Lakeith Stanfield is tired of being called “weird.” “It implies that there is such a thing as being normal and that I’m deviating from it,” the actor says, over a whiskey in the café of Ian Schrager’s Public Hotel. “I just think we haven’t seen enough black men who express themselves in a certain way. I’m not special, I just express myself. I think if more people did that, we would see how beautiful we all can be.”
In conversation, Stanfield vacillates between a pensive forward slouch and flurries of animated upward gestures—he’s low-key fabulous. A couple of times, groups of women rushing through the lobby give double-takes and point in his direction with confused smirks. It’s opening weekend of Stanfield’s first full-tilt starring vehicle, the hallucinatory comedy Sorry to Bother You, from first-time director Boots Riley. Having debuted at Sundance to critical salutation, it’s already making short lists as one of the best films of the year. Encountering Stanfield on release day, his beatific manner belies the madness of the moment. “I’ve been meditating all day, sitting alone in my subconscious, taking it all in,” he says. “There have been a lot of major things happening at a fast rate, so I’m taking a couple steps back and just chilling.”
“I didn’t think [my life] would be different for a while, right up until the film was about to be released locally, in L.A.,” he says with a laugh. “I looked up at the billboards and said, ‘Welp, that’s my face, so I guess this is my movie.’” An ecstatic DIY apologue about the self-sabotaging pursuit of corporate capitalism, the film is captured in a delirious, scenery-busting style reminiscent of Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze. Stanfield plays a man named Cassius Green, who, on the verge of eviction from his bedroom in his uncle’s garage, takes a job at a telemarketing company to make ends meet. Once he discovers his inner “white voice,” he becomes a high-volume seller and quickly ascends the corporate ladder—a gold elevator, actually—and meets a malevolent CEO in the form of a coke-snorting Armie Hammer. Hammer attempts to lure him into an experimental new labor enterprise with a freakish sci-fi twist, and things spin irreversibly out of control. It’s a darkly funny indictment of systems of exploitative labor, humiliation as entertainment, and class betrayal that could be described as, yes, “weird”—but “punk” feels like a more accurate term.
“Boots says it’s a punk movie,” Stanfield agrees. “He introduced me to Alec Empire from Atari Teenage Riot, and showed me this video of him standing in the middle of a riot with a microphone, like a genuine revolutionary, and it’s so true to Boots’s nature to be revolutionary.” Stanfield bemoans the notion that the movie is bizarre for the sake of being bizarre, and prefers to think of it as an expansion of the types of black narratives being shown onscreen. “The idea that black male skin can be juxtaposed with fantastical elements is not one that has really been explored much in cinema,” he explains. “We’re not often seen as being capable of being situated in those positions. Back in the day, there were a lot of things being shelled out, but they were not necessarily being shelled out by people who were black, even if the faces that occupied the posters were. And I think we’re slowly moving into a space where black people are the writers, are the directors, and are involved in the studio. We’re beginning to finally see that there are so many kinds of black.”
In a few short years, Stanfield has staked a commanding presence as one of the leading faces of this paradigm shift, featuring in a string of zeitgeisty projects: Ava DuVernay’s Selma, F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton, Donald Glover’s hit FX series Atlanta, Jordan Peele’s horror phenomenon Get Out, and Jay-Z’s music video for “Moonlight” among them. Each of these felt like watershed moments in the culture, particularly for young black audiences starving for relevant, intelligent narratives that don’t pander to the mainstream or reduce their characters to hollow stereotypes.
Still, from where Stanfield sits, there’s no telling when a project will land. “I situate myself in projects that may go one way or the other, a lot of the time,” he rationalizes. “I’m drawn to things that challenge me or that can challenge an audience. Also, there is an increasing space for black voices to explore many caveats and aspects of what it means to be black, and that’s exciting to me. So when something like that springs up, like [the idea of putting on] a white voice in Sorry to Bother You, that’s something we’ve been talking about forever but we’ve never really had a platform to say it! You know? Get Out was something that we experience all the time: subtle racism, even in so-called liberal places. It’s also part of Atlanta. I love to align myself with brilliant people that are unflinchingly letting their voices be heard.”
If there is any role that has thus far established Stanfield’s place in the public domain, it’s Darius. His Atlanta character has struck such a chord with fans that it’s provoked think pieces from outlets like Vanity Fair and The Washington Post. “At the risk of sounding a bit trite, Darius is kind of Aspergers-y and removed from social context,” he points out. “That’s a place we all exist in, whether we know it or not. We don’t really care as much as we claim about the social conventions we engage in, the niceties and making ourselves appear a certain way. Darius just doesn’t care about those things at all. He exists in his own world and does exactly what he wants. That’s romantic to people, perhaps, who can’t live that way. He has one foot inside and one foot outside of the matrix. And maybe that’s the very thing that draws people to me.”
Growing up in Victorville, California, Stanfield recalls that his instinct to perform was always present, “but I didn’t know there was a job for it. I’ve always felt out of place in a life that didn’t involve exploration or didn’t allow for different points of view, which is why today’s space that I find myself in is very strange for me.” As Stanfield’s profile has risen, so has his social media following. Having grown up with the generation that ushered in the advent of streaming, Stanfield relates to a certain breed of exhibitionism that comes with being an artist. During the rise of platforms like MySpace and YouTube, young creatives seized the opportunity to exhibit art, music, and performance for an audience they never otherwise would have had. But as content has become streamlined to 140-character tweets and comments sections on Instagram, creativity gave way to the reactionary polemics we experience now. Stanfield has therefore made an effort to streamline his Internet presence to short, temporary bursts of activity, much of which he deletes later, wary of leaving an endlessly dissect-able online trace.
“There’s something about the celebrity surrounding actors in particular that’s been very carefully cultivated over the years in cinema,” Stanfield says. “And that’s for actors to be unimpeachable, always approachable, pretty safe, nice people. That’s something that’s been established. But because I express in such an unhinged way, not everything I express from every angle will be in line with what I believe, [nor] readily able to be ingested by people. So it’s a bit dangerous.”
Recently, Stanfield found himself at the mercy of online “cancellation” when he posted a video of himself giving what he called an“offensive freestyle” on his Instagram. What was intended as a tongue-in-cheek critique of conventional hip hop lyrics was instead taken at face value as homophobic, and Stanfield had to issue a corrective apology. “I hate to talk about it now because it sounds like I’m being defensive,” Stanfield says. “I meant what I said in my apology, that I didn’t want to alienate people that may not know my artistry and how I express myself. On this new platform, it’s not always clear to people what you mean. I wanted to reach those people and let them know, because there’s nothing worse than being misconstrued and having people think you’re a hateful person. But it goes back to perspective. I view things in a different way and sometimes that way is more about poking fun at things rather than running from them or pretending that they don’t exist.” He later reveals that he has been inspired, in some small part, by drag. “I’ve been to drag shows,” he says. “I’ve never even said that on record.”
In June, Stanfield created a viral moment when he arrived at the BET Awards wearing an enormous wig that the celebrity gossip site Bossip referred to as “Silkalicious Power Puff Pigtails.” It was the biggest red carpet stir he’s caused since he sat down on the ground when asked to pose for photos at last year’s Emmys.
“I think the BET Awards is a funny place to have a wig on,” he reasons. “I feel like a lot of the time, the black community or black groups of people put a lot of investment into the exterior and how we look. We touch on this in Atlanta: who’s got the best shoes? I see it flipped on its head. Those things aren’t very important and it isn’t important whether or not you view me as somebody you should take seriously. Very few people on the carpet took me seriously because I had a big ol’ wig, and that’s exactly how I wanted it to be. Maybe if we stop taking ourselves so seriously we can begin to express ourselves in a wider way.”
Ironically, Stanfield’s next project might actually be his most serious yet. He plays Ed “The Ned” Needham, a top NSA agent actively pursuing a network of elite Russian criminals in Fede Álvarez’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the follow-up to David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. “Needham’s task is protecting American intelligence—he would be the type of person who takes the matrix very seriously,” Stanfield says and laughs. “It’s me like you’ve never seen me before.” The character was such a departure in terms of tone that Stanfield had to spend extra time finding Needham within himself before things clicked into place. “I was panicking in my hotel room before shooting because here I was with a role I auditioned for that I did not think I would actually get, so it took me a minute to get into the rhythm of it. But once I got it, I had this amazing moment.” He snaps his fingers. “Oh! That’s what this is. Once I had the realization, it was easy for me.”
The role required that Stanfield undergo rigorous hand-to-hand combat training, and commit to action scenes shot in the frigid winter climates of Berlin, Stockholm, and Leipzig. “It was super fun running around, guns blazing,” he recalls. “It was a beautiful, transformative experience for me. I love Claire Foy, she is fucking amazing. But most of my scenes are with this…ghost.” He lets out a laugh. “No, I’m joking.”
With Stanfield’s newfound success, “things have opened up for me quite a bit,” he admits. “There are some interesting things I’m thinking about moving forward with that I’m very excited about, projects that would be very very challenging for me. But that’s the thing I want to do is challenge myself. If I crash and burn, I want everyone to still believe in me, and think I’ve got something left. There are a lot of different perspectives now. I have a movie called Someone Great with Gina Rodriguez that’s coming out. It’s a romantic comedy, but a beautiful take and a unique perspective. The things I’m diving into now, which I wish I could talk about, are so crazy. It’s getting much much better.”
Given his singular point of view, it’s natural to wonder if Stanfield, like his costar Donald Glover, will step into a producer or director role down the line. “I’m working on something right now,” he reveals. “I wish I could talk about it but I don’t want to spoil it at all. It’s really exciting and something that is just an exploration into, I guess, my imagination. I’m realizing now more that that’s where I need to channel my energy. I have a lot I want to say and a lot I want to do, but I can be frenetic and impulsive sometimes and I think I need to take that, put it into the work, and let the work speak for how I feel about things.” He credits Riley and Álvarez with helping him see things from a director’s point of view, and discloses another mentor as well. “I worked with Spike Jonze and he gave me some really good tips. He said, ‘Just get out there and fucking do it, man.’ And I’m doing it.”
CR Men Issue 7 is available alongside CR Fashion Book Issue 13, and will be on newsstands starting September 13, 2018. To pre-order an advance copy click here, and sign up for our newsletter for exclusive stories from the new issue.
PHOTOGRAPHS ROE ETHRIDGE
FASHION HALEY WOLLENS
GROOMING FRANCELLE DALY
MANICURE MEI KAWAJIRI
SET DESIGN PETER KLEIN
PRODUCTION KATIE TUCKER
CASTING EVELIEN JOOS
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