To spread the word about his anarchic, brilliantly batshit 2018 comedy Sorry to Bother You, the actor Lakeith Stanfield adopted an anarchic, brilliantly batshit strategy. He went to one of his favourite stores, Iguana Vintage Clothing, in Los Angeles, and cleared out every wig they had. Then he drove around cinemas in Hollywood, bought tickets for the film, stashed them inside the wigs, and hid them outside the cinemas.
“Then people engaged in it, on a wild goose hunt,” explains Stanfield, his voice deep and languid. “There’s a lost art in being able to have fun with a film in the release. But it was a film that I thought was fun, right? So I wanted to have fun, and I wanted people to engage in that fun with me. Also I loved the movie so much, I wanted people to see it for free.”
For many actors, an off-book stunt like this would be eccentric, even subversive. For Stanfield, it doesn’t even warrant a raised eyebrow; both on screen and off, he is known for his uncanny knack to provoke and confound. These qualities have been put to especially good effect in Jordan Peele’s comic horror flick Get Out, as a detective in the 2019 whodunnit Knives Out, and in Donald Glover’s TV series Atlanta, in which he plays the oddball stoner Darius. In Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, he is Cassius Green, a black telesales agent who becomes successful only when he adopts a “white voice” – a trippy idea to which Stanfield somehow brings a mesmerising pathos. The New York Times has called Stanfield “the new symbol of Hollywood weird”; in GQ, he was “the king of cinematic surrealism”.
Stanfield doesn’t leave the performative exuberance on the screen. He has attended premieres of his films in, on different occasions, a chainmail shirt, a balaclava, and a rainbow suit and green wig (also from Iguana). At the 2017 Emmy Awards, he sat down on the red carpet in a silent, never-explained protest. On Twitter, Stanfield once posted his phone number and the message: “I wanna say Hi to some of you guys.” This was followed, shortly after, with: “Whoa. That was a really bad idea.”
Stanfield, a 29-year-old Californian, has also done interviews entirely in an English accent, but today he is in more subdued form. He’s at home in the Hollywood Hills, which I glimpse briefly on our video call before he turns his camera off: there’s a blurry wisp of a beard, white walls, and then I’m staring at an icon of a baseball cap for an hour. This might seem antisocial, but Stanfield proves to be open, funny and vulnerable. He cries at one point – at least, it sounds like he does – when we talk about one of his early films; another time, he sighs deeply and says, “It gets draining, these interviews get draining.” He can be evasive on some subjects (notably his relationships and his three-year-old daughter, whom he co-parents with the actor Xosha Roquemore), but for the most part he brings a thoughtfulness and honesty that is often steamrollered out of actors by the Hollywood machine.
Mainly, though, he just seems to want some respite from being on show for once. Not being styled, or primped and tousled by a hair and makeup team. “I had a lot of fun being a little peacock for a while, but it is nice to have a break from that,” he says, with a little “hehe”. “It’s nice, if I’m talking to you, and I’m on Zoom, I can have my shirt on and then no pants on. And that’s OK. I appreciate that.”
Just to clarify, does he have on pants (by which I’m hoping he means trousers) right now? “I do today,” he replies. “You got me on a good day.”
Besides, Stanfield’s new film, Judas and the Black Messiah, is not exactly a screwball, hide-wigs-in-the-foyer release. Directed by Shaka King, it takes place in Chicago in the late 1960s and explores the relationship between a young, charismatic Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton, and William O’Neal, who ran Hampton’s security team while also covertly reporting his movements to the FBI. When Stanfield was sent the script, he assumed he was being lined up to play the tub-thumping orator Hampton, whose speeches he had watched obsessively on YouTube growing up. But a realisation hit him when he did an image search for O’Neal: they looked uncannily similar. So, the British actor Daniel Kaluuya is Hampton and Stanfield has the high-wire task of making O’Neal, a slippery and often reprehensible character, into something more complex and relatable than a cartoon villain.
Stanfield does it, with his trademark tortured-by-the-system world-weariness, but it’s clear the experience was a bruising one. “I did feel some residual effects; I still feel some,” he says. He had panic attacks on set. “And I developed alopecia as a result of the stress that was required or that accompanied this character. Yeah, stuff like that.” (In a recent interview, Kaluuya said of Stanfield: “He put himself on the line. That’s not his politics at all. That’s not how he feels. And it was really tough on him some days,” adding, “I salute Lakeith for that.”)
Judas and the Black Messiah is powerful, often shocking and has a sucker-punch sting in the tail; it would have been a timely film at any point during the past half-century, but in the era of Black Lives Matter, it feels especially resonant. Stanfield agrees: “You look at this film, look around outside, it’s pretty clear to see, isn’t it, at least in America, that the streets are boiling. And globally, it seems people are becoming unsettled with the way that they interact with their government.”
Stanfield says he has felt “compelled” to join the debate. Last May, he ran 2.23 miles as part of an organised protest for Ahmaud Arbery, an African American man who was jogging in Georgia on 23 February (hence 2.23 miles) when he was shot and killed by a former police officer and his son. “Do I feel like it’s my responsibility?” asks Stanfield. “To some extent I do. I don’t think that I’m a politician or that I’m a holier-than-thou figure or that I’m even important in the way that sometimes celebrity may try and make one seem. But I do have a lot of people watching me so I might be able to help. I’ll try when I can.”
According to Hollywood legend, the Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker tried unsuccessfully for years to make a film about Fred Hampton’s life. The fact that Judas and the Black Messiah now exists, made by a major studio (Warner Bros) – and that the film, and especially Stanfield and Kaluuya, should figure prominently in the awards season – suggests that some progress has been made in the film business.
“Hollywood has no choice but to change, as the society changes that we live in and people change,” Stanfield says. “I think Hollywood is more of a reflection of society than we sometimes give credit for. It’s not really its own entity in a way. It’s more what we make it be and allow it to be. Hollywood is a business and by and large it goes where the money goes.”
Watching Stanfield on screen, and then speaking to him, it can be hard to gauge where the acting and performance starts and stops. “I definitely have quite the imagination,” Stanfield accepts. “And I’ve always been described as quirky or weird or strange. I obviously never saw myself that way.” He laughs, “I think everyone else is completely insane.”
Stanfield grew up mostly in Victorville (sometimes snidely called Victimville), east of LA, where his mother worked in the fast-food chain Del Tacos; his father was in but mostly out of his life. With four brothers and two sisters, there was never much to go round. Stanfield has admitted stealing sandwiches from Subway, which he has since repaid. After school, he worked in a marijuana grow house, and while he was never in serious trouble with the police, lots of people he knew were.
Acting, though, was an escape – mentally at first and then later literally. While still in high school, Stanfield was cast in a short film called Short Term 12, about a care facility for troubled teenagers. It played well at the Sundance film festival in 2009, but it took three years for the director, Destin Daniel Cretton, to raise financing to turn the short into a feature. Cretton recast the entire movie, bringing in future Oscar winners Brie Larson and Rami Malek. But he couldn’t find another actor with Stanfield’s energy and, after months – Stanfield had split from his agent, changed his mobile phone – Cretton tracked him down.
It’s while reflecting on Short Term 12 that Stanfield’s voice starts to catch. “I hadn’t… I guess I just hadn’t really thought about it in a while,” he explains. “If there’s two elevator doors closing, that don’t reopen, it’s then. I barely slid in and one of my arms got caught in the door! If I hadn’t done Short Term 12, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you right now. And I might not even be alive.”
It is not hard to see why Cretton was so insistent on reconnecting with Stanfield – and why Stanfield has since worked with an enviable list of directors, including Ava DuVernay, Spike Jonze, the Safdie brothers and Rian Johnson. He has an endlessly watchable face, both leading-man handsome and character-actor versatile. And then there are his eyes: dark, expressive, disconcerting. “You look in his eyes and see this vulnerability and this sweetness,” DuVernay, who cast Stanfield in the 2014 civil-rights drama Selma, has said.
“I don’t like it when people talk about my eyes, because I feel like they’re going to jinx me, haha,” says Stanfield. “Maybe it’s just the way they are shaped or something. I don’t know, but I do feel a lot. And they say that your eyes are the window to the soul, so I imagine maybe they’re seeing different layers of my soul. Because I don’t hold anything back. So what you’re seeing is what you’re getting. Maybe that’s what it is.”
Donald Glover met Stanfield when he saw him dancing drunkenly at a club in Hollywood. “We were just at a party, back when you could party in groups of people,” recalls Stanfield. “And he just found me dancing on the dancefloor with myself. Because even at that time, I was social distancing.” Glover told him about a new show he was making, Atlanta. “Which at the time, I thought was kind of a stupid name,” says Stanfield. “I’m like, ‘That’s dumb. It could be more creative than that.’ But haha, I’m grateful that he caught me dancing by myself that night.”
Atlanta, in particular, throws up the unsolvable conundrum where Stanfield ends and his characters begin. It’s certainly not a stretch to imagine him uttering some of Darius’s iconic, weed-hazed lines, but the character has deepened in strange and surprising ways. “What I love about the creative process on Atlanta is that everything is freeform,” he says. “You don’t really get that that often on anything, let alone a TV show. And I’ve seen that in every character, they just allow us to find what we find and land the plane, so to say.” As to when Atlanta will return for a third season – rumours are that it could be soon – Stanfield is discreet. “Atlanta’s coming,” he says. “We’re working on it, we’re trying to find safe ways to get back in. And we miss you all, as much as you might miss the show.”
Fame, Stanfield would be the first to admit, has not always sat easily with him. “I don’t even really like to use that word ‘success’ any more,” he says. “Just because sometimes I find myself not always as happy as I’d like to be. A lot of things that come with apparent success do not make you well.” A wry laugh: “And if you’re not well, they provide you a path to become more not well.
“When I first started in the business,” he goes on, “I just wanted to work, I just loved acting. Then once I started acting, I started seeing success and things that to me looked like success, like cheques for $500 when I didn’t have any money in my pocket. And I thought, ‘Well, if I just build on this, then I can create something for my family, and then we’ll all be successful. And we’ll be happy.’ And while some of those things bring momentary happiness, I realised nothing was more useful than therapy.”
Stanfield found appearances on the red carpet particularly stressful. “There are a couple ways to try and cope with it,” he says. “You can get drunk. Or you can try and have fun with it and make it your own. But, after a while, I got exhausted with that. Then I began to rebel against it, and just say: ‘If I want to sit down, I’m sitting down right here. If I want to lie down, I’m lying down right here, I don’t care.’ And even that gets exhausting. So you have to just find a way to balance it.”
Lockdown has presented challenges for Stanfield, not least on his mental equilibrium. “It’s put it to the test, I think we all can agree,” he says. Stanfield speaks to his therapist twice a week and has been spending a lot of time in his garden, dangling his feet in the pool or listening to the rustle of wind through the trees. “That’s meaningful to me,” he says. “I never really stopped to pay attention to it. So yeah, I’m finding that nature is being my friend and helping heal me through this stuff.” At nights, he works on a rap album, Self Control, and has so far released three tracks under the name Htiekal (“Lakeith” backwards). In a brief respite from lockdown last autumn, he shot a western for Netflix called The Harder They Fall, with Idris Elba and Regina King (Jay-Z will contribute original music for the film). Stanfield had to learn to ride a horse for the part and talks – who knows how seriously to take him? – of having his own someday.
As a final question, I ask if Stanfield has planned any leftfield ways to promote Judas and the Black Messiah. Not wigs, not pants-free Zoom interviews, but something else? “That’s a good question,” he says. “Dang, I hadn’t really thought about it. I just wish we were free, man. I wish you could go outside! As soon as they let me out, I’ll have more antics for everyone.”
Judas and the Black Messiah is out soon