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Lakeith Stanfield Breaks the Mold for African-American Actors

  • Actor, poet and rapper Lakeith Stanfieldstars in “Sorry to Bother You.” MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Brinson+Banks (Photo by Brinson+Banks)

  • Tessa Thompson as Detroit and Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green star in director Boots Riley's "Sorry to Bother You." MUST CREDIT: Annapurna Pictures.

  • It’s been dangerous for a black man to be himself,” Lakeith Stanfield says. “There’s so many facades that we had to keep up for so long.” MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Brinson+Banks

  • Lakeith Stanfield, left, and Donald Glover in "Atlanta." MUST CREDIT: Guy D'Alema, FX



The Washington Post
Friday, July 13, 2018

Los Angeles — Lakeith Stanfield arrives wearing a captain’s hat. It’s an incongruous capper to his casual outfit: a football jersey of a player he doesn’t know, and Gucci loafers embroidered with insects, which make an odd kind of sense, given that Stanfield’s screen presence is the human Jiminy Cricket, an empath with springy limbs and giant eyes.

“I just love dressing up,” the 26-year-old actor says. “It’s part of my expression, whatever I’m feeling on any given day. I might appear in a sundress if it’s hot enough, because I like feeling the sun all over me.” His closet is a mess. “Everything on the floor, nothing on the hangers.” But compared with the turbans, kimonos, fishnet masks, leather harnesses and bouffant wigs he’s paraded on red carpets, today’s threads are subdued.

Stanfield has worn his captain’s hat before, most famously at the 2016 Critics’ Choice Awards, when his TV show Atlanta, created by Donald Glover, lost best comedy series to Silicon Valley. Stanfield beat the winners to the stage to politely thank the audience on behalf of Silicon Valley. After Stanfield exited, the show’s real executive producer claimed the mic and said, laughing, “No idea who that was.”

He does now. Stragglers are learning as Stanfield’s new film, the Sundance favorite Sorry to Bother You, reaches theaters. In this debut comedy by Oakland musician-turned-filmmaker Boots Riley, Stanfield plays a broke telemarketer named Cassius Green who is so desperate to move out of his Uncle Sergio’s (Terry Crews) garage that he fakes a “white voice,” dubbed by David Cross, to sell encyclopedias. The ruse works. Cassius is promoted, but now he’s pitching a different product, an indentured-servant start-up founded by tech bro disrupter Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). In addition to selling his heritage, Cassius will have to sell his humanity.

Sorry to Bother You is a Molotov cocktail in movie form, an explosive introduction to the brain of Boots Riley, who blends Michel Gondry’s playfulness with Spike Lee’s verve. “He’s an activist and a revolutionary and an artist,” Stanfield says of Riley, and so anti-technology that the special effects are done in-camera, including the gag when strangers answer Cassius’s cold calls and his cubicle literally crashes into their living rooms like Dorothy’s house landing in Oz. To shoot those scenes, five strong guys hoisted a platform that held Stanfield at his desk and chair nine feet in the air — “almost like you carry a pharaoh” — and when Riley yelled action, let him drop. If his computer went flying, he’d grab it and keep acting.

“(Stanfield’s) portrayals come off so real, because his process seems to be about what’s happening right then,” Riley says. “He makes certain choices that other actors wouldn’t make because he’s not thinking about his face, he’s not thinking, ‘This is how I perform.’ He’s thinking about just being in that situation.”

To Riley, Stanfield is always absorbing the world and sending back vibrations on his unique wavelength. He challenges other actors to match his electric style of performance. James Dean did that, but Stanfield also isn’t one of the many Dean imitators.

“He’s not the new anybody,” Riley clarifies, “but it’s like when you look at how everyone talked in old movies, and then all of a sudden, a couple people didn’t, and it seemed so revolutionary. We’re going have to talk about how everybody didn’t use to act like Lakeith Stanfield.”

“I’ve always loved films like A Clockwork Orange and The Lobster,” Stanfield says, citing his inspirations. But young black men aren’t cast in movies like that. Stanfield has played a foster kid (Short Term 12), a rapper (Straight Outta Compton), an inmate (Crown Heights), a gang member (Dope), a heroin-addicted jazz trumpeter (Miles Ahead), a murdered Civil Rights protester (Selma) and, in perhaps his most famous role to date, the brain-zapped opening victim in Get Out whose urgent yelp gives the horror flick its name.

He’s been terrific in each film, but Sorry to Bother You is the showcase Stanfield has been waiting for, a film that’s absurd, brilliant, creative, furious, emotional, political and bizarre. It’s Stanfield’s id, and it’s his battle cry to let black actors get weird.

Stanfield was born creative. As a child, he scribbled poems and drawings and symbols all over his bedroom walls, much like how his tattooed arms look today. Victorville, Calif., was a tough place to grow up. “The Inland Empire!” Stanfield mocks, in a plummy BBC voice. “They were trying to make people believe that it was fancy when it was a project.”

At the end of high school, he looked online and found a manager who sent him out for Disney Channel-type gigs. Stanfield can do young and goofy, but nothing clicked. Finally, his mom drove him to an audition for a 22-minute San Diego State University grad student film called Short Term 12.

“It was instantly apparent that he was somebody special,” says Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton, who cast Stanfield as an orphaned teenager angry about aging out of his group home. “He’s got these eyes that just speak. They feel so human. The character wasn’t a talkative character, but his eyes were so telling of a thinking brain, somebody who is really feeling the pain of his past.”

Short Term 12 won the top short film jury prize at Sundance in 2009. Three years later, Cretton scored the funding to turn it into a feature film starring Brie Larson. But Stanfield couldn’t be found. He still hadn’t gotten another role, so he’d left his manager and changed his phone number.

Instead, Stanfield was performing another script: selling cable Internet service door-to-door. “Hello-my-name-is-Lakeith-Stanfield-I’m-with-AT&T-U-Verse-nice-to-meet-you,” he mumbles. The guy who trained him was an Oscar-caliber salesman.

“It is like acting, actually — attempting to make people think that I’m a benign person” Stanfield says. “Now that I think about it, it was really similar to Sorry to Bother You. Man! That’s crazy.”

He was a good pitchman. Strangers would give him brownies and trinkets, especially after he threw the script away to just try to connect with people. “There were some people who I thought for sure would probably judge someone like me, and they didn’t,” Stanfield says. “It was nice.”

Finally, he checked his email and saw an old message from Cretton about the remake of Short Term 12. The next day, Stanfield’s mom drove him to Los Angeles again, and, at the audition he made Cretton cry. “Everybody was just very relieved that we found him,” Cretton says.

He won the part and a spot on Cretton’s couch because he couldn’t afford an apartment. His heartbreaking performance as Marcus, particularly in a scene in which the teen reads lyrics he wrote about his abusive mother (“He’s rapping as a 16-, 17-year-old-kid, but you can see it in his eyes that he’s rapping as an 8-year-old,” Cretton says), earned him an Indie Spirit nomination for best supporting actor. At the awards ceremony, he drunkenly snagged a selfie with director Ava DuVernay, not knowing who she was. DuVernay gave him a small part in Selma, and after a few months on Cretton’s couch, Stanfield was able to move to Los Angeles.

In those early days, he’d prepare for auditions by recording himself on a laptop repeatedly, making adjustments until he felt as though he connected through the screen. He likes technology. Today, he owns five drones and a wired house and car that respond to him as though they’re alive. Usually.

“Remind me to get a ball,” Stanfield asks Siri. He’s ignored. “Remind me to get a ball. Remind me to get a ball in a few hours.” Finally, Siri responds: OK, I’ll remind you. Stanfield sighs. “I don’t know if you are OK, Siri. Thank you.”

“I’m not afraid of some robot takeover,” Stanfield adds. “I am completely for the idea of transhumanism.”

His embrace of the future is the biggest gap between him and Sorry to Bother You’s likely not-far-off prediction that poor workers like Cassius are dehumanized by their jobs and reality TV. Cassius’s girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a dynamic performance artist, tries and fails to guide his conscience. But after Cassius gets rich, he’s invited to a Pleasure Island where his body risks being exploited by the truly powerful.

That’s not far off from Stanfield’s role in Get Out, where he’s kidnapped and reappears as a modern-day Frankenstein implanted with an old white man’s brain. Shooting Get Out’s infamous party scene in Alabama, he had to work to stay in character while white extras crowded around him stroking his arms.

“They were like, ‘Ooooh look at its skin, look at its tattoos — they’re so expressive,’ ” Stanfield says. “They’re talking about me like I’m an animal, and that feeling was very wow, so this must have been what it felt like when the slaves were up on the chopping block and people were examining their balls. I had to be like, ‘Stay in it, stay in it, you’re a white guy in your mind.’ ”

When each day would wrap, he’d return to his hotel, which offered a Confederate menu. At this year’s Oscars, during which Get Out writer and director Jordan Peele won best original screenplay, Stanfield was asked to wear his sinister summer suit and hat and run out from the wings to scream the title one last time, as part of a Jimmy Kimmel gag. He skidded across the stage looking so terrified that the audience barely laughed. “That was so weird,” he tweeted minutes later. Then he deleted it. He deletes all of his tweets, especially the one in April in which he brazenly posted his phone number and six minutes later wrote, “STOP!!”

Filming Atlanta with Donald Glover has been calmer, even with the several times production has been interrupted by nearby gunfire. Like Glover, Stanfield doubles as a musician — he’s putting a summer-long pause on acting to record his next electronic spoken-word album under his pseudonym, Moors. He often quotes the title of Glover’s politically charged new song This Is America to punctuate his observations about what it’s like to be alive right now. The culture is paying more attention to the tragedies fueling the Black Lives Matter movement, yet also to goofy, passionate, genre-busting black talents such as Stanfield, Riley, Glover, Thompson and Peele.

“It’s like a weird shift in artistry,” Stanfield says. “It’s a spirit, and it’s all happening at the same time.” Did he and his fellow performers knock at a door that was finally ready to open? Or did their energy break it down?

“It’s been dangerous for a black man to be himself,” Stanfield says. “It might mean you get killed. It might mean you’re seen as weak. There’s so many facades that we had to keep up for so long.”

Sorry to Bother You let him crash through ceilings, but it’s also helping him destroy the industry stereotypes that have boxed in black creatives for too long. Stanfield chuckles as he heads out to be greeted by his Tesla: “I’m a real human, 100 percent baby, coming straight for you.”