'Roots' Star Malachi Kirby: 'In School They Used to Call Me Kunta Kinte as a Dis'

Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty

Malachi Kirby is the fresh-faced star of the History Channel’s acclaimed reboot of Roots, but his introduction to his character of Kunta Kinte came long before he was cast – and it wasn’t positive.

“When I was in school, my first acknowledgement of Roots was Kunta Kinte,” the 26-year-old Brit tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.

“I knew of [Kunta] because when I was in primary school people used to call me that as a dis. It was like a common thing and it was a negative thing to be him. That was my first understanding of him.”

It wasn’t until years later that Kirby discovered for himself who Kunta Kinte was when he watched the 1977 smash-hit TV miniseries. The original Roots starred LeVar Burton in the lead role. Based on Alex Haley‘s bestseller about his African ancestor being sold into slavery, Roots became a cultural phenomenon, attracting 100 million viewers to the finale (it remains one of the most-watched TV episodes ever).

Burton, who also sat down with PEOPLE to talk about the remake, has taken on the role of executive producer for the History Channel show.

“I felt this incredible weight of responsibility and excitement,” says Kirby of landing the gig. After shooting for months in South Africa and Louisiana, the epic remake premieres May 30. “It’s been an adventure.”

For more on the stars and stories behind Roots, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday.

From his own roots to what it was like on the emotional set, here are five things to know about the show’s new star.

1. He’s from London and he’s been acting for years.
Kirby is second generation Jamaican and hails from South London. After beginning his acting career with bit parts when he was still a teenager, Kirby is best known for his recent roles on the U.K. hits EastEnders and Doctor Who.

2. He first watched Roots on videotapes that were a gift from his mom.
“I was 22 when my mother gave me the original box set of Roots and she said ‘I want you to watch this.’ ” It took him some time, but Kirby says the 8-part, 9-hour series was mind-blowing. “I watched the whole thing back to back in the span of 24 hours. It had a profound effect on me. It felt like my story.”

3. When he got the part, he kept the news a secret.

“After my agent called and told me I got the part, I didn’t tell my mom for a while,” he says. “I think not until the day I packed my bags. She was at the door and asked, ‘Where are you going?’ I told her I was going on a journey and I would be back soon. She said okay, hugged me and cried a bit. I don’t know if she knew what was about to happen, but she heard more than I said.”

4. He was handpicked by original star LeVar Burton for the role and the two met for the first time on set in South Africa.
“It felt like a movie. LeVar came through these two mud huts, and I saw someone walking towards me that had walked the steps I was about to walk,” says Kirby of the executive producer and mentor. “It was an emotional moment for me,” Burton tells PEOPLE of passing the torch. “Playing Kunta Kinte is an emotional, physical, spiritual and mental journey. I think we share a very unique bond.”

5. Shooting scenes in Louisiana was one of his first times in America.
“It was an actual plantation and I remember thinking how beautiful it was,” says Kirby of filming outside New Orleans. “Then, there was a moment when I looked at the trees and they didn’t look pretty anymore. I just imagined people hanging from them.” Kirby is hoping Roots will speak to the masses. “I haven’t experienced a lot of prejudice in my life,” he says, “but I’m not naive to what goes on in the world. I hope everybody will identify with this on some level.”

Roots premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET on the History Channel and runs nightly through Thursday.

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