Malachi Kirby does not like pretending.
He admits it may be strange for an actor. But once he lands a role, he immerses himself in that character. This was the case with his turn as the Kunta Kinte in the 2016 remake of Roots, which had everything to do with Kirby allowing himself to experience Kunta’s story, his pain and, most importantly, his spiritual resolve. In his previous film and TV roles, Kirby has explored many aspects of culture and identity, mainly in London. My Brother the Devil, Gone too Far! and yes, even Eastenders, offer honest and at times humorous depictions of typical London middle-class and council estate characters from various backgrounds.
Kirby is back on screen as Stripe in Black Mirror’s “Men Against Fire,” streaming on Netflix today. In the episode, from the series’ third season, Kirby and co-star Madeline Brewer (Orange is the New Black) chase frightening creatures through a futuristic world run by the military. Paste recently spoke to Kirby about the importance of Roots and Black Mirror in our current social climate.
Paste: You went immediately from the historic locations on Roots to the futuristic set of Black Mirror’s “Men Against Fire.” How did you prepare for this transition in such a small time frame?
Malachi Kirby: We had meant to finish Roots around Christmas time but ended up going into January, and because of actor’s availabilities we had to stop and postpone and we ended up coming back to it in May. Black Mirror came in between that, and when I went for the audition, I actually found everything I had been through as Kunta very useful. I just didn’t know how to not give it to my character, Stripe, in Black Mirror. I was very full, if that makes sense. I was very tired but I was very full, just of stuff to give, I guess. This wasn’t on the script, something else happened in the [audition] room that wasn’t planned in my mind, it was just this energy I was still carrying. There were a lot of things that were helpful about what I had taken on for Kunta that I could use for Stripe. They both have their own fight.
Paste: You’re not really into all the things the cool kids are into these days—Snapchat, Twitter, etc. Is [Black Mirror executive producer] Charlie Brooker’s technophobia something you can relate to?
Kirby: [Laughs] Yeah. I mean, I love Charlie Brooker, I’ve watched all of Black Mirror. I was a fan of the series before I knew I was being cast for it. In fact, when I was auditioning for it, one of my worries was, literally, ‘Oh, no, if I get the part I’m going to find out what happens and I want to just be able to watch it like everyone else!’ I really do love the show and I find it very important subject matter. His work has always been very timely and relevant, scarily relevant. Although sometimes it may feel very far-fetched and abstract, there’s always this thing that goes ‘This could actually happen’ and that’s, I think, the scary thing about what he’s doing. As crazy as it is, it could happen.
Paste: Which Black Mirror episode has had the most impact on you so far?
Kirby: There was one episode with Daniel Kaluuya, “Fifteen Million Merits,” that I found very interesting. He gives this incredible speech at the end which really touched me. That episode had the most impact on me. But yeah, there’s something to take away from pretty much all of them. I read some sentence the other day about how you should watch Black Mirror and it’s basically saying that it’s not one of those shows that you should make the mistake of bingeing on. You really have to watch one episode a day, or maybe a week, and just digest it and think about what you saw and what it actually means.
Paste: This is something that struck me with “Men Against Fire”—you only really start understanding what’s happening halfway through the episode.
Kirby: I read the script and went into the experience similar to how you were watching it. You have all these twists and turns, which is why Brooker keeps things all secret. It’s one of those stories that unravels as you’re going along. And the journey is so exciting, but it’s how it speaks to you about what’s happening today, it’s almost not a metaphor, you know? It’s just terrifying…
Paste: Your other big role this year was Kunta Kinte on Roots. LeVar Burton was 19 when he stepped into the same role on the original Roots. Prior to filming the brutal whipping scene on Roots, he took you aside and said, “I was a mighty child. You are a mighty man.” Do you feel you walked away from Roots having grown into a “mighty man”?
Kirby: The experience felt like my own personal initiation, making that transition from a child to a man. I’m 26 now, but I’ve been in the mind of a 21-year-old for a long time. It suddenly gave me a little growth spurt going through that experience. I had to grow and adapt. Pretty much every day was a new challenge to me. Going through that kind of experience, you can’t say it’s just acting, a lot of it was actually experiencing it. Most of the things we were re-enacting, at least in some sense, actually happened. I think it would have been weird if I didn’t change after it. I certainly didn’t step on to the set thinking I was a mighty man and I don’t think that of myself now. When LeVar said that to me I took it in order to give to the scene what I believed Kunta needed to be at that point. It wasn’t so much for myself but I found it helpful to think that way of Kunta; I took it and received it. Whether any of that has actually rubbed off on me is not really for me to say, but I’ve definitely grown from it by the grace of God and the whole experience.
Paste: How did you prepare for the role of Kunta?
Kirby: When I was looking into Kunta Kinte I understood that he lived until he was 40, 50 years old. He lived to have a child, to have a wife. He did so constantly rebelling, being beaten, maybe even more so than those who just submitted. There were people who didn’t even make it off the boat, let alone live to however long. It was one of the first questions I asked myself: How did he actually survive? To me, it had to be more than his physical strength or his intelligence or what he was taught during his Mandinka training. There’s something about your spirit that enables you to overcome things that your physical body just can’t. That was one of the first things I highlighted about his character, his strength of spirit. I thought okay, if I’m going to survive, I also need to have that for myself so that I can give it to him, hopefully in a truthful manner. Finding ways to feed and strengthen my spirit is definitely something I can relate to and that I practice in my own life.
Paste: The first time you really see this warrior spirit come through is on the boat. It was remarkable how authentic it felt.
Kirby: There was nothing Hollywood about it. It wasn’t an enjoyable experience; I don’t think it was ever supposed to be. There was something about it that was numbing. Maybe it was some kind of defense mechanism to just hold myself together but it was horrible. It’s dark and it’s wet and it’s freezing. You’ve got these chains holding you down and every time you try to move you realize, no, you’re stuck to the person next to you and the other person next to you looks like he’s about to die and everyone is crying and they’re screaming and they’re singing… This torment, you have to find a way to get through it. I didn’t actually know anyone else in there apart from Derek Luke and he was way down at the other end of the boat, so I’m lying there with actual strangers. I had to find a way to actually communicate with myself to get through the situation as Malachi and as Kunta, you know what I mean?
Paste: Yeah. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been on your psyche. Did you ever feel you were about to reach a breaking point?
Kirby: I didn’t allow myself to get to that point, but I do remember there was a day. It was the last day of filming on the boat and then at the end it was like, okay, we’re going to have to come back tomorrow. It was one of those moments—I had already set my mind up to go and now they’re saying I have to come back. I almost cried [laughs]. I didn’t want to and when I came the next day, I took a warm jacket [laughs]. It sounds like a small thing, but actually experiencing being cold and shivering helped me to play his character. Any kinds of comforts I took during that time were distracting to me, they made it feel false. I had to let go of comforts and walk barefoot on the rocks, as he would have done, and decline the biscuits and the lovely food as much as I could so I could get as close as I could to where he was.
When we were in the [boat’s] hold, there were many days when people went out for lunch and I stayed in there and fasted. I wanted to safely get as close to the experience as possible, know what it was like when the hunger kicks in, know what it was like to be in there a whole day when he would have been in there at least three weeks. So I thought the least I can do is spend a day in this thing. When everyone was out, those were actually some of the darkest times. And then everyone would come back, having had this release and I was still there, I hadn’t left. It brought an energy I don’t know if I would have been able to find if I was constantly going in and out. I think I just needed to stay there and power on.
Paste: Why do you think the remake of Roots was so important for our current social climate?
Kirby: Things we were fighting for and things we were crying about [back then] are still happening today. They’re happening less and maybe not on an extreme scale, but they’re definitely still happening. It’s a bit scary how relevant Roots still is today. There’s definitely a need for change. Something that was shared on set quite a lot was the phrase: ‘You need to know where you’ve come from so you can know where you’re going.’ I think there’s some truth in that. I think there’s a truth and understanding of, okay, who I am in this present time is affected by who the people before me were. You know, there’s something in your DNA and your genes, I believe. There’s a fight that can pass on. It’s important to know what has happened before, so you don’t repeat it, or at least so you have the awareness and the choice to consciously not repeat it and create the kind of future we want to live in and want our kids to live in.
Paste: One more question about Black Mirror. Let’s say the “Fifteen Million Merits” scenario becomes a reality. What are you going to do?
Kirby: I’ll move to space. I have plans for that already, start a new world! [Laughs] I have no idea really, I don’t know. It’s probably something I should be preparing for.
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.