‘Genius: MLK/X' Stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. & Aaron Pierre On Portraying Revolutionary Figures & Celebrating Black Excellence
This feature is in our March '24 "Next Wave" Issue. Click here to subscribe.
Great moments come in the form of collaboration, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Waves, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Chevalier) and Aaron Pierre (Brother, The Underground Railroad, 2025’s Blade) know that best. The pair portrayed revolutionaries Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively, in National Geographic’s acclaimed Genius: MLK/X series. While they are friends off-screen, the actors will continue to play opposing characters in Barry Jenkins’ Mufasa: The Lion King. Here, we dive into the pair's magnetic on-screen chemistry.
Kelvin Harrison Jr., center left, as Martin Luther King Jr. and Aaron Pierre, right, as Malcolm X in Genius: MLK/X. Photo by Richard DuCree/National Geographic
MLK and Malcolm X were both such powerful revolutionaries. What was going through your mind when you got the when you got the roles?
Aaron Pierre: I was terrified, if I'm being honest with you. I think that came from a place of knowing the enormity of that responsibility and knowing the enormity of what it means to portray somebody who means so very much to so many people all over the world. But then in the same breath, I believe that what's meant for you won't miss you. And I believe that God wouldn't present this opportunity to me, should I not be ready to embark on it, you know? So I walked in faith, as my mom would say.
Kelvin Harrison Jr.: I was anxious about it. I remember they first asked me to do it, and I said, “No, thanks” and it was mostly because I felt like his legacy was so full. There's so many great documentaries. There's so many great novels, there's so much good research, there's so many great articles. I mean, I mean, the list goes on and on. Also, there's so many incredible actors who have portrayed him in so many different ways over the years. So what was me Kelvin at 27 years old going to offer to this? I didn't have an answer to that question.
I was like, “Am I about to ruin it? Do I have enough life to really understand what it is that he accomplished and what he was navigating?” Of course, you get excited, but the only part of you that gets excited, for me at least was my ego. I was like, “Well, I guess there's something about me that is saying that I can do this. Why have I been chosen?” I'm on the Zoom with the showrunners and Gina and Reggie, one of the things they said to me was “The same questions you have are the same questions he had when he first began this journey. And this is why you're the right person to do it.” I got to live with that. I was like, “Well, I've been called. So I gotta answer.”
Of course, we see these men as major historical figures, but I love that the series peeled back the layers and just showed how vulnerable they are. To me, that was the beauty of the story.
KHJ: Yeah, that was the part that excited me the most about it. I read the first stuff at the pilot and we immediately got to tap into how we develop our human mind and how we had to develop our identities. So we get to see the background of who the father was, who the mother was and where they came from. What class of life were they living in? What were their goals for their kids? I think that’s the cool thing about Genius [series] in and of itself. Yeah, there are geniuses out there. But what made them genius in the first place?
AP: I viewed Malcolm as this icon and this otherworldly, tremendous being. He had done so much for his people, his community, and many around the world. Receiving the offer and beginning the journey were the first steps in my understanding of his humanity. Truly, that makes everything he achieved even greater. When you remind yourself that he is a man and he only has so much capacity to manage as we do, but somehow they found a way to do it.
Going further into their portrayals, Aaron, you really encapsulated the swagger that Malcolm whenever he stepped into a room. And Kelvin, you really captured how calm Martin Luther King Jr. was. How did you tap into those personalities?
AP: My entry point into this journey was Malcolm X's autobiography. A second point of entry was the documentary that was guided by Dr. Betty Shabazz. I think it was really key for me to hear from Malcolm himself in the autobiography and also those closest to him to garner the foundations of how I was going to portray Malcolm. At the same time, I perceive Malcolm to have this tremendous amount of centered energy. He is also one of the most gentle people in the world when it comes to his family and his loved ones.
I think we have an opportunity within that limited series to see that there is arguably a significant amount of misunderstanding about Malcolm's perspective and approach. Something that I discovered to be true is that his approach came from not a standpoint of advocating violence, but from a standpoint of having a deep love of his family, of his loved ones and his people. The physical element only came into play when it was a matter of defending your loved ones, your community and your people. You have a right to do so.
KHJ: I think Martin really aspired to be a philosopher. He is a philosopher, to some extent. So it was taking all those people he was a fan of, eading and trying to learn as much as I could. Doing a crash course on philosophy was a big part of it, but it keeps you in your head. I think when you're in there, you're constantly trying to be aware and analyzing who you're around, what people need, and trying to be the ultimate humanitarian in some ways. The chaos lives in here, but it can't be pushed out there. Because then you're fighting with yourself.
I also felt like what the writers were telling me in the scripts was, and one of the first conversations I had with the producing team, is this imposter syndrome and not feeling like you are worthy to be able to step into some of these roles. So you're always retreating. So I think that's where that very calm and needing to assess the situation before I engage with it comes from.
It's a little bit of “I'm bit afraid, but because of my faith, because of God, because of my research, these are the tools I have to be able to overcome some of these obstacles to rise to the occasion.” Martin, at least in the story, I'm torn between how far do I want to go in this? And how do I protect myself? How do I protect the things that matter the most to me? I think his dream was to have a family and have kids and love his wife and build a beautiful life and just continue to be an intellectual. Suddenly I'm in a role that I don't even fully understand yet. He's like, “What is actually happening right now? I can't process it, but I'm gonna show up because my people need me and I love them.”
I’m curious to know if there were any elements of both of the men that you connected with.
AP: Yeah, I greatly appreciated Malcolm's centered nature. The reason I use the term “appreciated” as opposed to “connected with” is because I can only dream to have that amount of composure. It's something I will always strive towards, but I mean, I could never have it on that level. So I appreciate his centered energy, hhis grounding, his alignment and how he prioritizes his family. Even a man amongst chaos, his attention, his incredible oratory skills and presence are being demanded all over the country. Amongst that, how do you still prioritize your family in the way that he does so beautifully and so eloquently? His priorities are something I strive for. That was something that I took away.
KHJ: I love how much Martin didn't put anyone on a pedestal other than God. He really appreciated people who love being a human. The only person that he really was enamored with was Gandhi. But it was simply because Gandhi was such a simple man, to some extent. I mean, he had simple reasonings for why he wanted to connect with people, why he wanted to love and why he looked at everyone the same way that he looked at himself.
I was raised that way. People always ask me, “Do you get wrapped up in the icons you play or celebrities that you work with?” We all are trying to figure it out. And he saw the beauty and the simplicity of what it means to be a human being, but also the complexity of what we have to face as we try to fight for our humanity. And that was just so exciting. That's why I think I do this every day. I act because I'm like, “How can I make us feel more like ourselves?” Look at Aaron. He’s so tall, and he’s strong and cool, and composed and so good at the job. But at the same time, that's my brother. And it’s really sweet to be able to see life that way. It's less intimidating, and then you can appreciate it more. That's where I think [Martin] thrived and also where I felt I see myself in him sometimes.
I love both of those answers. Because there are so many serious moments in both of their lives, did you find yourself having to unwind after a certain day of shooting?
AP: Before we even had Day Zero of principal photography, Kel and I were on our way back from a restaurant in Atlanta. We were in our car back to the same hotel. We spoke about a number of things on that journey, but something that was most important is how do we go about protecting Kelvin and Aaron’s wellbeing throughout this six-month period?
We both had the intention of serving these individuals to the very best of our capacity and ability. So how do we protect that? That manifests itself in different ways: drinking water, getting to sleep before midnight if you can. It's not necessarily anything crazy, but we set out on this on this journey with the intention of looking after ourselves so that we can continue to serve them as best we can. We didn't really see each other very often throughout that whole six months. But one of the key things we would say when we did see each other is “Are you okay? How are you managing?” So it was always good to have these key people who were part of this beautiful project checking in with one another, holding each other and supporting one another.
KHJ: My favorite thing was to knock on his trailer door, even though he's really locked in, and I can get him to laugh. If he's laughing then I know he's okay. If he's not laughing then maybe we need to talk to some people and say we need a break.
AP: That’s not cap as well, he really did that. (laughs)
Oh, I can tell just the way that you reacted, I knew that happened.
KHJ: I’ll knock on the door like, “Hey it’s Kel!”
Regarding the upcoming Mufasa, what did you enjoy about the filming process and working together again?
KHJ: We can tell you the whole plot, actually. (laughs)
AP: I think the most important thing for me to share in regards to Mufasa is we've just had a blast doing it. I am 100% certain that that translates into the piece itself. So we're just really excited for when the time comes for people to have the opportunity to engage with it and see it with their loved ones. We're just excited for people to have the opportunity to connect with it.
KHJ: It looks so beautiful. He’s worked with [director Barry Jenkins] before. which is so cool and I've always wanted that to happen. But watching the movie, it's a Disney version of how beautiful every single one of his pictures are. We know this about Barry. Just everything he does look stunning. And honestly, there's some beautiful Black lions.
How do you think our Black community could further celebrate each other?
AP: I’ll start by saying that I love and cherish Black History Month. That said, as a Black man, Black History Month is every month. But I think during this time, it’s really critical to find additional capacity to just love on one another. Listen to one another, reason with one another and celebrate ourselves. I think it’s very important.
KHJ: Sometimes we spend a lot of time trying to be self-aware of what we can do better. There’s a lot of very healthy criticism. But I think we could spend more time just highlighting all the things that people are doing right now. Whether it be like, ‘Your Instagram page is cracking me up’ or ‘Oh my God, you’re the best cook’. Just finding these things that we love about each other that make us excited to be alive. We love to say, ‘Let’s give them the flowers.’ Give everybody the flowers. I like Aaron’s shirt. You dress well.
AP: I appreciate you, I appreciate your fade.
See, it’s already happening!
KHJ: Thank you, man. Because I was looking at yours and that line is clean. The waves are coming in!
They are clean. I can see them even from this screen.
KHJ: That’s what we need to do. Just gas each other all month.
Did you have the durag last night just ready to go for today?
AP: See, now you’re giving away my sauce!
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Photography by: Richard DuCree/National Geographic