for that is because she was looking for the essence. She said that she wants to make sure that the characters playing these men, the actors playing these men had the right essence. I thought that was really smart because it wasn’t enough to just be a good performer or a good actor. You had to carry the essence of the legacy of these men laid down, that we know. That’s what she was looking for that extra thing that most people probably may not have the vision or the foresight to address when casting.
Right. Out of all of the four main roles, the historical figure you’re playing is the only one that’s still living. Did that cause any extra pressure for you?
Yeah, puts a little pressure, because, in my experience with biopics, you always want to do your best to honor the person you’re portraying. To celebrate their life and give them respect with your performance. Because he is alive and because I know he’s going to see it, the pressure there is that I hope that he would say that the performance is good. That he would enjoy it, that he would approve. I still haven’t spoken to him personally about it, but I heard through the grapevine that he’s seen it and that he does approve.
Were you relieved when you heard that?
Oh, quite. I was relieved, but I was more surprised by anything. I can’t imagine what I would feel if I saw somebody playing me. That’s not how I do that, you know? I was very relieved because if he’s happy, honestly, there’s a couple of people who are at the top of the list that I want to make sure are super, super happy. Of course, Regina is one of them, [screenwriter Kemp Powers] is definitely one of them. Mr. Brown is definitely one of the people I want to make sure, if he’s good, I’m good.
To prepare for the role, was there enough research that you could do outside of just watching anecdotal interviews?
Yeah, there’s plenty of research. But most of it did consist of the interviews. Because I wanted to see him. I wanted to see him in a different element, watch how he moved, watch how he spoke, watch how he made inflections on certain words. I had his speeches and his interviews broken down to recordings so that I could listen to them in my headphones, 24/7. We all did that, to a different degree of just keeping these guys playing in our ears on repeat. But watching how he handled situations, one of my favorite interviews that I saw of him, which I’ve said a million times, I’ll say it a million and one, watching him handle Lester Maddox in a debate about segregation and integration on “The Dick Cavett Show.” Watching how he handled Lester Maddox. Lester was the then Governor of Georgia, who was a very staunch racist and segregationist. Lester got so pissed off, that he stormed off stage because he could not debate Jim at his intellectual level. But Jim maintained his composure and remained as calm and cool as you can come. It showed me so much about the way he had to walk through his environment and why he made the moves he did. Moving from the NFL to the film industry, I felt like that was just a business move. Not necessarily a glory grab or anything like that. The man understood economics and economic power for the community. So he used that to push into a different space of business, to dominate that space and then help his people come up. Just like he established a Black Economic Union shortly after he moved into the entertainment industry. It was all smart, calculated business moves. He was a business savant at a very weird time to be one, given his status. Most people would’ve just means satisfied with what’s going on in the NFL. And he said, “No, I see more and I know I can have more. So I’m going to go get more.”
I feel like people don’t remember at the time that NFL players weren’t making that much money then.
They really weren’t.
So it made perfect sense for him to go to Hollywood and make more money.
Even then, in Hollywood, he gives a speech in the 70s, which can be applicable to today about how even then it was tough for him to come up and get paid equivalent wages. But he had to hustle to that.
When I talked to Kingsley, he talked about the scene that the two of you guys have at the table in the hotel room and how it wasn’t originally written that way. It’s one of the most powerful moments in the film. What your recollection was of how that scene came together and what you thought about that whole experience?
I think in the beginning [the interpretation of the material was] that it might be a little bit more contentious, a little bit more aggressive of an argument. Not a fight, but you know, just a little bit more stern in some areas. But I know Kingsley and I [as] we sat there, we talked about it and we just rehearsed it a time or two to find the voice of it. There was just a calm sense of almost, not placidity, but peace. Because at the end of the day, they were trying to talk to each other to understand. Jim was talking to Malcolm to let him know, “I understand, but can you also understand where Sam is at? This is about the community. This is not about me trying to beat you down with a point.” In the spirit of that energy, we did a couple of rehearsals and Regina came from behind the camera. We were like, “Hey Regina, hi. What do you need from it?”We just thought about it this way. ” She said, “No, it’s beautiful as it is.” So we left it at that. Because we thought that it was a much more empathetic moment. That was an opportunity to show a little bit of vulnerability and really mercy for one another, as brothers. These two strong men in a situation, one’s trying to just let somebody else know, I understand you, but here’s where you might be a little wrong, brother. But let me help you out, help you help me help you. But I remember just that being one of my favorite days on set. Kingsley is a hell of a talent and it was great working with him. But I think the only time we ever had a scene just between us and being able to find that and that rhythm and that energy was a really great, great, great experience. You know, artist to artist.
Speaking of Regina, what surprised you the most about working with her?
I don’t know, I kind of expected all greatness from her. Because that’s what she’s showed from the beginning. There’s nothing that ever wavered. There was no doubt ever placed in my mind about her skills. Just from that first discussion of notes during the audition process, I knew why she was directing this project and she was the right choice for this project. She wanted to protect these men’s stories and their legacy so much and really had an understanding of the value of a project like this and what it could mean to the audience. So, I honestly expected nothing but great things and honestly, that’s all she ever showed. I did not doubt her one day.
I’m sure you’ve already been asked this question a number of times today, but it was reported you were cast as a Carter Hall aka Hawkman in the “Black Adam” movie. Is that still happening?
Well, that’s actually the first time I’ve been asked that today. But that is definitely happening and that is the next film. I’m currently shooting two different TV shows right now. So it’s like, those are the projects coming up, but the next film is “Black Adam.”
So you’ve been able to work actually a good deal during the pandemic? That’s pretty awesome.
Yeah. I will say I’m a lucky bastard. I’m fortunate, fortunate to be able to even say I can have a job at this point. I don’t care what that job is. But to say you have a job at this point is a great thing. I’ve been very fortunate and I do not look past that fortune.
Going back to “One Night in Miami,” how important was it for you for this movie to come out? You didn’t know it at the time when you were shooting it. But for it to come out and premiere in this moment where it’s a historical time in terms of social justice and how the world is seeing it. How important is it for you in that respect?
The importance of this in this particular timeframe is undeniable. When we started shooting it, I knew of the potential of the importance of what it meant or could mean because I know what it meant to me. Within the Black Community, what we’ve experienced through COVID and seeing everything on display is what we already know. What we’ve been talking about for so long. So that’s normal for us, unfortunately. What happened was the rest of the world was forced to take a seat and forced to watch as well. So they were forced to engage because they had to understand in a different way. We saw a lot of people come to terms with understanding what our struggle is. So to be able to have a project like this that speaks so vibrantly to the issues and so directly to it can be a representation and an asset towards the progress we need to see, for me is a great privilege. Because timing is everything. To be a part of something like this at this particular moment, man, I couldn’t have guessed that in my wildest day. So it’s really serendipitous.
“One Night in Miami” is now available on Amazon Prime Video