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“Genius” Stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Aaron Pierre on Playing MLK and Malcolm X This Black History Month (Exclusive)

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are the subjects of National Geographic's 'Genius: MLK/X'

<p>National Geographic/Richard DuCree</p>

National Geographic/Richard DuCree

Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Aaron Pierre are honoring two of history’s most important Black trailblazers — by bringing them to life on screen.

National Geographic’s Genius: MLK/X, which begins airing its latest season just in time for Black History Month, continues the anthology series’ depictions of historical icons. Harrison Jr. plays Martin Luther King Jr. and Pierre plays Malcolm X, following previous seasons' critically acclaimed performances by Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein, Antonio Banderas as Pablo Picasso and Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin.

The actors, both 29, tell PEOPLE exclusively about researching, transforming into and depicting the legacies of the civil rights activists — who crossed paths only once in 1964 but nevertheless shared a vision for the liberation of Black people in America. (Dr. King and Malcolm X’s brief meeting serves as the opening scene of Genius: MLK/X.)

“Malcolm X's legacy, his power, it reverberated all the way to where I grew up and beyond,” says the London-born Pierre, who adds he felt “tremendously nervous” upon receiving the offer to play this role. The Nebraska-born Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) became an influential advocate for Black empowerment and the Nation of Islam until his assassination at age 39 in New York City in 1965.

“I understood the gravity of this story. 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.”

Related: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X's 'Dueling Philosophies' Spotlighted in NatGeo's Genius: First Look

<p>Natasha Campos/Getty</p>

Natasha Campos/Getty

For Harrison Jr., playing Dr. King — from the leader’s early days as a church pastor to his 1968 assassination in Tennessee — was something of a logical next step after bringing other Black trailblazers to the screen, including activist Fred Hampton in The Trial of the Chicago 7, blues great B. B. King in Elvis and, in an upcoming project, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“But this time,” the Louisiana-born actor tells PEOPLE, “I had to put on a little bit more of my investigative hat and start to just look for more of the nuances and try to start to figure out who the man is.”

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

Both actors say they prioritized embodying Dr. King and Malcolm X’s values internally, rather than attempting to mimic the figures’ physical qualities. “A lot of the trap actors fall into” with biopics, says Harrison Jr., is believing they must “be as specific as possible about this impersonation of it.... The voice and the look and the mannerisms [being] spot-on, that doesn't always tell the story.”

MLK/X audiences aren’t tuning in for a documentary, he adds. “I'm not going to be Dr. Martin Luther King. That's not happening. But what I can do is honor the things that he loved, honor the things that inspired him and that he was passionate about, find the connection between me and let that drive the story.”

<p>Bettmann Archive</p> Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1966

Bettmann Archive

Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1966

Related: Genius: MLK/X Star Kelvin Harrison Jr. Was 'Shocked' to Discover MLK's Real First Name: 'Pretty Cool' 

Pierre says it’s important to keep the memory of these me alive — and now is the perfect time to learn more about their legacies. “In the U.K. [Black History Month] is in October,” he notes. “And of course in the U.S. it's in February. 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.”

But, he adds, “as a Black man, I'm always celebrating and championing my heritage, the contributions my community and diaspora have given to this world. And I think this project coming out at this time is very special. We all are very excited for the world to have an opportunity to engage with this because we've poured ourselves into this. We're looking forward to people connecting with it.”

Genius, especially its new season, is about “articulating what it means to be a genius and allowing it to be more relatable for all of us to see our own personal genius,” says Harrison Jr. “We can respect these icons, but we don't have to put them on a pedestal as they're above us. We all have that potential in us. We all can achieve these amazing great things.”

That’s what’s inspiring Harrison Jr. this Black History Month, he says. “These incredible, young Black men that just found a real sense of their identity and were fearless in sharing it with everybody, that's what I aspire to be. That excites me and ignites me every single day. That's why I tell stories.”

Related: Black History Month Explained: Who Started It, Why It's in February and More Facts You Should Know

<p>Robert Parent/Getty</p> Malcolm X

Robert Parent/Getty

Malcolm X

Next up — for both MLK/X leads — is Barry Jenkins Mufasa: The Lion King (in theaters Dec. 20), in which Pierre voices the titular role and Harrison Jr. voices Taka a.k.a. Scar. “Kelvin is one of my dearest friends, I love him dearly, and we are having such a special time working on that,” says Pierre with a smile.

Noting “it’s so funny” the animated prequel is coming out the same year as MLK/X, Harrison Jr. adds that Pierre is “the perfect young James Earl Jones. He sings in it and sounds amazing in it ... it kind of made me a little jealous.”

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Genius: MLK/X — which costars Weruche Opia as Coretta Scott King and Jayme Lawson as Betty Shabazz alongside Gary Carr, Hubert Point-Du Jour and the late Ron Cephas Jones — premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. on National Geographic.

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