LaKeith wears jacket, shirt and trousers Bode and hat New Era

LaKeith Stanfield is one of Hollywood’s most stunningly diverse actors

Volume 4 Issue 003: The acting choices of LaKeith Stansfield demonstrate range, taste, and a predilection for the uncanny. As well the ecstatically received Uncut Gems and the romantic drama The Photograph, love is another role he’s dived into – head first.

Arti­cle tak­en from The Face Vol­ume 4 Issue 003. Order your copy here.

Last year, as he was preparing to attend the premiere of Joker in Hollywood, LaKeith Stanfield logged on to Instagram and went live. The front-facing camera found him cackling in full clown make-up – white powder, jarring red lips, raccoon eyes. A green beanie covered his head, and he wore a black turtleneck and gold chains. 

This is real gangster shit,” he said, randomly selecting a fan to join the broadcast from his hotel room, the screen splitting to reveal two faces side by side. 

Instagram Live is a publicist’s nightmare, a chaotic medium that gives immediate access to celebrities bold enough to try it. It has mostly become the domain of rappers and comedians, the kind of artists who already have active interactions with their fans online. But rarely movie stars. 

When he shows up on Live that day, Stanfield is gleeful and in character, taking swigs of brown liquor from a wine glass. The fan’s face is pulled close into the camera. What you up to, homie?” Stanfield asks him.

I just buried my pops today, bro,” the man says. 

Stanfield’s face falls. The camera stabilises. His voice returns to its deep tenor and the character breaks. I’m sorry to hear that man,” Stanfield says, soberly, tenderly. His entire demeanour changes. I hope I can make you laugh today,” he says, entertaining the fan for several more minutes. 

Almost six months later, I’m sitting opposite Stanfield in a Los Angeles warehouse. Usually my relationship with [social media] is that it’s fickle and it’s just fun,” the 28-year-old actor says when I ask about the touching Live moment. But I love people and I love stories, and you’ll catch me slipping if you come on there being real. Then you’ll catch mebeing real, you know?”

Over the course of his nascent career, Stanfield has cultivated an air of unpredictability. It began, maybe, with crashing the Critics’ Choice Awards stage in 2016. He was there as a cast member of Atlanta, Donald Glover’s absurdist dramedy about an Atlanta rapper and his cousin navigating the rap industry, but Stanfield appeared at the mic in a sailor’s hat to accept the award for Best Comedy Series on behalf of Silicon Valley, TV show he wasn’t even part of. 

I want to thank everybody for honouring us in this way,” Stanfield says, deadpan, to a bewildered industry audience. We worked very hard on Silicon Valley and here we are. Thank you.” The prankish moment went viral. 

The next year, he attended the Primetime Emmy Awards as a cast member of Atlanta once again. Instead of walking the red carpet, he sat on it. Instead of smiling, he glowered. 

His roles before, and since Atlanta, in which he appears as eccentric stoner Darius Epps, have been stunningly diverse – from playing Marcus, a suicidal teenager living in a group facility in 2013’s Short Term 12 (his debut role) to starring in Boots Riley’s 2018 hit Sorry to Bother You as Cassius Green, a black telemarketer who rises from the ranks at his company by adopting a white voice” and eventually unearthing a twisted capitalist conspiracy and a basement full of mutants. 

Stanfield’s off-beat choices demonstrate range – but more than that they show taste, and a predilection for the uncanny and the surreal. In 2017 he appeared in Get Out, Jordan Peele’s celebrated directorial debut, and delivered a chilling and unsettling performance as Andre Logan King, whose body had been colonised by an older white man. Last year he appeared in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, in which he played a stoic detective ­investigating the murder of a famous crime novelist.

Shirt Prada

Stanfield has become effectively inescapable in recent years, his portfolio as prolific as it is hetero­geneous. If you came anywhere within 10 feet of a movie theatre, or in fact a Netflix account, this past year you would have encountered his mug somewhere – most recently in the Safdie brothers’ ecstatically received Uncut Gems, where, even playing against a truly spellbinding performance by Adam Sandler, he still manages to leave an impression. The night after our interview, Stanfield appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to announce his intention to play The Joker. Wait til they see me do it,” he told Fallon. In 2018 he told Hollywood news website Deadline: I want people to dress up as me as black Joker, when that inevitably happens.”

His career choices are helping to break down expectations of what roles people should, and can, play. Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past, which trickles all the way down into the roles and types of movies,” he says. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I’m not very interested in that part, and I think it’s quite lazy,” he explains.

His new movie is another swerve of expectations and introduces him to an entirely new audience. The Photograph is a romantic drama and positions Stanfield as a love interest to Issa Rae, whose success as the writer-­creator of the TV series Insecure has catapulted her into the film industry. He plays a journalist assigned to profile her estranged mother (a photographer), and the two start to fall in love. 

It’s not the first time Stanfield has played a romantic role (you can see him play Gina Rodriguez’s ex-boyfriend in the Netflix romcom Someone Great) but it’s his most notable one yet. I’m trying to reach out and experience as much as I can, so I like to jump around, whatever I haven’t touched before, a new experience,” he says. He’s far more composed in person than his red- carpet persona or press coverage would have you believe. His eyes betray boredom, maybe a little wariness, which is understandable because I’m a journalist and he’s a subject, a dynamic that is inherently uncomfortable. 

In the past, Stanfield has navigated that relationship – between himself and the press – with absurdist antics, such as putting on a British accent or delivering nonsensical answers to straightforward questions. While promoting the live-action adaptation of Japanese anime Death Note in 2017, a GQ interviewer struggled to extract a serious answer from the young actor. What are you actually interested in outside of work? the reporter asked. I think that every day I get up is work,” said Stanfield. And it’s easy to sit down and not do anything. But it is difficult to get through the day. So that is work for me. Everything I do, everything I touch. Everything I see, everything I smell, everything I eat, everything I poop is… work.”

  • I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.”  I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love.” 

It takes about two hours to get to Los Angeles from Victorville, California. An hour-and-a-half if there’s no traffic. Located at the very edge of the Mojave Desert, the climate is dry, the summers are sweltering, and the horizon is flat. This is where Stanfield grew up, just close enough to Hollywood that its mirages felt real. 

And it’s in the arid landscape of the Mojave Desert that Stanfield learned to love plants. First, it was the tree in his aunt’s yard in San Bernardino, where he was born. He grew his own plants and identified them by their botanical names. Then it was the cannabis plants that he helped tend to in a house in Victorville when he was 18. The owner had broken down all the walls and filled it with marijuana flowers, turning it into a grow house. We would raise them [as] babies up until they matured and smoke them, and get close to them,” he says. It was kind of a spiritual experience.” 

Now, as an adult, he surrounds himself with plants – the kind you can’t smoke. Wherever I live there’s got to be plants around. I love vegetation. They’re the kinds of beings I love. Just neutral, just doing their thing, unbothered by all the other little games we play as humans,” he says. So does he prefer plants to humans? Humans are all right. I like to play em,” he replies (with no shortage of double meaning). 

It’s easy to imagine LaKeith Stanfield as a precocious child. He loved theatrics. The British accent, the one he whips out to disorient reporters at press junkets? It’s one he has been practising since he was kid at his family dinner table. By the time he was a teenager he’d developed a curious interest in acting and took up drama in high school. 

It was probably the only class I really liked,” he says. That and maybe history. I like history because I always thought it was a lie. I liked to be in the centre going, Fuck that. All that’s a lie.’” 

Jacket, T-shirt and trousers Telfar, shoes and socks stylist’s own.

While in high school he started auditioning, everywhere. And he kept hitting lots of dead ends. But then he met Destin Daniel Cretton (brilliantly, destin” is the French word for destiny), who was a college student casting for his short film – one he would later adapt into the critically acclaimed Short Term 12, starring Brie Larson. He cast Stanfield for the original but they lost contact in between projects because Stanfield didn’t have a phone. He’d just moved to LA and was living in his car, struggling to make ends meet. 

I realised that he’d been trying to contact me so I went and auditioned for the feature,” says Stanfield. He got the part again. The film became an indie darling, based loosely on Cretton’s own experiences living in a group home. Stanfield’s mournful eyes bring weight to a compelling performance, his youth undercut by a life of painful experiences. His moving performance earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Independent Spirit Awards, bringing him into the Hollywood fold. 

He spent his first big pay cheque on two months’ worth of burgers at a Mexican burger joint in Echo Park. It was so fire. I lived off those for a long time. That’s what I first spent my money on, just straight burgers,” he says. And parking tickets.” 

Now he can do a lot better than burgers.

I never would have thought I’d be in a position to help people I love and care about, and see smiles on their faces when we were hungry as fuck and didn’t have anything to eat,” he says. When I first started, I felt weird about giving money to people I care about. Now I realise life is short. If you don’t have to worry about your stomach growling any more, it’s a fucking beautiful thing, and I want to be able to provide that.”

  • Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.”  Hollywood designs things in ways that have worked in the past. Stereotypes perpetuate stereotypes. I think it’s quite lazy.” 

By Los Angeles standards it’s chilly outside on the late January day of the photoshoot. Stanfield is wearing a black hoodie and sweatpants when he shows up. If you watch him carefully you notice his languid gait tighten up imperceptibly as he emerges from the elevator into a room full of people who already know who he is. 

He slips into the role of the entertainer easily. He dances as he dresses. He plays with the props. He dumps a whole bag of blue gumballs into his mouth without pause. He hops onto a wooden dolly and rocks back and forth on it like a skateboard, twisting his narrow hips to move it around. He takes command of the set. 

Can we do a cowboy look next?” he asks the stylist. Can we play 5D by Death Grips?” he asks the photographer. Can we play Miss You Much by Janet Jackson? Can we play the soundtrack of Uncut Gems?

Mischievous energy buzzes underneath thesurface of every movement he makes. He’s restless and fidgety. He has a busy year ahead of him: season three of Atlanta is finally coming out after more than a year’s delay. He’s producing Yasuke, an anime for Netflix about the first black Samurai – the first major series he’s helmed behind the scenes. 

He’s also starring in an as yet unnamed project about the Black Panther revolutionary Fred Hampton by filmmaker Shaka King. He’ll play William O’Neal, a man who infiltrated the Black Panthers and supplied the FBI with the information they needed to kill the activist. It was challenging for Stanfield to play such an unpopular figure in the African-American community. 

I had to feel a lot of emotions I don’t really align with – elation at certain things and gratitude for certain things that I normally don’t really fuck with,” he says. But if you go deep enough, you can find it. You can find those feelings and it’s like, Wow, damn, actually I can feel these feelings and I can identify with these things.’ So yeah, it was a revelation for me.” It seems to be his way of saying that, as an actor, it’s his responsibility to be able to play absolutely anyone, to be able to figure out their humanity and their complexities. To see what makes them tick. 

Shirt and trousers Stüssy, shoes adidas and hat Nick Fouquet

Film posters of The Photograph feature Stanfield and Issa Rae standing forehead to forehead in an intimate embrace – and they are visible all over Los Angeles, from the billboards to bus benches along major city highways. He posted an image of one on Instagram in January and wrote: Well now would you look at that? This reminds me of when I kept seeing billboards for A Star is Born and I was annoyed. But since it’s me I ain’t mad.”

I wanted to be a part of something that was perpetuating the imagery of black love and dark-skin black love,” he tells me of a movie that sees two of the most loved faces, from two of the most critically acclaimed African-American TV shows of recent years, coming together in a mainstream romantic drama. Apart from a few exceptions – such as turn-of-the-century ­classics Love & Basketball(2000) and Brown Sugar (2002), as well as the more contemporary Moonlight (2016) and this year’s Queen & Slim – major feature films that depict love between two black people remain few and far between. We’ve seen it before, but usually one of the people in the couple is lighter,” he adds today. 

He’s in a relationship himself, though Stanfield is cagey about his personal life. He makes oblique ­reference to it when, at the end of the interview, he asks me, without context, to promote Cherish the Day, a romantic TV drama on the Oprah Winfrey Network starring Xosha Roquemore, his partner with whom he has a child. I wanted to do The Photograph because I was in a love situation, and am in a love situation that’s very complicated and has a lot of different elements involved in it,” he says. 

How many times have you been in love? I ask. 

I always thought that love was something else as I was growing up,” he says. When I was a little kid I was like, Oh, I’m in love.’ Then I was a teenager, I was like, Oh, I’m in love.’ Then I was a young adult, I’m like, Oh, I’m in love.’ But now I think I’m getting it.” 

This vulnerability comes as surprising from someone who has always presented himself to the press as some kind of prankster, but it’s a vulnerability he’s now putting into practice. Loving others is just as ­difficult [as loving yourself], if not more difficult,” he says. It takes courageousness and vulnerability in a way that most things don’t require.”


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