It began with a shot of Jameson. A pretty good way to jumpstart an interview, in retrospect.
The other half of this equation was Lakeith Stanfield, the emerging actor who you’ve probably been entranced by in films and television like Short Term 12, Selma, and Donald Glover’s Atlanta. He also did a killer Snoop Dogg in Straight Outta Compton.
Truth is: Stanfield is soon to need no introduction. Within the next eleven months, the San-Bernardino-born talent is primed to star in eight movies out in 2017. That wasn’t a typo. In between not sleeping and not sleeping, Stanfield shows up to events like Sundance, where he has two films, The Incredible Jessica James and Crown Heights. The latter was met with a warm response at its Park City premiere. It features Stanfield front-and-center as Colin Warner, a man who sat in jail for twenty years over a crime he did not commit.
This story of injustice was originally told as a This American Life segment. Now it’s receiving a big-screen treatment, which Stanfield signed up without hesitation—a daunting undertaking. However, his awareness of the role’s inherent responsibility was not a deterrent; it was a motivator. The 25-year-old performer is ready for whatever lies ahead. Especially if what’s ahead includes some brown liquor. Within two minutes an elaborate shot-ski with four small cups of Jameson was presented. These folks weren’t playing around.
Without a chaser in sight we threw the shot back. It was, as expected, rough. Lakeith felt differently. “The shot-ski is probably the most clever invention since Internet,” he said.
Too late to contemplate the hyperbole, we were off to the races…
From Miles Ahead to Selma to Crown Heights, is it nerve-wracking to play people whose stories exist outside your own imagination?
Dude, you know what? I didn’t think it was until I did this film, because Colin Warner is alive and walking around now, therefore he was on set a lot of the time, so it made it a bit uncomfortable in the sense that I needed to just be aware of his presence. Being aware of it made it hard. You know, playing a guy who went through something very traumatic, you want to make sure you get it right. You don’t think about scrutiny when you’re an actor and you’re onstage doing what you need to do, but I did when he was there.
Would you two speak on set about scenes?
No, he wouldn’t even have a reaction. He’d be standing there. He wouldn’t even do anything, but in my mind he was always just like, “Oh my god, this is horrible! What is going on here?!”
Are you hard on yourself when it comes to performance?
I’m never convinced by me, even when it’s real, you know what I mean? It can be deeper. There’s an art to knowing what you’re doing and hitting it at the right time, so I’m always trying to be more technical about delivery and performance. It’s hard for me to be like, “Yeah, I did a good job!” Nah, I leave that for other people to say.
I don’t think that’s exclusive to performance. We’re constantly projecting versions of ourselves to others.
You’re completely right. It’s not exclusive, but I enjoy the fact that everything I do is not perfect, and everything I do I might fall and I might fuck up, but what it does is it teaches me. Good—I learned that—it’s good pain. That shit makes me strong. I don’t want to keep falling down constantly, so I try to change my step the next time, but I’m becoming more and more comfortable with facing imminent failure and being okay with that. The only thing that’s different with acting in particular is that sometimes it becomes more about you, because it’s your body. It’s the vehicle. People think I’m Darius. People think whatever character I played last, I’m that character. I’m not, but it becomes an ego thing. As long as you can detach from that and realize you’re just another vessel of energy being siphoned through this body, you can really start to understand that you get to shed your identity. That’s what I was telling someone about Colin Warner earlier today. All I wanted to do was hang out with him to get the universal truths from him and try to play that, because I can’t play a guy who spent twenty years in prison if I didn’t spend twenty years in prison. So I’m playing a guy who has persevered and struggled and came out and had a sense of calm and a sense of understanding.
What did he tell you?
He was like, “This is your fuckin’ process. You figure it out. All I know is where I am now. All this stuff that I went through, it was hard for me, but that’s all you need to know. It was hard for me and I got here.” But he wasn’t trying to get into details about different things like that. He’s a real straightforward guy. Being in prison twenty years makes you real. You don’t take shit. You just say it how it is, and that’s how he was.
Are you straightforward?
I’m straightforward when it’s appropriate. When I need to dig in your ass, I dig in your ass, but when I don’t need to, I don’t.
When do you need to?
It has to present itself. But I appreciate that disposition particularly when I’m playing somebody. I want you to be that way. I want you to be straightforward. I want you to be honest because that informs what I’m able to do in a way that I need. I don’t need anyone to sugar-coat anything if I’m playing you. However guarded you are, however open you are, that’s all information, too. It also shows me different elements of things I need to know in order to play you.
Have you found romantic relationships to be more difficult in LA?
It is, it is. Challenging but also interesting. Love is crazy. I feel like the more situated you are in yourself, as much as you can be, the higher propensity you have to sort of run into somebody who’s like that. Whatever you want, you kind of just exude it and then it just like magnetizes a little bit.
What do you want right now?
A cheeseburger. I’m kind of hungry right now.
Can we get a cheeseburger over here? Career-wise, things are going well for you right now…
I can’t complain, yeah.
I have no idea about your personal life or anything.
Nah, I’m a fucking miserable wreck personally.
For about five hours each day I’m convinced life is fine, and then that ends.
That’s why I try to just have fun with everything. Even these interviews. I hate interviews. You don’t understand how much I hate this shit—but rather than hate on it, why don’t I just embrace it, make it fun. Make it fun for myself. Like, that’s life. You’re going to do things that you don’t fucking like. Make it fun for yourself.
And you hate them because…
Because I think people ask too many questions rather than just come to the conclusion for themselves. Like, watch the movie and it’ll tell you everything you need. Why are you asking me what I think about it? What difference does it make?
Like when they ask you something ineffable about performance?
Yeah, “What did you do to do this?” Like, what do you mean? It doesn’t matter. Watch the movie. Interviewers are always like, “How did you prepare? Where did you come from? Who’s your dad? Who’s your mom? Who’s your little baby sister?” Like, who cares? “What’s your favorite color?” Who gives a damn?
Do you have a favorite color?
[Laughs.] It’s black.
What I want to ask is, since things are going pretty well, is it harder to figure out who your people are?
Well, I thought about that at first, but as I’ve grown I’ve become better at discerning myself. That’s all you really need to figure out. Once you’ve got yourself, you don’t really have to trip off of it because it’s just all in the music. There’s a saying: if you don’t have a plan, someone’s going to come make a plan for you. I’ve got a route, and I know what I’m going to do and the ideas that I’ve got.
You have a plan?
Yeah! It’s called Plan B. Ask Brad Pitt about me—he knows.
What about music?
Oh, dude, I want to do some music right now. You want to make something?
[Lakeith starts a beat on a cardboard water bottle.]
Oh, you want to do that?
You wanna go?
I was enjoying that, I’m enjoying rats up in New York.
I’ve got two dorks, two storks, new shit to sport.
I just came from the suite, she’s gifting me, see I’m a nifty G I keep it swiftly.
Your beat’s off beat!
That’s because I’m listening to your lyrics!
[Laughs.] We’ve done it, dude. We made a song together, did a dope interview. This is amazing.