The first thing you see when you walk into Lakeith Stanfield’s room at The London Hotel in West Hollywood is about a dozen pairs of sneakers lined up along the foot of the bed. He’s sitting A.C. Slater-style, backward in his chair. There’s a thick, red knit hat on his head and a drink in his hand.
When we meet in early August, he’s still a few days away from his 26th birthday. On the heels of his breakout and beautifully bizarre performance as Darius in the first season of Donald Glover’s Atlanta, Stanfield is in the middle of jam-packed 2017.
It started with his crucial role in Get Out. His character is the first person we see in that film, walking down a dark suburban street alone when an ominous white car pulls up behind him. That was followed by a trio of appearances in three separate films for Netflix: The Incredible Jessica James, War Machine, and now Death Note. Oh, and he just nailed the part of Chandler from Friends in Jay Z’s “Moonlight” video.
But as ubiquitous as Stanfield has become across the pop culture landscape over the past year, this week marks his first leading man performance in a film. And it’s one that comes with a huge burden of responsibility.
In Crown Heights, Stanfield plays Colin Warner, a real-life Trinidadian Brooklyn man who was wrongly convicted of murder at the age of 18 and spent more than two decades in prison before he was finally exonerated and released just before his 40th birthday.
When writer/director Matt Ruskin first approached Stanfield with the project, the actor says, “I really got excited at the fact that it was an opportunity to be a lead.” But once he wrapped his head around what the film would entail, he realized, “Whoa, there could be no better opportunity than this.”
“Not only did I feel like it would be a challenging thing for me as an actor to get into,” he says, “but also that it was a story that I felt had to be told. Because I didn’t know what it was. I was ignorant to it. So that ignorance propelled me into wanting to be a part of this so that other people could know about this story.” His hope was that if people knew Warner’s story, “it might open up some conversations.”
The details of Warner’s case feel almost too devastating to be true. He had never even met the teenager he was charged with gunning down outside of a Brooklyn high school and was convicted on little more than a false witness testimony. It took the unwavering dedication of his childhood friend Carl King, played in the film with touching sensitivity by former NFL star—and husband of actress Kerry Washington—Nnamdi Asomugha, to finally get Warner out of prison after 21 years.
“I was fortunate because he was directly involved,” Stanfield says of the real Warner, who now lives in Georgia with his family. “I got to meet him and hang out with him for a long while. I really just listened to him talk, listened to him tell his own story, stayed out the way and just tried to soak everything up and become an antenna for information.”
Warner invited Stanfield into his home to meet his family, gave him blessings from the Yoruba religion. “And they let me know that they trusted the process,” Stanfield adds. “With that, I felt much more ready to go into the role. Because I knew they were behind it. And that was really important, because the last thing I wanted to do was take a real dude’s life and Hollywood-ify it.”
This is Stanfield’s second time playing a real-life person on screen, but the last one was a bit more recognizable. And a lot more Hollywood. In 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, he appeared briefly as Snoop Dogg.
“I was at a different space in my career when I did Snoop, so it was a different kind of beast,” he says. “And also I had no prep time for Snoop. I got hired like one day after I auditioned. So I was like, oh shit, this is fucking crazy. I got thrusted in midway through production, whereas this I started fresh. And Colin was there. I didn’t meet Snoop until the premiere. So it was a whole ’nother kind of experience. But I’m glad I had it, because by the time I got to Colin I was much more ready.”
Crown Heights arrives in theaters amidst controversy over white directors telling black stories. Most of that discussion has surrounded Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, but it’s a concern that could also apply to this story, brought to the screen by Matt Ruskin, who first heard Warner’s story on a 2005 episode of This American Life.
“Yeah, it is something that I think about,” Stanfield says. “But I also consider the context in which it’s being brought up. In this particular story, the people directly related to the story we’re telling are involved in it. So I don’t worry about that.
“When I read the script, it spoke to me in a way that I understood and comprehended,” he says of Ruskin’s screenplay. “If those aspects are there and you have people on set who are deeply involved in whatever story you’re trying to tell, I don’t think you can go wrong. Even if you go wrong, you didn’t go wrong, because you have the people there and it’s their story.
“When you try to tell a story ignorantly, no matter if you’re white, black, blue, purple, or green, it’s not going to come out right,” Stanfield adds. “You want to tell a story about a guy in a wheelchair, you better get somebody who’s been in a wheelchair to testify. Otherwise I think you’re setting yourself up for failure. But to put it all on white directors or all on black directors, I think that’s a stupid conversation.”
Whether it’s a celebrity like Snoop or a relatively unknown figure like Warner, Stanfield says, “I feel a responsibility playing a real dude to be honest with it, to be as honest as I can to it and keep it G, keep it real, keep it raw. I mean, I feel like that’s what you gotta do.
“This dude spent 20 years in prison, the least I can do is try to pay homage to his story,” he says of Warner. “That was definitely important to me, to make sure I wasn’t faking it.”
Stanfield obviously could never truly understand what it feels like to sit in prison for a crime you know you didn’t commit. But, he says, he was able to “draw on the experiences” that he does have.
“I do know feelings of being isolated, ostracized, feeling like the odds are against you, feeling like you’re in a situation you have no control of,” he says. “I take those things and amalgamate it into this central disposition. And I walk with that on my shoulders.”
Those are feelings he says he experienced on the set of his first-ever feature film, 2013’s Short Term 12, which also featured Brie Larson before her Oscar-winning performance in Room and Rami Malek before his Emmy-winning turn on Mr. Robot.
“I felt like this was my opportunity to be what I knew I was, and just to block out everything else,” he says of his first real acting gig. “So I was really detached from everything.” Compared to shooting Atlanta’s first season, which he says “was a great experience,” working on Short Term 12 “was not that fun for me.”
“I had to isolate myself away from people and be what I felt the character needed,” he continues. “Which I’ve learned, as I’ve gone forward, is sometimes not the route you should go. Sometimes you should sort of balance it out. Because you want to have a good performance, but you also want to develop dope relationships and have fun. It’s not really worth it if you’re fucking crazy once you leave the set.”
Jordan Peele’s Get Out presented similar challenges for Stanfield. “It was a difficult read for me,” he explains, “because I didn’t really understand everything that was going on and the implications really until it actually came out.” Only then does he say he “really understood what Jordan was doing.”
“It was just so much information to take in. You can watch it now four or five times and begin to pick up on different things,” he adds. “Reading it, I had no idea the scope of what it would actually be. But I knew it was something special. I knew it was the type of subject matter that should be talked about.”
When Stanfield finally saw the finished film, he says, “I walked out of the theater shaking. Because of the implications of consciousness hijacking, hypnosis and things like that. It’s a real thing that a lot of us suffer from in different ways that we don’t understand. So I thought it was dope and deep and cool.”
So, how does he hope people will feel after watching Crown Heights?
“Whatever you get from it, that’s up to you,” he says. “I know what I got from it. It basically reinstituted the idea of perseverance for me. The idea that you must stay the course in things that you believe and feel. And stay focused no matter what. Even if the law tells you that it’s over. You know it’s right in your heart, push through.
“And also enjoy life and have fun,” he adds. “It’s the little things that matter. When they’re taken from you, only then do you understand. Pay attention to the little bee jumping up on the flower. Listen to the babies. And don’t take anything for granted.”
It has taken a while for Stanfield to figure out how to have fun and work at the same time. “I just knew one route,” he says. “And so as I’ve grown and blossomed out, I’ve realized you can do that.”
And Atlanta has definitely been fun.
Stanfield first met Donald Glover in a club a few years ago. “It was a Hollywood kind of party thing where they just invite a bunch of people that are rising stars,” he says, rolling his eyes slightly. “I think the purpose is networking or something? But what really happens is just people getting drunk and dancing around.
“So that’s what I was doing. I was in the middle of the dance floor and Donald calls me over to the corner,” he continues. “I didn’t really know who he was at first and then I looked up and was like, oh shit, what’s up man?” Stanfield was a fan of Glover’s music as Childish Gambino. “And he was like, I’m working on this show and I think you might be good for this role.”
Glover had seen Stanfield in Short Term 12 and found him “really captivating and quietly funny,” as he told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “We have a very collaborative relationship,” Glover added. “He just makes decisions on camera that I really believe and love. It’s really fun and natural.” They exchanged email addresses and Stanfield ended up sending in a couple of audition tapes before getting cast in the show.
“I had no idea who Darius was, what Darius was,” he says of the character who became an instant fan-favorite in the first season. “I just did what came to me. By the time we shot the pilot and went on to shooting the season, I had a fuller understanding of what the character was. So I was like, OK, cool, I got this. We’re all a little Darius, you know?”
Stanfield confirms that the show is going back into production next month and that Season 2 will premiere sometime in 2018, despite Glover’s seemingly overbooked schedule that includes playing Lando Calrissian in the beleaguered Han Solo Star Wars prequel and Simba in Jon Favreau’s CG-animated version of The Lion King.
When I ask him if he’s seen any scripts yet, he replies quickly: “If I did, I wouldn’t tell you, but no I haven’t.
“I hope he’s not even in this season that much,” Stanfield says of Darius. “Because he’s awesome and special. I like when he pops up and it’s really his shit. I like how he’s existing in it right now. I don’t want him to become saturated, I just want it to kind of be like, ‘Hey, there goes Darius!’
“But if he becomes saturated, you best believe we’re going to turn up,” he adds. “It’s going to be the Darius show.”