Lakeith Stanfield thinks actors take themselves too seriously. It’s why he says he loved watching Ricky Gervais skewer the crowd at the recent Golden Globes, imploring the winners to “accept your little award, thank your agent, and your God, and f*** off”.
“It’s nice to just knock everybody off their pedestal,” says Stanfield, laughing. “Nothing gave me more joy than seeing them all squirm. It was very entertaining.”
The California-born star of the brilliantly absurdist Sorry to Bother You generally believes everyone needs to calm down. About awards shows, especially. Hollywood’s finest, he says, are always “acting like everything is so deep. It’s all so sensational and political.”
That Stanfield has mixed feelings about awards ceremonies is understandable. On the one hand, Knives Out, the riotous whodunit in which he plays a diligent cop, is up for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. On the other, Uncut Gems, the film he’s promoting today, has been completely cast aside by the Academy. “We didn’t do [Uncut Gems] for awards,” he says. “I imagine there are a lot of politics that I’m not aware of and I don’t really care to think about.”
Of the many injustices to arise from this year’s nominations, though, Uncut Gems’s snub is among the most egregious. A nerve-shredding odyssey through New York’s Diamond District, Josh and Benny Safdie’s film never stops moving, lurching from scene to scene on the vim of Darius Khondji’s frenetic camerawork and Daniel Lopatin’s twitchy, synth-driven score. It’s feral and skittish, with Adam Sandler – all gaudy outfits and neurotic impulses – delivering a flat-out tremendous performance as jeweller and gambling addict Howard Ratner.
Stanfield is no less impressive. Where the 28-year-old was suave and restrained in Knives Out, here, as Ratner’s streetwise business associate, he has a chaotic capriciousness. If Sandler is the film’s palpitating heart, you wouldn’t exactly call Stanfield a beta blocker. “The [Safdies] wanted people to just run rampant in certain scenes,” says Stanfield. “They were conductors allowing us to roam freely, and it meant the whole thing felt alive. Sometimes I feel like life is so stressful and this felt alive in the same way – all this information coming at once. It was unlike anything I’d done before.”
Then again, nothing Stanfield ever does is like anything he’s done before. In a relatively short space of time, he’s established himself as one of the most exciting actors of his generation. Perhaps you know him as Darius, whose mix of off-the-wall eccentricity and stoner profundities has made him the standout character in Donald Glover’s feted TV series Atlanta. Or maybe it’s as Snoop Dogg in Straight Outta Compton (2015), or the slain civil-rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson in Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014). Or it’s his indelibly freaked-out supporting turn as stricken prisoner Andre, the one who actually yells “Get Out!”, in Jordan Peele’s Oscar-nominated horror smash. Or perhaps it’s his well-earned lead as Cassius Green, the black telemarketer whose sales shoot up after he begins imitating a white man’s voice, in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018).
While no two roles are alike, what connects them all is Stanfield’s knack for scratching away a character’s veneer – thanks mainly to eyes that reveal inner worlds – and finding a route towards empathy. “Lakeith doesn’t care about what his face looks like,” said Riley in 2018. “He just gets to that emotion.” As The New York Times noted – given that offbeat black characters haven’t exactly been a mainstay of American cinema – it also helps that he’s “a bit of a weirdo”. Take his dress sense. He has appeared on red carpets wearing – not all at once – a chainmail shirt, a black balaclava, a rainbow-coloured suit and a giant wig. Then there’s the fact that he views plants as conscious beings, and had discussions with them while working at a marijuana farm. Or at least, he says he did. In interviews, he’s been known to make things up, as well as arrive without shoes, and somersault across the floor mid-conversation.
He’s quieter and more reflective when we talk, though. Possessed of a mumbling drawl and husky laugh, he’s modest but self-assured; sentences saunter. There’s a reticence, too, perhaps rooted in preserving a certain mystique. In the past, Stanfield has spoken of not wanting to be a figurehead because of his skin colour. “It’s tiring,” he says today. “I’ve got other stuff that I got to do, other goals. Being a black man – yes, I know I represent a whole bunch of people, but you don’t want to be on that front line, every single day, because you’re black.”
He won’t really be drawn into discussing the police, either. Growing up in a “very poor” and fractured family in Victorville, 90 miles outside of Los Angeles, he would steal sandwiches from Subway and find himself pinned down on car bonnets by cops; at one point, his sister was pepper-sprayed. Has that tainted his faith in the police and the criminal justice system? “There are certain places that I don’t expect much justice,” he says, softly.
At high school, he got into poetry and joined the drama society. After googling acting agencies, he started trying out at auditions. It was tough. “I was living in my car,” he says, “but I knew I could bring something different to the game.” Eventually, he landed a role in Short Term 12, a modest indie about troubled upbringings that gave a leg up to Brie Larson and Rami Malek. As the taciturn Marcus, he was superb, but the parts hardly came flooding in, so he went to work on that cannabis farm.
These days, though, he’s inundated. Just as his clout in Hollywood started skyrocketing, he surprised everyone by pivoting towards romantic comedies: first in 2017’s The Incredible Jessica James, then in the underappreciated Netflix gem Someone Great (2019), then as a love interest in the sublime animation BoJack Horseman. In March, he will star in the full-blown romantic drama The Photograph, opposite Issa Rae. I wonder if he’s been consciously going for these parts since becoming a parent alongside his partner, fellow actor Xosha Roquemore. “It’s any opportunity to explore love,” he says. “I really want to do stuff like Marriage Story” – a surprising mention, perhaps, for Noah Baumbach’s whiter-than-white Best Picture nominee. But his rationale is simplicity itself. “I love love.”
Uncut Gems is in select cinemas now and on Netflix from Friday 31 January
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