The pungent memory of shooting one of the most iconic “Atlanta” scenes in the episode “Teddy Perkins” still lingers with Lakeith Stanfield. “It definitely smelled, yeah. It stunk up the whole set,” he said in an interview with IndieWire. “The cameraman was gagging.”
In the episode, Stanfield’s character Darius watches as eccentric former child star Teddy Perkins (Donald Glover, unrecognizable under whiteface prosthetics) eats a giant, sloppy, soft-boiled ostrich egg. The stinky, stomach-turning scenario is just the first of many bizarre experiences during Darius’ visit to Teddy’s stately home to pick up a unique piano.
But Teddy doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to complete the transaction, and the longer that Darius is stuck in the mansion, the more he learns of his host’s traumatic history that has twisted him. The atmosphere of stale despair, but imminent danger made the episode an unsettling challenge for Stanfield.
“I was kind of always uncomfortable,” he said. “Not so much with him, but just the whole thing: the story, the atmosphere, everything. It’s quite strange.”
That description also applies to Stansfield’s scene partner, who — for all intents and purposes — was Teddy Perkins, since Glover never broke character. The unmoving prosthetics also often made it difficult for Stanfield to read his co-star and play off of him accordingly. He made this unease and uncertainty work for him, though.
“I couldn’t tell whether it was because he couldn’t emote or if it was because his head was prosthetic,” he said. “But it felt fitting because he was just such a strange person.”
Despite the violent ending, in which Teddy threatens to shoot Darius, Stanfield has sympathy for the reclusive character.
“He’d been through a lot… [He] had a lot of internal conflict and things he was trying to work through,” he said. “He’s just a human being and so I identified with his struggle and trying to get through it. I don’t necessarily agree with all the ways he handled it, but I still understand.”
This willingness to feel Teddy’s pain also translated to Stanfield’s performance. Even as Darius is facing down the barrel of a shotgun, he doesn’t try to reason with Teddy; instead, he offers kind, forgiving words. It’s a surprisingly tender and understated moment for Darius, who usually provides the laughs on the show. Director Hiro Murai felt that Stansfield’s measured performance was essential to the success of the episode.
“Everybody talks about Teddy Perkins’ face, but I think our show is built out of reactions, and Lakeith’s face is the only thing that you have during that episode to hang onto,” Murai told IndieWire. “I think what he did in that episode is extraordinary, especially the end where he becomes compassionate and sort of empathizes with Teddy. What he did with that performance is a tightrope walk, I think, and really extraordinary.
“And also it’s such a weird turn for Darius. We use him as a comedic voice on the show, and for him to become this bold, empathetic human in that episode is really extraordinary to watch.”
Unlocking Darius the Philosopher
This change in Darius was not a fluke. Throughout the season, Stanfield was able to play dialogue-heavy scenes that reveal his character’s growing insightful nature, such as when he counsels Earn (Glover) on what his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) is feeling about their working relationship.
“I’m drawn to characters that are seeking, whether that means that they’re trying to move forward in their career or that means that they’re trying to find out meaning and their place in the world,” the actor said. “Characters that are constantly growing and evolving, I’m interested in being a part of their journeys, I think.”
Beyond just having compassion for his common man though, Darius has become quite the philosopher this season. “Oh yeah, he’s always been one but it just sort of started to come out now,” said Stanfield.
This side of Darius can be seen in the episode “Champagne Papi,” during a conversation he has by the pool with his friend Nadine (Gail Bean).
Writer Ibra Ake revealed that scene was inspired by an actual conversation he had overheard between Stanfield and co-star Zazie Beetz.
“It was fucking great,” Stanfield said about first reading that scene in the script. “I’m always amazed at where they pull their inspiration from and where they’re able to pick up little nuggets and things that happen in our real lives and the real lives of everyone in the world, and bring it to a central focus in the show. It’s always very masterful the way they do that.”
Beetz said, “I feel like on the set we always end up philosophizing on the universe and whatnot. I think that’s just sort of the nature of the show and then ends up being the nature of the conversation on set. But I loved that that was incorporated into the story. I think it fits Darius’ character so well.”
Unleashing “Loose Keith”
That scene also highlights one of the actor’s particular strengths. On a show that allows its stars to go off-script occasionally to see where it takes the scene, Stanfield is a master of improvisation that winds up staying in the final cut the audience sees.
When Darius finishes his argument that a future generation has put them in a simulation that looks like reality, he adds, “There’s someone controlling your every movement. Yeah, I don’t even like apples,” before biting into an apple.
At an FYC event for “Atlanta,” Glover revealed that that line was all Stanfield. “The apple was awesome. I loved it. The line is like, ‘I don’t even like apples.’ I was like, ‘That’s perfect.’”
At the same event, Murai said, “We call that ‘loose Keith.’ There’s like 12 takes. They’re all completely different. Sometimes [he’s] not even Darius.”
“That’s what I love about the show. We play and we improv and we throw things around,” said Stanfield. “It’s such a fun place to play and it’s dangerous sometimes.”
Stanfield’s improv extends to physical comedy as well, such as when Darius decides to play chess against himself and he runs to each side of the board for each turn. In the episode “Woods,” Darius is gung-ho about making pasta and declares that he’s going to “put my foot in it,” a slang phrase that indicates cooking a dish especially well.
Stanfield went one further though, and literally put his foot on the counter in the flour he was working with, an action that even surprised himself.
“It did not feel good,” he said. “I didn’t know I was going to do that, but it just happened randomly. They let me go for a long time, so I had put my foot in it and I was like, ‘Alright, I’m done.’ And it just kept rolling and my foot’s staying in it far too long. Finally, I was like, ‘Fuck it. Cut.’ I just said “cut” and then [Hiro] said “cut” and I got out. It was a mess.”
Additional reporting by Jenna Marotta.
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