While casting his new film, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, writer-director Fede Alvarez pored over a pile of indistinguishable audition tapes. He was looking for his Ed Needham, a tech wiz working for the National Security Agency and the latest to track hacker Lisbeth Salander, of Dragon Tattoo fame. “Everybody went for the same kind of thing,” he says. “Nerdy, you know, in a button-up shirt.” That seems like the obvious choice for a young security agent and computer engineer. But the Uruguayan filmmaker, known for his blood-drenched 2013 remake of the ’80s horror flick Evil Dead and 2016’s original thriller Don’t Breathe, doesn’t care for the expected. Alvarez nods to the controversial choice of lead Claire Foy, who takes a severe departure from her Emmy-winning portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II on the Netflix series The Crown to play Salander — early reviews questioned his decision, but dispute dissipated with the reveal of the first trailer, in which Foy virtually dissolves into character.
“I prefer the counterintuitive,” Alvarez explains. “Anybody in the audience could be directing the film if it’s so obvious. You have to find something that you earn your salary with.” For the role of Needham, he needed an actor who could hold his own against Foy and bring an equal level of depth to the movie-long chase. Button-up not required.
Then Alvarez watched Lakeith Stanfield’s submission.
Typical of the video shorts Stanfield (somewhat notoriously) shares and deletes on social media, his take sidestepped the contrived in favor of a stripped-back reading. In the clip, Alvarez recalls, Stanfield recites his lines in a tracksuit, speaking with his natural “swag.”
“I was like, ‘Whoa, what is this?’ ” he says. “It was completely different. He didn’t try to be an NSA computer engineer. He was his own version of it, what he imagined it would be if he were that person.”
In that moment, Stanfield pocketed the part.
•More photos of Lakeith Stanfield, see our gallery.
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“When I get involved with any project, I try to bring a perspective that I have experienced or that I’m familiar with. I want it to be rooted in something that I relate to. That way, maybe [other] people will be able to relate to it.”Lakeith Stanfield
After filming of Spider's Web wrapped in spring 2018 — an “insane” adventure that took cast and crew from the United States to Berlin to Stockholm — Stanfield, 27, had little downtime to escape the limelight.
Buzz surrounded the July release of Boots Riley’s psychotropic box-office-buster Sorry to Bother You (a startling dissection of power, capitalism, and protest that Time reported “may be the most culturally relevant movie of the year”). Stanfield stars as telemarketer Cassius “Cash” Green opposite Tessa Thompson and Armie Hammer in Oakland rapper Riley’s genre-defying debut film. It garnered comparison to the 2018 Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay, Get Out, in which Stanfield also appears, shouting its spine-chilling eponymous line.
Then the list of 2018 Emmy nominations dropped — with 16 for Atlanta. Donald Glover’s FX series follows a wannabe music producer and his rapper cousin as they navigate the A-Town rap scene and deal with the mundane issues of daily life. Stanfield has a supporting role as likeable stoner Darius, the quirky and charmingly philosophical relief to other characters’ recurrent mishaps.
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The San Bernardino–born actor has come into his own on the set of Atlanta, where concepts are experimental and boundary pushing is encouraged. Plus, the guys genuinely get along. “We’re a family,” Stanfield says. “The environment is really laid-back, and we’re all there for each other. [The show] moves as its own spirit; it’s its own world. Once we go on set, everything turns into Atlanta mode. It’s almost like you’re walking into a vortex.”
Glover pitched him the part of Darius when the two bumped into each other at a party in Hollywood, a strangely similar happenstance to that of Stanfield’s first encounter with Riley ahead of Sorry to Bother You. In a way, it’s as if fate wants him here. In the limelight. But ultimately it is Stanfield’s relentless drive and artistry that have manifested his rise in stardom.
“I don’t think it has an off-switch,” he observes of his rapid-fire right-brained mind. “I try to siphon it into things that serve me rather than hurt me. That’s why I’m so grateful for this job I have, which is just, in my opinion, expression — a creative outlet. I can take all of these frustrations and put them there. That’s a beautiful gift.”
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Second to oldest in a large, "fragmented" family, Stanfield found himself a caretaker at an early age. “Growing up around a lot of different siblings taught me to have empathy,” he says. “We had to look out for each other.”
He spent time in Riverside and moved to Victorville when he was 11. From childhood, Stanfield channeled his energies — his fears, his angst, his dreams — into a world of imagination.
“I grew up off a street called Magnolia,” he shares. “That’s where I would play with my aunt’s wigs. That’s where I first realized what mirrors were, and what images were, and what I was. I mean, I didn’t really realize what I was, but I was exploring early on.”
In time, dress-up and puppet shows ripened into poetry and rap. And while he generally hides his personal life from the media’s prying eye (an example: he and girlfriend Xosha Roquemore, of The Mindy Project, have a 1-year-old whose name and gender they successfully have kept quiet), he divulges some of his darkest thoughts and emotions through song.
“Music is a good outlet for me, even though I don’t release much of it.” He has a number of ongoing projects: Moors, a collaboration with beat-master Hrishikesh Hirway; a group called Ratcheft; and another known as Karosive. (“That’s the stuff I might get in trouble for … It’s in the name, Karosive. It eats away at your brain.”)
VIDEO: Step behind the scenes with Lakeith Stanfield at Frey House II.
Stanfield’s abstract ideas have also materialized as video shorts shared on Instagram and YouTube. A mix of oddball improvisations and impromptu dance numbers, sometimes in wigs, are punctuated with poignant community-driven stories Stanfield orchestrates from behind the lens. A recent one-shot recording, filmed on location in Atlanta using local kids, illustrates the microaggressions endured by a black man going about his day.
He concedes to working on a feature-length screenplay, too, “but right now I enjoy doing the shorter stories because they’re more my speed … I learn a lot from getting out there and fucking things up and making a mess.”
While he doesn’t want to be placed on a pedestal for his work in industry-rattling projects like Sorry to Bother You, Atlanta, and Get Out, entertainment headlines count him among those championing the creative minority voice.
“Sometimes Hollywood and ‘the hierarchy’ take themselves a little bit too seriously,” he says. “We’re making art here. I know it affects people, and it is important, but it’s not the kind of thing where we should call ourselves trailblazers. I think we need to focus on remaining true and real — if we can remain true, then everything else will be handled. You will not need to see me as the black man that’s breaking down the barriers of what it means to be black. Maybe I’m just being human. Maybe I’ve just been human the whole time.”
Still, Stanfield is not blind to his newfound influence.
“I just want, hopefully, to instill love in young black people and let them know that it’s OK to love, and in fact, we should love, and love each other. For black men to become friends and for black women and men to get along together and say that they’re beautiful.”
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"I feel like there's so much in me that I want to share. Some of it's good, and some of it's not so good. But this platform allows me a way to express those things and get them out."Lakeith Stanfield
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In an August 2013 conversation with Interview magazine after the release of Short Term 12, Stanfield’s first feature film in which he plays a foster teen with all the pathos of a megastar, the budding talent mused about his future: “Cinema has the ability to change things; [and] I would love to do something that really shakes up things a little bit. Maybe if I played a role that black people typically don’t play, that would be cool — probably a banker or a superhero. Not like Hancock — like Superman, but a black one.”
Five years later, Stanfield has taken flight.
“His instincts are so special and different, which for me as a director is the best thing you can find,” Alvarez enthuses. “Some actors want to disappear in the roles and don’t want to be themselves at all, have a mask in a way. Lakeith has a great mix — he’s half the character and the other half is 100 percent himself.”
Stanfield knows no other way.
Next up for the rapper-actor is an album (well, maybe: “I don’t know if I’m going to release it, but I’ve been in the studio a lot lately”); Someone Great, coming to Netflix in 2019; the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems alongside Adam Sandler (“I’m excited to work with him because he’s a major talent that I’ve been a fan of for a long time”); Rian Johnson’s whodunit Knives Out; and Prince of Cats, a live-action version of the epic hip-hop-meets-Shakespeare graphic novel by Ronald Wimberly. He’s particularly excited for the latter, which projects to be another film that will give Hollywood a good shake with its nuanced perspective of inner-city street culture.
“There’s so many unique, great voices in this country and this world over. We don’t all understand each other’s background and where we come from,” Stanfield says. “That’s why we should share. There’s room for everybody.”
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