Step by Step: How Kingsley Ben-Adir Became Bob Marley

Bob Marley, the beloved and singular reggae luminary, was a dreadlocked Rastafarian from Jamaica who sang and played guitar. Kingsley Ben-Adir is a Brit with close-cropped hair who doesn’t sing or play guitar, and stands seven inches taller than Marley did. Despite the lack of external similarities, Ben-Adir was cast as Marley in a new Hollywood biopic, the culmination of a yearlong search for the right actor.

“We tried to find someone from Jamaica who could speak the dialect we needed,” said Ziggy Marley, Bob Marley’s oldest son as well as a Grammy-winning musician, and a producer on “Bob Marley: One Love,” which opened in theaters on Feb. 14. But physical verisimilitude, he decided, wasn’t the key to portraying his father: “Kingsley brought an emotional depth that nobody else brought to the auditions, and a magnetism,” he added.

The choice of Ben-Adir has been denounced by many Jamaicans, who point out that at least since 1990s films like “Cool Runnings” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” Hollywood has been using non-Jamaican actors with diluted accents. “We were not meant to have agency over our narratives,” Danae Peart wrote in RiddimStyle Magazine, which covers culture in the Black diaspora. She added that Hollywood executives are obsessed with “making everything palatable for the ‘white gaze.’”

Reviews for “Bob Marley: One Love” have been almost uniformly negative, but even some of the harshest critics have praised Ben-Adir’s performance. “In a film that mostly sticks to reliable formula, he is one thing to love,” Olly Richards of Empire wrote. Recently, Ben-Adir explained in detail how he made the transformation, despite little outward resemblance to Marley.

Landing the Role

Ziggy Marley, left, with Ben-Adir on set. “Kingsley brought an emotional depth that nobody else brought to the auditions, and a magnetism,” Marley said.Credit…Chiabella James/Paramount Pictures

“On the audition tape, I knew that my Jamaican patois was going to be basic and wrong,” Ben-Adir, a lean, alert 37-year-old dressed in a dark Adidas track suit, said during an interview in a Times Square conference room. He chose one scene from among three he’d been sent, and had only two days to prep his audition — not enough time to nail the accent. “Working actors don’t have the luxury of time and space.” He crammed by studying “Live at the Rainbow,” a Marley concert video shot in 1977.

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