Lakeith Stanfield isn't just a scene-stealer, he's graduated to master thief at this point. He exploded into mainstream consciousness as Darius, the hypnotically bizarre sidekick in Donald Glover's transcendent FX series Atlanta. He turned a two-scene contribution to Jordan Peele's Get Out into arguably the most gif-able, quotable moment from the entire movie. Now he's chewing the scenery in yet another highly anticipated film: Netflix's Death Note, based on the popular manga series of the same name. Death Note centers around Light (Nat Wolff) a wry, outcast teenager who gains the power to manipulate fate when it literally falls into his lap. But in a rare twist on these types of movies, the dogged detective working the case is actually much more interesting than the vigilante rebel he's pursuing.
As the mysterious L, Stanfield brings a whole different level of weird to the movie, as if it already doesn't have Willem Dafoe voicing a sardonic demon-gremlin-god. (There's a separate film's worth of mythology orbiting around L and his mentor alone.) He turns L's mania and single-mindedness into kinetic energy, at times literally leaping into frame, perching across from his scene partner like a gargoyle giving the Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm soul-searching stare, at most times with the bottom of his face covered. It's a lot, but it's never too broad as to distract from the film at large; it leaves you wanting more from his character than the movie needs just off pure curiosity.
Complex caught up with Stanfield the day after Death Note's NYC premiere to talk about the film, his other new film Crown Heights, the highly-anticipated new season of Atlanta and more.
So, Death Note...where do you stand on it, morally, if it were you in that situation?
If I was in Light’s situation I would not touch that book.
How much fun did you have doing this movie?
There was a lot of fun. It was a difficult journey to track this man down, but it was fun nonetheless.
You’re a big anime fan?
I am an anime fan.
Were you a fan of the source material going into it?
I was, yeah, and I loved L.
How much of that character is on the page versus how much did you have to build yourself when plotting the performance out?
A lot of it is just in the performance. There was not much on the page [laughs]
What was the Comic Con experience like?
Strange. There was just a lot of people. A lot of them are very big fans of comic books and I’m just now sort of getting into it, so it’s a different world for me to navigate. It’s just strange to the touch, you know, if you put your hand in a box but you can’t see what’s in it. You just feel around to see what’s in there.
It’s interesting how you have this coming out around the same time as Crown Heights. How important is it to you to balance your filmography with serious work that’s commenting on real issues alongside something super fun and much less tethered to reality?
I don’t know how important it is, it just so happens that they line up at the same time, but I like to entertain, but I also like to be able to speak to a bigger truth if I can.
The second season of Atlanta is about to start shooting soon, obviously you can’t talk too much about that, but how would you describe the tone going into it?
I’m sure the current events going on will influence the writers to put something in there.
You haven’t read any episode scripts yet?
No, I’m looking forward. I think they’ve written it, but I haven’t seen anything yet, but I’ve been hearing some interesting things.
I was thinking about an episode like “BAN” which delved into so many evergreen topics and of the moment issues. You guys can double that episode's runtime with everything that's happened since season one was written.
Oh, sure. Believe me, they’re paying attention, and they’re very good at being detail-oriented in that way. They’re licked thumb out into the wind and feeling where things are going and into the universe that is Atlanta.
Another big thing you were involved in recently was Jay-Z’s “Moonlight” video. How did that opportunity come about?
I don’t know, really, I think he just reached out and called some of my people. Then he called me, personally on the phone, and appealed to me about this project. I had heard the song and I thought “Moonlight” was a great idea, and I thought it could be cool to put visuals to it in the way they wanted to. So, I did, and it was fun.
Was it a surreal moment, Jay Z calling you?
Not really. I wouldn’t say surreal so much as, surprised.
Alan Yang has been doing interviews where he says there’s no clear-cut take from the concept, so what’s yours?
That it’d be fun, and it might get people interested in the conversation. That’s pretty much it, it wasn’t that deep to me.
How fun was the "Moonlight" set?
Well, it would seem that way. But as I say, making a film, or making a music video, the process, a lot of it just people sitting around on their phones when we’re not doing anything. But the fountain scene was really, really fun. I thought that was great. That was my favorite part.
Had you ever seen Friends before, were you a big fan?
No, I’ve never seen the show, but I heard it’s very white.
There are a lot of people who want to see that show, or at least some type of sitcom featuring you all, now that you guys gave us a tease.
I love all those people, man, and I’d love to work with them in some capacity. I worked with Tessa on this movie I just got off of.
You mean Sorry to Bother You? Looking at that cast and concept, it sounds like it could be the next New Black Classic.
Maybe. It was a hell of a lot of fun to shoot, man. That was wild, it was a wild run. I love everybody who’s a part of that. We’ll see what happens.
What’s this year been like, starting with Get Out, coming in off the success of Atlanta at the Golden Globes. Are you looking forward to the Emmy’s? Are you going?
Mhm. I am, yeah. It’s been busy. A lot of things unfolded. Certain people notice me on the streets and stuff.
Is that weird?
Sometimes, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just people just being cool and calm; but when they’re not calm it gets kind of weird. When they’re shaking and crying and stuff it’s weird.
Do you get a lot of people running up to you screaming "Get out”?
Yes. That and “Can I measure your tree?”
You have one of the most interesting Twitter feeds out; the other day you tweeted that "acting is stupid." Why?
It’s kinda silly. You look at a bunch of adults playing. Putting on wigs and stuff. Acting it’s kind of a stupid little game. I love it, you know, but I do think it’s stupid. I just don’t see it as this serious thing, you know? There’s a bunch of great jobs you could have, and this job is great, but it’s not stupid. It’s not this “art form” that we sort of pretend it it. Sometimes it does do great things, like I feel like Crown Heights is an example. Taking a great story and being able to share it with people is a great, great thing, but at the end of the day, it looks funny. If you’re ever on set watching people act, it’s a funny-looking thing. Kids understand it. When kids are on set they’re like, “What the fuck are we doing? This is so dumb” and I agree, it is, but I love it.
What’s your philosophy on your career overall as you wrap up this huge year? Are you plotting the next phases?
Staying focused on things that matter, and that’s it. I want to stay focused, keep it raw, keep it jiggy, and I’m going to keep pushing.
You mentioned being into "Moonlight" before you signed on for the job. What else are you listening to right now?
Wow, a lot of stuff. I’ve been listening to a lot of Tennis lately. That’s been my thing. I always listen to Death Grips, and of course Tupac is always in the rotation. Marilyn Manson, getting back into him. Shabazz Palaces is always on the menu as well as Flatbush Zombies. Yeah, while we’re talking about Beast Coast, ASAP. Of course Capital Steez and those guys. And a little Ella Fitzgerald.
What are you consuming in terms of movies and TV that you aren’t a part of?
I’m still watching Mr. Robot. Still one of my favorite shows. Also, Atlanta. I watch it all the time, reruns.