In the opening scene of the new feature film One Night in Miami..., viewers are reintroduced to a familiar figure that single-handedly revolutionized the sport of boxing.
Known simply as The Greatest, Muhammad Ali’s achievements made him one of the most influential and celebrated figures of the 20th century. Over the years, very few Black actors have tried to portray the mystical man whose immeasurable impact will reverberate for centuries to come. After all, how do you even prepare to play a man that transcends one of the most dangerous sports in the world?
Nearly two decades after Will Smith’s Oscar-nominated role in Ali, Canadian actor Eli Goree is set to portray the man that was once known as Cassius Clay at a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement.
Set on the evening of February 25, 1964, One Night in Miami... is a fictionalized imagining of the night where four icons reunited to celebrate one of the greatest upsets in boxing history. After defeating Sonny Liston to win his first World Heavyweight title, Clay (Goree) gets together with three of his friends: human rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), music superstar Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and football legend and emerging actor Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge).
Having previously auditioned for the role of Cassius Clay in a movie that never came to fruition, Goree was preparing to star in a play about the heavyweight champion when he found out about the casting for Oscar-winning actress Regina King’s directorial début.
“I had prepared for so long to play this role; it was something that I already knew before this film that I wanted to do,” he told En Fuego, explaining his mindset going into his first audition with King. “I was staying in character between the scenes when I was reading it, and I remember her being very impressed with that. I didn’t break character from the moment I walked in to the moment I walked out.”
He added with a sly grin: “Even when I walked out, I remember screaming, ‘The champ is here!’ And she was laughing and saying, ‘We’ll see you again!’ I was very confident that I was going to get a callback. I felt like it was meant for me.”
It has been quite a road to success for Goree. Born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he began his acting career at the age of six on CBC’s Sesame Park—the Canadian version of Sesame Street—before later taking on steady gigs as the host of a campus radio station and a teen consumer show. After he discovered that his basketball skills wouldn’t be enough to lead him to the NBA, Goree decided to pursue a full-time career in the entertainment industry, but he was met with a steep learning curve.
In a remarkable journey that included a cold call to the only casting director in Halifax, a sudden move to Toronto, a terrible agent and a number of failed local theatre productions, Goree admits that it wasn’t until he met his mentor and first acting coach, Ryan Singh, that he was able to fully commit himself to honing his craft.
“First of all, he cast me on the spot for this terrible play as the lead,” Goree recalled with a laugh. “But he brought me to his house every day and took me under his wing. He just trained me, and it was very similar to becoming an athlete. We’d go in and we’d put in our time. He taught me about eyelines, posture, accents and being eloquent—just so many basic fundamentals of being an actor that I didn’t have because I didn’t know what I was doing.”
In the last decade, Goree has put a lot of those valuable skill sets to good use to build his characters on shows like Riverdale, The 100, and Pearson, but preparing to play Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali proved to be “the most physically demanding” process of his burgeoning career.
“I’m not a boxer. I’m not [at] that level, but I’d been working on it. Even in other roles, I was telling people, ‘You know, I want to play Cassius. I love boxing, so you could work boxing into the role. [That’s what] Riverdale did that for me,” he said. “I was really just wanting to make sure that I honored that opportunity.”
For his dream role, Goree worked with trainer Kenneth Oh to gain about 40 pounds and then shred 15 to 20 pounds of fat to match the physique that the legendary boxer had for most of his fights. “Then, on top of that, as I’m getting bigger, I also had to get faster because [Ali] was known for being so light on his feet and being so quick with his footwork and having such great hand speed,” explained the actor, whose natural weight is around 190 pounds.
“I worked on that with my coach, Robert Sale, who was the fight coordinator for Creed and Creed II. We just took it step-by-step, laid down the foundation and you really couldn’t rush the process. It just took time, and that’s why I was really glad that I started when I did. You can cheat certain things in acting, like a limp or a fake accent, but you can’t fake gaining 20 pounds of muscle. You can’t rush it. It takes the time and the work it takes.”
In what he described as “an eight-week fight camp” while shooting the film, Goree spent most of his time away from the set in the gym, working to cut weight in the morning and mastering boxing choreography late at night. When the time came to shoot the iconic fight sequences, Goree said that he felt like he had been preparing for a real fight and, for all intents and purposes, it was about as real as he could have hoped for.
“I didn’t have to use too much of my imagination to wonder what it would be like in a real fight. This was pre-COVID, so we had real fans and we had real press,” he recalled. “It was a real ring with real gloves and a real professional fighter swinging at me, and I was taking real body shots. Even in the headshots, when he’s missing, we have to shoot it from certain angles where he can only miss by a little, so my reaction to his punches had to be immediate.”
“It gave me so much respect for Ali because these aren’t choreographed fights with him. He’s really out there, professional athletes and fighters are trying their best to hurt him and he’s causing them to miss by millimeters sometimes. His control of his body was just phenomenal.”
After a grueling final week of filming in the ring, Goree was admittedly relieved to take some time off after completing a role that he has no intention of ever playing again. “It was wonderful doing it, but I think it’s the same thing as like a fight. When it’s over, you’re not like, ‘Oh, this is bittersweet.’ You’re like, ‘I’m glad I did it, but it’s done,” he said with a laugh.
“I was in bed for like two weeks. I was so sore. I couldn’t go to the gym, my back hurt, I didn’t know if it was muscles or bones that were hurting, but I was just beat up. Now I understand why fighters take time off [after a fight]. If you’re in a fight where you’re getting beat up, like 90 percent of fighters, your body needs time to rest, to recover. That’s a huge part of being able to maintain your health.”
While this film is set in the middle of the political and cultural upheaval of the 1960s, it goes without saying that the rich conversations about what it means to be a successful person of color—and the social responsibility that comes with that success—still resonate more than 50 years later. Along with his three co-stars, Goree admitted to feeling a shared sense of responsibility to humanize the four transcendent trailblazers.
“I feel like now we have a brotherhood because we know each other so well, and we’ve been through this thing together,” he explained. “With the [positive] reception and the response that it’s been getting, I think, at the time, we just really connected to the material and really invested in the characters. The material was written [by Kemp Powers] in such a way that if you really committed to it, that connection would naturally be there for these guys.”
Having prepared to play The Greatest for years, Goree has managed to develop an intimate understanding of Ali. He read every book he could find. He spent hours watching old biopics and documentaries. He worked with dialect coach Tré Cotton to master the boxing legend’s mellifluous Southern accent. In addition to connecting with Ali’s unwavering commitment to his faith, the rising actor was also struck by the legend’s “perseverance and indomitable spirit.”
“No matter what challenge he faced, he always knew that he had what it took within him to overcome it,” he reflected. “If he lost his belt, he would win it back. He was the first person to ever lose his belt three times and win it back. If he was told he couldn’t box, he would give speeches. If he had to, he was willing to go to jail to not go to a war that he didn’t believe in. He was always believing in his morals and his convictions.”
For Goree, maintaining the same honesty and authenticity in his work that Ali displayed over the course of his remarkable life is the first step to starting a much larger conversation about the need for meaningful social change. “I’m an actor, so I need to do the best films and best portrayals that I can do at the highest level, and then that’ll give me a platform to be able to speak to things that I think are important,” he explained.
“I know that Denzel Washington doesn’t have to say anything when he’s playing in Training Day, but people watch that and they feel differently. The same thing [happened] with Cassius Clay or Muhammad Ali. [He] changed many people’s opinions of the entire culture because they loved him so much. We’re all just trying to do the same thing, which is to live full, realized human lives and to be able to think and express ourselves in our most genuine capacity. When we step out and we do that, that’ll inspire someone else to make a change, and what’s meant to be, will be.”
"One Night in Miami…" will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video starting Friday, January 15.