Lakeith Stanfield spends “Sorry to Bother You” pretending to be someone he’s not. We meet his alter ego, Cassius Green, as he clutches a homemade employee-of-the-month plaque, trying to win a telemarketing gig at RegalView. He’s not fooling the interviewer — but he still gets the job.
During a recent interview with IndieWire at Santa Monica’s Casa del Mar hotel, Stanfield didn’t try to fool anyone. Wearing a long-sleeved black-and-white shirt, tweed pants, and Gucci canvas slip-ons, we were shown to our table and he immediately laid down on a couch. He resembled a slack marionette, propping up his head for a few jokey, one-word retorts interspersed with more thoughtful, deliberate answers. Then came an interruption from the hotel’s disapproving manager, likely unaware that the splayed gentlemen is a regular on a lauded series (“Atlanta”), and got bigger laughs than host Jimmy Kimmel at this year’s Academy Awards (where “Get Out,” in which Stanfield co-stars, won Best Original Screenplay).
A decade after his film debut in Destin Daniel Cretton’s 22-minute “Short Term 12” — he reprised his role of a suicidal teen in the 2013 feature of the same name, which earned Film Independent Spirit Award nominations for himself and scene partner Brie Larson — Stanfield has his biggest role to date, thanks to hip-hop frontman-turned-filmmaker Boots Riley. Read on for his thoughts on rap music, dream diaries, the Internet’s power, and the times he’s been the only black person on a set.
The interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
In “Sorry to Bother You” and “Atlanta,” both of your characters are very philosophical guys. In the movie, your girlfriend Detroit [Tessa Thompson] even says something like, “Can we not talk about the sun exploding tonight?” Why are you drawn to those roles, or why do you think directors see you as that guy?
I’m not particularly drawn to those characters any more than I’d be drawn to another character. I’m drawn to characters that are seeking, whether that means that they’re trying to move forward in their career, or they’re trying to find out meaning and their place in the world. Characters that are constantly growing and evolving, I’m interested in being a part of their journeys. But how people see me, I’m not sure.
Boots Riley put you through so much during filming, including a stint on a reality show called “I Got The Shit Kicked Out of Me.” When you first read the script, were you immediately onboard, or did you have hesitations about any of the material?
I didn’t have hesitations, but I didn’t quite understand it the first read. I had to read it again. Because the format is different than anything I’d read before. So I had to really familiarize myself with it and dig in just so I could understand it. And once I understood it, I was like, Oh yes, I definitely had to be a part of it.
What clicked for you? A lot of people will only pay to see this one time.
I don’t think I had a deep understanding of the story in any particular way, but I just had an understanding of his journey, going from where he started — which was not only just a poor guy, but he was also very poor in spirit, and searching — to someone that was very resolute and understood where he must go and what he must do now. He had grown, and realized that his worth didn’t lie in all the material things. It’s cool to see that revolution, and that made me interested, because I wanted to grow. I’m always looking to grow, and so I figured sometimes the characters help me grow.
Do you think that’s why you became an actor?
A good byproduct to being an actor is that sometimes you become in contact with these really brilliant minds that write these characters that are people that went through these things so you can grow, too, going through that journey with them. But not all the time [chuckles]. Sometimes you play characters that are like [makes like a train whistle]. There’s not much there.
Armie Hammer plays the CEO of the company where you work, and in the film he hosts a party where he pressures you — one of the few present people of color — to rap. The scene is unnerving to watch. Was that always in the script, or was a late addition?
Always was there. It was like being onstage at the Oscars and screaming “Get out!” at everyone. Just a very strange, uncomfortable feeling. [Both cases] represented more things than just what was happening in the moment. [In “Sorry to Bother You”] being on the chopping block and part of who I am being on display reminded me of slave auctions, a little bit. Which made me think about “Get Out” and the Oscars [chuckles].
The lyrics in your rap — a single, two-word phrase repeated — will shock some people. Do you or Boots think that’s what white people hear when listening to rap? Or was it more of a commentary on — ?
No, no. I think people just enjoy hip-hop because it’s probably just an insight to a world that a lot of people don’t live, or have to live, or have to know, or have to think about. And popular hip-hop now is much different than it used to be. Now it’s very synonymous with [quoting the rap, at audible volume] “nigger shit, nigger shit, nigger shit,” which is to say things associated with the lowlier aspects of what it meant to be poor and black in America. And those things are taken and blown up into almost cartoonish proportions, and given out and force-fed to the masses in sort of an obsessive, arrogant kind of fashion in popular music. MF Doom would say it’s like sugar-coated lard squares being fed to the children.
That’s my interpretation. Black people have had to be the scapegoat for all the negative things in this country for a long time, so that’s just taking that, and being like, Okay, here, we’re throwing it back at you. And also maybe a commentary on authenticity versus people just want to hear shit that makes them move. It’s just like, Tell me what I want to hear, and then go.
For a long time, you seemed to be having fun online, uploading frequent, candid posts. But your social media accounts were recently scrubbed.
Yeah, things get scrubbed and then they come back. [The internet]’s just a very alive place, constantly moving. So you never really know [what to expect], and that’s fun. I treat it like a ride and just am along for it.
“Get Out,” “Sorry to Bother You,” and “Atlanta” are all projects unafraid to tackle race and anything else that can make people uncomfortable to talk about. Is that a coincidence, or are you intentionally looking for stories that will contribute to the national dialogue?
I think it’s a coinkidink.