I’m interviewing Lakeith Stanfield over the phone, and I have his direct number. In case you aren’t well versed in the parallel universe of celebrity interviews, I should explain that this happens precisely never. Celebs are carefully managed by their PR armies (often for a good reason) and all of their salacious and not-so-salacious secrets are anxiously guarded and monitored. Unless you’re Diane Sawyer or Jon Stewart, the protocol is management rings you, patches you through to the celeb after a 5- to 10-minute wait, and then remains on the line — eerily quiet — to ensure no problematic questions are asked and you don’t overstay your welcome.
But I was given his direct cell, and he answered after one ring.
This shouldn’t be surprising considering he tweeted out his number to fans this past April 26.
When we started chatting, it was immediately clear he wasn’t even aware this interview was supposed to take place. I say, “Great! That means I’ll have lots of awkward, unscripted answers.”
“You’d get that anyway,” he responds. And, from everything I’d already read about him, I believed it.
He told me he was standing in a parking lot charging his car. At some point during our long conversation, he wandered into a nearby mall in search of food.
Also, he was barefoot. Because, as he explained, you don’t need shoes to charge your car.
“I’m pretty sure some people are like, ‘What the hell is going on here?’” he says. Though he seemed completely unbothered by the idea of being stared at for breaking social norms.
I can guarantee nobody was looking at his feet.
While we spoke, several people stopped to talk to him, and he responded graciously and genuinely to each and every fan.
“You’re a great actor, man,” someone on the other side of the phone tells him.
“Thank you so much,” he responds.
“You’re fucking amazing,” someone else says. “You’re one of my favorite actors.”
“Aw, man, I really appreciate it,” he responds. “What’s your name?” The man tells him. “Thank you, my friend. Have a good one.”
He handled the interruptions gracefully but said being recognized in public is happening more and more, and it’s sometimes unnerving.
“That was cool,” he explains. “Sometimes people are really genuine and really enjoy your work. That feels great.”
When isn’t it cool? Occasionally people interrupt him when he’s with someone he loves, he explained, and these particular fans have no basic common sense. “Half the time I think the appreciation should really go to the writers,” he adds. “But I do appreciate people that are recognizing the hard work that I put into bringing these characters to life.”
If you’ve seen him as the unpredictable Darius on FX’s Atlanta, yelling “Get out!” in Jordan Peele’s seminal Get Out, speaking with David Cross’ voice in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You or, most recently, as the abrasive, efficient Ed Needham in The Girl in the Spider’s Web, you may think you know what he sounds like.
But until he’s spoken directly into your ear, you don’t.
His voice is deep and careful. He speaks with an eloquence that often borders on the formal, and trades in words like “albeit” and “quite” with a naturalness that, if articulated by any other 26-year-old, might sound contrived. His ideas fluctuate between the poetic, the philosophical and the mischievous. And he frequently chuckles, a little-boyish rumble that is instantly endearing. Altogether, he’s utterly enchanting.
He’s also a powerful young male actor whose performances are drawing bigger applause, bigger audiences and bigger opportunities. A Google search reveals dozens of magazine features and late-night interviews, from the Washington Post to Vogue to Jimmy Kimmel Live! covering everything from his childhood in the California desert to his much-talked-about strangeness.
And if you’ve seen any of his early performances, from Marcus in 2013’s Short Term 12 to Jimmie Lee Jackson in 2014’s Selma to Snoop in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, you’d probably argue that all of the praise and recognition is hard earned and well deserved.
Despite no early training, he has made his mark in these smaller roles. With limited screen time, his portrayals leave deep impressions. He is a rare young actor who can bring nuance to characters that would typically be presented as archetypes.
“Being in these smaller roles is really good for me because it is the way I naturally approach things,” he says. “Behind the scenes, not expending so much energy in the forefront.”
Much has been made of the weirdness of his characters, but they aren’t weird — they’re human. One can argue that American audiences are merely unused to mainstream cinema portraying black characters as anything other than archetypes — angry or comedic — and very few black actors are given free rein to explore the full chaotic range of human emotions.
After working with Chiwetel Ejiofor in 2018’s Come Sunday, he was impressed by what he identified as Ejiofor’s serious and precise breakdown of story and character.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s so cool’ and I wanted to try to develop those kinds of skills,” Stanfield says.
The experience motivated him to take acting lessons. He currently studies with a coach one-on-one to become, in his words, “more detail-oriented” in his characterizations.
“I don’t really get into the details too much,” he says. “I’m more holistic. And the same applies to how I approach characters. But working in the details, and fine-tuning and raking and making spaghetti out of everything is also a good way to learn and gather information and bring it to the role.”
He is, however, an admitted needler and instigator. He described his younger self as curious and mischievous, as a kid who basked in the heady glow of attention. He has five siblings but never vied for attention.
“I don’t really remember me being too outgoing, but I definitely didn’t mind being the center of attention,” he says. “Ever.”
Even from a young age, he liked to surprise people and deliberately did the unexpected. “Some of my other brothers were a little bit more by-the-book,” he explains. “I’ve never been by the book in anything, especially behavior.”
He related a story from when he was 2 years old that explains a bit of his early precociousness. “I remember cussing my mom out because she wouldn’t give me a candy bar,” he says. “I’m told that I was proficient at cussing after everybody got over all of the shock and disappointment. They were like, ‘Well, you know, at least you’re good at it.’
If you’re going to do anything, be good at it.
“Especially using language,” he agrees. “I was pretty articulate, albeit vulgar.”
Many interviews portray him as easygoing or a free spirit but I would argue — and I think he would admit — that his playfulness is deliberate. He acknowledged that he enjoys disruptions and being disruptive.
“It’s just so easy to be provocative,” he says. “If you walk into a group and you just — Gaaaaaaaaaaaa — scream! It breaks up the train of thought because everybody’s so in their own heads all the time.”
His playfulness often gets misconstrued as strangeness. People enjoy their conventions, and they’re uncomfortable with the unexpected. In his “depths” he said, he doesn’t mind shaking things up. And he doesn’t seem the mind the fallout either.
“Expect the unexpected,” he says. “That’s kind of what it is to play. We’ve been doing it since we’ve been little. Sometimes we forget. I just haven’t’ forgotten; that’s all. People think that’s provocative.”
He argues that he isn’t trying to push the boundaries of social norms, he simply “doesn’t acknowledge social norms.” He believes that is wherein lies all the talk about him being provocative.
“But I’m also antagonistic in certain ways,” he admits. “I’ve always been that way since I was little. When I found something that was your tic, then I would play at it a little bit to see your reaction.”
He was quick to say that his behavior is “nothing like bullying” but more in line with pranks and practical jokes. “Like smacking, for instance,” he says. “Smacking the dinner table. Loudly chewing. Making noises that are annoying to people and that I know are annoying. Once I found the thing that was your thing… Oh, you don’t like that? I’m going to make sure at some point I employ that.”
He’s probably most famous for his inimitable portrayal of Darius on Atlanta, playing opposite Donald Glover and Bryan Tyree Henry.
Once again, many reviewers have pigeonholed his character as strange. There’s nothing strange about Darius … unless being human is strange.
Which, Stanfield would probably say, it is.
“This is one of those special roles where it’s kind of its own little organism,” he says. “There’s constantly more layers to explore. I still don’t really quite have a handle on him and maybe I never will.”
Many TV actors think about their characters like a costume contained within a box. They know all the different aspects of what’s in that box, and every so often they might put something else in there to surprise us, but it’s still this costume in a box that they put on and take off.
Stanfield spends a lot of time with Darius and enjoys the way he is evolving. He talks about Darius like he’s a fleshy, inscrutable alter ego who does what all humans do — surprise us or frustrate us or make us laugh or make us fall in love.
“It’s cool because there’s almost nothing I can’t do with Darius,” he says. “He may come back speaking Japanese.” He chuckled, then assumed a high-brow, academic accent. “He may speak very awkwardly and enunciate.” It’s clear Stanfield enjoys the character and enjoys exploring his range. “He can grow. I’m curious to watch him grow.”
Darius has a considerable fan base. There are chat rooms dedicated to unraveling and worshipping every line he utters. Many people, it seems, are curious to watch Darius grow. That Darius can grow is part of why Stanfield is such a captivating actor.
Stanfield pulls off Darius because of his ability to infuse his characters with vulnerability. In a Sept. 6, 2016, Complex interview Ava DuVernay, who directed Stanfield in Selma, said it is all in his eyes, his “vulnerability, and sweetness.”
But it’s not just the eyes. It’s his nonverbal cues, his physical presence and his tone choices. Take, for example, a short scene between Stanfield and Donald Glover in Atlanta season 1, episode 4. Darius does Earn a favor and Earn thanks him. Darius shrugs, bounces, half smiles and says, “We’re friends now.”
Stanfield delivers the line with an artless emotional vulnerability that could have quickly come off as corny but, instead, it’s endearing. Many of Darius’ lines, in fact, (“Can I measure your tree” being the most infamous) are eccentric and unconventional. The off-kilter third-wheel character isn’t a new concept in TV, but few have played it with anything other than gimmicky weirdness (see: Kramer). Stanfield doesn’t let Darius devolve into caricature. It’s reminiscent of what Lisa Kudrow did with Phoebe on Friends. There’s no formula here: You don’t know what you’re going to get next but it’s all believable.
Another iconic Stanfield character is Cassius Green from Sorry to Bother You. Although he lives in an absurdist universe and was crafted from satire, Stanfield plays Cassius as the straight man, albeit one with emotional nuance, passion and anger, despair and pathos. He’s not Seinfield, the satirical observer in an absurd world. He’s more like Joel Barish from Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Sam Lowry from Gilliam’s Brazil.
“He is just a guy who’s trying to do better and take care of his family and be somebody,” Stanfield explains.
Cassius Green is struggling to keep order in a downward spiral of chaos. For Cassius, all of the activism that is going on around him is noise. “He had tunnel vision,” Stanfield says. “That kind of drive is really admirable but also not so good sometimes when it leads us to hurt the people around us, whether it is on purpose or not, causing us to become monsters because of undying ambition.”
It is that very quality that makes Cassius human. And Stanfield can relate. “I know what that’s like,” he says. “I sometimes ignore certain things. You’re so busy or so caught up in your own ambitions, and there’s a good and a bad to that.”
Much of the hype around Stanfield has led, understandably, to Denzel Washington. Young Denzel was cocky and charming, and his performances were ebullient in the traditional sense, meaning agitated and close to boiling as if he were performing in the Hayes Theater on Broadway instead of in the intimate rectangular space of cinema.
Stanfield, on the other hand, is sparse and careful, observant, and the strength of many of his moments on screen come from what he isn’t saying.
“Making movies is kind of like a song, or a rhythm,” he says. “You put sound where there is no sound to make a song. The silent parts are just as important as the music itself. I feel it’s the same with acting because it’s all about dance and reaction, so it’s like energy transference.”
Film is a visual medium. Audiences construct meaning based on the way actors react to each other and their environment as portrayed through a series of juxtaposed images. For a long time, this was all done without dialogue. Great film actors know how to convey meaning by showing instead of telling. Stanfield, at 26, seems to do this intuitively.
When fans and critics liken him to Denzel, they are not talking about craft per se, but his (and Denzel’s) ability to transcend race and portray human emotions on screen in a way that anybody will relate and respond to.
The acclaimed New Zealand actor Lisa Harrow said the beauty of a dominant performance is not an actor’s ability to make the audience understand the words but to transcend words and make an audience relate on an emotional level.
“The audience doesn’t have to understand anything,” she said. “They just have to come and have their hearts broken, laugh their heads off, feel sad, and moved.”
That’s what great actors do. And that’s why everyone is talking about Stanfield.
“What’s actually telling the story is often what’s not said — which is why I love this medium,” he says. “It’s almost like we’re having a psychic discourse. I like playing in that realm. It’s a good place to trick people. Or have them fall in love. Or antagonize them. Or whatever you wanna do, you know? I quite like it.”
In the annals of mainstream American cinema, at least for the past 45 years, Hollywood has only made room for a handful of black actors. Stanfield joins a dynamic group of young actors who don’t need Hollywood to make room for them — they are creating whole new spaces of their own and changing the American story. With multiple upcoming highly anticipated projects like the superstar-studded ensemble comedy Knives Out, by Star Wars: Last Jedi director Rian Johnson.
What else does the future hold for Stanfield — more TV? Music? Poetry? Japanese lessons?
When I asked him this question, he ended the interview in a totally expected unexpected way.
“Ba-dap-beep-beep-beep-bloop-bloop … Bowwwn,” he says.
Photographer: Mike Ruiz
Stylist: Adam Ballheim
Stylist Assistant: Elena Lark
Grooming by Nai’vasha
for The Wall Group using Oribe
Writer: Brooke Nasser
Location: RR Donnelley NY