Lakeith Stanfield Interview

In the roughly six or seven years since he made his remarkable feature film debut in Short Term 12 as the troubled teen Marcus, Lakeith Stanfield has been one of the hardest-working actors in show business, collaborating with a remarkable string of both well-known filmmakers and relative newcomers in both high-profile films and smaller, indie gems. Often he pops in for a choice supporting part and takes the movie away from the leads just enough to become unforgettable (just watch him in Jordan Peele’s Get Out as an example).

Since Short Term 12, Stanfield has shown up in The Purge: Anarchy, Selma, Dope, Straight Outta Compton, Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead, Oliver Stone’s Snowden, and one of the finest films of 2018, Sorry to Bother You, as well as one finest in 2019, writer/director Rian Johnson’s Knives Out.  But many know Stanfield best from his role as the hilarious stoner-savant Darius in creator Donald Glover’s FX series Atlanta, which will begin shooting its third and fourth seasons back to back in the spring of 2020. He also has a new film coming out on Valentine’s Day 2020, the romantic-drama The Photograph, co-starring Issa Rae and Kelvin Harrison Jr. 

/Film spoke with Stanfield recently to discuss his other entry in the Best Films of 2019 category, Uncut Gems, from directors Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie, in which Stanfield plays a jewelry hustler named Demany, who works closely with jeweler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) by bringing in cash-flush celebrities (like Boston Celtic Kevin Garnett) into Ratner’s store to spend spend spend. As the film moves forward on its relentless course to self-destruction, Demany reveals layers to his personality and abilities that few actors beside Stanfield could handle as honestly and believably. Stanfield is a master of finding the right tone for his characters (which we talk about in our interview0, as can be witnessed by comparing the role he plays in Uncut Gems with the wildly different, more laid-back Lieutenant Elliott in Knives Out. Uncut Gems is currently in theaters nationwide.

While watching you in Uncut Gems, all I could think was that you’re this laid-back, California guy in the middle of all of these high-energy New Yorkers living lives of chaos. Was that exhausting or overwhelming sometimes?

Yeah. I’m just laid back and I don’t always like having all the extra noise and people walking fast, talking fast. It’s not really my type of energy, but it was a lot of fun and cool, and it captured the spirit of the movie. So I just took it in as the character. He’s from there, so he would be used to that, so I just used it.

Did you do anything to put yourself in that mindset? Did it help to be surrounded by it?

Honestly, I just stood there. Obviously, we’re all affected by our environment, so naturally the environment would have an affect on my performance. Me being in the middle of New York with all of the mumbling and bumbling, I’m sure that impact me.

Demany is a bit of a hustler like Howard. We don’t know that much about their backstory, but did you get a sense that what the nature of their relationship was? Is Howard a mentor or role model or equal partner?

For those two, it’s about making money and coming together. They came together because they both love making money. They both wanted the same things, and sometimes you’re attracted to people who have the same interest as you.

I didn’t get a sense that your character was a reckless as Howard. Do you think Demany was put off by that in Howard?

I just think he wanted Howard to do things that would help him achieve his goals. “Do what I need you to do in the right way at the right time.” And that’s what Howard wanted from Demany as well.

There are a couple of scenes where you go from being this co-conspirator with Howard to quite threatening. Did you like having that danger element in your back pocket?

Yeah because I feel like there’s an aspect of danger when you’re dealing with money in the streets. That’s how you get your point across—you slap somebody or you hit them with a fist or you shoot them or kill them. In the streets, that’s how you do it. I figured Demany didn’t think twice about slapping somebody. Actually, there were certain scene where I did want to slap Howard, but they told me not to slap Adam Sandler [laughs].

He gets slapped around a lot in this movie.

He does! It might have been too much.

The last time we spoke [in 2017], you told me that you consider yourself a learning actor. You always pick up something from every acting experience you have. Working this closely with Adam Sandler, I’m wondering what you learned from spending that amount of time with him.

Yeah, I’m always learning, man. And once again, I had the gift of being around somebody who’s been doing it for a while, and it was inspiring. I was impressed with his ability to always know at any given time exactly where we were in the story and pick up from that exact spot. It’s a level of expertise and mastery. It was cool, and I loved seeing that. Obviously, he did a great job in the film, so being around that kind of skill was dope.

There are so many people in this film who were first-time actors. Did that make you nervous or excited for this, because you’re not so far removed from being a first-timer yourself?

It’s cool. I didn’t feel too much about it one way or another. If we get into the scene, if you stumble, then maybe I’ll go “Okay.” But if they execute perfectly, I don’t even notice who’s new and who isn’t. I don’t really look at other people’s resumés; I don’t really care, because a lot of the time, you could look at somebody and not really know what they’ve been in anyway because I don’t really follow the business that tight, so I see a lot of people that I’ll hear someone say “Yo, that’s so and so,” and as far as i know, that’s their first movie [laughs].

With someone like Kevin Garnett, you might have been pretty sure he’d never acted.

I actually didn’t know he didn’t act before. He was really great at getting in the moment, getting intimate, doing improv. Josh was telling him he should do more acting.

Talk about the tone the Safdie brother set on their shoots. I know they can get fast and loose on their sets. What did you enjoy about their style, and was there anything about it you didn’t enjoy?

It was different. I’m used to being on sets where someone yells “Quiet on set,” and everybody gets quiet and it’s always intimate. And that works for certain films. But on this, I loved how chaotic, everybody did whatever they wanted; that’s fly, that’s a cool place to work. You just really live in the moment. If things are too quiet, you can easily be distracted, and if there’s a dude on the other side of the camera chewing on gum, it can be distracting. But with this, you’re hoisted into this chaos—everybody, every day. I might grab the cameraman and he might become a part of the scene. It was dope to explore from that angle but still feel controlled, still know where we’re going in the scene, still know what part of the story we’re in and have that focus to be able to talk over people, improv a lot. A lot of it was improv, like “This is where we need to go in the scene—go!” and they start rolling the cameras.

Have you done a lot of improv up to know?

A fair amount on Atlanta. I’m basically writing lines for Darius at this point [laughs].

You’re in two amazing films right now. Uncut Gems is suck a different thing than Knives Out, which I’m guessing it was a very different set.

First, it’s a great script, and I really responded to it. It makes a lot of twists and turns that I knew would be interesting to play around with. It was different. It was a really big movie. My trailer was looking like a damn house—I don’t know what was going on with that budget [laughs], but it felt like we had some money. It was a very weird place where we shot in Boston, which is creepy. It’s a little weird being black in Boston, sometimes. And then me being on that set and me being the only black dude, it was a little crazy. I mean, I’ve been in situations like that before, but it’s always a little strange. But the people on there were dope. Jamie Lee Curtis was cool. I liked Chris Evans. Everybody on that were cool people—cool to work with and be inspired by. That was the biggest gift there because I was surrounded by so many talented people. It was cold, but it was dope.

Almost every scene you’re in is with Daniel Craig. Again, what do you learn from observing him in such an odd mode?

Similar to what I learned from Adam Sandler. Always maintaining a countenance in yourself and being focused and always being as approachable as you can, realizing that the little problems that you come into are not unfixable, and that we will get through the day but we have to do it with each other. At the end of the day, we’re all here for the same reason. Some really powerful people in the business have taught me that, and that’s how it was with Daniel. He was working very hard, with the accent and all. It was cool to see that.

I’ve been so impressed with the projects you’ve chosen from Day 1. You seem to try to mix it up and not repeat yourself. These days, what are you looking for when you’re considering taking on a new role?

Things that have nudity [laughs]. No no. Anything that has me being challenged, opening my horizons, unlocking different parts of me that up to that point are untapped. Something that is going to push my boundaries and give me a challenge.

Lakeith, always a pleasure. Thank you so much.

Thank you, man. Peace.

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