Keith Stanfield was last at Sundance in 2013 with the indie
drama “Short Term 12,” his first feature film and a breakout role
that led to a slew of other projects, including F. Gary Gray’s NWA biopic
“Straight Outta Compton,” Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” and this
year’s buzzy Sundance feature “Dope.”
We caught up with Stanfield in the midst of a busy awards
season on his way to an event, to chat about his burgeoning career and recent
JAI TIGGETT: Within a
couple years of “Short Term 12” it seems like we’re seeing you
everywhere. What’s it been like to break through and gain exposure so quickly?
KEITH STANFIELD: It’s
been constant grinding and trying to secure work that I care about, tireless
auditions and meetings. I’ve been fortunate that a lot of cool doors have opened
to me, chiefly meeting great people who were inspired by what I’ve done and
what they feel I could bring to their projects. It’s really just a mixture of
aiming towards securing something and being lucky enough to be in the right
place at the right time.
You’re in “Selma,”
which is in theaters now. It’s a sprawling cast. How did you come onto the
I met Ava [DuVernay] at the Independent Spirit Awards brunch
when I was nominated in 2013 for best supporting actor, and she was there with “Middle
of Nowhere.” At the time I didn’t know who she was and she came up and
congratulated me on everything. I think I said, “Would you like a picture
darling?” She laughed a little bit and said, “Yeah of course.”
So we took a photo and talked for a little while and I
thought, “Wow, she’s nice.” A couple weeks later I get an opportunity
to audition for “Selma.” I walk into the audition and there she is. So
I read for the movie. Then I got a call back and we talked a lot about what the
movie means and how I feel as far as race relations in America, and how we can
make changes slowly but surely to make it a better situation. We got along very
well. A couple days after that I got the offer.
Tessa Thompson told us about the atmosphere on set and the feeling that
everyone understood the importance of the project at the time. What was that like
I feel like I was amongst peers who really wanted to get
something done, and I couldn’t be happier with the way the film turned out. I
had no idea what scope it was until I came to set and saw all the big cranes
and Oprah and everyone there. I was stunned for a little while, but then I got
into the groove because everybody there was so passionate about making the
project and bringing whatever they had to the table.
Were you familiar
with activist Jimmie Lee Jackson before playing him in the film?
I’d never heard of him prior to this movie, I had no
recollection of him even being involved with [the Civil Rights Movement]. So I
began to study a lot about him. Ava gave me a series of movies and books to
look at. He died really young, so there’s not a lot [of information] about his
I was talking to Ava about this prior to getting the role,
I’ve been in situations with police officers where I felt me and my family were
treated unjustly, and there really isn’t much you can do. It’s a hard thing
when you’ve got guns pointed at you, to still stand up for what you believe in.
Jimmie Lee and his family did that, and several others. And I thought if we
could pay homage to what they’ve done, that’s the least we can do.
So when we went to shoot one particular scene where I get
shot at by a police officer, I told them not to put any padding on me. I wanted
it to feel as real as possible so I could channel it into what Jimmie was going
through. So they put no padding on me and I thought, “This is cool.” The
first couple of takes, it was alright. We got down to about the 10th take and I
was like, “Oh my God, I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
I think we did maybe 15 takes in total and the next day I woke up and my
forearms were swollen. I was in a lot of pain, but I wasn’t in nearly as much
pain as the people who actually went through that so I felt I should suck it up
and move forward. And I think it worked. We showed something that felt very
real, so I’m appreciative of that.
The movie is set in
the ’60s, but is relevant to today. What do you think audiences should take
from it, especially students, as it relates to their present situation?
I think prejudice has gotten to a point where a lot of
people hold biases in their mind and don’t even realize that they’re doing it,
because it’s deeply ingrained in the fabric of what it means to be an American.
So a lot of people are not even aware of it. And I think it’s something that
you come into awareness of quickly when you’re the one that the prejudice is being
perpetrated against. I don’t think a lot of people are consciously doing it,
but it’s a huge problem and even moreso when it’s a psychological thing. When
it’s something that you can’t tangibly hold, then it’s more dangerous because
you don’t see it coming.
We don’t have physical chains but we’re dragging the chain
of a thought, of being a subordinate, of being second-class citizens. The prison
industrial system, things like that are cleverly put in place to attempt to
marginalize a certain group of people – and it’s not only black, it’s replete
across the American society. So I think we have to find the similarities in
ourselves rather than put such a bold emphasis on the differences, because I’m
convinced that we’re more similar than we are different.
“Dope” coming up, which looks much lighter in tone.
I love that project. I love Rick [Famuyiwa]. It was wild.
What can you share
about the story and your character?
It’s an honest look at identity in America, how moving
outside of one’s comfort zone can unlock the uniqueness and contentment in a
person. It’s important to stay true to oneself, and this film reiterates that
idea with a backdrop of great music,
colors, and fun! I play a young blood named Bug, the type of person we can all
learn from, for better or for worse. Bug is a lost soul like a lot of guys I
know, and he eventually finds his own authenticity through other characters in
Stills from the film make
it look like a period piece from the ’90s. What do you think of that trend of borrowing
from the past and seeing those styles come back in clothing, music, etc?
I’m a ’90s bae. I love the ’90s fashion and energy, I think
it’s great. Borrowing from the past in my opinion isn’t a momentary trend, it’s
the natural course and bound to happen. We look at those who came before us and
use them as guidance in a spiraling new world. To our surprise, at times, there
is a lot still to be learned.
You mentioned the
music, and much of the cast – yourself, A$AP Rocky, Zoe Kravitz – are musicians
outside of acting. What was it like working on such a musical set?
Like a dance.
You’re in another
musical movie, “Straight
Outta Compton,” about NWA.
It was crazy. I play a blood in “Dope” and I was a
crip as Snoop Dogg [in “Straight Outta Compton”]. Of course I grew up
listening to Snoop, so it’s a surreal thing. After I observed Snoop for a while
I found things in him that mirror myself. It was rewarding to spend a moment in
his life and reflect that back.
How did you prepare?
I didn’t have very much time [before auditioning], a series
of hours to be exact, so I looked him up in as many ways as I could. In footage
available to me, I watched his eyes and body language, also what these little
things might mean in the context of his life at the time, his voice,
gesticulations, and apparent outlook on things in the early ’90s. I haven’t had
the chance to meet him yet, but I look forward to it one day.
The movie is about
relatively recent events and people who are still living. What will it tell us
about this story that fans don’t already know?
If you’re a fan of modern music, this film will shed light on
some events and people that led to the rise of hip-hop and rap music. The
lively, ambitious, honest, and sometimes volatile lifestyle of some of the
young pioneers in the entertainment industry, and what we can do as people to
support and continue the legacy. Go see the movie, my G’s.