The Unusual Genius Of Mr Lakeith Stanfield

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The Unusual Genius Of Mr Lakeith Stanfield

Words by Mr Alex Pappademas | Photography by Mr Geordie Wood | Styling by Ms Julie Ragolia

21 November 2019

Mr Lakeith Stanfield turns away from the traffic outside his car window and hunches his body into the shape of a distressed capital “C”. He’d spent the morning supervising removal men at a house he is vacating in Studio City, Los Angeles. The plan for the afternoon involved the promise of sushi, maybe even hinged on it a little bit. Instead, wires had gotten crossed and a hired car has delivered Mr Stanfield, hungry, to a location where there’s a photo shoot, but no food to speak of as yet.

He is wearing a battered green Malcolm X cap, a corduroy blazer, what looks like black thermal underwear, a pair of red loafers like the Pope’s, an ankh necklace and a ring in the shape of a skull. There’s another ring, with diamonds, given to him – just given to him, like that – by a diamond-district guy during the filming of Messrs Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems, one of two movies Mr Stanfield has coming out this autumn, the other being Mr Rian Johnson’s devilish country-house murder mystery Knives Out.

Mr Stanfield is in a bad way, blood sugar-wise, as the car ferries him back across town to the agreed-upon sushi place. He seems like someone who might need, in this moment, to be given space and silence. Instead, Mr Stanfield talks. He explains that he’d been prepping for a role that has put him in a weird headspace – as Mr William O’Neal, the Black Panther and confidential police informant, in a biopic of the assassinated Panther leader Mr Fred Hampton – and then he talks about rats. He’d gone off to shoot a movie and came back to find they’d taken over. “Faeces,” he says, bottom-lining it. Then there was a plumbing issue, similarly foul, and rather than sticking around (to wait for the locusts, maybe), he’s leaving the Studio City house without finding a new place to move to, putting his stuff in storage and himself in a hotel. “I’m in a period of transition anyway,” he says. It could be worse, he reflects, as the car swings past a homeless encampment under a freeway exit. “I could be there.”

All he knows is he isn’t going back to any of the places he’d once been: “That’s outta gas,” he says.

Born in San Bernardino in 1991, Mr Stanfield grew up in the desert city of Victorville, California. Practically no one famous is from Victorville except the minimalist composer Mr Harold Budd. Mr Budd once said, about whether the broad expanse and haunting space of the California desert had influenced his music, “It has nothing to do with the broad expanse and the haunting space, no. Nothing there… tell them to shut up.” Mr Stanfield does not say much about Victorville either. He decided he wanted to act, started making the trek into Hollywood to audition, but got nothing for a while, acted in a short film about the troubled teens in a care home by the director Mr Destin Daniel Cretton in 2008, and went back to booking nothing. Almost five years later, Mr Cretton made a feature-length version of that film, called Short Term 12, and again sought out Mr Stanfield for the role of Marcus, an abuse survivor about to age out of the system. Mr Stanfield’s arrestingly unarmoured performance – at one point he delivers a freestyle rap that seems to bubble up unbidden from his guts like a sob, which, if you’ve ever seen anybody freestyle rap in a movie, you know is incredibly difficult to pull off – got him an Independent Spirit Awards supporting-actor nomination, a category that included the likes of Mr James Gandolfini and Mr Michael Fassbender. After that he booked nothing, for years, again.

He’d get call-backs, he says, and then blow them completely. “’Cause I wanted it so bad,” he says, “you could see my heart beating out of my damn jacket. And, when I got in there, I just lost it, ’cause I was so nervous. I’d be picking up the script like, ‘Oh, shit.’ I’m shaking, I’m so conscious of myself.”

(He’s made it to an agreeably cacophonous downtown sushi spot by this point, orders a bottle of warm sake – “I’m feeling sweet,” he tells the waiter, giving himself a little hug by way of illustration – and begins to work his way through a restorative meal of edamame, sashimi and hand-rolled sushi, all chased with Coke.)

Eventually Mr Stanfield decided to stop caring so much about the parts he was reading for, to let go and stop trying so hard to nail each audition. He started scheduling back-to-back meetings on the same day just to make each one seem like it mattered less; he was between one meeting and the next when his agents called to tell him he’d been cast in a small part in The Purge: Anarchy, as a masked henchman named in the credits as Young Ghoul Face.

He wore a blank white Kabuki mask with the word “GOD” scrawled on it and acted unhinged; it led to more and better work, opportunities to play the civil-rights martyr Mr Jimmie Lee Jackson in Ms Ava DuVernay’s Selma and conjure the laconic menace of Snoop Dogg in Mr F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton. Then, over the course of a few pivotal years, Mr Stanfield showed up in Mr Donald Glover’s TV series Atlanta, Mr Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and Mr Boots Riley’s Molotov satire Sorry To Bother You, three projects that crackled with the energy of a strange, sorrowful, surreal passage in the life of the country: the fever dreams of a shaky post-Obama nation. In Mr Riley’s film, Mr Stanfield was vulnerable and brilliantly deadpan as Cassius Green, an underachiever-turned-telemarketer whose “white voice” allows him to code-switch his way up the corporate elevator, a regular dude pulled reluctantly to radical action by the escalating madness around him. In Atlanta, the dynamic flips and flips again; Mr Stanfield’s character Darius is a wildly eccentric enigma who’s convinced he’s the only person in any given room who’s thinking clearly. When Mr Stanfield is approached in public, he says, a personal encounter with Darius is usually what people are expecting.

Sometimes, being recognisable is OK. One time, the rapper Earl Sweatshirt ran across traffic to stop a car Mr Stanfield was riding in, just so he could tell him he was a big fan, and then Mr Stanfield told the rapper the feeling was mutual – “I love that guy. I love his mind” – and suddenly he was out of the car, hugging Earl Sweatshirt in the middle of the street while cars whizzed past them. One time, Dr Dre called, just to say “hi”. Another time, he ran into Jay-Z at a thing, and Jay-Z asked, “How’s the kid?,” which was wild, because the kid – whose name and gender Mr Stanfield prefers to keep off the record – had just been born and Mr Stanfield wasn’t sure how Jay-Z could have known that. All this is fine, but it’s also strange. One day, you’re scrounging money for a train ticket out of Victorville and the next, Jay-Z is privy to your personal life and you’re telling stories that start with the words, “I’m pretty sure Jamie Lee Curtis made me stop buying cigarettes”.

“I got a tattoo on my face,” Mr Stanfield explains. “It’s my baby’s name.” He told Ms Curtis this. “And [Ms Jamie Lee Curtis] was like, ‘And you’re smoking a cigarette? Look in the fucking mirror.’ I was like, ‘Oh’. And I haven’t bought a pack since.”

That was on the set of Knives Out. Ms Curtis plays the eldest daughter of a mystery novelist whose suspicious demise ensnares his squabbling family in a murder investigation. Mr Stanfield, meanwhile, plays a sceptical local cop who acts as straight man to a Foghorn Leghornish showboat of a private investigator played by Mr Daniel Craig. The director, Mr Johnson, was a fan of Mr Stanfield’s, and told him, about the part, “‘It was a role for some old white man, but I think you’d be good for it.” So Mr Stanfield wound up playing a cop for the first time – the one character in Knives Out who says out loud what the audience is thinking, or passes quiet judgement with a furrowed brow, until the movie twists and twists again, and gets ahead of him as devilishly as it has us. Mr Stanfield got to act with a gun and a badge and this big brick of a phone hanging off his belt (“I felt like Batman or something”) and watch how Mr Craig and Ms Curtis moved, on set and off, how they wore their stardom, none of it lost on him.

In Uncut Gems – a cage-rattling drama of high-stakes, low-rent criminality – he’s Demany, a hustler who feeds moneyed marks to a diamond-district operator played by Mr Adam Sandler, in whose unravelling Demany perceives a silver lining of opportunity. Filmmaker Mr Josh Sadfie had idly suggested to Mr Stanfield that Demany might be a member of the New York sect of the Bloods gang; at the time, Mr Stanfield happened to have been listening to a lot of music by Tekashi 6ix9ine, a Mexican-Puerto Rican rapper from Brooklyn who’s since been handed a 47-year prison sentence for a range of gun, drug and racketeering charges after a period of affiliation with the Nine Trey gang went awry. Mr Stanfield responded to the nihilistic energy of 6ix9ine’s persona. “I figured I might put a little bit of that into Demany,” he says. “He’s reckless. He don’t really give a fuck.”

They shot the film on the streets of New York’s Diamond District, and on sets that the directors populated with real Diamond District types – “They were giving Adam and me stuff about the Diamond District and the industry, little terminologies and things, how precious things were,” Mr Stanfield says. One dealer gave him the aforementioned ring (valued at $14,000) for free upon finding out he was in Mr Sandler’s movie. Such is the power of Mr Sandler. Mr Stanfield was already in awe: “I remember watching The Waterboy when I was young, and it being one of the things where I was like, ‘I really wanna be an actor,’” he says. “I just loved his commitment to that character. That was a profound film. It affected me a lot.”

In one scene, Mr Stanfield and Mr Sandler’s characters have a physical altercation, and when it was over, Mr Stanfield – who, in the short-film version of Short Term 12, injured another actor with a wiffle-ball bat – immediately broke character to make sure Mr Sandler was OK. He was. “And I was like, ‘All right – ’cause I don’t want to hurt you,” Mr Stanfield says. “I didn’t even want to be physical with him, y’know?”

Right now, and for the last little while, Mr Stanfield’s been figuring out how to navigate an existence in which instinctive actions can have unforeseen consequences. For a few years, he appeared to be approaching the work of being famous like a man putting a slice of cheese into a Blu-Ray player just to see what would happen – infamously climbing on stage to accept a Critics’ Choice award on behalf of Silicon Valley despite never having appeared in the show, wearing a dishevelled anime-character wig to walk the BET Awards red carpet, tweeting out his mobile number to what would turn out to be a surprisingly large and eager-to-chat social-media fan base, that sort of thing. He laughs when reminded of the phone number incident, puts it down to naiveté, and says that he didn’t expect anyone to call. Then he thinks about it for a second, and says, “You know what I was actually thinking at that moment? I’ve been so lonely in my life that I just wanted someone to talk to, someone to pick up the phone and say hi. So, I was like, ‘If I do this, then everyone who needs someone to talk to will at least have someone to say ‘hi’ today. But, of course, I didn’t think about it. I had to get a whole new number.”

He continues: “I’ve got to maintain my sanity, and the only way I can do that is if I’m always at all times remaining grounded. So, if I feel inclined to do something, I just do it. When I shaved my head” – or half of it, more accurately, for the premiere of Selma, far and away the biggest movie he’d done to that point – “I wasn’t consciously thinking, ‘I’m gonna do this for the reaction.’ It was just like, I woke up and something said ‘shave my head’ and I did it and went out there.” He says he hadn’t planned to grab Silicon Valley’s award and went for it without any real exit strategy: “Once I realised I was up there, it was too late,” he says, laughing.

“I’m used to going into spaces where people don’t quite understand what’s going on,” he says. “That’s fine. I think it opens us up, to be more open-minded and understand that we don’t exist in a vacuum. And especially, black men don’t exist in a vacuum.” That’s the subtext of a lot of the reaction to his supposedly bizarre behaviour, he thinks: “All black men need to look and be the same. And when they do something different, it’s strange.”

“I don’t feel weird,” he says. “I still don’t.” At this point I ask if he’d always been this way, before Hollywood, if in Victorville he’d felt like the people around him found him unusual. “I’m sure they did,” he says, laughing, “but I honestly spent so much time in my own head that I didn’t really devote much time to thinking about what other people thought. I guess I kinda thought that people were by and large a bit uptight about things and I wished they could see that it wasn’t that serious, and that you can have so much more fun if you weren’t beholden to these ideas about who you have to be and who you are. I just felt it was unfortunate, for them, that they couldn’t see that. But at the same time, I failed horribly in school. So, there’s that. I didn’t have the balance, the understanding of structure, so much that I was kinda out of control. I feel this sense of freedom, as a result of me being able to live a bit of an unhinged life, but it also causes me to have to learn very hard life lessons, the hard way.”

Knives Out is out on 29 November; Uncut Gems is out in January 2020