In an ordinary year, the Golden Globes would already be behind us, the Oscar nominations on their way soon, and the many narratives that go into an awards season seemingly set in stone. But nothing, of course, is ordinary right now, and there is still more than a month left for awards hopefuls to open and qualify for Oscars—and yes, that includes the movies premiering at the Sundance Film Festival next week.
On this week’s Little Gold Men podcast, Richard Lawson, Katey Rich, and Joanna Robinson talk about some of these late arrivals, including new release Our Friend and next week’s Sundance Film Festival premiere of Judas and the Black Messiah, which will also premiere in theaters and on HBO Max in February. The episode ends with interviews with two people who have already won statuettes this season: One Night in Miami star Kingsley Ben-Adir, who won the breakthrough-actor prize at the Gotham Awards for his performance as Malcolm X, and Nicole Beharie, who won best actress for Miss Juneteenth.
Listen to the episode above, and find excerpts from the interviews with Ben-Adir and Beharie below. Subscribe to Little Gold Men on Apple Podcasts or anywhere else you get your podcasts.
Vanity Fair: What was your perception of Malcolm X as a figure before you approached this, and did it change after you approached this role?
Kingsley Ben-Adir: I mean I knew who he was and I had the autobiography, it was on my shelf and I remember reading it years ago. I think like lots of other people the archive footage and the famous imagery rather of Malcolm was really what I knew, but I feel like you read Kemp [Powers’s] script and you go, “Oh this is interesting.” Because it feels like a Malcolm that’s vulnerable. It’s a Malcolm in private, minus the scene at the beginning when he’s on the television. It’s Malcolm with Betty and it’s Malcolm in the crowd at the fight and it’s Malcolm in the room with his friends.
And as an actor, you go like, “Whoa.” It’s Regina King and it’s Malcolm X but it’s Regina King and it’s Malcolm X in a completely unique setting. It just really felt like a very unique opportunity from the first read is basically what I’m saying. And what I found really fascinating digging in, I think this was really at the audition phase of my journey with this project. I had three days to put 20 pages on tape for Regina and she wanted the scene in the room from the moment we come back in off the roof all the way through the table scene with Jim Brown. So all the Bob Dylan stuff and then she wanted the scene around the bed at the end.
So there was a lot of work to do and I said to myself, “What’s going to be the most useful way to spend these three days? What’s going to be the way that I can sort of best activate these scenes and try and grab Regina’s attention?” Which is what I was kind of trying to do. So I thought let me just look into what was really going in for Malcolm at this time and then my mind was really blown from there because the specificity of Kemp’s writing is just awesome. What I didn’t know was that the monumental shifts and changes that were going on for Malcolm at this time, at least from my reading and my studying and my research. It suggested to me that this was really an awesome opportunity to explore Malcolm’s vulnerability and his humanity in a way that possibly we haven’t seen.
I think we’re used to thinking of Malcolm X in this idea of brashness and boldness, and you’re playing a lot of anxiety and weariness.
Well you know he said to Dick Gregory, a dear friend of Malcolm’s, that around this time he felt weak and he felt hollow and that no one knew the torments that he went through which sort of broke my heart and made me feel like, man this guy had the weight of the world on his shoulders, and there must have been times where he felt so alone and was probably suffering in silence. He took it all on, what he was fighting for, and he really put his life on the line for the freedom of black people in America. He was demanding that white America take a really hard look at themselves and he was demanding that they show black people the respect they deserve without asking.
So a real hero on so many levels, but I think what’s interesting about heroism or true bravery is that it’s feeling scared and still doing it. It’s like feeling the fear, feeling alone, and still going out and facing the music and that’s what Malcolm did. I feel like Regina and I connected on this idea very, very early on that Malcolm as a husband and as a father was going to be the much more interesting route here. If we could find a way to get Malcolm on the screen where people could watch and recognize his humanity in them and understand that he was this huge political figure and influential leader of people but he was also a human being and in this situation, the pressure he was under must have cost him a lot.
Dick Gregory also described Malcolm as a sweet and bashful man and if he could hear us now he’d be embarrassed. The demigod that we all knew was really a character that he slipped in and out of but definitely wasn’t the center of who he was and his humor. Man, I mean the guy was funny. I had so much fun listening to him on repeat. Like a real comedian, and to watch him in Harlem is just joyous.
I was wondering what you might have taken from this conversation about essentially Black celebrity and the obligations of celebrity to a cause or a movement. Did those scenes like the Bob Dylan scene, these other conversations change or inform the way that you thought about the way you move through the world?
I mean it sparks the question. I think that’s what I loved about the script and one of the reasons I was so excited about this movie, was that conversation in the middle between Sam and Malcolm about responsibility. I just found it really interesting and didn’t really know whose side I was on at any point, and I think the fact that it’s asking us to think about it is what’s important. And that I don’t really know…I think deep down in my heart tells me that Malcolm was right but then I think what’s interesting is that it’s really asking us all to look at the hypocrisy because there’s a bit of Sam in all of us and what we’re all doing.
So I don’t know. I also feel like this is really new for me, this kind of level of press, and to be in a project where there’s this level of attention and being attached to Regina. She has this huge weight and status in this business and it’s really kind of new. I’m finding it interesting watching how her and Leslie [Odom Jr.], in particular, navigate in this space because they do have followings, and they do have people who are listening—and Aldis [Hodge] as well, and Eli [Goree] I’m sure to some extent. I’m not on social media so I guess what I’m saying is I’m finding it difficult to even think of myself in that regard.
But I definitely feel in terms of my responsibility I don’t know if this is just social or personal, me feeling like in order to acknowledge the gratitude I have I just want to make sure that I’m trying to find the humanity in all of the characters I play and make sure the stories that I’m involved in moving forward are contributing in some way or adding something, even if that’s just being involved in good stories and real characters who are based on truth. And that doesn’t mean that everything I’m in moving forward has to be this politically or socially charged. I think you can create something beautiful just in two people in a supermarket.
Where to Watch One Night in Miami:
Vanity Fair: Miss Juneteenth premiered a year ago at Sundance, came out in June, and just seems to have kind of been gathering an audience over the course of that whole year. What’s your experience been like with it? I know that BET aired it, that probably changed or brought a lot more people to the film. Has it felt that way to you?
Nicole Beharie: I suppose. I mean there’s some things that we couldn’t have orchestrated with the timing this year with it being the first Juneteenth in my lifetime that people are talking about it nationally you know? And Juneteenth for anyone who’s listening is two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation the enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, were informed that they had in fact been freed and that they could leave and start a new life and that is commemorated on June 19.
It’s a big holiday in Texas, and different pockets in different communities in the South, primarily celebrated by African Americans, but it should be something that is in the collective national consciousness right? So this was the first time that that happened and I think that was a big moment—and again bittersweet because it was on the heels and probably because of the passing of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, amongst many others, that people are reckoning with. So that’s the way it came out. It’s almost like I wish that weren’t the reality you know? But because it is it’s sort of stuck and it was more resonant than I think it would have been any other year. Also, I think that not having movie theaters open kind of made the field in which you work and you like to talk about and you guys discuss on this podcast more democratic. Our little film doesn’t have a budget to sort of do all the campaigning and send all the stuff. We just sort of made the movie a labor of love.
Also for me, I’m just kind of in shock. Because again I just thought I was tucking away to Texas to just help Channing [Godfrey Peoples], our fantastic director create her love letter to her community.
I think that’s a testament to the film’s quality and to your performance and Channing’s work. Also, something that people really seem to be hooking into is kind of what you’ve mentioned, the specificity of it. This Fort Worth, Texas, setting, the history there, the community there. I know you’re from the South to some extent I mean you were born in Florida, you went to school in South Carolina. Did you have a connection with any of the stuff that we see in this film? Or did you kind of have to learn it for the project?
I had to learn some of it. I had the fortune to be able to work with Kendrick Sampson, who during the time that the film came out was heading up protests and organizing for Black Lives Matter. He’s actually a native Texan and was helping to show me the ropes, and I went down there a little bit early to work on the dialect and linger in the bar and take in all the different people and the textures of it. because Channing let me know that it was so specific to her community.
This country is so many little countries, right? Like wrapped into one. There’s all these different versions of it, so to imagine my version of the pocket of Georgia that I lived in or the pockets of South Carolina that I lived in. Even within that one state, there’s nine different dialects depending on if your low country or if you’re in Columbia. So I came in and, if I’m being honest, I think I maybe took a little bit of it for granted, like I know what this is. And it was like, no you actually have no idea. It was fantastic to have a director and an environment informed so much and know so much more about it than you do so you can sort of trust and go for the ride you know? Oftentimes I show up to sets and feel the responsibility of just knowing more sometimes than the director. As the person of color, you sort of have to bring in your own anthropological understanding of things and she was like, “No I know what this is. This is this person, I want you to meet this person.”
You described this as Channing’s love letter to her community and she’s a first-time feature director. What are the responsibilities you feel as an actor, as the lead actor in a project like that? I mean there’s so much riding on it for the filmmaker and maybe for the community too. Did you feel that pressure when you were making the film?
I don’t know. Just signing up to do anyone’s work is like a service that you are providing so there is the responsibility. I mean I try not to get ahead of myself like, oh this is her first film, I don’t want to screw it up. I don’t want to screw anything that I do up. So I think the thing is because at the time people didn’t necessarily know her work and I loved her script but there may have been people on my team that were like, “I don’t know.” And all that kind of stuff. For me, it’s like I want people to see what I saw in it. Do you know what I mean? To feel the things that I think are gems in the story and I think that she’s done a fantastic job with her first film bringing such texture and such a specific voice to the table. So I just wanted to sort of be a part of that.