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‘Genius: MLK/X’ Interview: Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Aaron Pierre


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Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Aaron Pierre talk 'Genius: MLK/X.'

(L to R) Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Aaron Pierre talk ‘Genius: MLK/X.’

Premiering February 1st on National Geographic, and streaming February 2nd on Disney+ and Hulu, with the first episode also airing on ABC February 1st is the fourth season of the anthology series ‘Genius,’ which is entitled ‘Genius: MLK/X’ and follows the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. (‘Chevalier’) and Aaron Pierre (‘Old’), respectively.

Moviefone recently had the pleasure of speaking with Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Aaron Pierre about their work on ‘Genius: MLK/X,’ taking on the iconic roles, their approach, their research, and exploring their characters’ private lives.

Related Article: Kelvin Harrison Jr. Talks ‘Chevalier’ and Director Stephen Williams

Martin Luther King Jr., played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., preaches in 'Genius: MLK/X.'

Martin Luther King Jr., played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., preaches in ‘Genius: MLK/X.’ Photo: National Geographic/Richard DuCree.

Moviefone: To begin with, Kelvin, can you talk about your approach to playing this character and how do you prepare to play someone as iconic as Martin Luther King Jr.?

Kelvin Harrison Jr.: I think it starts with, at least for me, I started looking at interviews, and I just wanted to get a sense of his energy, how he spoke and anything I was picking up now that I was paying a different attention to it. We watch it as a viewer and we watch it as a citizen of America, as a young black man and that’s one thing, but as someone that’s about to embark on this experience to internalize what this man’s existence is, is a completely different thing so that was my first thing. Then the next step was reading his autobiography, reading all the books he wrote, while also traveling to Memphis and Birmingham and Atlanta and his hometown and D.C., and any place I can get my hands on in the little amount of time I had to prepare. After that, it became an investigation of myself, what it meant to be all these different ages, what it meant to deal with anxiety, imposter syndrome, fear, love, and fathers. That’s a whole thing and I love to explore the dynamics between a father and a son, that’s specific. I just took it all in and saw what came out of me. Obviously, there’s the technical stuff, seeing work and dialect coaching but that’s the boring stuff.

Malcolm X, played by Aaron Pierre, is escorted from Temple in 'Genius: MLK/X.'

Malcolm X, played by Aaron Pierre, is escorted from Temple in ‘Genius: MLK/X.’ Photo: National Geographic/Richard DuCree.

MF: Aaron, how did you prepare to play Malcolm X and did you learn anything during your research that really informed your performance?

Aaron Pierre: Similarly, to what Kelvin said just here, it was step one as it was the extensive research. It was reading, again, the autobiography, reading ‘The Sword and the Shield’ by Peniel E. Joseph, reading Dr. Betty Shabazz‘s perspective, watching the documentary, watching the footage we have of him on panels, interviews and speeches. That was particularly important for me because I feel like arguably there is a lot of misinformation about Malcolm X, and I wanted to find information that was as close to the source as possible. What I mean by that is I wanted to hear from him himself in his autobiography, dictated to Alex Haley. I wanted to hear from those closest to him. I wanted to hear from his community first. Then, again, the same way Kelvin experienced going to these different states that meant something particular to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, I was in New York, I was in Harlem, and I was in Washington Heights. I love New York, I love Harlem, and I love Washington Heights. I loved having the opportunity, the privilege to walk around there, to breathe that air, to experience that experience and it informed me so greatly and deeply. I felt empowered by going to these beautiful places and inspired to do my best to portray Malcolm X to the very best of my capabilities and serve his story, and serve his legacy.

Malcolm X, played by Aaron Pierre, preaches in 'Genius: MLK/X.'

Malcolm X, played by Aaron Pierre, preaches in ‘Genius: MLK/X.’ Photo: National Geographic/Richard DuCree.

MF: To follow up, Aaron can you give one example of a misconception about Malcolm X that you wanted to set straight with this movie?

AP: I think for me, this is of course subjective, this is my personal viewpoint, but I think a common misconception is that he led with violence. The reality is that he led with love, and he led with light. The physical aspect of his dialect and his approach was in direct response to your personal wellbeing, livelihood and safety being directly threatened physically. He was advocating for protecting that, he was advocating for preserving that, he was advocating for safeguarding the dignity and the integrity of that. It wasn’t actively seeking violence and actively seeking physical engagement. It was, God forbid should that present itself, we have the right to defend that. That came from a deep love for his people and his community. I think that’s something that I hope people will gain insight to and after that take the lead to do deeper research themselves into. There’s only so much we can explore in this series, but I’m hopeful that this will inspire people to go and do their own research and get a deeper understanding.

Martin Luther King Jr., played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Coretta Scott King, played by Weruche Opia, in 'Genius: MLK/X.'

(L to R) Martin Luther King Jr., played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Coretta Scott King, played by Weruche Opia, in ‘Genius: MLK/X.’ Photo: National Geographic/Richard DuCree.

MF: Finally, Kelvin, can you talk about how the series also explores the private lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and examines their marriages?

KH Jr.: I mean, listen, these men would’ve been nothing really without these women. Their intelligence is equal to these men’s intelligence. Their passion, their commitment, their integrity for this calling for the people and humanity is huge. I use the example a lot of Vietnam because I think that’s one that’s so clear is Coretta (Scott King) was the one. She was like, “We’re humanitarians and yet in our own country, there is an injustice happening with this Vietnam War. What are we going to do? How do we say we want equality and justice for all people, and we want everyone to be safe and to be taken care of, yet we’re allowing this atrocity to kind of take place?” So, she does that, she speaks out and this inspired him. She supports him even when he’s put in hot water because of it. She redirects his path every step of the way, she re-inspires him, and she holds him accountable for what he said he’s set out to do. I think it’s such a beautiful opportunity for us to give a little backstory into who they were as well as how they got to meet these men, how they built their strength and who are the people surrounding them that put this fire inside them to do what this moment, why are we even making this show right now. It would be an injustice to not speak about them. In some ways, it’s kind of like this show is about them. The reason, once again, that we’re talking about them today is because 60 years ago was the March on Washington, and we’re still talking about it because they led those legacies on and on. They’ve been keeping it alive. For twice their lifetime, these men. You know what I mean? We’re talking about men who died. I mean, that’s one of the beautiful things about the show, and that’s one of the things I’m most proud of, that we get to be a part of.

Martin Luther King Jr., played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Ralph Abernathy, played by Hubert Point-Du Jour, in 'Genius: MLK/X.'

(L to R) Martin Luther King Jr., played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Ralph Abernathy, played by Hubert Point-Du Jour, in ‘Genius: MLK/X.’ Photo: National Geographic/Richard DuCree.

What is the Plot of ‘Genius: MLK/X’?

The series explores simultaneously the formative years, pioneering accomplishments, dueling philosophies and key personal relationships of both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Malcolm X (Aaron Pierre). While King advanced racial equality through nonviolent activism, X advocated for Black empowerment, identity and self-determination. The eight-part series also brings their wives, Coretta Scott King (Weruche Opia) and Betty Shabazz (Jayme Lawson), to the forefront and shows them as formidable equals of the Movement. While King and X met only once and often challenged each other’s views, the two visionaries, with their wives leading by their sides, ultimately rose to pioneer a movement that lives on today.

Who is in the Cast of ‘Genius: MLK/X’?

Malcolm X, played by Aaron Pierre, preaches in 'Genius: MLK/X.'

Malcolm X, played by Aaron Pierre, preaches in ‘Genius: MLK/X.’ Photo: National Geographic/Richard DuCree.

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