Lakeith Stanfield: An actor at home in the surreal
NEW YORK — The weirder it gets, the more Lakeith Stanfield looks right at home.
It was Stanfield, as the bodysnatched Andrew Hayworth, personifying the nightmare of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” In Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” his cosmically lackadaisical pot-smoking philosopher Darius is the epitome of the show’s freewheeling surrealism. And in Boots Riley’s comic and caustic social satire “Sorry to Bother You,” Stanfield is the entry-level telemarketer Cassius (“Cash”) Green, whose swift rise introduces him to a darkly dystopian world.
“I do find I’m a little more comfortable than the average person in strange situations, which is probably why I’m an actor,” says Stanfield. “I’ve been in some strange situations. Like orgies. And I was in an orgy in this movie. It wasn’t strange to me at all. I had no reservations about getting naked. I was supposed to be naked in this, full frontal.
He grins. “Maybe I am, I don’t know.”
Since his acclaimed feature-film debut in 2013’s “Short Term 12,” Stanfield, 26, has become one of the most arresting, unpredictable and in-demand actors in Hollywood. He has played Jimmie Lee Jackson (“Selma”), Snoop Dogg (“Straight Outta Compton”), Miles Davis (“Miles Ahead”) and, um, Chandler, in Jay-Z’s “Friends”-style music video “Moonlight.” In even his soberer parts, Stanfield has a disarmingly laid-back, unflappable presence, like his antennae is tuned to a different frequency than everyone else.
Glover, the “Atlanta” creator, vividly remembers first meeting Stanfield.
“He barely talked to me,” Glover said in an email. “He was not concerned with getting the job at all. He was already living in a different dimension than the rest of us.”
In “Sorry to Bother You,” which opens Friday on the heels of ecstatic reviews, Stanfield may have found the best feature-film vehicle yet for his particular dimension. The movie is a years-long passion project for Riley, the Bay-area hip-hop pioneer and activist, who along the way also spoke to Glover and Peele about the role. It’s a wild, anti-capitalist romp through workplace America, all seen through the dazed eyes of Stanfield.
“What holds the movie together — which is why I picked Lakeith — is there’s all this crazy stuff happening but you have to believe that character,” says Riley. “If it’s an actor that’s like, ‘Oh, this is how I show I’m scared. This is how I show I’m confused’ — it wouldn’t work. Lakeith doesn’t care about what his face looks like. He just gets to that emotion.”
In the film, Cassius is catapulted into overnight success once he begins using what an older employee played by Danny Glover terms is “your white voice.” Stanfield’s rise, though, has been predicated on remaining himself.
“It’s a hard thing to be yourself and be available,” Stanfield said in a recent interview in Soho. “It’s much easier to use the white voice, which I’ve also done. But at some point, I become exhausted with it and I have to say what’s on my mind and do what I feel. Part of that is the reason why people put cameras on me.”
Stanfield has previously channeled into music his underprivileged upbringing in the Southern California desert city of Victorville. In each of the 2015 music videos for his hip-hop duo Moors, Stanfield (who recently apologized for a freestyle with homophobic lyrics) returns to an image of drowning on the seafloor.
“At the time I made those, I felt smothered by circumstances,” says Stanfield. “There was a lot of family drama at the time. I watched a family member that I love try to kill themselves by suffocation. I was writing from that place. The reason why you haven’t seen very much follow-up to that kind of material is because, luckily, I haven’t been in those kinds of situations.”
Drawn into acting by a high-school drama class, Stanfield came to Los Angeles at 18. He recalls spending hours staring at Echo Lake in between auditions, with nothing else to do.
“I was homeless. And I was hungry sometimes,” Stanfield says. “But I didn’t really view it as hard. I always kept a positive idea about it. I remember being in my car listening to Jimi Hendrix and eating McDonald’s and being like: One day, I’m going to remember this moment. And I still do.”
Stanfield’s breakthrough came via Destin Daniel Cretton’s college short film “Short Term 12,” which five years later became the feature about a foster care facility for at-risk teens. By then, Stanfield was in Sacramento working at a marijuana factory. His character, who gradually comes out of his shell, mirrored Stanfield’s own journey. But any reticence is now long gone.
“I always want to expand,” says Stanfield. “I can learn something from everyone and everything and hopefully I get to play a dog that is also a cat, that is also a man and a woman and a flower so I can just be all versions of life.”
“Playing a flower would be awesome,” adds Stanfield, smiling, before referencing his “Atlanta” character. “It’s a very Darius thing to say.”
Exactly where Darius ends and Stanfield begins can be difficult to define. A lot of Darius’ eccentric serenity comes directly from Stanfield, who improvises much of Darius’ non-sequitur musing. “In some ways, he is me,” says Stanfield.
“I think he’s not acting. Acting is pretending. And Keith doesn’t seem to pretend much,” explains Glover. “Darius, like Lakeith, is living in the now. I can honestly say Lakeith is the only person in the world I know who could play Darius.”
There’s some method to Stanfield’s madness, even if the method is the sort that worries directors. Riley discovered that himself, when he realized Stanfield didn’t know his lines as shooting approached on “Sorry to Bother You.”
“And he’s like: ‘I don’t usually do that until right before,’ says Riley. “His brain is still going through a process of finding the words. It might just be a millisecond more, but it’s not that polished thing. That makes the lines more real for him. That’s what all the fantastical elements and the absurdity rely on.”
Last summer, Stanfield had a baby with his girlfriend, actress Xosha Roquemore. He has his biggest budget film yet coming in October: “The Girl in the Spider’s Web.” In a since-deleted Instagram post, Stanfield noted of the largely Swedish cast: “I’m the only black person in this film.”
But having grown up gravitating toward movies that he saw himself in, Stanfield likes the idea that “Sorry to Bother You” could be “some kid’s ‘Menace to Society’ … but with less guns.”
“Now, black bodies can occupy space where we have these fantastical and absurd things happening, which we haven’t seen,” he says. “You can’t do that when you’re too busy trying to make yourself seem human. We can still talk about those things, but now we can also talk about these other things.”