From EastEnders and Black Mirror to the lead in last year’s Mangrove, Malachi Kirby is on his way up. Or he was, at least, until lockdown put everything on hold. Now finally getting to release the show he finished filming back in 2018, Kirby is back on our screens as a young hacker caught up in the shady world of high finance for Sky’s new international thriller, Devils.
We caught up with the south Londoner to talk soap acting, dream roles and how to make it look like you know how to open an oyster…
Did you have to learn a load of new tech skills to play a hacker in Devils?
“I mean, I know how to use a PlayStation… But all of the whizzy stuff was definitely not my world. It was more about learning how to do it with confidence, so it looked like I knew what I was doing!”
How’s lockdown been for you? It must have been frustrating to lose the momentum you were building up?
“If I’m honest, 2020 was set to be the biggest year of my career. It was my first time branching out into writing – I was supposed to have my first play on at The Bush theatre [in the West End] in May. And then the plan was to go out to the States and start kicking off some stuff. So obviously none of those things happened!”
You got your TV break playing Nancy’s fiancé, Wayne, in EastEnders back in 2014 – what was it like joining the soap?
“I was terrified. There’s this stigma where, you know, you have an actor that goes from EastEnders to Hollyoaks to Corrie, and it’s rare that people come out of it. But EastEnders is amazing because it just moves so fast. How do you learn five pages of a script in five minutes, and then deliver it with honesty? I loved it. I think it defined a lot of my career going forward.”
You played the lead, Kunta Kinte, in the remake of Roots. That experience must have really affected you…
“Every single day of that job was a challenge. Sometimes it was the heat, or the weather, or being on a ship crammed full of naked bodies and the smell of feet. We had a plague of locusts to deal with. Mosquitoes constantly biting us. I had horses trying to kill me. But it was one of the most beautiful times of my life. That show changed me.”
You went from that straight to Black Mirror, which couldn’t be more different…
“Yeah, I mean, I really do feel like I stumbled into this industry and I don’t really have a plan. I know what I don’t want to do. I don’t like the idea of being stuck in any particular character or any kind of show, even if there is a safe option. Safe doesn’t interest me.”
Playing a soldier on Black Mirror must have been another big physical challenge?
“I’ll tell you why Black Mirror was strange, because I hadn’t finished Roots yet. When Black Mirror came up I still had my [Roots] hair and I was still holding on to that world. I feel like a lot of my character in Black Mirror was filled with the same pain and tiredness.”
What was it like working with Steve McQueen on Mangrove?
“Steve McQueen was a gift of a human, and a gift of a director. He’s kind, but there was a way about him that’s terrifying. It’s not intentional, it’s just that he’s incredible at what he does. You can feel his energy behind the camera from four miles away.”
You must be so proud of how the film has been received. It seems to have carried an extra weight in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement last year…
“It all happened at the same time as COVID, so everyone was sitting down in their homes, paying attention. When Mangrove was released I think people were ready to have that conversation.”
You shot a film called Boiling Point before lockdown too – about life in a high-end restaurant kitchen – what can you tell us about it?
“So Boiling Point is supposed to be the first British film to be shot completely in one single take. And if that wasn’t hard enough, it’s also entirely improvised. So yeah, that was a challenging one!”
Did you have to brush up on your cookery skills?
“I’d like to think that I’m a pretty good cook, but I’m definitely not a chef! I had a couple of days in a restaurant and I got to learn how to prep some fish and open some oysters. It was more of a crash course in how not to look like a complete idiot in a kitchen…”
It must be great to keep learning all these new skills though – you’ve covered horse riding, hacking, military combat and oyster opening…
“I think there’s something about this job that can literally save lives. I grew up in a council estate in south London. I thank God I had an amazing mum that raised me, and a father up to a point before he passed when I was six, but by the grace of God I never became a product of that environment. I can see very easily how it could have been different. And part of that, for me, was just having all these different kinds of experiences through acting.”
What’s next for you?
“Once we’re able to open up theatres again the plan is definitely to put the show back on at The Bush. And there’s a BBC drama that I’ll be filming shortly. Devils series two, too. Other than that, the plan is still to go back to America.”
What’s the dream Hollywood role you’re hoping for over there?
“I used to think I wanted to play superheroes… But then I realised it wasn’t the superhero that I want to play, it’s the person that’s fighting for something bigger than themselves. Those are the characters that I’m really drawn to.”
But if Marvel did get you on the phone…
“I highly doubt it will ever, ever come up… but I really love Captain America! I know it’s cheesy, but I just love him. I love his integrity. I love his heart. Him and Spider-Man please!”