“Here’s the thing — I’ve never really been good at acting,” says Malachi Kirby, which is a fairly punchy way to kick off an interview for our actors special, I think you’ll agree. But this isn’t the barefaced, praise-fishing, humility that lesser actors deploy to fuel their egos at press junkets — this is a purely technical admission. “I just don’t know how to pretend.”
This tells you a lot about Malachi, who speaks in a beautifully soft and considered cadence, like an older brother teaching you how to ride a bike. “My approach to doing this job is to get as close to the truth as possible, even if it’s painful,” he explains.
“When I did Roots [the 2016 remake of the iconic 70s slavery drama], we had the option to wear fake plastic chains that were more comfortable. I knew I could break them, so I wanted real chains.
“In one scene I was being chased by dogs and I was wearing shoes that were too big and I had these chains around my feet. By the end, my ankles were just cut up, completely raw.”
There is madness in the method. But Malachi was practising under pressure long before he was an actor. As a teen, he nearly became an athlete. His event was the 400 metres. “There comes a point in any 400 metres, at the 300 metre mark, when you feel like you’re going to pass out,” he says. “My coach would sometimes say to us ‘you’re not going to die.’ But it felt like that sometimes.”
“But doing that over and over again, defying your capacity, I’ve definitely taken that into acting, if that doesn’t sound too cheesy.
“The whipping scene in Roots was the only time I felt I was having an out of body experience,” Malachi says. “I was convinced I was being hit. It was as if I could see and hear the cries of everyone who’d been through that. I was shaking and in tears. I couldn’t get up, I was just traumatised by it.”
Malachi followed up Roots with a guest role in Black Mirror, and a starring turn in Sky 1’s Curfew. The latter was a smorgasbord of genres, flitting between action, comedy, drama and horror: Mad Max in the Home Counties and about 100 times more exciting than that sounds. “As an actor, you’re trying to work out how to play it, scene to scene,” Malachi says. “And 90 per cent of Curfew was a night shoot, so not seeing sunlight for six months messes you up a bit. But it was a lot of fun.”
I imagine Malachi’s definition of fun is different to yours and mine. With financial thriller Devils just wrapping up on Sky Atlantic, and a pivotal role in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe debuting this autumn, does Kirby ever take a break?
“I used to be a workaholic — busy even when I wasn’t supposed to be busy — but I’ve learned to invest time in myself and in a role,” he pauses. “That’s what I’d tell my 18-year-old self, anyway.”
Want more young British acting talent? Here’s why Edward Bluemel likes being intimidated…
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