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Malachi Kirby: "I grew up shy... Acting was the last thing on my mind"

Award-winning actor Malachi Kirby is taking on the City in glossy financial drama Devils. He's the perfect person for our inaugural Spotlight cover. We spoke to Kirby about power, conspiracy theories, and why celebrity culture makes him anxious 

Malachi Kirby

“The idea of fame makes me anxious,” says Malachi Kirby. “Reading about celebrities and how they navigate through the world. It just sounds stressful.”

The statement is provoked by my mentioning Regé-Jean Page, Kirby’s friend and former colleague: the pair both starred in the 2016 drama Roots – Kirby was Kunta Kinte, Page played Chicken George – although they never shared the screen. Over Christmas, Netflix behemoth Bridgerton made Page the world’s collective crush, his number of Instagram followers shifting right by several decimal places. Yet the notion of quite literal overnight stardom is Kirby’s idea of hell.

“I grew up very shy and introverted and not wanting attention,” he tells me. Acting was a challenge he embraced but fame was never the goal. Which, you know, fair enough. Very admirable. But, Malachi, one tip: you might want to stop being so bloody good in everything.

But then being bloody good in everything is the Kirby modus operandi. Stage, screen, he’ll smash it regardless. He was shortlisted for ‘Outstanding Newcomer’ at the 2011 Evening Standard Theatre Awards; he won ‘Rising Star’ at the 2016 Screen Nation Awards. At 31, Kirby is no longer a newcomer but his star continues to rise, notably playing Darcus Howe in Mangrove, the opening film of Steve McQueen’s acclaimed Small Axe anthology (expect awards).

For now, Kirby has gone glossy with his role as Oliver in Sky Atlantic’s ultra-sleek financial thriller Devils. The show makes banking seem like the most aspirational industry on the planet, one inhabited by beautiful people unearthing global conspiracies in very large glass buildings.

Or Tuesday, as you probably call it.

Sell our readers Devils in your own words…

I need to get better at this! It’s a financial thriller that is pretty much based on the events that led up to the financial crisis in London and between 2009 and 2011. And it’s a window into the trading world and into the world of these people who at the touch of a button affect whole economies and other people’s lives, ordinary people’s lives.

For a show that is set in a world of finance, which can be disengaged and boring, the team has done a really great job of keeping it engaging and exciting. It has an incredible cast, which is international: people from America, people from London, from around Europe. They’re not just token cast members, let’s tick a box: everyone has a relevance to the drama.

And I really love my character, Oliver. He’s fantastic. He’s my favourite character I’ve ever played. It’s a big statement. But in terms of enjoying him, he’s been the most fun to play.

How come? What makes him so fun to play?

He doesn’t cry a lot and he doesn’t shout a lot and he’s not overemotional. So it’s much more fun to play like. Most of my career, I’ve been in quite heavy drama and it’s been a really emotional journey for me a lot of the time. It’s necessary. But it’s been a breath of fresh air to play someone who’s not so heavy. Also, his character arc: from the first episode his journey is easily one of the best character arcs I’ve ever portrayed.

He goes from being this kid who grows up in a council estate, but he’s a tech wizard, so he’s not a product of his environment. He lives with his girlfriend and his little brother. And all he’s trying to do is look after them and provide for them. He’s studying at uni and he’s a bit of a hacker. And he gets an opportunity to work at an investment bank, one of the kind of celebrities of the trading world, and that fast tracks him into this world of money and power and an idea of success.

He goes all the way into it and tries to hold on to his integrity at the same time and hold onto the people that he loves. It’s quite a journey that he goes on, trying to be successful, but also trying to remain who he is and remain a good person.

Malachi Kirby photographed by Bertie Watson

You’ve played some hefty roles in recent years, including Kunta Kunte and Darcus Howe. As an actor, is there a psychological difference between doing those roles and doing a show like Devils – which is much more escapist?

Yeah, for sure. Also, this is one of the first jobs I’ve done almost entirely set in a studio. So it’s literally felt like nine to five, going to the office every day. It’s had its challenges, but in comparison to all the other stuff I’ve done this has been very easy and I’ve really enjoyed it for that. It’s been fun as well: the cast members are so much fun. It’s quite rare to get on a job and you have fun on set and off set as well. All around it was just a fun job to do.

And yeah, the character is much lighter. He’s a thinker. He’s an intelligent person. The crux of his character is him trying to balance out these these two worlds and navigate between them. He really is a window into this world for the audience who don’t know finance and don’t understand trading and banking and don’t understand all the lingo. Oliver is there to be the layman’s person and bring people into that world, like a fly on the wall.

One of my favourite aspects of the show is the unashamed glossiness. The buildings quite literally look a billion dollars, the cast are gorgeous physical specimens – it’s an operatic treatment of an operatic subject...

Yeah. And it’s interesting, when you spoke just now, I realised that the subject matter is very heavy. As much as it has been very light for me playing the character, we’re dealing with very serious subject matter. One of the things that I found quite terrifying was reading the script. I think I’d heard before I started reading that it was based on a true story, but I probably forgot that. And then you’re seeing clips from real life interviews and the things that happened like, oh, is this real? Oh, my gosh, this all really happened.

And then the other realisation: I was alive when all this happened! How did I not notice? How did I not know that? I knew about the financial crisis, but I didn’t know the extent, because I was just a kid at the time. I didn’t know how it affected the economy. I didn’t know how it affected people’s livelihoods because I didn’t care about it at the time. So it was so eye-opening for me and terrifying: the idea there are people in this world who literally at a touch of a button affect a whole country. This is terrifying.

Are any of your friends or family involved in banking or finance?

I’ve got cousins that are involved in that world and I have no idea what it is that they do! I don’t know! I don’t. I just don’t. They’re quite heavily involved in the banking world and in the City or whatever. I know that they are bankers, because I know they go to work in suits every day and they earn a certain amount of money. I don’t know how much, but I know that they’re quite well off. But I don’t know what they do.

Malachi Kirby photographed Bertie Watson

There are so many shows and films set in the financial industry...

With Devils, you have what this world looks like from a career point of view. And you’ll see that more so through Patrick Dempsey’s character, Dominic and Alessandro Borghi’s character, Massimo. But then there’s all these different perspectives of it throughout the show.

So you’ve got Laia Costa’s character, she’s like a detective, basically, but she’s not police or anything. But she’s like a hacker, a social hactivist person who is looking at this world through the place of humanity -- you guys are destroying us as people, basically. And then you’ve got someone like Oliver who is looking up to this world and going, ‘oh, man, this is everything I want. And then he suddenly gets there and he realises what it takes to get there. And it’s like, OK, is it worth it?

There’s something about money and fame and power and status that will always be relevant and it will always be interesting to see how these things affect regular humans.

The show also involves computer hackers and global conspiracies – which are both fertile grounds for drama…

It’s a take on social media, basically. The way we receive information. Once you watch the show, you’ll really start to think twice about when you believe the media because you see the way that it manipulates for its own gain or for its own agenda. Check the sources of your information because it’s so easy to just put something out there. Even more so now, it’s so easy to just put information out there because it’s received as facts without questions asked. The effects of that can be disastrous, especially when you don’t consider anything before you just share it.

Why do you think so many people embrace the idea that the world is controlled by a shadowy group of malignant individuals – be that the Illuminati or the Radical Left?

There are unanswered questions. And so there’s this idea that our actual enemies are invisible because the ones that we can see, they don’t seem to be answering the questions that we have.

Also, this whole idea of a figurehead -- they’re just a person we can see, but someone’s telling them what to say. Someone’s telling them what to do. Someone is manipulating them so the system can keep going. If you expose a person then the person goes; if you expose a whole system, then the system goes and then the thing can’t move anymore. Whoever is in power, when they go in and out, the same things keep happening still. This is just a cycle.

I think there’s always going to be conspiracy theories, but even more so now because the average person has the ability to share it. You don’t need a profile, you don’t need a platform. You just need Instagram, Twitter. You could be five years old and create a conspiracy theory now.

Malachi Kirby photographed Bertie Watson
Malachi Kirby photographed Bertie Watson

Do you believe any conspiracy theories?

I’m not actually that way inclined. Like, I’m not that guy to do the conspiracy theories. I’ve got those friends, you know, especially when I was in college. And they would just be like, “have you heard about this? You’ve heard about that...” For me, I just like to live in the present. I listen to the information and I find it interesting, but I am not the kind of person to jump on it. But it has been interesting because I’ve heard a whole bunch of conspiracy theories around what’s happening last year. It’s been rife.

With Covid?

With Covid, with Brexit. Just 2020! There’s been a whole bunch of stuff. The funniest one I heard recently was that 2020 won. We came into New Year right, 2021. The conspiracy theory was that 2020 was designed to happen because everything that happened in 2020 was followed by the year 2021 – as in they were victorious, like 2020 won!

We’ll need to check if 1920 was also a shitshow. Tell us about yourself – why acting?

Oh man, I never know how to answer this question! It always sounds a cheesy cliché but basically I grew up very shy and introverted and not wanting attention. Acting was the last thing on my mind, it wasn’t anything I ever considered. But I’ve always loved challenges, and when I got into my teens acting basically confronted me and presented me with a challenge. It challenged me, literally. And so I took it. And basically it was a succession of opportunities that continue to come. And I continue to run into them.

My wants and desires for acting have changed over the years. It started off as ‘I’m going to do it for this reason’, and it changes almost every other year, to be honest – my reasons for why I still do it. But there’s something about it that I love. As much as I didn’t want anything to do with this industry, I realised more and more how much it suits who I am in its consistent inconsistency. The constant change of environment, change of people, change of characters, change of worlds, literally. It’s really hard to not always be excited. There’s something about it that just constantly lives and breathes, there’s no mundanity. And I’ve loved being a part of that.

Malachi Kirby photographed Bertie Watson

What do you consider to be your big break?

I don’t know. There have been quite a few! There have been a few different stages where I’ve been, like, ‘Best Newcomer’ and that’s literally been spread over years. ‘Best Newcomer’ on Theatre or ‘Best Newcomer’ on TV. So, yeah, there have been a few different things.

Roots was definitely one. Mangrove has been one. There was a play that I did called Mogadishu in 2011. That was one of them. And hopefully, by God’s grace, there will be another one, as the scale of projects or work or resonance of people continues to grow.

Several black British actors I’ve interviewed told me that they moved to America because there were more diverse roles over there – is this something you’ve experienced?

No, no. It’s a weird one. I’ve never really made that journey over there. I’ve had representation out there since, like, 2013. But I’ve always been busy here. It’s become quite comical actually. The times I have planned to go out there, I always end up getting a job that I want to do here. So I’ve had management in America that I’ve never properly got to work with.

Everything that I’ve been cast in has been through my UK agents. And I’ve never felt the strong desire to go out there, either, until last year. And it wasn’t because I felt like there was a lack of something here, but more so because there were things happening over there that aren’t happening here. They have my interest now, and so I’d like to explore that. But it’s not that over this – it’s just in addition to.

Would you be interested in moving behind the camera one day?

I recently started on a writing journey. Around 2019 going into 2020. The plan was to put on my first play at the Bush Theatre, which I would have written. So that was all set to happen and it was going to run from May to June, but then, you know, Covid and stuff. So, yeah, I’ve been exploring writing a lot more. And there’s a couple of other projects that I want to write. Directing? It’s definitely something that I’m interested in.

As far as directing for the screen? That’s something that I feel like I would need to learn a lot more about, technically, before I step into that. Theatre, I’d be much more comfortable with. All of the stuff behind the camera, I want to know a lot more about how that all works before I dare step into those shoes. But in terms of the future, it’s definitely something I’d like to explore.

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As a proficient stage actor, are there any theatrical roles you hope to play?

No, not particularly. You know, I’ve never really been inclined to hone in on a particular character. I’ve just really enjoyed playing different characters; I’ve been blessed enough to be able to do that with my career. And I just want to continue to do more of that. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve been more on the front foot with the characters I play.

Before, most of my career was about knowing what I didn’t want to do. And it’s only in the last couple of years where I’ve actually gone, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do.’ But it’s not character specific. Well, I guess it is.

Basically I was thinking that I really love to play superheroes and that’s what I thought I wanted to do, but it’s not – it’s that I want to play characters who are fighting for something bigger than themselves and that lends itself to a bunch of different narratives. But those are the things that I’m passionate about at the moment. That’s what’s resonating with me right now. For how long that will be, I don’t know, because as I said, like my wants with this career are constantly evolving and changing, as the world is.

Any upcoming projects to watch out for?

There is a BBC drama that is set to come soon, which I’m really excited about. It’s a passion project for sure. Also, a film called Boiling Point, which I believe is the first British film to be done in one take – actually done in one take – and also entirely improvised.

It’s set in a restaurant kitchen. We finished filming the day the first lockdown started. Stephen Graham is the lead. He’s one of my favourite actors so it was great to work with him.

You befriended Regé-Jean Page while working on Roots. Bridgerton has made him a huge star – but does the idea of having four million Instagram followers appeal to you?

This is the thing that I find interesting about Devils, this perspective and idea of success. For me, Regé was successful before the numbers. I find it so interesting about this thing of going viral. What that is like. The sequences of time that lend itself to that moment.

We filmed Mangrove in summer 2019. Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, Covid... None of that had happened. But then we released it in this moment. And it’s like, OK, what would have happened if we released a year from then or a year after that? It would have been the same project, but the timing of it would have a different effect on people.

And what’s happening with Regé? Bridgerton is speaking to a need right now and a desire from people right now. In terms of four million followers, I have no idea how that feels.

The idea of fame makes me anxious. Even before I knew I wanted to act, reading about celebrities and how they navigate through the world. It just sounds stressful. 

All episodes of Devils will be available on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW TV from 17 February.

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