Film

Lakeith Stanfield Is Ready for Top Billing

After turning heads in “Atlanta” and “Get Out,” the actor takes the spotlight in “Crown Heights”

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In the lobby of an office tower at the tip of Manhattan, Lakeith Stanfield flops sideways, mermaid-style, onto a white leather couch. Wearing a black-and-gold patterned button-down, black jeans, and a scruffy beard, the 26-year-old SoCal native is in New York to promote his new movie, Crown Heights, in which he plays a man wrongfully convicted of a violent crime. It’s a new game, being number one on the call sheet, a different world now that Stanfield has gained widespread recognition for his roles as the stoner philosopher Darius in Donald Glover’s Atlanta and the lobotomized Andre Hayworth in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. For one thing, people want to take his picture — random people on the street who Stanfield suspects don’t really know who he is. The other thing about success, he says: “I gotta talk more.”

That can be tricky for a guy who prefers to let the work speak for itself. Stanfield first turned heads in Hollywood with his depiction of a troubled foster kid in the 2013 movie Short Term 12; two years later, he had a small but memorable role as Snoop Dogg in the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton. But it was his unforgettable appearances in Atlanta and Get Out — two works that received critical and popular acclaim while addressing questions of race and identity in surprising new ways — that solidified his standing as a major talent. This month, he’s graduated to leading man with Netflix’s new manga fantasia Death Note and with Crown Heights, an audience award winner at this year’s Sundance. The film tells the true story of Colin Warner, a Trinidadian immigrant living in Brooklyn who spent twenty years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and his childhood friend Carl King, played by Nnamdi Asomugha, who fought for Warner’s release.

“I felt really honored to be approached for it — to walk in [Warner’s] shoes,” Stanfield says. Based on a 2005 episode of This American Life by journalist Anya Bourg, Crown Heights is both a taut legal procedural and a wrenching emotional drama. The film spans the full length of Warner’s incarceration, emphasizing the ripple effect that his arrest has on the community of West Indian expats in the Brooklyn neighborhood of the film’s title.

Although American cinema, as Stanfield points out, is still predominantly white, some of the most exciting films and TV series of the past few years have sprung from the minds of black creators. But things were different when writer-director Matt Ruskin — a Boston native who studied filmmaking at NYU — was in the planning stages of Crown Heights. Having heard a re-airing of Bourg’s episode in 2010, Ruskin knew right away he wanted to make Warner and King’s story into a film. He didn’t set out to make a statement about the criminal justice system, he says; he was moved by the friendship between Warner and King, their unwavering compassion and humanity in the face of such brute injustice. “I just was totally floored by them as people.”

By 2012, Ruskin had acquired the rights to the story, but he struggled to secure funding. “I started putting this movie together a couple years before there was a lot of broad discussion about the importance of diversity in casting,” he says. “Two black leads is a tough movie to get financed. That was always explained to me as an obstacle in trying to get the movie made.”

Cut to 2017, and that’s starting to change. The uptick in film and television driven by black writers and directors — from Atlanta’s Glover to Get Out’s Peele; from Issa Rae and her Insecure co-creator, Larry Wilmore, to Girls Trip co-writers Tracy Oliver and Kenya Barris — has dovetailed with the rise of Stanfield’s career. As a kid growing up in San Bernardino, California, “VHSes were my best friends,” Stanfield says. In between Nick at Nite and the Cartoon Network, he watched Nineties cult classics like Jason’s Lyric, starring a young Jada Pinkett Smith. “And I really liked the gangster movies, the ones that portrayed black people in the ’hood. Shit like that I really liked, because I felt like that was the closest thing to what I’d known at that time.” He’d cop lines from the movies and recite them to his mom, “cuss at her and stuff, and get whooped.”

In 2001, when Stanfield was eleven, his family moved to the small town of Victorville. Stanfield got into music, starting a makeshift record company with his friends using a karaoke microphone they got from Walmart. As a teenager, Stanfield thrived in his high school’s drama department, and at fifteen, he scraped together $60 for headshots and signed with the John Casablancas modeling and acting agency. He went out for a few commercials before landing a part in an embryonic version of Short Term 12, writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton’s graduate thesis project at San Diego State University, in 2008. The seventeen-year-old Stanfield played Mark, a brooding teenager who’s about to turn eighteen and leave the short-term foster care facility where the film is set.

Three years later, when Cretton was mapping out a feature-length version of the film, he tried to get ahold of Stanfield to reprise the role, renamed Marcus. But Stanfield had changed his phone number and wasn’t responding to emails. In the period after the short came out, Stanfield had been working a series of odd jobs, including a stint at a marijuana grow house. Finally he wrote back, booked it to L.A. to audition the next day, and made Cretton cry, “both by his performance and out of sheer relief,” the director recalls.

The feature-length Short Term 12 changed Stanfield’s life. “From that point forward,” he says of taking the film to South by Southwest in 2013, “nothing’s been the same.” In the next two years he appeared in two Oscar-nominated films, Selma (2014) and Straight Outta Compton (2015). But if those projects got Hollywood’s attention, his work the following year would get the rest of America’s.

Stanfield broke into the mainstream in the fall of 2016 with the premiere of Atlanta, which ended up winning the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy series. Stanfield’s Darius, the spacey sidekick to rapper Paper Boi (Bryan Tyree Henry), quickly became a fan favorite for his head-scratching non sequiturs (“Can I measure your tree?”). Stanfield met Glover, the show’s creator and star, at a mixer in Los Angeles. “They hold these little youth-of-Hollywood parties for quote-unquote rising stars,” he recalls. “A bunch of people get in a room who have been in a show or two, or a movie or two, and drink and dance and look at each other and exchange numbers. I’m not really that much of a socialite, so I was just on the dancefloor. And I bumped into Donald, who had on some sparkly shoes.”

Such serendipity seems to follow Stanfield. (He got the part in Selma after he met director Ava DuVernay at an awards-show brunch and, mistaking her for a fan, offered to pose with her for a selfie.) Recently, he was sitting in his car after an audition when his phone rang. He picked up and heard a familiar voice on the other end: It was Jay-Z, offering him a part in the music video for new single “Moonlight,” in which an all-black cast performs a word-for-word scene from Friends on the show’s actual set. Stanfield plays Chandler. (“I liked the fountain part,” he says.)

All these high-profile projects have inevitably cast a spotlight on Stanfield, which he regards with ambivalence. “It’s cool that people are recognizing the projects and that they can be moved by my portrayals, but I’m more focused on the work.” Ruskin echoes this sentiment. “He’s very grounded in reality,” he says, “and I think he’s very grateful to be able to do this as a job.” Stanfield seems consistently surprised when reporters bring up details from his past; when he sat down for an interview on the syndicated radio show The Breakfast Club last year, host Angela Yee mentioned the fact that he was once fired from a job at AT&T after it came to light that he had a criminal record. “How do you know that?” Stanfield responded. When I congratulate him on becoming a father — his girlfriend, the actress Xosha Roquemore, gave birth in June — he waffles, musing, “Where are they getting this stuff from?”

Stanfield saves his energy for his work. He immerses himself in his characters, a process that can be exhausting — even a little dangerous. On the set of Short Term 12, he kept to himself because, as he told Brie Larson — who plays a supervisor at the foster care center — Marcus doesn’t trust anyone. “Even on the last day of shooting,” Larson told Complex magazine, “I tried to sit next to him at lunch, and he immediately got up and walked away.”

Stanfield recalls one scene in which a group of foster kids play Wiffle ball and Marcus gets mad and hits one of them with a bat. “I literally hit the boy because I was too deep into it,” he says. “I came to and I was like, ‘Oh, shit.’ His parents were mad.”

“I don’t think I could ever forget it if I tried,” Cretton says of that scene. “It was day one of production and everyone’s nerves were firing. Keith was definitely in it from the start. The character of Luis, played by Kevin Hernandez, says an offhanded comment about Marcus’s mom, and that set Keith off, and he swung the plastic bat a bit too close to Kevin. But thank goodness everyone was OK when the adrenaline drained away.”

Since that experience, Stanfield says, “I try to be careful about getting too deep into a character, because I don’t want to traumatize myself.” Still, on the set of Crown Heights, he requested that he spend his time between takes alone in a prison cell, rather than in a holding area with the rest of the cast and crew — to “become one with the isolation and boredom” that Warner experienced all those years behind bars. “The bed was hard, that’s something I remember,” Stanfield says. “ ‘This is hella uncomfortable, man.’ ” He wanted to accurately represent the “severe injustice” of Warner’s story, which he hadn’t heard before Ruskin approached him with the script. “It’s uncomfortable to talk about this kind of stuff,” he says. But, he adds, particularly given the miasma of injustice hanging over the country at the moment, “that’s what we’re going to have to be.”

Despite churning out a rapid-fire succession of critical and commercial hits, Stanfield is still relatively new to the game. “It was a couple years ago that I started doing anything other than sitting and eating boogers and stuff,” he remarks. Which means he’s still figuring out how to maintain a healthy distance between the personal and the public. Like Darius, the character Stanfield says hews closest to his own personality, he seems to enjoy confusing his audience, and resists attempts to spin his life into a clean narrative. “No one really knows who I am,” he says. “I don’t even know who I am. When I find out, I’ll let you guys know.”

His first director agrees. “He’s one of those rare performers who has that element of unpredictability that keeps you on the edge of your seat,” Cretton says, “wondering what he’ll do next.”

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