KiKi Layne refuses to be put in a box

Still from The Old Guard (2020)

The breakout star of Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk is back on our screens with a role in a comic-book movie. Lockdown might have left her in limbo, but Layne remains resolutely focused on her goal: to break through the boundaries and limitations of Hollywood.

KiKi Layne is itching to get back to normality after the Hollywood lockdown left her in a seemingly endless limbo. It’s been a few weeks now,” laughs the 28-year-old, who temporarily relocated from Los Angeles to her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. I just couldn’t quarantine by myself anymore.” Although she has enjoyed being able to spend time with her family, the slower pace of life is a far cry from the intensity of filming her new high-octane action film The Old Guard. I’ve never trained that much in my life,” Layne says. We were seriously training for hours a day, all types of stuff … the stunts, the choreography, guns and weapons.”

In the Netflix-released action-thriller, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, Layne plays Nile Freeman, a young soldier co-opted into a team of immortal mercenaries by their audacious leader Andy (played by Charlize Theron). The veteran members of the team have been carrying out mostly benevolent acts for centuries, but things take an even stranger turn soon after Nile joins up and finds herself at the forefront of a battle to stop the team being exposed and losing their power. Like the graphic novel on which it is based, The Old Guard is packed with combat sequences. “[The scenes] were challenging, but fun,” Layne says. The physicality is so important to this character those fights are just an extension of the story that we’re telling. So we have to be fully committed to executing that to the best of our abilities, even though we’re playing these people with all this military experience, but we were going for it.”

Nile is no dead-eyed fighting machine, however, and her vulnerability is clear as she tries to adjust to her new reality. This required Layne to skilfully balance Nile’s stoicism with her emotional intelligence. I was excited for the opportunity to play someone who has this strong physicality. She also has so much heart to her that I definitely was excited for the opportunity to play those two things. Someone [who] is that strong, [a] physical kick-ass leader, but still has such a heart and vulnerability to her that we get to see,” Layne says.

Layne’s role in The Old Guard is very different to the others she has played so far in her short, but eventful, career. One of her first acting gigs was on a pilot for Chicago-based TV drama The Chi in 2015, but it was her breakthrough role as Tish in 2018’s Barry Jenkins-directed If Beale Street Could Talk that really turned heads. In the acclaimed romantic drama based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, Layne powerfully captured Tish’s teenage turmoil as she and her lover navigated the ever-present reality of systemic racism in America. The performance cemented her place on the list of Hollywood’s most exciting young newcomers.

I see the light that is there, but it’s really painful. Every day it’s something new, there’s a new video, there’s a new name. It’s been tough”

She describes being directed by Jenkins, who won the best director Oscar for Moonlight in 2016, as one of her career highlights. I’m very grateful to Barry and everyone that was a part of giving me that shot. Because one of the things that can kind of drive an actor crazy is that you’re really only one job away from getting to the places that you’ve always dreamed of – of getting that right job. And so [Beale Street was] definitely a catapult for my entire career.”

When The Old Guard adaptation was announced, Layne knew the chance of working with another big-hitter – Gina Prince-Blythewood, whose previous films include LoveBasketball – was too good an opportunity to pass up. The very first thing that attracted me to the role was actually the opportunity to work with Gina. Just hearing that she was directing it, I was excited. So that was the very first thing. And then once I actually got to read the novel and read the script, I got excited about playing Nile. One, because it’s something very different for me, and not what people have seen so far,” says Layne.

Layne, who will next appear in Coming to America 2 alongside Eddie Murphy in December, names Ava DuVernay and Viola Davis as the Hollywood legends she would most like to work with in the future. For now, though, she’d settle for just knowing when the cameras will start rolling again. What we’re all waiting for right now is learning when we can get back to work. It’s all shut down. I’m trying to not get too hung up on that though because it is out of my hands.”

In recent weeks, Layne has also been reflecting on the horrifying events that sparked the Black Lives Matters protests – and whether they will bring lasting change. I feel so many things about what’s happening right now,” she says. I see the light that is there, but it’s definitely painful; it’s really painful. And I feel like every day it’s something new, there’s a new video, there’s a new name. It’s been tough, but I feel that this time around, compared to other moments where we’ve protested, is that… it’s going beyond just police brutality.”

Does she think the movement will lead to more diversity in Hollywood? We are calling out industries, organisations, entities and the powers that be regarding the treatment and representation of black people,” she says. Hollywood is on that list too as an entity that is being called out. And it’s being put into a position of being held accountable. I think that makes this moment something that could be a catalyst for some real change.”

Regardless of the direction that Hollywood is heading in, Layne remains resolutely focused on her goal: to break through the boundaries and limitations faced by actresses that look like me”. She adds: If I can look back on my career and say I kind of did a little bit of everything, that I didn’t get put into any type of boxes like, oh, these are the two types of roles that KiKi Layne is appropriate for’, then I’ll feel good about the work that I’ve done here.”

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