The cast of Genius: MLK/X have remembered “special” late co-star Ron Cephas Jones for his kindness, commitment and resilience while he battled pulmonary disease on set.
Stars Kelvin Harrison Jr, Aaron Pierre, Weruche Opia and Jayme Lawson appeared on the yellow carpet at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Los Angeles ahead of the fourth instalment of the biographical anthology series on National Geographic.
The Emmy-nominated series gives an intimate look at the complex lives of Martin Luther King Jr (Harrison Jr) and Malcolm X (Pierre), following on from previous seasons focusing on the lives of Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and Aretha Franklin.
Chevalier star Harrison Jr spoke about working alongside Cephas Jones, who played Elijah Muhammad in the series but died aged 66 in August last year “due to a long-standing pulmonary issue”.
Jones had a double lung transplant in 2020 because of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – which causes breathing difficulties – and spent nearly two months in a hospital in Los Angeles.
“He’s such an incredible actor, I’ve always looked at his work, it’s next to none the level of detail he brings, the level of commitment, his transformation abilities,” Harrison Jr told the PA news agency.
“I didn’t get to directly work with him in the show but I remember seeing him off-set and he was always so kind and so warm and he held us with so much love because he knew what the responsibilities we were about to take on.
“I am so grateful for that man.”
Lawson, who plays Malcolm X’s wife Betty Shabazz, described Cephas Jones as “inspirational”.
“He was battling on set and I haven’t seen anything like that, I haven’t seen commitment and resilience even through the fight that he was fighting personally,” she said. “He still had joy and he was still in a place to receive something from us and to teach us – that’s special.
“You don’t meet too many people like that and so for the short time I did get to meet him, I was truly honoured to have that privilege.”
British-Nigerian star Opia, who plays Harrison Jr’s on-screen wife Coretta Scott King, also described it as an honour to watch the talent of Cephas Jones and “to be in a project that was one of his last ones”.
Speaking about feeling the pressure to portray important figures of history, she said: “We know a lot about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, but we don’t know a lot about the wives.
“If they didn’t have their wives, the women who were actually important and instrumental to who these men were, if they didn’t have those wives I don’t believe they would have been the men they were.”
Producer and co-director Crystle Roberson said Cephas Jones, who won two Emmy Awards for his role as William Hill in This Is Us, was a “genius in his own right”.
“He worked as an actor at a level that I’ve never seen before,” she told PA.
“His script notes were very intricate, every single line he thought about, he had intention behind, and it was like working with a genius, it really was, and I’m so so happy I got a chance to work with him before he passed on.
“His work will speak volumes in this series.”
British star Pierre spoke about the pressure he felt stepping into the shoes of Malcolm X.
“What drew me to the project was the huge opportunity to portray a hero of mine and a hero of many, and to embark on a deep exploration of everything that he was and is – and in doing that I was terrified,” he told PA.
“But I leaned into that fear and I made that propel me forward, propel me to seek and to convey him in the most authentic and truthful capacity that I had the ability to do.”
He said that most people see Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X as “diametrically opposed”, but he sees them as “opposing forces that ran parallel”.
“They had the same objective, the same end goal, they just had different perspectives on what was most conducive on how to achieve that main goal”, he added.
Genius: MLK/X will debut on February 3 at 9pm with a double bill on National Geographic.