As soon as British actor Aaron Pierre found out he’d been cast as Malcolm X in National Geographic’s “Genius: MLK/X,” he got nervous… and then he got down to business. The actor told People that he had to hit the gym. Size-wise, he said, “I have more mass on me. So I was on that StairMaster more or less every day for six months.”
Pierre also explained that he knew going into the experience that the opportunity to play Malcolm X was special. He said, “I understood the gravity of this story. I understood the enormity of the responsibility of attempting to portray this man’s life and his legacy and what he means to so many people all over the world … the enormous influence he has had on the Black diaspora.”
Though he grew up in London, Pierre told the outlet that he was well aware of Malcolm X’s story. He added, “Malcolm X’s legacy, his power, it reverberated all the way to where I grew up and beyond.”
“Genius: MLK/X” begins with Malcolm X’s teen years spent in Nebraska; the story winds through his life until his tragic assassination at the age of 39. Pierre had to work with two coaches to get the nuance of Malcolm correct. He said, “I worked extensively with a vocal coach, and we went all the way down to the phonetics of words in order to do our very best to represent this great man.”
“And then physically, Malcolm and I are very similar heights, frame-wise,” Pierre continued.
Pierre was also intimidated to play a role that Denzel Washington so expertly pulled off in the 1992 biopic “Malcolm X.” He told People, “I learned that I had to accept that a hero of mine had portrayed Malcolm X, and I had to set that free in order for me to even begin to attempt my own portrayal.”
The role is a big one for Pierre, whose previous credits include 6 episodes of “The Underground Railroad” and the films “Brother” and “Foe.”
“MLK/X” is the fourth edition of National Geographic’s “Genius” series, and previous seasons were about Albert Einsten, Pablo Picasso, and Aretha Franklin. The show is produced by Jeff Stetson, whose play “The Meeting” is about a made up meeting between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.
In real life, King and Malcolm only met one time, only weeks after Malcolm had broken with the Nation of Islam. Both men were in Washington, D.C., when they happened to encounter one another at a press conference on March 26, 1964. At the time, the two disagreed with one another about how to end racial discrimination in the United States; Malcolm was not against violence in pursuit of justice, whereas King famously preached non-violence.
The men had the opportunity to meet in 1963 after Malcolm invited King to a rally in Harlem, but the latter is said to have not responded.
“Genius” will premiere first on National Geographic on Thursday and will be available for streaming on Hulu and Disney+ on Friday.