“Genius” Star Aaron Pierre on Transforming into Malcolm X: 'StairMaster Every Day for 6 Months' (Exclusive)

Aaron Pierre tells PEOPLE why he was at first "tremendously nervous" to play the civil rights activist in 'Genius: MLK/X'

<p>Aitor Rosas Sune/WWD via Getty</p> Aaron Pierre in 2024

Aitor Rosas Sune/WWD via Getty

Aaron Pierre in 2024

For Aaron Pierre, playing Malcolm X on screen has always been the ultimate acting dream. But when the British star first got the call he’d booked one of the titular figures in National Geographic’s Genius: MLK/X, he felt “tremendously nervous.”

“I understood the gravity of this story,” the actor, 29, tells PEOPLE exclusively. “I understood the enormity of the responsibility of attempting to portray this man's life and his legacy and what he means to so many people all over the world … the enormous influence he has had on the Black diaspora.”

Growing up in London, the Underground Railroad star says, “Malcolm X's legacy, his power, it reverberated all the way to where I grew up and beyond.”

Pierre is one of several trailblazers — including Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Tyler James Williams and more — who spoke to PEOPLE for its latest issue about how they honor Black icons during February, which has been officially recognized as Black History Month in the U.S. since 1976. But stepping into his role as Malcolm X, in particular, sparked fear in him.

Related: Notable Moments in Black History to Observe This Week, Like Hattie McDaniel's Groundbreaking Oscar Win

<p>Richard DuCree/National Geographic</p> Aaron Pierre in "Genius: MLK/X"

Richard DuCree/National Geographic

Aaron Pierre in "Genius: MLK/X"

“The enormity of the responsibility did scare me,” Pierre adds of MLK/X, which spans Malcolm X’s youth in Nebraska, burgeoning activism for Black empowerment and the Nation of Islam while imprisoned, and ultimately his 1965 assassination in New York City at age 39.

An award-winning theater actor, Pierre used his training to transform into the man (born Malcolm Little) inside and out. “I worked extensively with a vocal coach, and we went all the way down to the phonetics of words in order to do our very best to represent this great man,” he says of his transformation. “And then physically, Malcolm and I are very similar heights, frame-wise.”

But, Pierre adds wryly, “I have more mass on me. So I was on that StairMaster more or less every day for six months.”

Related: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X 'Keep 'em Guessing' in Sweeping First Trailer for Latest Season of Genius

Another reason portraying Malcolm X is daunting is Denzel Washington’s acclaimed performance in the 1992 biopic by Spike Lee. The two-time Oscar winner “is a hero of mine,” says Pierre. “I'm not sure there's a word sufficient enough to articulate the respect and admiration I have for not only his artistry but him as a man.”

Pierre ended up resolving early in the MLK/X research process, not to factor in Lee’s film. “I learned that I had to accept that a hero of mine had portrayed Malcolm X, and I had to set that free in order for me to even begin to attempt my own portrayal,” he says.

<p>National Geographic/Richard DuCree</p> (Left to right:). Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Aaron Pierre in "Genius: MLK/X"

National Geographic/Richard DuCree

(Left to right:). Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Aaron Pierre in "Genius: MLK/X"

James Earl Jones, August Wilson and Suzan-Lori Parks are also among the other Black artists who Pierre celebrates during Black History Month — and beyond. “We have these particular months within the year that are, for want of a better word, designated to the celebration and championing of our contributions and our history,” he explains. “As a Black man, I'm always celebrating and championing my heritage, the contributions my community and diaspora has given to this world.”

The release of MLK/X, he says, is another opportunity to honor and learn about the legacies of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., played in the series by Kelvin Harrison Jr. “I think this project coming out at this time is very special,” he adds.

Pierre starred in last year’s Foe opposite Paul Mescal and Saoirse Ronan, and will next voice the titular role in Barry Jenkins’ animated Mufasa: The Lion King (in theaters Dec. 20), alongside Harrison Jr. as Taka a.k.a. Scar.

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The first two episodes of GENIUS: MLK/X premiere Thursday on National Geographic and can be streamed the next day on Disney+ and Hulu, with two new episodes debuting weekly on all platforms.

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