AGE: 26. HOMETOWN: Battersea, London. SEEN IN: History’s new adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots as Kunta Kinte.
EMMA BROWN: What did you want to be when you were 5?
MALACHI KIRBY: A bus driver.
BROWN: You’ve said that you were really shy as a child. When did you come out of your shell?
KIRBY: Since I’ve been acting. My dad passed when I was 6. I found out when I was about 21 that my dad always said acting would be the making of me. Where he got that from, I have no idea. I was the shiest person you could think of. I didn’t really speak. I was an only child, so most of my life I spent in my bedroom playing with toys by myself, speaking through them.
BROWN: How did you get involved in Roots?
KIRBY: When I heard that Roots was being remade, my first response was, “Seriously?” I was a bit skeptical. Then I had an audition in early 2015. I didn’t know how to feel about it. I was a little scared of the responsibility of telling the story again with the weight of the first one behind me—I was scared of comparisons. I didn’t know what their intentions were. But I went anyway and it was the worst audition of my life. Everything went wrong that you can possibly think of: half an hour late, sweating, my accent was all over the place, I didn’t know the lines even though I had learned them. I didn’t think I deserved to be seen again. Then my agent called me five months later to say they wanted to see me again. After I got the part, when I sat down with an executive producer, Mark Wolper—his father produced the first Roots—I asked him, “Why are you doing this?” He told me his story, and it was enough to give me peace that this project would be in good hands and that it needed to be done again for a generation who hadn’t seen the first one, but also for the generation that had.
BROWN: When did you first see the original Roots?
KIRBY: I was about 22. I’m 26 now. I was still very much affected by watching it. My mum bought me the box set. She just said, “I want you to watch it.” And I didn’t. I usually watch films while I’m eating my dinner, and it didn’t seem like the kind of thing I’d want to watch while I was eating my dinner. I didn’t watch it for about a year. When I finally put it in, I think I got through the whole box set without sleeping. It had a huge impact on me, more so than other movies that have surrounded that same kind of topic. A few years later when I found out about the second one, I was still processing the first one. I was still thinking about things that were happening today that had been affected by that time of slavery.
BROWN: If you could choose any project in the world to do next, what would it be?
KIRBY: I’ve narrowed it down. At first I had this huge desire to play a superhero, that little kid in me. Then I realized it wasn’t actually a superhero I wanted to play, it was someone fighting for a cause that’s bigger than themselves, which can go into all sorts of things.