Lakeith Stanfield is a man of multitudes. To hear him in conversation is to understand what has made him one of the most sought-after young actors in Hollywood – he’s unpredictable, vulnerable and somewhat unknowable, all at once. It’s this tension that allows Stanfield to seamlessly inhabit magnetic and offbeat characters: as the philosophical oddball stoner, Darius, on Donald Glover’s hit TV show Atlanta, the abducted zombie-like Andre in Get Out, and the half-human anti-capitalist insurrectionist Cassius in Sorry to Bother You. If an actor’s job is to show us the contradictions and complications of the human mind and heart, Stanfield certainly hits the mark.
Through meditation and wellness, the LA-native is now committed to exploring these human conditions and bettering himself – mind, body and soul – in order to unlock his true potential. Stepping back and allowing his on-screen performances to do the majority of the talking, this year sees Stanfield star in two major films both set for release during awards season: a tense and hilarious whodunnit titled Knives Out with an ensemble that includes Michael Shannon and Daniel Craig, and A24’s new crime-comedy Uncut Gems alongside Adam Sandler. And so, on the eve of this next chapter in his career, Stanfield explained the many things in his head.
Alex Frank: Are you someone who re-watches old performances to critique and improve yourself?
Lakeith Stanfield: I used to do that but now I’m less inclined to even watch it. I don’t think there’s much value in that. I get more from watching other people.
AF: You mean just observing human behaviour?
AF: What have you learned?
LS: That there’s not much you can really learn. It’s so unpredictable. It’s an unending nebulous of emotions and craziness. We’re the craziest animal ever to have existed.
AF: You’ve worked with some of the most acclaimed directors of our time – how do you decide who you want to work with?
LS: There needs to be such symbiosis to make a movie or TV show really good. You have to move as a unit. It’s become more important to find people that you can move organically with and understand, you could have the most talented people in the room and a giant team of people who have won all these prestigious awards and a great script and still the thing can come out not being as good as everyone expected it to be. But you know, every now and again you do have to roll the dice.
AF: But you have a remarkable batting average at this point. Get Out has obviously been a culture-shifting phenomenon. How did you know that it was the right movie for you?
LS: I didn’t. I had no idea.
AF: You didn’t immediately know it was a part you wanted?
LS: Not really. I thought it was kind of weird. At that time I hadn’t done anything like it. I wanted to play Daniel [Kaluuya]’s role. I thought it was more like a comedy than a [horror movie], because I knew Jordan [Peele, director] from Key & Peele. I don’t think any of us were expecting it to do what it did. We were all just waiting for it to come out, and then it blew up.
AF: Two of your biggest movies, the anti-capitalist Sorry to Bother You and the racial horror movie Get Out, both have underlying political themes – is that part of what attracted you to them?
LS: Sorry to Bother You more so than Get Out. Like I said, to be honest, I didn’t really quite get Get Out. I knew loosely what it was saying, but I didn’t take it that seriously in terms of the deeper message. I was like, “Here’s an opportunity to create something interesting about race, to have a discussion.” But I didn’t know it was going to genuinely scare me and end up being something that I was like, “Woah, metaphysically this is really moving.” I didn’t expect that. On the [script] page it’s different. With Sorry to Bother You, I knew exactly what I was getting into and I was ready to have this conversation. I was interested in that world because I didn’t know much about it. Boots [Riley, director] is like a giant encyclopedia and dictionary, every day he was telling me different things about capitalism and protests.
AF: Did that affect how you see the world and how you see politics?
LS: To some extent. I’ve always been a bit cynical about certain aspects of America, especially economics. Being black, I know things about the history of black people and the socio-economics and where we stand. I was already interested, but Boots gave me more insight into the inner workings of things. It hit home for me.
AF: Are you following the political situation in America right now? The Democratic primary?
LS: No. It’s not that I don’t care. I’m just trying to focus on myself right now and better myself.
AF: How are you doing that?
LS: Meditating. Spending time away from people. That’s why it’s a little jarring to talk [to you] right now, because I’m trying to spend a lot of time not talking. I’m trying to find ways to reflect and find peace.
AF: Do you go on meditation retreats?
LS: I kind of have one in my house. I have a pond and a bunch of trees, so I just sit there next to my pond and feed my fish and chill with them. They’re Koi fish. They just look at me like, “You know the answer, bro.”
AF: Do you subscribe to any philosophies to guide your life?
LS: Nothing too special. Balance. Mind, body, spirit. I think about things in terms of every good thing also having its bad side.
AF: And are you careful about diet?
LS: I am. I eat pretty much everything organic and I try to work out every day. But I also drink a lot. So I’m trying to keep it balanced. I’m trying to do less of the drinking, and sometimes I smoke cigarettes when I drink too. I want to do more of the positives than the self-destructive stuff. But it’s part of the journey of being better.
“I have a pond and a bunch of trees, so I just sit there next to my pond and feed my fish and chill with them. They’re Koi fish. They just look at me like, “You know the answer, bro.””
AF: You work out every day?
LS: Yes. I might be with a personal trainer, but when I’m not doing that I have a little home gym set-up thing where I just do the basics. I’m not really into the rigorous workout routine, but for an hour I’ll do core bodywork. Just get the blood flowing a little bit, then stretch out.
AF: Are you as relaxed as you seem on screen?
LS: It’s cool that I give that impression, but I’m definitely not always calm. Actually, I have to find calm. I’m very sensitive, so I kind of get affected by everything that’s happening around me in some way, negative or positive. I’m always thinking about the downtrodden, people who are less fortunate, and the violence that happens across the globe. There’s a whole other side [to me] that’s a bit more… I hate to say dark because I just don’t really like that word to describe negative things, but I guess for all intents and purposes, dark.
AF: Can you imagine yourself writing or directing in the future?
LS: I’m trying to write stuff right now. I’d love to direct.
AF: I wondered if some of Darius’s lines on Atlanta, came from you improvising.
LS: It’s a little bit of both, scripted and not. But then everything I do pretty much ends up in the show, which is kind of nice. [Even] when I make a crazy decision. Especially in season two, I was able to get a sense of what Darius was like, the types of things he does, what’s appropriate for him at certain times, and how he fits into the larger story.
AF: When you’re on set, what kind of mental state do you need to be in to deliver a performance?
LS: You’ve got to kind of let go of everything, which is sometimes why it’s scary, because you don’t really know what you’re gonna do. Sometimes when you’re leaving the set it can feel like, “What the hell did I just do?” But I guess you just kind of trust the process, trust the people that you’re with and let go.
AF: In that moment when you’re acting, you don’t really know what’s going on?
LS: Yeah, it’s like freestyle dancing or something. Or like stream-of-consciousness painting, where you just hold the brush and let it take you. Of course, you’re guided by your lines and what’s going on in the scene, but you try as much as possible – I think I do – to give in to the moment. Sometimes you’ll find yourself experiencing things you didn’t anticipate. It’s like, “Oh shit, what the fuck, I just scratched my balls in the middle of the scene.” I think there’s a moment in season two of Atlanta when Darius scratches his balls, I hadn’t even thought about it until I saw it later and was like, “Oh shit” [laughs]. They kept it in because I guess it looks real.
AF: Do you think of your performances as naturalistic?
LS: Yeah. It’s hard to act unless it’s in some way real to you, you know?
AF: Sure, there was a period where you sort of gave up on acting because it wasn’t really working out. What did that feel like?
LS: I’d failed at auditions for a while. I wasn’t able to book anything, and so I felt like I’d failed. But it was more like losing the battle and not the war. I felt at some point I’d be able to come back and do something. Every failure I’ve had feels like my own. Like I got in my own way. Maybe you make a mistake or misstep, but don’t beat yourself up over it. You’ve just got to continue, keep pushing and look at it as an opportunity to learn rather than an opportunity to burn.
AF: Having got through that period in your life, do you now feel successful?
LS: I’m grateful that I can live without having to struggle as much as I did before. Now I can feed my family, I feel good about that and I’m very grateful to be in a line of work that affords me the ability to do so. But no, I still feel like I’m on the hamster wheel. Struggle changes human beings. No matter how much money I have, I’ll never lose that hunger. Sometimes you do have to look in a mirror and look back and remember who you are.
AF: How about getting ground-up by the Hollywood machine – do you ever find yourself lost in the bullshit?
LS: I don’t know if there’s a right answer to that and I don’t know the beginnings and ends of how it affects me. One thing I find important is unplugging from it a little bit and getting away. I remember one time in particular when I was in the ‘black room,’ this room where a bunch of black artists tend to congregate at Sundance. This is right after Get Out came out. Everyone was telling me how much they loved it and were like, “Yo, good job brother – for the culture!” High-fives and all this shit. For a second there I was like, “Wow, they really love me.” And then I had to snap out of it. You have these moments where you have to slap yourself awake from all the glitz, glamour and adoration – and most of it isn’t even really that. It’s just wanting to be next to people for an Instagram photo [laughs]. You’ve got to get out of that lull, don’t get caught up in that shit. That’s not what the fuck I did the movie for.
AF: So why do you make movies?
LS: It’s who I am. I like stories. I like humans.
AF: Some see you as part of a black artistic renaissance in film and television. Do you feel a part of that?
LS: No. I’m just an actor.
AF: Have you felt pressure as a black actor to do certain projects or represent yourself in a certain way?
LS: No, not at all. I’m just conscious of the experiences that I carry being a young black man. Those are things that are obviously going to materialise and come through in the work. But first, I’m a man, a human. I don’t think there’s a pressure at all. I used to think that there was, but now I understand that it’s all one story. There’s no reason to be in major contention, I’m not a politician or anything. I’m just dancing around.
AF: What are your larger ambitions?
LS: I want to try and help people who wouldn’t otherwise be heard and I really want to give kids the chance to realise their dreams. I know how beautiful it was for me to have an opportunity to just stand on a stage, so hopefully I can help bring in the new kids. I just want to make people laugh and cry and join in on this game and this journey.
AF: Are you currently reading anything interesting?
LS: Right now I’m reading a dissertation on black people and the rise of extremism in Chicago. It actually goes back further than the 60s, this particular dissertation. I’m interested in the origins of why the city is the way it is. The violence. It’s interesting to go back through history and look at all the things that happened there, particularly in terms of the struggle between the police department and the citizens, especially the black citizens, including the Irish. You see that this is nothing new, the only new thing about it now is that the violence that’s currently happening is at the hands of blacks to blacks, whereas before it was always the police department, which was predominantly white, or white citizens from places surrounding Chicago who caused the violence. But now it’s like they’re thoroughly [connected to] their own destruction. I’m still reading up on it, but a lot of it is because of the economics, drugs and having access to weapons. Crazy fucking weapons by the way, not regular handguns, I’m talking about AR-15s just laying on the ground in an alley or in a bucket somewhere. It’s crazy. But yeah, I’m just interested to learn more about it. Part of it is research for an upcoming project I’m doing.
AF: Would you say that you’re an optimist when it comes to the current state of the world?
LS: Sometimes. I mean, I get up every day. I don’t really know if it’s hope. You’ve just got to keep on dancing and find ways to make things better. I think that’s how you change the world – as an individual.
Knives Out is in cinemas now. Uncut Gems will be in UK cinemas from 10th January, and available on Netflix in late January.
Feature originally published in HERO 22.
All clothing and accessories by SAINT LAURENT by ANTHONY VACCARELLO SS20.