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‘The Irish were always playing Bob Marley’: One Love star Kingsley Ben-Adir on growing up with the reggae icon

Bob Marley’s music is ‘a spiritual thing’, says the actor, who took the lead role in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s biopic at the request of the Jamaican star’s family

It’s a strange effect of the quasi-mythical stature of Bob Marley that almost no one can remember when and where they first encountered the Jamaican icon. His music, like him, has just always been there.

“I was born in 1981,” says Reinaldo Marcus Green, director of Bob Marley: One Love, the new biopic about the reggae star. “Bob died the year I was born. My dad gave me the middle name Marcus after the activist Marcus Garvey, who was certainly somebody that Bob read and was influenced by, and who similarly believed, like Bob did, that Jamaicans had a mission to return to the motherland, to Ethiopia. So Bob was always in my life. He was this sort of mysterious figure that you’d see everywhere you go. He was around. He was on T-shirts. He was in coffee shops. So when I came to make this movie I understood the magnitude of what it was to take on this legend and icon.”

Kingsley Ben-Adir, who plays the singer in Green’s film, has by now had plenty of practice of portraying significant historical figures. The British actor won an Independent Spirit Award for his depiction of Malcolm X in Regina King’s One Night in Miami, and plaudits for his turn as Barack Obama in The Comey Rule. Still, taking on the role of Marley – at the request of the Marley family – was a level up, he says.

“His music goes beyond. It’s a spiritual thing,” says Ben-Adir, whose grandparents came to the UK from Trinidad and Tobago. “When I was growing up there was a huge Irish community in Kentish Town [in north London]. The Irish and the Jamaican communities in London are very connected. And the relationship that Bob had with Ireland was very specific as well. And the Irish were always playing Bob Marley music. He was talking about universal things. He’s expressing something we all understand.”

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It has been a big year for Ben-Adir. The former star of The OA and Peaky Blinders landed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a leading role in Secret Invasion, on Disney+, and had much doltish fun as Basketball Ken in Barbie.

One Love required a lot more homework than his plastic-fantastic beach duties. The 37-year-old learned how to sing (from scratch) and how to speak in Marley’s distinctive patois – which is not a dialect but a language, he says. Ben-Adir also trained with the movement coach and choreographer Polly Bennett, who previously helped Rami Malek portray Freddie Mercury, in Bohemian Rhapsody, and Austin Butler play Elvis Presley, in Baz Luhrmann’s biopic.

“It was an ongoing process,” says the actor. “There was a lot of watching different concerts and footage. Months and months of watching. All the way through production. As we were getting ready to shoot a particular scene or concert, I would have to go back and look and check the details. That was the process. There wasn’t a day when I stopped. I was constantly checking in, still listening to him between takes. It just became routine. I found Bob Marley’s Bedroom Tapes on YouTube really helpful. The journey was wonderful. I loved it.”

One Love: Bob Marley has been in development for years, as a collaboration between Paramount Pictures and various members of the Marley family, including Marley’s son Ziggy (who serves as a producer); Bob’s wife, Rita; Ziggy’s wife, Orly Agai; and Bob’s daughter Cedella.

“That was a great start-up,” says Green. “There have been over 500 books on Bob Marley. Are they all right? Are they mostly right? So a big part of the process is trying to find what is correct and what are the common denominators. I started meeting all the different members of the family and close friends. We had Neville Garrick, who was Bob’s artistic director, who died last November.

“We had people that were very close to him that were telling their stories for the first time. And having the support of the family was very important. We had access to archival footage that no one knew existed. We could go beyond the sort of interviews that you’ve seen online. And, of course, everything was right there in the lyrics for us. The music is the spine of the movie.”

The screenplay, by Zach Baylin (who wrote Green’s 2021 Oscar-winner, King Richard), Frank E Flowers and Terence Winter, has a lot of terrain to traverse in terms of ideology, politics and Rastafarianism. The film opens with Jamaica on the verge of civil war and an assassination attempt on Bob and Rita Marley. Rita (who is played by the No Time to Die star Lashana Lynch) is saved when the bullet lodges in her dreadlocks.

Green later re-creates the moment at the One Love Peace Concert, in 1978, when Marley invited Michael Manley, Jamaica’s prime minister, and his political rival Edward Seaga to join him on stage for a symbolic handshake.

“Bob was tough,” says Ben-Adir. “I had to find a way to handle both the power and the kind, humble, very gentle, loving man. He was a workaholic. He had discipline and focus. He was an energetic leader. Neville [Garrick] told me that, when Bob lived in London, he got up at 4.30 every morning because he liked the rougher tone of his voice. My singing teacher Fiora [Cutler] once said to me, ‘Do you have any idea what it takes to write that many hit songs?’ Songs that are commercial but still have a huge depth. I was trying to find the balance between all those things.

“When I went to Jamaica for the first time, I spoke to more than 20 people who knew Bob, some from when he was 13 or 14 and some from when he was really well-known. I got a well-rounded view and lots of instructions: you can’t play Bob like he’s some soft-soft. What you have to remember is that people called him the General and Skip. He grew up on the streets. He was from the ghetto. He saw things. That was important for me. As much as we wanted to celebrate his life with his family and celebrate his music, other sides of his personality had to be explored.”

Working with Robert Elswit, Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular cinematographer, Green creates a portrait of Marley as a man who is always in motion: running along Jamaica’s picturesque coastlines, soccer ball ever at his feet, and with a swirl of followers around him.

“What we learned about Bob was that he loved football,” says Green. “Football and music! You’ve seen all the photos. But he trained like a footballer. I remember meeting [the Jamaican soccer player] ‘Skill’ Cole. Bob took a liking to him and took a lot from his training. We see him running and training with the Wailers on the breach and through Trench Town. Everything they put in their bodies, everything they put in their minds was purposeful. That’s something I learned about Bob. I didn’t understand how regimented he was... because he seems so relaxed and cool and calm. But he’s on a mission. And all the time he’s thinking about that mission like a footballer thinks about the pitch.”

Marley’s complexities are mirrored by his unorthodox marriage. He and Rita had three biological children together; Marley had 11 acknowledged children, in total, by seven women; Rita had three children with three other men, one before she met and married Marley and two others while still married to him.

“The story of Rita Marley was probably the biggest revelation for me,” says Green. “I didn’t understand just how big a role she played in Bob’s life. In particular, the period we show between 1976 and 1977 was such a trying time for their family. What they went through with the assassination attempt on their lives. Who she was and what she meant to Bob, not just as a wife and the mother of his children but as a band member, was something I learned about in the process of making the film. They had a friendship and a deep understanding.”

Bob Marley: One Love opens in cinemas on Wednesday, February 14th