The Fame and The Story
Whether in Get Out, Sorry to Bother You, Atlanta, or any of his other envelope-pushing roles, rising star Lakeith Stanfield is an open book.
“Just be cool, man.” Lakeith Stanfield’s gravelly morning voice swells and contracts as he meanders through his moral imperatives. In the background, I can hear cupboards being opened and shut, ostensibly in search of a caffeine source. “Don’t do things to people you don’t want done to you,” he elaborates. It’s a pretty straightforward piece of conventional wisdom that, on the one hand, accurately represents the 27-year-old actor who got his start through the astonishingly simple strategy of googling “acting.” On the other hand, it masks Stanfield’s differentia. He’s a native of San Bernadino, CA, whose standout—if not idiosyncratic—body of work, renowned for nuance and complexity, has consistently sent ripples through Hollywood. It began in 2013 with his debut role as Marcus, an abused teen living in an adolescent home in the indie masterwork Short Term 12 (also the jumping-off point for Oscar winners Brie Larson and Rami Malek), continued with his portrayal of the murdered civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 historical drama Selma, and has brought us to the more recent Billy Cole, a young marine in Netflix’s satire War Machine, featuring Brad Pitt and Tilda Swinton. It’s an arc that doesn’t so much boast a “started from the bottom” trek as a “jumped in damn near the top and propelled upward from there” trajectory.
And not without reason. As the adage goes, great success requires great risk, and Stanfield could well serve as the maxim’s poster boy. After his Google search landed him what would be an impromptu but pivotal audition with an agent, he improvised by hopping onto a table to impersonate a surfer, throwing in some “Tuhtally, dewd”s for authenticity. Superficially, it’s just a funny anecdote, maybe one that bares a streak of impulsivity or even an instinctive connection to his craft. But as we talk about his relationship to acting, the moment’s lack of self-awareness takes on new meaning, its roots pushing down into the DNA of his process: a world of immaterial abstractions. “I enjoy that space when you have no choice but to surrender to the moment,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing when you release all your bullshit, when everything around you just sort of blackens out and becomes a vortex. It makes me feel untethered.”
That ability to lose himself was surely central to his success in rendering intricate characters like Reggie, the conflicted gay Christian in Netflix’s Come Sunday; Bug, the teen Crip whose journey from bully to empath makes for a stunning cinematic moment in the 2015 indie darling Dope; or even as Snoop Dogg, whom he somehow impersonates with riveting accuracy in F. Gary Gray’s N.W.A. biopic, Straight Outta Compton. It’s also a bit of a controversy, though, because it comes in lieu of classical training, something Stanfield’s gotten heat for from other actors, according to a 2017 interview he gave to Film Courage. But when weighed against his methodology—one grounded in the work of dismantling and relinquishing control—acting school seems glib if not gratuitous. At the very least, his is a technique that thrives under the influences of exceptional vulnerability. Of filming particularly intimate scenes, he explains, “You have to turn everything off so you’re able to feel everything that needs to be felt. Sometimes I come to, and I don’t even know what I’ve just done.”
Stanfield’s sensitivity is prodigious, and undoubtedly the basis for a sui generis status among Hollywood newcomers, but don’t get it twisted; he’s not immune to conceit. “We’re all egomaniacs,” he says of actors. True to character, though, he lays out this dictum thoughtfully. “You have to train yourself away from ego whenever you can, because it will seriously hurt you. That’s why this business is so hard for a lot of young actors,” he explains, naming awards ceremonies as one of the major players in annihilating self-esteem (even though he has won a handful of awards and been nominated for more than 20).
But ego isn’t always the enemy; sometimes it’s the only thing standing in the way of complete desperation, which Stanfield makes apparent in Crown Heights. The 2017 biopic follows the life of Colin Warner, a Brooklynite from Trinidad who served 21 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. In 2001, Warner was released thanks to the efforts of his childhood friend, Carl King, played by former NFL cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who all but became a lawyer to prove Warner’s innocence. Stanfield’s rendering of Warner is wrought with plunges into despair. The moment he gazes trenchantly across a prison table and states, “I ain’t no killer,” the suffocating weight of a corrupt justice system is palpable. When he considers the influence of such a role, Stanfield concedes to its power. “Some roles have transformed my own being. I may never have to know what those tragedies felt like to the people they actually happened to,” he admits, “but I pull on [those emotions] to try to understand, and maybe to bring hope to people.”
The transformative power of storytelling is key to Stanfield’s love for what he does, but it’s not limited to gut-wrenching dramas. In fact, it’s his experience in the comedy War Machine that has most deeply affected the actor. Though it didn’t score great reviews, the film, which takes sardonic jabs at the U.S. military’s attempts to rebuild Afghanistan, ranks highest for Stanfield on the list of roles that have changed him. “I used to hate the military. I was young then and had a ‘fuck everything’ attitude,” he recalls. “That movie was one of the things that really helped shift my perception. My respect for people in the military has grown immensely.”
Such even-handedness and generosity around knee-jerk issues are perhaps the most surprising characteristics about Stanfield. His CV boasts a who’s who of needle-moving cinema, including several films that have been praised for shifting the zeitgeist to make room for black perspectives (no doubt a cultural response to the larger societal gravities that produced #BlackLivesMatter, among other political movements). Singular among those films is Jordan Peele’s Get Out, the groundbreaking and bone-chilling psycho-thriller that drills to the heart of fears around being black in America. In it, Stanfield plays Andre Logan King, a near-zombie à la The Stepford Wives who yells the movie’s title-bearing line at the protagonist. As our conversation shifts to the racist power structures Get Out scrutinizes, Stanfield reveals an unexpected, egalitarian view.
“White men have been given some heat lately,” he says, “but it’s just a result of things that they can’t control, for the most part. Like being white. Being a dude. I think that’s going in the wrong direction.” As his stance unfolds, I realize that what might at first glance seem like a get-out-of-jail-free card is actually a reflection of Stanfield’s views on social entrapment. “We can easily demonstrate what it means to be a white person or a black person from these ‘programs,’ how people think, act, walk, and talk,” he says, referring to Sorry to Bother You, the subversive sci-fi comedic noir by hip-hop artist turned director Boots Riley. The movie stars Stanfield as Cassius Greene, a down-and-out telemarketer who soars to the top of his game using a “white” voice with his clients. “It’s because they’re stupid, arbitrary things, masks you can take on and off to achieve what you want,” he says.
Skin color, of course, is not a mask, and the opportunities it affords (for better or worse) are thematically fundamental to Stanfield’s roles in Peele’s and Riley’s films, because though their plots are completely unalike, each takes an unambiguous position on the evils of white supremacy through the lens of black, male protagonists. That glass ceiling is certainly culpable as an agent of social inequity, but as Stanfield sees it, it’s a limitation we all butt up against to some extent: “You’re constantly separable and held to different standards, whether it’s because you’re white, black, male, female. It’s all part of the mask game.” While he unpacks his solution, I imagine Neo subverting a decoded Matrix. “I think we should recognize it, really see it, so we realize it’s all bullshit to begin with.”
The political is personal, as the ’60s feminist rallying cry goes, and the seed of Stanfield’s views on race seems to originate there, in the soil of merely existing in his own body. “Being a black dude, I’ve seen a lot of hypocrisy, not just in people but in organizations that are supposed to be for one thing, but then their legislation or actions ends up being for something else completely. Automatically, I develop a sort of cynical viewpoint, just being black in America. Period.” A distaste for hypocrisy, in part, is what drew him to the plotline of Sorry to Bother You, whose Idiocracy–meets–Brave New World dystopia begins with the bigotry of racism but ends (spoiler) in the horrorscape of genetically modified human life, designed to provide faster production to billionaire-owned companies around the world. “I’m drawn to stories that question things, that unearth the truths people have hidden under banners, and flags, and nationalism.”
Unearthing hidden truths could be the distilled essence of Stanfield’s character portrayals in general, but it’s certainly been the case in his rendering of Darius, the quirky, tender-hearted genius whose stoned revelations like “Stars are just a projection of what’s actually already inside of your mind” have been synonymous with the success of Donald Glover’s FX triumph Atlanta—the third season may start later this year—and one of the projects placing Stanfield at the center of Hollywood buzz. It was also the reason BuzzFeed credited him with “revolutionizing black masculinity” in a 2018 article about his role on the show. And while the proclamation was meant as praise, it’s a cachet that, for Stanfield, only proves that those racial masks are still in heavy rotation. “I felt like I was being paraded on a horse in a beauty pageant,” he says, his voice clearly agitated. “I mean, where’s the representative for white masculinity? Who is that person? And where’s the representative for Indian masculinity? And Asian masculinity? It’s not my fault they’ve never seen vulnerability in a black man, but don’t put that on me. Go experience some things.”
Though playing Darius may have fortified Stanfield’s cynicism in some respects, it’s also afforded him investigations into innocence. “[Darius] reminds me not to take things so seriously,” Stanfield says. “His childlike nature reminds me to remain childlike, to learn and explore.” Those excavations don’t solely rove through the playscape of Darius’ mind, but of Stanfield’s as well. The two have what appears to be a symbiotic relationship. “Talk about getting out of the moment in acting—Darius has allowed that more than any other character,” he says. Often, Stanfield’s improv will make final cuts of the show, something he attributes to an understanding he and Darius share, an empathy, one for the other. “Sometimes we’re almost indistinguishable, and I don’t know where [his character] ends and I begin.”
Permeable boundaries may be core to Stanfield’s artistic nature, but over time he’s learned to leave that porousness on set. When he considers his growth since that fateful moment when he leapt onto a table to deliver his best Malibu bro, the firming of his self-actualization is what stands out most. “It’s a gift to realize you have agency in the world and can be something of your own volition instead of waiting around for people to tell you where to go,” he says. “It’s taught me not to have any fears, to let it go and just fly.”
Fearlessness is evident in Stanfield’s work. It’s allowed him to cover the gamut, from rom-coms to dramas to action movies to films that defy categorization altogether. At the end of the day, it’s not necessarily the narratives themselves but the connective power of those narratives that he loves most deeply. “I’m interested in sharing stories,” he says. “If you want to see some cool stories, let's watch them together. Come watch mine, I'll go watch yours, and we’ll really experience something.”
Stylist Julia Platt-Hepworth at Mister Bones Creative, Grooming Tasha Reiko Brown at The Wall Group using Fresh Beauty Skincare, Set Design Amos Styles