LaKeith Stanfield and Idris Elba on Keeping It Real in an Industry of Make-Believe
If you don’t recognize LaKeith Stanfield’s name, you’ll likely recognize his face. As the guy who yelled the titular warning in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Stanfield’s watery eyes and quietly tortured expression made rounds across the internet following the film’s February 2017 release, one month after the inauguration of America’s 45th president. His soft stare, pleading with desperation, became the image of a country on edge, and a Black community anticipating what was yet to come. A year later, in a searing indictment of corporate America, Stanfield played a telemarketer who ascends the company ranks by faking a “white voice” in Boots Riley’s magical realist fantasia Sorry to Bother You. And then there was his role as Darius on Donald Glover’s Emmy-winning series Atlanta, where Stanfield transcended the hazards of growing up Black in the American South—and the cliché of the stoner sidekick—to reach something resembling a higher plane of existence. It is, perhaps, the defining performance in a young career that’s already full of them.
In each project—to say nothing of his work in Uncut Gems, Knives Out, and The Photograph—Stanfield isn’t exactly a fish out of water; he’s a fish gasping for air in a sea of trash. And in a year that saw the nation’s flotsam float to the surface, the 29-year-old actor and rapper dove headfirst into deeper, murkier territory. For his latest role in Judas and the Black Messiah, directed by Shaka King, Stanfield plays William O’Neal, the criminal who infiltrated the Black Panther Party as an FBI informant. Opposite Daniel Kaluuya, his Get Out costar, Stanfield is the “Judas” whose betrayal leads to the interrogation and murder of Fred Hampton, the leader of the BPP Illinois chapter and a celebrated revolutionary. It was a particular challenge for Stanfield, a vocal critic of state-sanctioned racism—so difficult, in fact, that his fans grew concerned about his mental health. But as Stanfield tells Idris Elba, with whom he will appear in The Harder They Fall, an all-Black Western for Netflix, he’s doing just fine. From the set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on a break from filming due to a coronavirus scare, Stanfield called Elba to discuss the therapy of rap, the beauty of infallibility, and the necessity of Black brotherhood. — SARAH NECHAMKIN
IDRIS ELBA: What’s up, bro? How are you?
LAKEITH STANFIELD: I’m good, man. Thank you so much for doing this.
ELBA: I appreciate being asked. It was actually great to do a little research on you, getting a little bit deeper under the skin. I want to dive straight in. Talk me through your relationship with music, which is something that’s also close to my heart.
STANFIELD: I’ve been making music as long as I can remember. I was always playing with how patterns organize themselves in sound. Acting came in high school. I was terrible in all my classes, and I failed everything. I felt that everyone was a liar, because I come from a household where it’s difficult to trust people. When I got into school, I was like, “This is all bullshit.” I’ve got a bit of a rebellious spirit anyway, so it was difficult for me to learn how to adjust and acclimate until I got older. But there was one class I really liked, and it was drama. It gave me an opportunity to be expressive and bring things to the table I hadn’t seen before, and let some of these emotions I’d harbored come out and not feel weird about it. Everyone in there was a fucking freak, so it was great. Drama class was also the first class I brought one of my early EPs to. I made a whole bunch of CDs with these little ratchet covers and I passed them out in class. That was the only class where I wanted to pass them out, because I was like, “If anyone’s going to understand where it comes from, it’s these guys.”
ELBA: Did you make music as well as rap?
STANFIELD: At that time, I would just find beats on the internet and basically steal them. I couldn’t afford any. I used to record from the computer speaker into a microphone, and then take that rerecord whole side of social media that is looking to vilify things and put people in ever smaller categories, particularly Black men. We have the smallest ability to move when it comes to the public spectrum, especially in America, because we’re only seen as one thing. If you’re not this, then you’re that. If you ain’t good, you bad. If you’re like this, then you hate this. So we’ve got to be careful with how we use this powerful tool. There’s this thing about being an actor—you’ve got to be squeaky clean. But I’m not that kind of actor. I’m just a human who happened to become an actor.
ELBA: There’s something about an audience’s relationship with an actor that differs from their relationship with a rapper. If you’ve acted first and you suddenly start rapping, they look at you differently. I’m sure you experienced that a bit, but on your album, it doesn’t seem like you care. You get personal and speak from the heart.
STANFIELD: It’s been therapeutic. We’ve all been through a lot of different shit. I’m hoping people connect more to that than the idea that I’m this beloved acting celebrity that is infallible, because I, for one, have trouble connecting to people who are perfect. I’m more connected to people who are actively trying to figure out how to be better. That’s all I’m trying to do, so if you can understand that, I think you can get me.
ELBA: Listen, congratulations on being on the cover of Interview magazine. Historically, that’s a big moment for any actor. How does that make you feel?
STANFIELD: Well, if I’m going to be transparent about it, I’m not really into magazines. I don’t read too many of them; I’ve never really kept up. When they told me I’d be on the cover of Interview, I was like, “Okay.” And then someone else had to tell me, “No, no, this is a good opportunity.” And I was like, “Oh, okay, great.” Anytime someone is honoring my work, I’m happy. As long as it’s about that, I’m happy. I’d be happy not going to another photo shoot for the rest of my life, but if it means we’re able to focus on the work my collaborators and I want to help bring to the conversation, I’m happy. That shit is what’s important. It isn’t really about me, it’s more about what god has given me to do.
ELBA: [Laughs] It’s a big deal. I haven’t seen the film [Judas and the Black Messiah] yet, but I’m fascinated to know, from your perspective, what you think is special about it, especially your role.
STANFIELD: There’s this thing that’s often in the air, an atmosphere when you become an actor about how deep one dives into a role and what that might implicate as far as your mental health. Sometimes you uncover things in yourself that apply to the character in the story that you’re surprised by, and genuinely moved by, to the point where it changes the composition of your emotional state. That’s what this movie has done. It’s been the hardest role I’ve ever played. It’s made me go to places I didn’t know I could go to, and it made me put my faith back in things that are above me. I’m playing William O’Neal, a guy who infiltrated the Black Panther Party during the height of so many infiltrations that were happening, just as an uprising was taking place in the country. This guy was used as a pawn to exploit his brother and get him killed. They might not have come from the same place, but they’re still brothers in my mind. If you Black, you my brother. I don’t give a fuck. It was challenging for me to jump into a character who doesn’t share that belief about his fellow Black man in America. He’s like, “I’m here to survive and get money and not be in a fucked-up situation.” I can understand that to an extent, but I was so enamored of Fred [Hampton] and how young and powerful and courageous he was. It was really difficult to play a character that was in direct opposition to that. It caused me to have physical changes. I started having to keep a close watch on my mental health. It’s been a trip, and I hope it was all worth it in the end.
ELBA: What was redeeming about your character? Why play a character that sells out?
STANFIELD: I believe more people are William O’Neals than Fred Hamptons. I think, by and large, when people are given the opportunity to stand for something that might mean they’ll need to sacrifice for it, most people will take the easy way. I wanted to take the easy way. When I got the script, I told the director, “I love this. Man, I can’t wait to play Fred, thank you!” He was like, “No, no, no. I want you to play Will.” I was like, “You want me to play this fucking sellout?” And then I realized after reading the script several more times that I could learn more from the sellout. It’s kind of hard to say it, but you learn more from going through that journey of development than you do from seeing someone whose life was cut short so soon by his ambition and courage. Unfortunately, we can use these people who have done these things in history to learn from ourselves and grow. It’s easy for us to preach and say what we would do, but what would we really do?
ELBA: Would you consider yourself a method actor?
STANFIELD: I think I’m kind of a method actor in life. I’m constantly rolling through life, picking up on different things, taking the good, leaving the bad. Whatever’s useful to me I keep, and what isn’t I discard. It’s the same thing with the characters that I approach. Whatever it takes for me to encompass and envelop myself in what I need to be and do, that’s what I do. If you would’ve seen me while we were filming, I probably had an FBI hat on, walking around with badges on in public. The way you relate to the material is so closely tied up into your life. But there are some characters where you don’t need to do that at all. If I’m doing a Western and I have a six-shooter, I’m not about to be walking in public with it, because, shit, I might get shot by the police.
ELBA: It’s 2020. What were you doing ten years ago?
STANFIELD: I was working at AT&T in Sacramento, and I signed up on a film board because I was trying to get an audition. When I was in high school, I had alopecia. I was the only bald kid. I found someone who would do pictures for me for a couple of hundred dollars, and I had these headshots from when I was first starting, when I was bald. I was submitting this terrible headshot to everybody in Sacramento. I got fired from AT&T because I was smoking weed, trespassing in abandoned houses, and shit like that. You know, dumb shit, like resisting arrest, trying to get away from the cops. It was a good thing I signed up on the film board, because the same day I got fired, someone from there hit me up, like, “Are you in L.A.?” I was like, “Yeah.” I wasn’t in L.A. yet, but I knew I could be there. So I finally showed up to meet this guy, and he had an audition for me for a short film called Short Term 12.
ELBA: Your first movie.
STANFIELD: It turned into my first role. When I auditioned for that movie and I looked up, he was crying. I was like, “Damn, I must have fucked his story up.” But he said, “No, that was great.”
ELBA: This is a clichéd question, but if someone had said to you, “Yo, listen, man, come to L.A. and within ten years, you’re going to be a celebrated actor,” would you have believed it? Or would you have told them to shut up?
STANFIELD: I would have told them to shut up, because I already knew how great I was. That’s what I really thought. I thought I would’ve been a lot further by now. But I’m constantly humbled by the beautiful landmarks that have happened over the last two years.
ELBA: It’s easy to lose sight of those milestones, and it’s inspirational that you have that perspective. The name of your album, HTIEKAL, is your name backwards. Can you pronounce that for me, please?
STANFIELD: I just say “T-KAL” or “LaKeith.” It’s just an opportunity to see things from a different perspective. I remember the day in Amsterdam that inspired it. There’s this little shop that sells truffles. You eat the ruffles and they take you on this trip, and you get to see different things from different perspectives. The world was turned upside down to the point where when people were speaking to me in English, the language became indistinguishable from gibberish. I understood in that moment that all language, all symbols, are just what we agree on them being. So I took my name and flipped it around.
ELBA: Actors who rap, rappers who act—there’s a stigma with that, from Common to Drake to Childish Gambino to yourself. I’ve dabbled in a little bit of that. What’s your take on that?
STANFIELD: Most times, when I hear that an actor is making music, I don’t want to hear it, because I’m just like, “Leave the music to the musicians.” I often feel the same way with musicians who transition to acting. I’m just not interested in watching it. But every now and again, you’ll see someone who transcends my skepticism. We should be open and brave enough to try new things, but also, everything ain’t for everybody.
ELBA: That is true. I tend to listen to everybody’s music, regardless of what they’re known for. Lewis Hamilton is a race-car driver, and I walked into a studio in L.A. and he was doing a session, and he let me come in and listen to his music. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He doesn’t play it for people because he has that sense of fear that people won’t accept it. I always cringe at that, because I wasn’t born an actor and I wasn’t born a DJ. I was just born an Idris. It’s like saying you can’t be an actor and a parent at the same time. It’s, like, really?
STANFIELD: I love that. I think that’s a great perspective to have. Everything’s developmental, and you never know what you might be really gifted at. Keeping an open mind to the endless possibilities of what we can do is the way to go about this shit. There are so many different labels that try to keep us in these narrow categories. You have to make a conscious effort not to do that.
ELBA: With the world being what it is right now, what’s the future for you, bro? What are you optimistic about?
STANFIELD: I’m happy to continue to cultivate the kind of family I want to see with my new baby, and watch that and nurture that and grow that, and continue to expand on my enterprises. You mentioned you were working on something when we were on set, and I’m inspired by those who are producing and directing. But the main thing I’m focused on is being a more complete person. Because you ain’t shit without your mental health. Otherwise, everything else just goes out of the circuit and you can’t operate. It’s about being at peace and moving forward, being industrious but being balanced.
ELBA: Mental health is something you speak about a lot. You mentioned having a dysfunctional family growing up. Do you think that’s where your relationship with examining your mental health comes from?
STANFIELD: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I used to be mad at my family for things I felt should have been better. But now when I think about it, I don’t think it was dysfunctional—it was functional, it just maybe wasn’t functional in the ideal way I would have liked it to have been. And when I look back, I realize that’s because of generational trauma. If my parents were beaten, they beat me. And if I don’t find out how to hack that DNA, then I end up beating somebody else. Therapy’s great. I still have to push myself to seek help from outside sources, but sometimes I need it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with having a clear head on your shoulders.
ELBA: How did your family adjust to the fame and all of that?
STANFIELD: Man, that’s one of the trickiest things to navigate. I’ve been away from home for seven, eight years, and now I’m on all the billboards and I have extra things at my disposal. It makes it tricky to manage perception and expectation in people who have known you your whole life. Some things seem to have happened overnight. Although they haven’t, they seem to have happened that way, and so people treat you accordingly. There are people who want things from you, and then there are the people who have stood by you the whole way who don’t want anything. It’s just another exercise in fortifying your inner G and understanding that you ain’t really gotta know the questions if you already know the answers.
ELBA: I can relate to that wholeheartedly. I’ve been on my journey for a good 30 years, and my core friends have been going through the changes with me. The way pe0ple look at my world seems to have changed, but my friendships have deepened. It’s harder with family than it is with people I used to kick it with on the streets.
STANFIELD: One of the things about this particular journey is that it was so specific that a lot of the people I grew up with couldn’t come with me. I would go to Los Angeles and be like, “Yo, I’m about to live in my car for two weeks and do auditions. I’m showering wherever I find water.” Those are things you can’t really bring people along for, nor would they be inclined to join you. You have to want to do this shit for real. It’s not an easy climb.
ELBA: Do you regret anything?
STANFIELD: I don’t. I don’t think regret is very useful. If there are things I’ve misstepped on, and there are many, I need to help myself be better, or appeal to others who can help me be better. But I don’t think hanging onto grudges has ever been useful for me or anyone I’ve ever known. At the end of the day, you’re the only person who could give a fuck about you, so you’ve got to be able to shake shit off and learn from it. Live and let live.
ELBA: To reflect is one thing, but to regret is another. Regret is useless.
STANFIELD: And sadomasochistic. You’re just beating your own ass. If we’re not powering forward and making our muscles stronger, then bitch is going to atrophy.
Grooming: Tym Buacharern at The Criterion and Araxi Lindsey
On-Site Production and Photography Assistant: Tamika McConnaughey
Production: Jesus Medina for Christopher Agency
Assistant Stylist: Nieshea Lemle