Actor Lakeith Stanfield: 'We All Have Images That We're Attempting To Push'

Jul 9, 2018
Originally published on July 9, 2018 8:34 pm

Actor Lakeith Stanfield is having a moment. He was in Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning horror satire, Get Out. He's in the FX show show Atlanta, where he plays Darius, the stoner sidekick to a rap star who often says pretty outrageous things — like speculating what life would be like if you could use a rat as a cell phone (people in New York City would be doing pretty well, for example). And this summer, Stanfield is in the new movie, Sorry to Bother You, which he calls "an absurdist dark comedy with magical realism that's set in the world of telemarketing. It tells the story of Cassius Green," he says, "who attempts to situate himself in a better position in life by working up the ranks as a telemarketer — which requires that he change himself in crazy ways in order to do it."

That change comes shortly after he begins at the telemarketing company, when he gets a helpful tip from Langston, the man sitting next to him — who's played by Danny Glover. "You wanna make some money here, then read your script with a white voice," Langston tells him, as the dubbed voice of a white man (on-set engineer Ryan Coursey) comes out of his mouth.

So that's where I started with Stanfield — talking about what it means to change who you are to get ahead. "We all have images that we're attempting to push to other people for better or for worse," he says, "We want people to view us as things that get us through doors, or things that allow us to move through life more comfortably, or things that allow us to make more money or be more successful in the workplace, for example. So we let off an image that we feel is appropriate for whatever we're trying to accomplish. The white voice in this movie, I think, is a metaphor for the different things that we put on to be perceived a certain way."


Interview Highlights

On the pressures of starting out

When I first started, I came from an environment where we didn't have very much ... Southern California, near San Bernadino, Victorville, on the way to Vegas you pass through this little desert. And so we didn't really have much stuff, resource-wise, so me moving to L.A. was like me going to the big city, and you would see the lights and the sidewalk that was sparkly, and we thought that was a cool thing — until I got there and realized that it's only cool if you can afford to survive there, which at the time I couldn't ... but just making that transition, going to L.A., for people that lived at home still, they thought that I might be selling out, sacrificing my realness, my rawness, who I really was deep down to come dance in Hollywood. So it was a real conflicting thing for me, making the transition, because I didn't want to disappoint my friends. But at the same time I felt like I was making a change for the better. I mean, after all, the only way you can do something great is if there's great risk.

On playing Darius in Atlanta — particularly a scene where he's held at gunpoint

I have to give all the appropriate kudos to everyone else involved, because they really created an environment for me to feel comfortable displaying my emotions. Really, I did get a little choked up during that scene, because it was personal to me, discussing the journey of parenthood, of the sacrifices and whether or not it's the right way to address a child, is to sort of try to beat greatness into them. Some of these questions I'd had all my life, and so I had to confront them there. And Atlanta will make you confront something that is true to your life, and I really appreciate them for presenting me that challenge.

On carving out a place playing empathetic, vulnerable men

It's my contention that being able to display yourself in any real way — I think that that is a brave thing to do. You know, bravery can be shown by anyone, in any particular gender or whatever people align themselves with. Bravery is simply standing out and saying, well, I'm going to do this and I'm going to feel this and I'm going to be this, regardless. I sat down with myself and said, I have to remain true to myself ... that's my life's journey, that's just my thing that I've been sent here to do. So it's tattooed, in a sense, in my psyche.

Mallory Yu, Jolie Myers and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Petra Mayer and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The actor Lakeith Stanfield is having a moment. My co-host Audie Cornish recently sat down with him to talk about how he picks his projects and what's next.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Stanfield was in Jordan Peele's Oscar-winning horror satire, "Get Out."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GET OUT")

LAKEITH STANFIELD: (As Andre Logan King) Get out. (Screaming) Get out.

DANIEL KALUUYA: (As Chris Washington) Yo.

STANFIELD: (As Andre Logan King) Get out.

KALUUYA: (As Chris Washington) Yo, chill man.

STANFIELD: (As Andre Logan King) Get out.

KALUUYA: (As Chris Washington) Chill.

STANFIELD: (As Andre Logan King) Get out of here.

CORNISH: He's also in the FX show "Atlanta," where he plays Darius, the stoner friend to a rap star, who often says pretty outrageous things.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTA")

STANFIELD: (As Darius) No. If you use a rat as a phone, man, that'd be genius. I mean, there's, like, five rats for every one person in New York alone. Everybody would have an affordable phone. Yeah, man. I mean, it'd be messy but worth it.

CORNISH: And this summer, Lakeith Stanfield is in the new movie "Sorry To Bother You." He plays Cassius Green, a telemarketer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SORRY TO BOTHER YOU")

STANFIELD: (As Cassius Green) Mr. Davison (ph). Cassius Green here. Sorry to bother...

"Sorry To Bother You" is an absurdist dark comedy with magical realism that's set in the world of telemarketing. It tells a story of Cassius Green, who attempts to situate himself in a better position in life by working up the ranks as a telemarketer, which requires that he change himself in crazy ways in order to do it.

CORNISH: That change comes shortly after his character begins at the telemarketing company, when he gets a helpful tip from Langston, the man sitting next to him, played by Danny Glover.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SORRY TO BOTHER YOU")

DANNY GLOVER: (As Langston) Hey, young blood. You want to make some money here? Then read your script with a white voice.

STANFIELD: (As Cassius Green) People say I talk with a white voice anyway, so why are you helping me out?

GLOVER: (As Langston) Well, you don't talk white enough. And I'm not talking about Will Smith white. I'm talking about the real deal, like this young blood.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Langston's white voice) Hey, Mr. Kramer (ph). This is Langston from RegalView.

CORNISH: That's where I started with Lakeith Stanfield. We spoke about what it means to change who you are to get ahead.

STANFIELD: We all have images that we're attempting to push to other people, for better or for worse. We want people to view us as things that get us through doors or things that allow us to move through life more comfortably or things that allow us to make more money or be more successful in the workplace, for example. So we let off an image that we feel is appropriate for whatever we're trying to accomplish. The white voice in this movie, I think, is a metaphor for the different things that we put on to be perceived a certain way.

CORNISH: I think there are plenty of people - black and brown people - who have talked about growing in integrated communities growing up and having to do some version of this, maybe not so intensely, but basically saying, there's a set of friends where you talk to them one way, and maybe a set of friends where you're a little more relaxed and talk to them using inferences and references that are different.

STANFIELD: For instance, this is my radio voice.

(LAUGHTER)

STANFIELD: If you were talking to me face-to-face...

CORNISH: I knew it.

STANFIELD: ...It might be a little bit different.

CORNISH: What's the not-radio voice?

STANFIELD: Let me get into the mode of it. Hey, what up?

CORNISH: What up?

STANFIELD: (Laughter).

CORNISH: Nice.

STANFIELD: Chilling.

CORNISH: Yeah.

STANFIELD: Chilling like a villain.

CORNISH: What's up, man? I like it. And even, maybe, you're bringing it to, like, a public radio - like, a little smooth, a little gentle in your delivery?

STANFIELD: I listen to a lot of NPR, so...

CORNISH: Nice.

STANFIELD: ...I've become good at this (laughter).

CORNISH: When you were starting out in your career, did you feel these pressures one way or another? I don't know what kind of roles you went out for. I mean, you sort of carved such a niche place for yourself in terms of the kinds of roles you're getting now.

STANFIELD: When I first started, I came from an environment where we didn't have very much, kind of like...

CORNISH: And you grew up in - is it Southern California?

STANFIELD: Southern California, near San Bernardino, Victorville. On the way to Vegas, you pass through this little desert. And so we didn't really have much stuff resource-wise. So me moving to LA was, like, me going to the big city. And you would see the lights. And the sidewalk there was sparkly, and we thought that was a cool thing until I got there and realized that it's only cool if you can afford to survive here.

CORNISH: Right.

STANFIELD: Which, at the time, I couldn't, so I had very little money, very little means. But just making that transition, going to LA, for people that lived at home still, they thought that I might be selling out, sacrificing my realness, my rawness, who I really was deep down to come dance in Hollywood.

And so it was a real conflicting thing for me making the transition because I didn't want to disappoint my friends. But at the same time, I felt like I was making a change for the better. I mean, after all, the only way you can do something great is if there's great risk.

CORNISH: One of your best-known characters at this point is that of Darius. He plays this kind of stoner sidekick to a local rap star on the show "Atlanta" on FX. And he's someone who's often saying things that are a little bit loopy, and also sometimes profound.

And I want to talk about one of the best episodes of this most recent season. And in this episode, Darius is being held at gunpoint by a character who is a legendary musician who's gone to the dark side because he's had a traumatic childhood. And here's how the scene between them plays out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTA")

STANFIELD: (As Darius) When you're young, you try to just make it be OK and say everything's going to be fine. And it's just, you don't know the difference. But that don't give you an excuse to grow up and repeat the same [expletive] over and over. It's like there's a what-if factor. What if you would've been great at something else? Or if you would've seen the love?

CORNISH: Can you talk a little bit about that moment, that scene, because it's something where you deliver it with a lot of carefulness and kind of caring, if that makes sense?

STANFIELD: Yes. I have to give all the appropriate kudos to everyone else involved because they really created an environment for me to feel comfortable displaying my emotions. But really, I did get a little choked up during that scene because there was something that was personal to me, discussing the journey of parenthood, of sacrifices and whether or not it's the right way to address a child is to sort of try to beat greatness into them.

Some of these questions I'd had all my life. And so I had to confront them there, and "Atlanta" will make you confront something that is true to your life. And I really appreciate them for presenting me that challenge.

CORNISH: I think you've carved out a place for yourself, in terms of your roles of men who are empathetic and aren't afraid to be vulnerable. It's, like, not about being macho, even though it's very masculine.

STANFIELD: I - yeah. It's my contention that being able to display yourself in any real way, I think that that is a brave thing to do. You know, bravery can be shown by anyone in any particular gender or whatever people align themselves with. Bravery is just simply standing out and saying, well, I'm going to do this, and I'm going to feel this, and I'm going to be this, regardless.

I just sat down with myself and said, I have to remain true to myself and do what I feel to be. That's my life's journey. That's just my thing that I've been sent here to do. And so it's tattooed, in a sense, in my psyche.

CORNISH: At this point, do you feel like you're kind of at just the beginning of your career? And if so, what are you looking forward to? What kind of roles would you like to take on?

STANFIELD: I can't tell. I'm just really, really happy to be here. I've done a lot so far to try and position myself as a working actor, which is really hard.

CORNISH: Right. Just working is (laughter) a battle at first.

STANFIELD: Yeah. All this other stuff is great, but really, I just want to tell cool stories and, hopefully, touch people as people have touched me.

CORNISH: Well, Lakeith Stanfield, thank you so much for speaking with us.

STANFIELD: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Lakeith Stanfield - his new film is called "Sorry To Bother You."

(SOUNDBITE OF STRFKR'S "QUEER BOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.