Being Bob Marley – How Kingsley Ben-Adir became the reggae legend

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Producing Bob Marley are two of Bob’s children – Ziggy and Cedella Marley – and the female artist and icon who was so instrumental to what her husband achieved in his 36 years on the planet, his widow, Rita.

But where do you even begin when it comes to casting Bob Marley, a global superstar whose distinct looks, sound and movement have been burned into the collective consciousness for over 50 years? As Ziggy Marley openly admits: “It was not an easy task, capturing the essence of Bob. Because Bob is not just a normal, everyday guy. He was somebody who was unique. We were making a Hollywood movie, but Bob is not a Hollywood person.” That task, Rohan Marley says of the epic international casting journey that this production undertook, was long, hard and daunting, for all concerned.

Bob Marley - How Kingsley Ben-Adir became the reggae legend
Ziggy Marley and Kingsley Ben-Adir

“Eventually, Ziggy called. ‘Hey, Rohan. I’m going to send Kingsley down to meet you. He’s a reasonable man. Get to know him,’” Rohan remembers of first seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. The Kingsley in question was Kingsley Ben-Adir, who had wowed in British theatre and popular TV series, like The OA and Peaky Blinders, before tackling everything from Marvel (in Secret Invasion) to Mattel (as a Ken, in Barbie). In a stunning one-two of performances, 2020 saw the acclaimed actor take on a double-bill of real-life icons, playing Barack Obama in The Comey Rule and Malcolm X in One Night In Miami.

“Ziggy had already spent a lot of time with Kingsley, and he was certain he was our guy,” continues Rohan. “We met him, and we understood. The way [he approached] his craft, his purpose The seriousness of his work. Why he accepted this position. Where he came from was always a true expression, not wanting to falter. This is not a gimmick for him. Kingsley wanted to tap into [Bob’s] energy, to have consciousness.” Ben-Adir would ultimately meet with the whole Marley family, on numerous occasions, with Ziggy even taking him – appropriately, given he was about to play his fanatical father – to a football match. That day, Ben-Adir says, is a memory he will cherish forever.

“He was the best [of everyone we saw], simple,” Ziggy says. “But it was also about, ‘Who can hold this?’ Because it’s a very heavy burden. When I met Kingsley, I knew this was a man who could. He had the right spirit, energy, ability, respect and commitment.” Ben-Adir says as a matter of record that if the Marley family hadn’t been involved in this production, he wouldn’t have even auditioned. “Because it wouldn’t have felt right.” He also subjected himself to some serious intellectual scrutiny before accepting, questioning whether he could tap into exactly where he would need to get to, to hit such a huge mark.

Reinaldo Marcus Green remembers that what he saw in Ben-Adir more than anything was vulnerability. “We searched every corner of the world. What you’re looking for is someone to embody Bob Marley. You can never recreate him. You can’t bring him back. But you can bring his essence back. What Kingsley did was interpret Bob. An actor acting, not mimicking. It was masterful,” the director says. “To be this intensely involved in something over such a long period of time, I haven’t had that before,” Ben-Adir adds. “Bob every day. It took me a long time [researching interview footage of him] to understand everything Bob’s saying. He was a poet in how he communicated. We managed organically to find Bob’s flow, over a year in prep and anticipation. You’ve got to trust that, in that process, Bob’s voice will come through.”

The overall process of transforming into Marley would take time and involve many, Ben-Adir having to lose what Green calls “a ton” of weight, learn to play guitar, and to learn to move and sound like Bob. As the process went on, Ben-Adir’s look evolved. “He worked so hard on achieving the perfect silhouette,” Sheppard says. “Kingsley was dedicated to losing a lot of weight. I knew that because with each fitting he was smaller and smaller. By the time we started to shoot, he was so thin his face had changed. Suddenly, it was really Bob’s face.”

Lashana Lynch as “Rita Marley” and Kingsley Ben-Adir as “Bob Marley” in Bob Marley: One Love from Paramount Pictures.

Perhaps his greatest challenge was playing with the cadences of Marley’s voice, finding the rhythms of his very particular speech patterns. “There is patois [the dialect of a specific region; in this case Marley’s hometown of Nine Mile, Jamaica] and then there’s what Bob did,” Green says. “There are the intonations, the nuance of the language, how Bob arranged certain words and sentences. Kingsley spent eight months just listening to Bob Marley, like a record in his head.” To help Ben-Adir fully absorb the complexities of the Marley patois, the production enlisted the help of another Jamaican legend: Fae A. Ellington. Now a household name herself in her home country, in 1976 Ellington was working on a radio magazine programme for the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation. It was there, with the country in full Marley mania, that Ellington would first interview Neville Garrick, who became both one of Marley’s closest friends and the illustrator of his stunning album covers. Ellington had invited him onto her show having seen an exhibition of his earlier artwork and been captivated by it.

Over the years since ’76, Ellington has seen first-hand what the man and his music means to so many. Ellington was brought onto the production because she is now a Jamaican language coach, but also for her first-hand knowledge of the nuances of the country’s culture and its most famous son. “My job was to make sure everyone in the movie talked with heart and authenticity,” Ellington says. She worked with Ben-Adir over many months, to nail all the eccentricities and specificities of that distinct Marley patois. “Bob is a cultural icon, so we worked assiduously on it. In every language there are nuances, but I’m convinced that the Jamaican language has more nuances than any other. I really believe that. And I am so impressed with Kingsley. In Jamaica, we are very, very critical. But I think people are going to be very pleased when they see and hear him,” Ellington says. “The thing about patois,” Ben-Adir stresses, “is that it’s not a dialect. It’s a language. We’ve tried to find a way to make sure that the playing of the scenes is clear, so that you understand the emotion of what Bob is saying.”

Getting there, he says, has been “intense”. Then again, it needed to be. “Completely,” agrees James Norton, who plays founder of Island Records, Chris Blackwell. “Kingsley, with the blessing of Ziggy, came into this wanting to tell the authentic story of Bob. He didn’t want to compromise, didn’t want to tell the glossy, sanitized version. He wanted to tell a true story. I had a front row seat watching him transform into that man.” For many people, Norton says, “Bob Marley is a happy-go-lucky guy, played some nice tunes and is all full of hope and love, all the stuff that makes him such a hit with hippies and students. But he was so much more than that. He had this fire inside. He was a revolutionary who wanted to change the world for the better. But that was a fight. And Kingsley also has a fire inside, also fights his corner, which makes the project better.” That fire and fight would force Ben-Adir down deep. “Deep into the character and deep into the emotions of Bob. And that’s a hard thing to do, with a personality like Bob,” says Ziggy. “Kingsley always wanted to get it right. He would fight to get it right. He would get upset to get it right. That showed how much he cared. I love that in him.”

The way the real-life Marley moved on stage is as distinctive as the music he made. In some ways, it wasn’t even dancing at all, the music sending him into an almost spiritual plane, taking over his body. “Bob would be quite trancelike on stage,” says head of movement & choreographer Polly Bennett. “It takes a lot of mental strength [for Kingsley] to get through those numbers. People say of Bob Marley, ‘Oh, he’s so free. He’s so loose on stage.’ But actually, he isn’t. He’s very, very connected. His dynamics have a strong centre. When he’s on the stage, I really see Kingsley play those physical truths. That’s what makes me the proudest of everything he’s achieved.” Bennett is the movement coach behind the big-screen incarnations of some of the music world’s most feted artists. From Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury (in Bohemian Rhapsody) to Austin Butler’s Elvis (in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis), to Naomi Ackie’s Whitney Houston (in I Wanna Dance With Somebody), Bennett teaches actors how to move like icons. “Everything Kingsley does is coming from an authentic place,” Bennett says of her and BenAdir’s process here. “It’s about excavating why Bob Marley moves the way he does, which means we can help the character development that comes from the physical side.”

What Bennett does, she says, “is to try to work out why people move the way they do. That comes from an emotional place. It’s not about copying something; it’s about how Bob thinks and feels in a particular moment. It’s about why he does those things that he becomes famous for doing, on stage.” It’s this detail and discovery, Bennett and Ben-Adir both say, that gives the latter’s performance a genuine artistic integrity. Just as Marley’s music broke the mould, so did the way he performed it. “We’re kind of private investigators,” she says. “And our job is to then turn [what we discover] into something practical that Kingsley can use on set. We want Bob Marley fans to know that we’ve paid attention to all the different facets of all his different performances.”

Green remains in awe of what Bennett and Ben-Adir have achieved when it came to capturing the spirit of Bob Marley, on stage and off. How Ben-Adir’s commitment has led to a performance that reveals “the man behind the lyrics” for the first time ever on screen. “Everything is movement,” Bennett says. “The way that Bob moves on stage comes out of his life offstage. And some of it is a huge endurance test. A number like Exodus, which is nigh on seven and a half minutes long, uses a huge amount of energy when it comes to the movement as well as having to lip synch, commit to the audience, and play guitar.”

Responsible for teaching Ben-Adir how to play that guitar was Ben Martinez. The accomplished guitar coach worked with Ben-Adir so that he could, as Martinez says, “not just play like Bob, but understand the role that Bob has within the band when he plays”. To, in other words, give the actor a crash course in musical theory as well as filmmaking practicality. “Obviously Bob is a famous musician with very specific voicings. But you don’t necessarily think of him as a high-level guitarist,” Martinez says. “But he’s a sophisticated player. Bob would play everything with his thumb over, which is quite Hendrix-y, including chords you wouldn’t necessarily think of playing as thumb-over chords, like A-shape chords.” Ben-Adir has recreated these details down to their most granular, to the point that, when you see Ben-Adir perform as Marley in the movie, Martinez says, you will be seeing up-close a true Bob Marley performance, right from the fingertips up. “Hats off to Kingsley, man,” says Norton of what his co-star has pulled off. “He’s taken on a hell of a lot, and he has delivered and then some. I’ve never seen an actor so committed. He’s really put in the work, and it shows.”

But perhaps the best indication of how effective Ben-Adir has been in becoming Bob Marley comes from David Kerr, aka Davo. A hugely successful musician in his own right, Kerr is the son of Junior Marvin, the guitarist and back-up singer for Bob Marley and The Wailers that Kerr is himself playing in Bob Marley: One Love. “It was like Kingsley was carrying this energy,” Kerr says of Ben-Adir. “I feel like Bob is overshadowing this whole project. It’s like he’s controlling from up above. And Kingsley is so humble and so passionate about portraying Bob’s true identity.

related feature : Kinglsey Ben-Adir in One Night in Miami reviewed HERE

related feature : Michael Jai White & Gillian White takes us behind the scenes of The Island

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