Icons of a movement

Icons of a movement

February 5, 2024


The stars of Genius: MLK/X – Kelvin Harrison Jr, Aaron Pierre, Weruche Opia and Jayme Lawson – reveal how they got into character to play icons of the US civil rights movement in this eight-part drama.

Their work leading the US civil rights movement ensured their place in history as two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century. Now the lives and achievements of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X have been dramatised in the fourth instalment of National Geographic’s anthology series Genius.

Jayme Lawson as Betty and Aaron Pierre as Malcolm X

In a first for the franchise, the new season – titled Genius: MLK/X – marks the first time two people have been featured at the same time, and for good reason. Though they may have taken different paths, both Dr King (Kelvin Harrison Jr) and X (Aaron Pierre) shared the same goal of equality at a time of widespread racial segregation in the US.

In the eight-part limited series, those journeys are explored from their upbringings and the injustices that shaped their identities to their only ever meeting at the US Senate in 1964, when they came together to urge president Lyndon B Johnson to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act that segregationists were attempting to filibuster. Both men were later assassinated aged 39, X in 1965 and Dr King in 1968.

Also taking centre stage are Coretta Scott King (Weruche Opia) and Betty Shabazz (Jayme Lawson), who are revealed to be formidable equals to their husbands. In particular, episode five, Matriarchs, is told from their perspectives as the pressures and expectations of their public and private lives take their toll.

Now airing on National Geographic, Genius: MLK/X comes from 20th Television, Imagine Television and Undisputed Cinema. Showrunners Raphael Jackson Jr and Damione Macedon executive produce with Reggie Rock Bythewood, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Francie Calgo, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Kristen Zolner and Jeff Stetson.

The series follows previous Genius instalments about Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and Aretha Franklin.

Here the show’s stars tell DQ about making the series and how they got into character to play the real-life icons.

Now it’s airing, how do you reflect on making the series?
Jayme Lawson: What you see was a labour of love from everyone involved, and it required and asked a lot of everyone. To get to see the show, you’re waiting with bated breath. How did it actually turn out? Did we actually do what we set out to do? Now we’re in a place where we can breathe and enjoy the labour of love we’ve all put in.

Weruche Opia: It’s almost like reliving it. It’s been a year [since filming wrapped] but it definitely was a labour of love and it’s so beautiful to see the project evolve from the cast, the crew, costume and make-up, the producers, the showrunners and the writers. It’s so beautiful to see this project that we all poured ourselves into coming out. I’m quite proud of what we’ve done.

The series follows two key figures in the civil rights movement’s battle for equality

What were your first impressions of the script and the opportunity to play such iconic real-life figures?
Kelvin Harrison Jr: When your agent calls and says they want you to play Dr King, you go, ‘Oh I’m sorry, this is Kelvin. Did you mean to call someone else?’ Then you hang up and they call you back and you say, ‘OK, what’s happening?’ After some time, after some serious prayer, you get to a place where you’re really excited to embark on this journey and get to know these men. What a beautiful privilege it is to be able to relate to someone; your assignment is literally to relate to these icons that helped me to be here in this moment. That has been such a beautiful experience so far, and a challenging one, but these men didn’t become who they were without challenges and it’s because they decided to step into this moment that they became them. It says a lot that we chose to do it and I’m really proud for making it to this moment.

Aaron Pierre: When you get the call, when you get the offer, in a situation like this, in a context like this, it can be terrifying. It can be very unnerving to make the decision to commit to embarking on a journey of portraying these tremendous individuals but I’m very grateful to have had the cast and crew, my community and my loved ones to lean into and be loved on throughout this experience. You question your capacity, you question your endurance, you question your stamina to be able to do something like this, particularly for six months. It’s a long time to be immersed in something mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically, and oftentimes I would lean into Malcolm’s power, strength and essence to get me through this. But I’m very grateful for the experience. It’s definitely evolved me creatively but also personally. It’s a gift to have that privilege.

The series begins with that meeting between Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X at the US Senate, before rolling back to their childhoods. What can you say about how their individual stories intersect with each other?
Pierre: A key element in the story is we have the opportunity to see Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X’s connected experience. We also get to see what is perceived as opposing forces running parallel towards the same objective, but they’re just taking different routes, and the synchronicity between that and their different approaches ultimately complement one another.

Genius strives to bring to the fore the contribution of Malcolm and MLK’s wives

The series focuses on Dr King Jr and X, but Coretta and Betty are equally prominent. What did you learn about them?
Opia: For me, it definitely was an education. Not many people are aware of how instrumental these women were in the lives their husbands lived and the legacies their husbands left behind. For this, it’s a huge educational moment but at the same time, it doesn’t feel like heavy education. It’s easily consumable, so I’m really excited for everyone to get to know more about these women. I didn’t know anything, if I’m quite honest, until I embarked on this journey and I felt robbed that I didn’t have this information before – and a lot of people don’t have this information. That was also putting a pep in my step and gave me an onus and responsibility that I had to tell this story as best as I could so that more people know about these women and their contributions to modern life as we have it now.

Lawson: I was so grateful that from the beginning, creatively, they [the producers] always wanted to bring the women to the forefront. That was always a part of the conversation from the get-go. They invested in, ‘How can we fully tell their stories alongside their husbands, so these aren’t the women behind the men but beside the men?’ Having that opportunity to delve into and bring that out, I’m really excited for that.

Playing real people with whom many viewers will be familiar, was there a secret to your performance?
Lawson: I like to find little personal things for myself. When I was doing research, one thing that jumped out to me about Betty was the way in which she made her hands useful. I even fought for a line in the script about that because it’s quite a moment as an actor to have that. What does it mean to want your hands to be useful – before your husband leaves, to want to touch him, or to lay your hands on him, whether that’s adjusting his tie? What is that? That’s a deeper conversation as to her own need and that’s an actor’s work of crafting a fully realised individual, but that was one little thing that always helped me get into the body of Betty, especially because we span so many years with these women, so throughout her ageing, throughout her raising children and losing her husband, to always have that as a thing for me was really important.

Opia: Coretta was a very skilled woman. She was an opera singer; music was her first love and her main desire and that’s what she wanted to do in life. She put it aside, her desire to go to the Metropolitan Opera House, to support her husband, although she did use her singing for fundraising later on, so she never really did relinquish her gift. That was something we worked on. I was so fortunate to be able to work with an opera singer, Lauren Michelle, who showed me the posture a lot of opera singers have in order to access your singing. That hugely helped me. I also had etiquette classes – I’m a little bit of a tomboy sometimes – so I really needed to be a lady to be Coretta and those physical things, having the opera training and etiquette classes, allowed me to put myself to the side and be the refined character I imagined and think Coretta was.

Genius: MLK/X comes from 20th Television, Imagine Television and Undisputed Cinema

Harrison: I found these YouTube videos of Dr King talking to LBJ [Lyndon Johnson] and it was so relaxed and chilled, but at the same time there was an understanding he was talking to a president. He makes a lot of jokes and his laugh is very specific, and I took those things and they became my touchstones to create the ‘at home’ MLK. That was my secret little gem that I locked away. It made me feel connected to him as a person.

Pierre: For me, when I’m on set, oftentimes I would have my AirPods in and I would listen to one of Malcolm’s most famous speeches, The Ballot or the Bullet. The energy that is present throughout that speech is something that really fuelled me and guided me. In addition, I’m somebody who chooses to stay in accent for the entirety of the shoot, walk the way he walks and gesture the way he gestures. Two-thirds of the crew didn’t know I was from London until they said, ‘That’s a wrap, Aaron.’ That’s just a personal choice, but for me it keeps me present. It keeps me in alignment with the task at hand and hopefully fulfilling that.

Harrison: Sometimes I had to go on my phone and Google where he was from, just in case I was tripping a little bit, but yes, he was from England.

tagged in: , , , , , , ,