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How Roots producers found their new Kunta Kinte

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Casey Crafford/African Photo Productions/E Networks

When History announced that it was putting together a remake of the celebrated 1977 miniseries Roots, the most pressing matter for producers Will Packer and Mark Wolper was to find the right actor to play its iconic main character, Kunta Kinte. “We knew if we didn’t do that right, everything else was going to fall apart,” Packer explained to EW.

The role of an African boy sold into slavery was originally played by LeVar Burton, and the character immediately became a cultural icon. To find the new Kunta Kinte, Packer and Wolper set up a six-month journey across four continents to meet with thousands of actors. But, as it happened, the perfect person for the job was the very first actor they met.

“It turns out that the first guy who comes along is this guy Malachi Kirby,” Wolper explained. “And we go, ‘This guy is fantastic but we can’t possibly stop the search!’ So we spent all the money and all the time going around, meeting auditioning, doing, and we came right back around and realized, it’s him.”

As far as playing such an important role, Kirby tried to to do “as little acting as possible.” To accomplish that, he learned the customs and language that Kunta Kinte was versed in himself, and he credits the realism of the production with getting helping him feel in character.

“The way we shot it, I didn’t have to imagine so much,” Kirby said. “I didn’t have to imagine what it would feel like to be on a slave ship — they built a real ship and they put 200 people inside it, into the real parameters of what it would’ve been. They chained us up and we were screaming and wailing.”

History will air Roots over four consecutive nights at 9 p.m. ET beginning May 30. It will also be simulcast on Lifetime and A&E.