EXCLUSIVE: Lakeith Stanfield Reflects on Breakout Year and ‘Crown Heights’

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One of Hollywood’s hottest actors got to where he is by playing it cool.

Lakeith Stanfield seems effortlessly chill because he’s had plenty of practice. In fact, he’s got the aloof vibe down to a science, and it’s led to him become one of the most buzzed-about actors in Hollywood with roles in Atlanta, Get Out and a starring turn in Crown Heights. His secret is in perception and reality.

“It is relinquishing the need,” Stanfield explains to ET. “You come into an audition like, ‘Hey, everyone’s equal. I’m not coming to you for a job because I’m thirsty,’ although you may be. But don’t come in that way.”

Beginning his acting career with five years of “no” from casting directors, the slim, 6-foot-tall actor says he had to figure out how to readjust his sails.

“A lot of it you learn, like in my audition for The Purge,” he recalls. “I’d been rejected so many times that when they called me back, I was surprised. So I learned [not caring], that’s the thing.”

Hailing from Victorville, California, a neighboring city of Los Angeles, Stanfield endured a tough childhood marred by domestic violence at home and not-always-helpful institutions, like the police and child protective services, outside. He began his craft by pretending to be different characters to entertain his family and his natural talent began to blossom. Eventually those tough years led to a string of dream roles.

Stanfield’s first opportunity came in 2008’s Short Term 12, a short that became a full-length film in 2013, in which Stanfield played Marcus alongside Brie Larson in the group home drama. In 2014, he portrayed fallen Civil Rights martyr Jimmie Lee Jackson in Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated Selma, then Bug, a high school bully in Rick Famuyiwa’s critical darling, Dope. Roles in Straight Outta Compton, Miles Ahead and Snowden followed, leading to his breakout 2016 run as the thoughtful stoner Darius in Donald Glover’s Emmy-nominated FX series, Atlanta. Then came his chilling turn as the unsuspecting Andre Hayworth in Jordan Peele’s horror movie Get Out -- the most profitable movie of 2017, according to The Wrap. Peele recently told the LA Times that Stanfield stripped of his cool is a “scary thing;” and it’s clear once you meet him that he’s working to maintain his serenity in the midst of fame’s growing shadow. 

Lakeith Stanfield as Colin Warner in Crown Heights. - IFC Films

I just can’t put all my focus there or feel it in the way it may seem,” Stanfield says. “I’m glad I can be part of projects I can be proud of and not shroud myself from an embarrassing thing, which it could easily be because I’m just trying to work as an actor. I’ve been lucky to work with these fucking geniuses.”

Over on Netflix, he’s part of The Incredible Jessica James as comedian Jessica Williams’ ex-boyfriend, as well as playing Corporal Billy Cole in Brad Pitt’s War Machine. And earlier this summer, Master of None co-creator Alan Yang asked Stanfield to play Chandler in his all-black adaption of Friends for JAY-Z’s “Moonlight” music video alongside in-demand actors like Issa Rae, Jerrod Carmichael and Tessa Thompson.

Now, Stanfield gets serious in the biopic Crown Heights about Colin Warner, a Trinidadian immigrant who was arrested and sentenced to life in prison in 1980 for a murder he didn’t commit. Warner’s friend Carl “KC” King, played by Nnamdi Asomugha -- yes, Kerry Washington’s husband -- spends his own life fighting to free Colin, working as a legal courier to learn the system that’s trapped his friend whose misfortune he believes could’ve been his own. The story is adapted from an episode of NPR’s This American Life.

Playing a character who is a living person can be tough, because there’s a representation of what a thespian might not be capturing. But Stanfield, who spent time with Warner, who still lives in Brooklyn with his wife Antoinette, and visited a few prisons to hear first-hand inmate experiences, focused on the story’s spirit, the tale of a caged bird.

In the film, Stanfield spends much of his time behind bars, in solitary, trying to tame his mind to be both hopeful and sane as he serves time for something he didn’t do and refuses to lie about, though police, guards and parole board members want to hear his “confession.” As an actor known for lighter fare, his portrayal of Colin is heart-wrenching as he learns the ways of incarceration and navigates the inmates’ political system.

“When I went to prison, I asked the men I spoke to, ‘How many of you consider yourself innocent?’ and all the hands went up,” Stanfield recalls. “It makes for an environment that’s difficult to get your story heard. Colin could’ve emerged a much different person but he’s a well-composed, quiet guy who was very candid and open about his experience.”

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Stanfield wanted to make sure that he conveyed Warner’s true experience and honored his faith in him, an actor he’d just met.

“At the Sundance Festival, when everyone gave us a standing ovation and Colin’s family came down and we were all in tears, I felt like I’d done [his story justice],” he says of the film’s January premiere in Utah. “That was all I needed. That is really why I do this.”

On the horizon, Stanfield’s star is set to continue its rise in the upcoming film Death Note, another Netflix project, where he plays a sharp detective named L, as well as the second season of Atlanta, alongside Glover and Crown Heights co-star Brian Tyree Henry. The trio has been mum about the new season, which is reportedly going into production in September for a 2018 premiere, but the audience is rabidly awaiting new material.

After years of rejection, Stanfield is certainly enjoying an upward swing, making him the runaway star of 2017. “It’s an interesting thing,” he says of the attention. “I’m glad I can be part of projects I can be proud of -- that’s a cool thing.”

However, for all of his credits, Stanfield isn’t allowing anything to take him out of his element. “Be your authentic self and that’s what people what to see,” he says. “When you’re nervous, that’s not really you -- that’s false evidence appearing real.”