Malachi Kirby: “When we’re on set, we just bring love”
After EastEnders, Roots and Small Axe, the Londoner now stars in super-slick banking thriller Devils. But he does it all while championing the ethos learned alongside drama school mates Letitia Wright and John Boyega.
As the shivery aftershock of Industry’s cold-ass finale fades, and while we wait for the pandemic-delayed return of Succession, here comes Devils to satisfy our craving for TV drama centred on the luxe-living, one-percenter behaviour of high flyers with low morals.
Shiny as a City banker’s Berluti shoes and fast as the macho squash game the show’s Eighties-agnostic alpha dogs still play, the London-set Sky Atlantic series is a polished, paradoxically old-fashioned high-finance thriller that zips along at a cokey pace. It’s all edgy camera angles, razor-sharp suiting, ice-cold champagne and even colder all-glass offices, penthouse property porn and confrontations in shadowy underground car-parks next to throaty Ferraris.
The best character by far is, surprise surprise, the only halfway relatable one. Oliver Harris is a student from a South London council estate. So far ahead of his economics classmates he’s helping them cheat their exams, Harris is a geek into anime, hacking and all manner of smartphone-related jiggery-pokery. He also possesses an asset that deal-chasing investment bankers are keen to weaponise quicker than you can say “unpaid intern”: Oliver is an expert at reading body language.
That’s a product of his upbringing, notes the actor who plays him. We last saw Malachi Kirby, alongside his drama schoolmate Letitia Wright, playing Darcus Howe in Mangrove, the opening shot in Steve McQueen’s magnificent Small Axe film series. The 31-year-old also happens to be the best reason to watch Devils.
“Because Oliver grew up on a council estate, he’s used to having to read people to survive,” says Kirby, who himself grew up on an estate in South London (Battersea, to be exact). “I don’t think he realises those are actually usable skills, or profitable skills, until he gets to the bank. But he has an advantage over a lot of the people who work there: they didn’t grow up in that environment so didn’t need to learn those skills.”
These street smarts mean Oliver can appraise how a European central banking chief walks as he approaches a press conference, thereby predicting whether he’s about to lower or raise interest raises. This gives his new colleagues a crucial few second’s trading advantage on the international currency market. All very arcane, and possibly not wholly plausible, but Kirby makes you buy it.
“It was nice to be able to play someone from that environment who wasn’t a direct product of it,” he says, fidgety and bashfully looking off camera as we talk over Zoom from his home in East London. “Usually when you’re telling a story of someone from a council estate you automatically go: gangster. Or: ex-con.
“This is a guy who isn’t naïve to everything that’s happening around him [where he lives], but he’s made an active choice to not get involved in certain things. His parents aren’t around so he’s looking after his younger brother and his girlfriend, and that’s forced him to be responsible.”
Kirby has been acting for 14 years, all his adult life. He studied at Identity School of Acting, the London college and agency founded by Femi Oguns in 2004 with (their website says) “a mission to disrupt the industry with a new, diverse generation of talent”.
The actor is still signed to Identity’s agency wing, but says there will always be an attachment to the school on a deeper level, too.
“It changed my life, not just as an artist but as a human. It’s cheesy but it’s in the name – [it’s about] identity. It’s a place where they celebrate who you are. I didn’t go into those classes to lose myself and forget myself, but to discover myself. It shaped the person I am today.”
Identity recently partnered with Netflix to share in a £350,000 investment from the streamer to support Britain’s next generation of Black, Asian and ethnic minority acting talent. The portion going to Identity will pay for year-long scholarships for 30 students.
When Kirby was a student Michaela Coel was in the year above him, while his own class was a roll-call of future stars.
“Tobi Bakare, John Boyega, Damson Idris, Adelayo Adedayo, Nicôle Lecky, Letitia – we were all in this room starting out, so many actors. And every time one of us got a job, we’d all celebrate in class. There was competitiveness there, but it was so healthy. It was about all of us thriving as opposed to one of us doing better than the other. We’d just fuel each other with our successes. It was such a beautiful environment to be in. Genuinely there was so much love in that room.”
It’s a crucial point of difference from what he’s heard is the ethos at other drama schools, where it’s “literally the opposite – constantly backbiting and trying to get one over on the other.
“So I’m really glad for the experience I had there. And now we get to bring that into the industry now. When we’re onset, we just bring love.”
Another friend is Daniel Kaluuya, with whom he made 2013 short Jonah (scripted by His Dark Materials/Enola Holmes writer Jack Thorne). “Yeah, we went to Zanzibar for a couple of weeks and made a film,” he recalls with a grin, the memories flooding back. “There were definitely a few near-death experiences on that shoot… situations where people rolled up on us with guns [or] chased us with machetes because they thought we were really stealing something. We had to convince them we were actors in a movie. When you watch us running through the marketplace, there’s a point where we were genuinely running away!”
The year after he had an eight-episode run in EastEnders (playing Danny Dyer’s son-in-law), and the year after that he landed the lead role in the remake of Roots, the groundbreaking 1977 American historical miniseries about the slave trade. How heavy a challenge was that?
“It was heavy enough that I didn’t want to do it at first!” Kirby replies with a laugh. “And even before that, when I first heard they were remaking it, I was like: ‘Why?’ I was very sceptical,” he admits, explaining that, coincidentally, he’d recently watched the original series. A multi-award-winning production, 44 years on Roots’ last episode is still the second-most-watched series finale in American TV history.
“So it was still resonating with me. I was still saying to all my friends, ‘have you seen this?’, and sharing the boxset with them. It was an old series but it wasn’t inaccessible to me. So [my thinking was], we’ve got Roots already, what do you want to do with a new one? Is this just a money thing? You can’t do that with this story.
“So my issues were concerned with the integrity of it. And it wasn’t until I spoke with the producer, whose father produced the original, that I understood. He told me his kids watched the old one and they didn’t get it. So he wanted to create this story for a new generation of kids who can look at actors they can recognise. And this one is much more action-packed, much more fast-paced. And also, they had new information – because of the original series, more research was done into that time period. So we just had new facts that we were able to incorporate.”
Finally, what sounds like an old Identity classroom teaching got him over the line.
“The thing that encouraged me to do it was: this wasn’t about me. It was a case of: get out of the way and tell the story. It was really important to tell his story in the right way and do it justice.”
He’d say the same for Mangrove, a true story in which Kirby’s Trinidadian immigrant Howe is one of nine activists put on trial in 1971 on trumped-up charges of inciting a riot in West London. For the actor, the timeliness of last year’s broadcast of the Small Axe anthology was painfully apt.
“It’s not that everything that happened in 2020, with the Black Lives Matter movement and everything happening in the US, was new information,” he begins. “It’s just that it was exposed – and at a time when the world was all at home. Everyone was ready to sit down and actually listen, as opposed to looking at their phone, swiping quickly, caring for a second then carrying on with their lives.
“So when [the films] came out, a lot of people had a lot of questions, and a hunger for information. And Mangrove could provide that – not only historical information but also possibly some guidance and insight for the future. What has happened before is still directly affecting what’s happening now. There has been progress, but there’s still very much progress to be made.”
Speaking of progress, or lack thereof, Kirby and I are speaking the day after his old schoolmate Coel and her show I May Destroy You were completely shut out of the Golden Globes nominations.
“Oh, I live in a bubble, I didn’t know that. That’s… surprising,” he says with a raised eyebrow. What does he think that mind-boggling snub speaks of?
“Ahhh… to be honest, I don’t know. My personal thing is, in terms of awards, I’ve never once considered working to try and get one. They are useful tools in terms of a platform, and it’s nice to be able to celebrate each other’s work. It’s the same when I see people’s successes – the impact they have on audiences is far more relevant than the [thoughts] of the few people who decide whether they’re good or not.
“But I think there is more room,” he continues, and later I’m not sure if he means “room for improvement” or “room for more diverse stories”. Either, you might say, works.
“And we’re having the conversations now about what that looks like. That’s not just about ticking boxes or trying to please people, ’cause I really hate that. We’re genuinely considering other work from different demographics.”
That serious critical appraisal of diverse stories and storytellers, he thinks, is happening. It’s infinitely better than performative nods to diversity, “the perspective some people take out of guilt and out of pressure. That’s not progress.”
Malachi Kirby, for his part, isn’t idly waiting on progress. He’s written a play, its production at London’s Bush Theatre currently on pause, and is working on a screenplay and a TV series. He’s keeping details on these original, personal stories close to his chest. But he does divulge some info on his next acting job.
He’s about to shoot, fingers crossed, a BBC1 film for broadcast later this year, “a passion project” set in Birmingham in the 1980s. “It’s not based on a true story but it’s definitely an important one. It’s definitely a new perspective on a time and society we haven’t seen before. I’ll leave it there for now! Oh, and it’s a mixture of real life and animation.”
And how’s his Brummie accent?
“Uh-oh!” he exclaims. “I’m working on it! I’ve got my voice coach. Easier for sure than Trinidadian! Fun fact: Trinidadian and Australian were two accents from when I started acting that I was, like, I ain’t never gonna touch those! It’d only be disrespectful! So the whole journey with Darcus was very terrifying, but I jumped into it. And Birmingham still needs some work but it’s definitely easier.”
He’s just binge-watching Peaky Blinders, right?
“Haha!” laughs Kirby again. “You’re giving away my secrets!”
Devils is on Sky Atlantic and Now TV from 17th February