Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Tom Lamont

‘Thank God I asked for a singing teacher!’: Kingsley Ben-Adir on bringing Bob Marley to life

Kingsley Ben-Adir in black trousers, a white jumper, white trainers, and a long orange coat, undone, holding an umbrella, as if dancing, on a rainy London street
‘I’m not taking this lightly’: Kingsley Ben-Adir wears coat by Topman (; jumper by; trousers by Mfpen (; trainers by Nike (; umbrella by Photograph: Gavin Bond/The Observer

After about an hour chatting with me – we are in a pub near his home in the London suburbs – the actor Kingsley Ben-Adir’s thoughts turn to some tricky work he has ahead of him this afternoon. The 37-year-old is due in a studio in town, where he’ll record some last pieces of dialogue for the new biopic Bob Marley: One Love, which is scheduled to come out on Valentine’s Day weekend. Ben-Adir plays Marley in the movie. It’s a huge opportunity for him, after a career of solid supporting work, most recently in Barbie (he was one of the dimmer Kens), the Marvel show Secret Invasion (he was an alien terrorist) and One Night in Miami (he was Malcolm X). Ben-Adir made a cameo as Barack Obama, a few years ago, in the HBO drama The Comey Rule. But successfully imitating a Jamaican icon, capturing all of Marley’s strange magnetism, that muttered beautiful music of his patois? “Hard, fucking hard,” the actor says.

You understand why a casting director once hired him to be Obama. Ben-Adir has the same slender grace, a similarly immaculate, infectious smile that’s quick to show. He is dressed today in black, nothing too eye-catching except a pale red beanie that he fiddles with as he talks, rolling it way back on his head, tucking it over one ear, dragging it almost to his eyebrows. Slyly vaping out of sight of the pub’s staff, warming up for his afternoon recording session, he runs a few lines of dialogue from Bob Marley: One Love. Like a tennis player loosening up or a chorister running scales, Ben-Adir gets better and better at conjuring Marley for me. The performance is uncannily good. But, after all, he has put in the time.

Ben-Adir explains that Barbie and Bob Marley: One Love shot almost back to back. While working on the former, he used his down-time to prepare for the latter. Picture the scene. A load of pink scenery. A dozen Barbie actors and a dozen Kens. Countless crew members. And somewhere in a corner, Ben-Adir, hunkering down with a laptop and headphones, listening to and transcribing hundreds of hours of Marley recordings. Ben-Adir says he recently crossed paths with Ryan Gosling, his Barbie co-star; and Gosling immediately mimed a person manically typing, which must have been an abiding memory from set.

“I was manic at the time,” Ben-Adir recalls. “Looking back, I may as well have been learning to play a part in French. I was building my understanding of Bob’s language from the ground up; the dialect, the flow, the intonation, the feel. Jamaican patois is deceptive. So much of the English language is in it, you think you know it. But it’s more confusing and complicated than that.”

Kingsley Ben-Adir, wearing a green track suit top with white markings, smiling, arms folded sitting at an outdoor table, with a mug of tea and a ketchup bottle on it.
‘So many people have rescued me and taken me under their wing’: Kingsley Ben-Adir wears jacket by Casablanca ( Photograph: Gavin Bond/The Observer

Where the range of Marley’s music suits his voice, he agreed to do a bit of singing in the movie. He thinks he managed those parts OK, without being any sort of natural: “Thanks God, I asked for a singing teacher.” To further aid his preparation, Ben-Adir flew to Kingston to spend time with Marley’s family and to consult with his surviving bandmates and collaborators. “Many of the people I spoke to in Jamaica were wary of me when I first sat down. And rightly so. ‘Who are you coming over here to do this? Who are you?’ I would tell them: ‘If I was you, I’d feel the same. But I want to try my best to represent this properly.’ I told them: ‘Listen, I’ve grown up with Jamaicans, believe me I’m not taking this lightly. I’ve agreed to do it, so I’m fucking going to try my best.’”

That question they put to Ben-Adir in Jamaica – “Who are you?’ – I end up putting to him again in the pub. More than the usual amount of mystery surrounds this guy. In the few interviews Ben-Adir has given in the past, he tends not to reveal much. Today, he chats fairly freely about his wife, with whom he practised his Bob Marley: One Love lines and from whom he pinched the pale red hat. But he is careful not to give her name or any identifying information. Google his name and you’ll likely come across a lingering question about his religious background. He has a Jewish surname. The Jewish Chronicle recently claimed Ben-Adir as Barbie’s “Jewish Ken”, though I can’t find a reliable record of him ever saying so. I inhabit a half-Jewish hinterland myself and because of this I feel (just about) comfortable asking Ben-Adir whether he identifies as a Jew.

Kingsley Ben-Adir as Bob Marley in new film, One Love.
‘I’ve always worked hard and I’ve been lucky’: as Bob Marley in new film, One Love. Photograph: Chiabella James

Pleasant about it, but categoric, Ben-Adir avoids answering. “It’s about wanting the people who love you to feel safe,” he says, adding: “I definitely find it cringe when I read actors using the media as a space to vent their therapy.” However well-meaning a conversation with a journalist might be in the moment, he continues, the nuances of a person’s private life can easily get lost in translation when written down. Because of this, whenever he has a contractual obligation to promote a film or a TV programme, he tends to ask his publicists: what’s the minimum amount I can get away with before it starts to damage my reputation in the industry? “I feel nervous about people knowing stuff about me. I do feel frightened by the idea of celebrity and being recognised. I get the tube every day, I cycle everywhere. I live a normal life and I really, really like it.”

What can he tell me about his upbringing? He grew up in Kentish Town, the son of a London-born Trinidadian mother whose own parents moved to the UK to work for the NHS in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His father he describes as English. He was educated at William Ellis secondary school, on the edge of Hampstead Heath. Ben-Adir is still close to the friends he made there and they often gather to run circuits around their old school, afterwards swimming in one of the heath’s pond. About his youth he says, obliquely but passionately: “I feel like I got lucky. I was determined. I’ve always worked hard, but I’ve also been fortunate that so many people have rescued me and taken me under their wing at crucial moments. I’ve been shown the way. And my work ethic always just met that.”

He has vivid memories of watching certain movies when he was 15 or 16, and being moved to a degree that scared him. “I’d cry and be, like, ‘What’s going on here? Why am I feeling all of these things?’ Often the scenes or stories [that set me off] showed grown men crying. Paddy Considine in In America. Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. Their scenes and stories would really shake me.” When I ask why him he thinks he found the sight of men crying so disturbing, he says: “I don’t know. I don’t why. It just affected me.” He remembers resolving to try to be an actor like Considine or Williams or some others he admired, including Benicio del Toro, Jeffrey Wright and Viggo Mortensen. None of these actors are obvious leading men, they are emoters, oddballs, performers who plotted non-traditional courses. It took Ben-Adir a while to figure out how to do this himself.

He enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in his early 20s. It does not sound like a gratifying time. Ben-Adir’s family and friends have always called him King, but at Guildhall (or so he once told interviewers from the trade magazine Deadline) he was persuaded that this sounded strange and that he should use “Kingsley” from his birth certificate instead. He was trained away from his north London accent, conditioned to a neater RP, a change he would later have to find the confidence to undo. Out of drama school, he got parts in plays, but struggled to secure much screen work. An early stint auditioning in Los Angeles was humiliating. He would be stopped in the middle of readings, his American accent a mess. Scared away home, he didn’t return to LA until he’d retrained under different dialect coaches, paying for these lessons himself.

Kingsley Ben-Adir wears smart grey suit, red roll-neck jumper underneath, holding a yellow umbrella on a pretty London street in the rain
Singin’ in the rain: Kingsley Ben-Adir wears suit and jumper by; shoes by; umbrella by london Photograph: Gavin Bond/The Observer

Accents, dialect – these things are a strength not a weakness of his now. Last year’s Marvel series, Secret Invasion, was not well received by fans or critics, but by general agreement Ben-Adir was the best thing in it, a mesmerising baddie with a hypnotic Welsh lilt he based on the dialect of Bluetown, a mixed-raced community in Cardiff. When he was Malcolm X in Regina King’s 2021 ensemble drama One Night in Miami, he caught the cadences and tics of the civil rights activist just so. He had about a fortnight to prepare for the part in King’s movie after another actor pulled out. Ben-Adir spent those 14 days listening to recordings of Malcolm X nonstop, finding a route in to the man via his means of vocal expression. It was a method he’d repeat when it came time to prepare for Marley.

I first noticed Ben-Adir on screen a few years ago, in a small but cool part in HBO’s Love Life, a series produced by its star, Anna Kendrick. Brought into the New York-based show as one of Kendrick’s romantic interests, Ben-Adir played the part as a displaced Kentish Towner. It’s an accent I know well, scarcely ever hearing it on screen, perhaps because it tends to get drilled out of promising young actors by drama tutors. Ben-Adir appreciates that anyone should have noticed that little choice he made. It was a sign of his confidence at the time.

He recalls flying high that year, 2019, after a bad run that had seen him cut out of a film (The Photograph) and most of a TV show (Peaky Blinders). He found his feet again when he got a part in Zoë Kravitz’s High Fidelity. Even though that drama series ran for only a year before its cancellation, “I felt wanted on High Fidelity, having not worked for a while. I had the best time living it up in New York. I was able to work and make friends at the same time, which I’m sure probably freed me up in some way.” Afterwards, when Kendrick called about Love Life, “it was the first time I’d ever been offered something”.

Kingsley Ben-Adir with Ryan Gosling in Barbie.
‘I was manic at the time’: with Ryan Gosling in Barbie. Ben-Adir learned his lines for Bob Marley in down-time during filming. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

He was in his early 30s. The career he wanted was taking shape. In 2021, Ben-Adir was interviewed on the BBC by Mark Kermode, who asked about his ambitions. Ben-Adir said this, now, being sent unsolicited scripts to read – that was the ambition.

I’ve seen a 20-minute preview of Bob Marley: One Love, not enough to judge it as a complete movie, but enough to feel excited and intrigued by an artistic choice its creators have made. All of the Jamaican characters – including Ben-Adir’s Marley and Marley’s wife Rita, played by Lashana Lynch – speak to each other in patois, as they would have done in life. There will be no subtitles in its cinematic release. Instead, filmgoers not fluent in patois will be whisked along, as I was, with the help of pieces of English that are threaded through the language as well as the undeniable dynamism of Ben-Adir and Lynch.

Ben-Adir acknowledges that, behind the scenes, some people involved with the movie have been nervous about this decision. “The family were asking for one thing, which was: ‘Keep it real, completely authentic, no white-washing.’ And then I’m reading [early] scripts where that wasn’t fully reflected.” Siding with the Marleys, Ben-Adir was among those who pushed for redrafts that made fuller use of patois, even if that risked limiting the movie’s commercial prospects. “I don’t know,” he says, thinking back on all of this from the pub, “maybe the financial stakes aren’t as important to me as to other people. I was always, like, ‘How cool would it be to have a foreign language movie, no subtitles?’ It gives this biopic its individuality.”

Kingsley Ben-Adir with Anna Kendrick in Love Life
Romcom: with Anna Kendrick in Love Life. Photograph: Lionsgate/HBO/Kobal/Shutterstock

Ben-Adir tells an apt story about his favourite TV show, The Sopranos, episodes of which he frequently re-watches. In one episode, Tony Soprano stands on a mountaintop and yells out… something. The recorded dialogue isn’t clear. Soprano might be yelling, “I did it!” or the line might be, “I get it!” After years of wondering, Ben-Adir says, he finally put on subtitles the other day. He solved the mystery (“I get it!”), but surrendered forever a delicious ambiguity. It convinced him that in art “you don’t need to know everything straight away. You only need to feel it. I think I could watch a movie like City of God, no subtitles, and still be transfixed without knowing what they’re talking about. For my taste, anyway, I want to feel the essence of things, I want to feel these moments of authenticity, I’m happy to try to understand the story of a scene without necessarily understanding all of the words.”

At the pub, about to head off to that studio in town and record the final lines of Bob Marley: One Love, Ben-Adir warms up some more with that Marley dialogue he has by heart. He recites a rousing speech about Black suffering, then a religious tract. Every so often he throws in phrases – direct lifts from Marley’s recorded interviews – that nobody has ever been able to decipher, not Ben-Adir listening along in slow-mo nor the members of the Marley family he consulted for help. Marley spoke in patois, he spoke in English, and just sometimes he spoke a language that was entirely his own. Ben-Adir hopes all this makes the final cut of the biopic, because it was true to the bio.

“If we shy away,” he shrugs, “we shoot ourselves in the foot.”

Bob Marley: One Love is released in cinemas on 14 February

Styling by Roz Donoghue; grooming by Liz Taw using Omorovicza; fashion assistant Sam Deaman; photography assistant Alex Cornes; transport by

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.