Lakeith Stanfield interview: Atlanta actor on Death Note, Jay Z's Moonlight video and not being able to stop

Christopher Hooton
Wednesday 23 August 2017 16:17
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You might know Lakeith Stanfield from his feature film debut in Short Term 12. You probably know him as ethereal and detached yet sage right-hand man Darius in Atlanta. He has also appeared in Selma, Straight Outta Compton and Get Out, and his next film is Death Note, a Netflix manga adaptation out 25 August in which he plays a rogue detective known as L.

Hey Lakeith, how are you doing?

Good, how are you?

Yeah I'm good man. I've just got your Twitter feed up in front of me, so I hope this next interview isn't a baby cry for you.

[Laughs] You know, a baby cry is also a good thing, it's healthy, it produces cortisol and it's also what we all have done at some point, right, so there's beauty in it.

And it serves a purpose I guess! Speaking of babies, first off, congratulations, I was asking Netflix if we could do this interview in person [rather than over the phone] but they said you're staying out in the US at the moment because you're about to have your first kid right?

Yes!

That wonderful thing aside, I'm sorry about what's going on in your country right now - I saw you've spoken about it on Instagram - is it playing on your mind right now?

A little bit, but I try not to get too distracted by it, I'd rather just focus on my duties and continue to press forward. I think a lot of times when issues like this arise, it represents an opportunity to become distracted from the course, and that's something that we can't do. So yes, I'm aware of it but I'm not really giving it too much energy - I think what you pay attention to tends to grow, so I wanna focus on ways to bring myself to peace and those around me to peace.

(Photo: Getty)

Sure, I think that's healthy. I gotta say, I'm a huge fan of Atlanta; when I first started watching it and Darius came on I immediately was like 'this is my character, this is the guy I'm invested in,' and I felt with the show it kind of renewed my faith in TV because I'd watched so many shows that I was struggling to get into or where it was taking four or five episodes to latch on, but there was something about Atlanta where within like 10 minutes with those characters I felt like I knew these people and had already warmed to them.

That's great man! Cool.

And with this new movie, Death Note, after watching it I was looking up your character in the original manga and I couldn't see the whole black hoodie and turtleneck look, was that something that was created just for the film?

Yes, the creators suggested that outfit and that's what we ended up going with.

Did you have any influence on it?

Nah, I originally came to the wardrobe fitting in a sort of similar costume to L in the animated version but as it started to take its own course those things started to change.

It looked like a fun character to do in terms of movement, the way L moves is interesting.

Very fun. Very, sort of, methodical. It was in my mind a bit like a praying mantis, he's in a stoic position until he needs to do something then it's like 'oop, he's out there' [laughs]. I figured I would try and make him move how he thinks, which is very focused and quick.

I noticed he tends to squat on a chair instead of sitting on it, which is something I do and people laugh at. I just feel quite centred in that position!

Oh nice! That's cool, are you sitting like that right now?

Lakeith as L in Death Note

I should be; I'm just cross-legged, it's not doing it for me. You've been working incredibly hard the last year you keep popping up in a ton of trailers, is it draining or are you feeling good?

Um...both. It's definitely a lot of work but I count my blessings and I feel very grateful. It's funny because when I stop working for even a second I start to get itchy. I think as I get older I might hit a point where I'm like 'OK, now I wanna rest,' but I think right now I should use my time to build a foundation for myself; I'm very young in my career still so I wanna continue to pave a path for myself, I've got big plans for the future.

Yeah I always think that I wanna rest and I find myself looking forward to it, but when it comes I'm like 'Shit, I need to do something'.

Exactly.

And how do you deal with - with acting there's a lot of waiting around, whether it's on set or in a hotel room at night, how do you deal with that and what do you do to keep your mind engaged?

Yeah, we refer to it as having to hurry up and wait, and yeah it is [a lot of waiting]. I usually do some reading, take on some knowledge. It depends what movie or show I'm on what I'll be reading, sometimes it's literature that's surrounding the particular feel of what I'm getting into, sometimes it's just random stuff. But it's either that or I'm on the script - I'm always on the script trying to find new avenues and things to bring to it, the more you look at it the more inspiration sometimes you get. And you may get it just before you jump on set and it comes out of nowhere, that magic that just comes and 'Boom, damn, you got it,' but it won't come if you're not focused. So sometimes I'm doing that, other times I'm playing ring a ring o' rosie with the cast or I'm just scratching my butt, eating an apple.

I was looking over your tweets recently and one of them stood out to me I was going to ask you to explain a little more: 'Acting is stupid'. I see where you're coming from with that, I've done a little myself and acting is stupid; that's kind of what's so great about it.

[Laughs] Yeah I mean if you're a kid looking at people on a set acting you're gonna be like 'This is really dumb, what's the point of this?' and I was looking at it from a kid's perspective in that moment, I just felt like well this is kinda dumb, it's kinda silly, when you really think about it. A lot of times we do silly things on set, like we'll be in a scene and it'll just feel silly to everybody, especially like a sex scene or something really awkward, and it's just like 'what the fuck are we doing right now?' But I love it though, it's really, really fun and there are great things that can come out of it. But then I think sometimes we can sit here like, [mock British accent] 'acting is a high art form' involving 'deep philosophical questions,' and it's like, we're just human beings and we're just lucky to be able to do this job, it's not that deep. Sometimes you'll be on set and people will give you cupcakes and pat you on the back and tell you how great you are and it's like oh come on, I'm not fucking saving the world here.

I mean ultimately acting is just playing isn't it, and that's the beauty of it.

Right.

And thinking about social media for a second, I enjoy your feed, it's these kind of random, scattered thoughts. I don't know how you feel about it, honestly, to me, social media is this like awful necessity I feel like I have to have, partly for my job, and I think that my life would probably be richer without it, I don't know how you feel and how you approach it being an actor?

I tend to agree. I think the problem is the accelerated rate at which it's used, we just use it too much. I think if we use it in moderation it's fine, a lot of times I delete shit to try and exercise some sort of balance, but I think anything overused becomes an issue, and now so many people don't know how to interact in life but they do on social. It's definitely a discussion because I also think it's very beautiful, it's a place where people can connect with the people they're fond of. I think it's brought an expansion to human consciousness and it's an interesting place. It can be very, very dark and very, very mean and very, very insensitive, but it can also be very, very helpful, and provide information and communities and love. I think it's a cool little thing but I think if you use it too much then it becomes a problem.

(Photo: Getty)

I mean yeah, it's definitely got its huge positives for a lot of people in terms of uniting them. Sometimes I think it makes me concentrate on the game too much though, I feel like when I'm around social media I end up obsessing about how I'm doing in the world compared to everyone else, and I need to take more time to just fucking sit in a field and not think about that stuff.

That's very, very true, yes, and especially things like the 'gram, which I use a lot, but it can represent this sort of hamster on a wheel type thing, and also that's paired with our cultures, right, our cultures call for that kind of thing, so when people post pictures of their Lamborghini and you look outside and see your Honda that creates a feeling of sadness and I think that's a residue from the way our societies are set up and what we value. I think if we change our value system and we begin to open and expand it out then what will be appearing to us will change. But that's a collective effort, because I can think all I want that it's much more beautiful to sit here and look at these flowers, but that's not being corroborated by the people around me then my communication with that is stifled and then it becomes another form of isolation. But anyway, we're going into a deep ass conversation!

[Laughs] It's interesting though! For some reason Instagram doesn't bother me as much because I feel like everyone knows that it's performative and that it's not actually real.

Oh yeah, that's a good point.

So you can play with it a little bit, whereas Twitter it just seems like everyone's throwing out all these opinions so that feels the more toxic one to me... but I don't know, I'm probably being cynical.

No, I can see that.

I wanna talk briefly about Jay-Z's 'Moonlight' music video that you worked on [and which involved a shot-for-shot remake of a scene from Friends], did you spend much time studying the original scenes to get it down perfectly?

Yes I did. Not too much because we didn't get the clip until we were all on set, but I just spent all the time I had. You know, that waiting around, sitting around we were talking about, that's what I was doing, looking at this episode over and over and over and over and trying to see every little thing Chandler was doing. I don't think I got everything but I tried to make it pretty accurate.

It must have been a trip doing that whole thing and on this weirdly realistic set.

Yeah it was crazy dude, it was surreal, I didn't really watch the show but I was familiar with it so it was kind of crazy. I just wondered what we were doing and the whole time I was like, 'what is this, what will come of this?'

And just finally, do you know when you're starting shooting season 2 of Atlanta yet?

Yes, September.

I know it's Donald's [Glover, show creator] baby and everything, but is there anything more you can tell me about the new season?

There is but I won't [evil laugh].

Coz I was reading this interview with Brian [Tyree Henry , co-star] and he was like, 'we don't know anything yet', but obviously you got a little more information.

Oh I know everything man, I'm like plugged into the Illuminati! I got the answers. I'm sway but I won't say.

Alright man well best of luck - I don't wanna make your head explode but whenever anyone asks me who I think is gonna be the next big thing I literally always say you... so enjoy being the fucking success you're going to be in the next couple of years!

You're very, very kind, thank you.

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