Image Credit: Netflix
It all started with a dream. Aml Ameen dreamed of playing Martin Luther King Jr. just a month before he scored the audition for Netflix’s Rustin. After learning about the film, Aml quickly dived into research about Bayard Rustin and his connection to Dr. King. This all happened in 24 hours. The next thing Aml knew, director George C. Wolfe wanted to sit down with him for another audition.
“I was feeling a little bit out of my depth, but I went for it, and he gave me the part,” Aml, 38, told Hollywood Life in an exclusive interview. “Once I realized I had this seismic role to take on, I was like, how am I going to go and do it? Immediately, I assembled a team of different people.”
While a prominent person in Dr. King’s life, Rustin is often brushed over in history. Aml didn’t know who Rustin was before taking on the role of Dr. King. “I was shocked because I was like, well, this is Martin Luther King’s friend. He’s a good friend,” Aml admitted. “Actually, if you watch certain films with King in it, they do reference him. Jeffrey Wright did a version of King back in the day for HBO, and they referenced Rustin coming into the house of Martin Luther King and saying, ‘You’ve got to put the guns down.’ The most important way to step forward was this version of non-violence. That was an instrumental part of Martin Luther King’s lexicon and what he perpetuates to the world. But yet, it’s shocking that history can put people into the shadows and at the same time not, right? There’s so much history that we’ve been conditioned to think of in certain ways, and I think cinema is a great opportunity to reshape people’s minds, and being in the age of information is also a good thing.”
Aml Ameen as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in ‘Rustin.’ (Netflix)
The actor hails from England but embraces Dr. King’s powerful Southern drawl with ease. “I’ve played Americans for a long time. I’m accustomed to playing Americans. But playing Martin Luther King in his voice and finding a way through, it can be daunting,” Aml admitted. “I would have this one particular interview of him talking, and he was talking about where he’s born. He was like, ‘I was born in Atlanta. I went to school in Atlanta.’ And then he had this very interesting laugh. It was really about getting that kind of Southern Baptist speech. We started with the speech –me and Miss [Elizabeth Himselstein] — and the musicality and how much of an opera can be.”
He added, “And then we completely drew it back for when he’s just normally communicating. I find him to be someone who is really considered in his English speaking. He talks with a delay, thinking about he’s saying, which takes a lot of confidence, a lot of discipline. It was a journey. For me, generally, when I’m working on something as heavy as this, I personally stay in character. For the first day of shooting onwards, I just spoke as King, which I found very useful.”
The Netflix film does feature a portion of Dr. King’s groundbreaking 1968 “I Have a Dream” speech from the March on Washington. Aml explained how he prepared for that pivotal moment in Dr. King’s life.
Aml Ameen, Chris Rock, Colman Domingo, and more stars. (Netflix)
“We did an elongated version of the speech than what made the movie,” he revealed. “We shot it over 2 days. I went to a park in Pittsburgh where we were shooting, and I would just spend days at this park with the speech on the floor and practicing it aloud and just going over it and over and over for about a week.”
Aml noted that Rustin wasn’t always “intended” to be a movie that explores the complicated relationship between Dr. King and the gay civil rights activist. “But George C. Wolfe and Bruce Cohen and Tonia Davis, the producers, they started to see that the movie really needs to be about friendship and betrayal,” he said. “One of the first scenes we shot together, Colman and I, was the opening scene. What I had done research on was King had this friend when he was a kid, a white friend, and the father of this kid said, ‘I don’t want my son playing with a negro.’ But he was always entertained by this guy and really liked the friendship, and Martin was hurt by the fact that he couldn’t continue that friendship.”
The actor added, “I really mirrored that when I went forward and thought to myself, here is this guy, Bayard Rustin, someone who’s himself completely, boldly, loudly. He entertains King, tickles him. King finds him inspiring and shocking and fun. Apparently, Martin Luther King had a great sense of humor and laughed a lot, so I’m looking at those things and I’m preparing them to Colman because Colman’s hilarious. He’s a really funny guy. We worked together on The Butler 12 years ago, and it was kind of easy to be into that space with Colman and exploring the difficulties of when you love someone and they’ve done something to hurt you, or you’ve done something to hurt them. Relationships are very important to you and just exploring the difficulty of mending that, especially in the political climate where, at that time, being homosexual was illegal. At the same time, I’m adding into my own mind the inspired imagination that King also was a complicated man. He wasn’t a quiet boy, excuse the phrase, but he had his own things going on privately as well. I really loved exploring those nuances on the onset, and I think that’s what me and Colman did really well.”
Aml Ameen at a SAG Celebration. (Rob Latour/Shutterstock for SAG Awards)
One of the most poignant scenes in the film is a private conversation between Dr. King and Rustin. Rustin confronts Dr. King about having to further “justify” his existence just because he’s gay. “They either believe in freedom and justice for all, or they do not,” Rustin tells Dr. King. In a time when Black Americans were fighting for equality, Rustin was also fighting against homophobia.
“It’s one of those ones where what comes from the heart reaches the heart,” Aml said about that colossal line. “Rustin in that moment is going, ‘Martin, you need to believe in it. Not just them. You need to believe in it.’ He challenged me with that for a second. He’s like, ‘You’re one of the smartest people I’ve known, so tell me why I’m forced to justify my existence.’ It was just massive. You have to leap beyond what’s comfortable to really change the world.” Rustin is available to stream on Netflix now.