Lakeith Stanfield has been racking up standout performances in some of the most buzzed-about films of the past decade: as the guarded but sensitive resident of a group home for teens in Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12; murdered civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson in Ava DuVernay’s Selma; Snoop Dogg in F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton; and the bodysnatched Brooklyn hipster in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. He’s also a standout in FX’s Atlanta, in which he plays the perpetually stoned and free-associative Darius.
His latest film is writer-director Matt Ruskin’s harrowing but unsensationalized Crown Heights, the based-on-a-true-story tale of Colin Warner. Warner was framed as a teenager for a crime he didn’t commit and spent 21 years in prison before getting out, thanks to his own efforts and the unfailing support and advocacy of a friend on the outside. In the film, Stanfield gives a powerful but understated performance, richly capturing Warner’s warmth, strength of character, and philosophical nature.
In New York this week to promote the film, Stanfield spoke with me about why acting in Get Out was an out-of-body experience, how the internet nurtures creativity, and whether racial justice has made any progress in the United States in the half century-plus since the march on Selma.
Right from the start, you’ve played interesting roles in movies that got a lot of buzz. Do you just have really good taste, or do you get good advice?
Yeah, well, I’m a member of the Illuminati. [Laughs] I think it’s a combination. I have a really hard-working agency behind me.
You found an agency online? Because you got into acting by Googling, right?
Kind of. The Googling led to me doing a little project.
Short Term 12. Which was not such a little project, as it turned out.
No. It became something which sort of thrust me into the public eye of Hollywood, and so that attracted agents. I knew coming out of the gate what kind of work I didn’t want to do. I didn’t know what I did want to do, but I knew I didn’t want to do things that I felt weren’t in line with my core values and not entertaining to me, not funny to me or not true to me. I wanted to make sure that I was doing something that I felt like I could shine in my best light. So I kind of waited for the best projects that in some way spoke to me. And that was really pretty much it.
So you said no to things even early on?
I thought it was important to make that sacrifice, because I thought it might be good for me in the long run. I didn’t want to look back on what I’d done and be, like, “Aww, shit, I remember when I did that movie.” I wanted to be proud of my work. And I was confident enough in my abilities that I was, like, “I’ll be okay. I just have to wait until the right thing comes. I just gotta be patient.” And also, I have a very cool team of people around me who work very hard on my behalf to bring these great projects to me. When I read scripts, I might send it off to my manager and be like, “What do you think about this?” I take a lot of opinions from my team and my family.
You started out with zero connections in the movie industry, which makes your achievements seem that much more impressive.
Everyone can be a star now. You can literally just record yourself on camera, and if you have a good personality, or one that attracts a lot of people, boom, you’ve blown up. Which I think is great, because I think everyone should be a star. Everyone is a star. It’s a cool time to exist in. I hope to see more people who rise up through their own volition and their own hard work and find a space for themselves. I think coming up that way also makes you a particular kind of artist creatively, because most of the ways you were able to get where you got was by thinking in a creative way, coming on your own merit. And so it makes you be in contact with that, in a way that serves you.
In Crown Heights, Colin Warner’s apparent lack of anger about what happened to him is amazing. What do you think allowed him to get through that ordeal with such grace, and how did you portray that part of him?
It’s hard to say what got him through it, but I know he has an unflinching sense of self. He knows “I didn’t do that, I’m not that person, and I’m not going to admit to doing it because I didn’t do it.” That’s an amazing thing to say once or twice. It’s an incredible thing to say for 20 years, knowing that you—
Could have gotten out of prison if you just said you did it?
Yeah. That’s a very strong-willed person, and I think that’s a testament to the human spirit—what it can be. But it isn’t always. So that’s a great man. I just wanted to try to embody that. And in some ways, in life, there are things that I think about in a similar way. I can’t imagine what I would have done if I was in his situation, but there are things that I’m determined to be and do that I won’t compromise on, so I kind of felt that connection.
Warner spoke to me for that reason: because he was unflinching, didn’t move, stood up for what he believed in, and made it all the way through. And still came out and wasn’t mad at anybody, didn’t hold a grudge.
There’s so many things in my life where I could hold a grudge, but I don’t do that because I know it’s not good for me. And if I do that, then the person that I’m holding the grudge against wins, because I’m walking around with my head down. So I try to just get up every day and live it one day at a time and forgive and be open to people. I think we kind of shared that philosophy.
The thing Colin says to himself every morning before he opens his eyes, “Please don’t let it be a cell,” is so poignant. Did the claustrophobia of being locked up seep in at all while you were playing him, so you found yourself thinking, “Don’t let it be a cell”—or just feeling conscious of how lucky we all are who aren’t locked up like that?
I had weird dreams. I actually had one a couple days ago. I was being pursued by law enforcement, I guess because of how deep I was into it. It’s just a weird, sort of residual thing. I see how you could be waking up hoping that it would be a different environment. I imagine that he was dreaming a lot, of his life back in Trinidad, dreaming that he’d be back home, dreaming he could be with his kids, a lot of crazy different things, and then just you wake up again, after all of those days, I’m back here again—you can just imagine.
Was it hard to play him over such a long age span? What did you change to play him as a guy in his 30s from a guy in his teens?
[Laughs] God bless the makeup team, because I just look old. They must have had a very hard time making me look anything under 30. But I think, for me, it was really just the disposition. As you grow older, you get used to your environment, no matter where you’re at. Although he didn’t want to be there, prison became his home. And I think it also provided a platform from which he could fight easier, because he was, like, “Okay, I’m gonna just fucking accept this. I’m here. How do I get through this day?” Rather than the agitation of youth, and being “I gotta get out!”