Though he’d had roles in EastEnders and Doctor Who, landing the role of Kunta Kinte in the History Channel’s new production of Roots was the last thing Malachi Kirby expected. The twenty-six year old English actor was reportedly chosen by executive producer LeVar Burton—who played Kunta Kinte in 1970s production, a runaway hit in the United States—for the role.
But as Kirby tells the story, his casting is all God’s doing. And in taking on the physically and emotionally demanding role of a young man captured in Gambia and brought in chains to a plantation in Virginia a hundred years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Kirby learned more than he’d bargained for. The newly reimagined show covers the same ground as the 1977 series, but incorporates several decades of research done since the previous version aired. Along with Kirby, Forest Whitaker, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Anna Paquin, and others star.
Kirby spoke to Christianity Today from London by phone about his botched first audition and what followed, and what he learned from playing the character.
The following transcript is Kirby’s words, slightly edited for clarity and length.
The Worst Audition—and the Best
Where do I begin? In January 2015, I had my first audition—January or February. I remember hearing about the audition and then thinking, why are they doing this again? Why are they making this project again? I was a bit scared of it, to be honest. Then I got an audition, and I spent most of the time worrying about what would happen if I got the part, rather than actually preparing for it.
I had the first audition, and it was easily one of the worst auditions of my life. Everything went wrong. I got there about half an hour late, sweating, and I'm not usually late for things. I learned my lines, but when I got in the room I didn't know anything. I'm trying to read off of the script and it's like I'm illiterate—I can't speak properly, everything's just fumbled. I'm supposed to do it in a West African accent and it was anything but that. I think it was Australian at one point, and I can't even do an Australian accent. It was just ridiculous, and I just basically kept apologizing to the casting director.
And then I left.
Five months later, they got back in touch. My agent calls me, and he says, "Oh, you must have done something good in there, because they want to see you again." I'm like, "Dude, you don't even know!" I'm thinking, oh, they must be really desperate.
So I go in again . . . And that actually was one of the most incredible auditions I've ever had. It felt like an out-of-body experience. I definitely felt like something else was happening in that room that I wasn't in control of. I felt everyone else feel it, too. I felt like a vessel.
Then something really strange happened. I was in my room, a few days after the audition, and I was praying. Whilst I was praying—it was actually a prayer of repentance at the time—God spoke to me, in a way that I have never heard his voice before. He told me that I've received this part, and he said to declare it in advance before it comes to pass, that he'd be glorified.
I went back-and-forth, thinking it's just my imagination, I'm not going crazy. I kept praying and it was clear as day. He told me to tell my agent. My agent's supposed to tell me I've got the part, and God said to tell him.