LOS ANGELES — When Lakeith Stanfield was 20 and working at a marijuana grow house, he concluded that the plants in his care were conscious beings he was exchanging ideas with. That this realization came when he was really high didn’t make it less lasting or less real. Mr. Stanfield loves plants, feels for them, because, he said, “they are a pure life, and they do not talk,” and laments that his busy work schedule prevents him from keeping any at home. “I travel too much,” he said in a recent interview here, “and I don’t want to put plants through that.”
This sentiment goes a ways to explaining Mr. Stanfield’s singular allure, but it doesn’t go all the way, because no anecdote ever could. It also could have sprung from the lips of Darius, the riveting, tender oddball Mr. Stanfield plays on “Atlanta,” Donald Glover’s groundbreaking television show. In someone else’s hands, Darius could have been limited to the goofy comic sidekick. Played by Mr. Stanfield, he was empathic, nuanced and complex. For audiences, this was a revelation. Empathic, nuanced, complex male black characters haven’t exactly been saturating American screens.
This is Mr. Stanfield’s gift — he peels characters to their emotional quick — and a major reason he’s landed and disappeared into roles in films directed by Ava DuVernay, Oliver Stone and Jordan Peele. (Mr. Stanfield was the one who yelled “Get out!” in “Get Out”). He also happens to be a bit of a weirdo, which made him a perfect fit for “Sorry to Bother You,” the magical realism noir fantasia from Boots Riley that opens July 6 and is Mr. Stanfield’s biggest role yet. For fans of Mr. Stanfield’s — and they’re a fervent bunch who feel like they’re in on a secret everyone should know — this development is big and beautiful. For Mr. Stanfield, it’s a bit trickier, because, in his view, the thing that makes him so captivating to the world can only be preserved by keeping the world out.
“Sorry to Bother You” is about a black telemarketer, Cassius Green (Mr. Stanfield), whose sales skyrocket after he begins talking like a white man (voiced by David Cross). Absurdism ensues. Mr. Riley cast Mr. Stanfield after telling him he’d have to appear in a nonsexual full frontal nude scene. “He cut me off and said, ‘I’ve been waiting for a film with full frontal nudity,’” Mr. Riley said. “I said, ‘O.K., this is the guy. This is the right kind of crazy.’” The scene ended up being scrapped. Mr. Riley had written it to show Cassius at his most vulnerable. Mr. Stanfield was at his most vulnerable every day.
Mr. Stanfield, who is 26, met to chat in a cafe not far from his presumably plantless North Hollywood home. His velvety eyes were a dialed down version of the peepers he wields to astonishing effect onscreen, where they seem to bare every twitch of his soul. He had folded his tall, super-lanky self into a corner table, where he was digging into a grilled salmon salad he had greeted with an appreciative Kanye-inspired yip, “Now I shall channel dragon energy!” Around his neck were yellow mala beads, a gift from Brian Tyree Henry, who plays Paper Boi on “Atlanta,” and counts among Mr. Stanfield’s rarefied group of close friends.
Mr. Stanfield also brought along rose-colored granny glasses, which he described as “my soul realized in third-dimensional space.” They put him in the zone, he said, and he planned to wear them for every interview from here on out, so long as he didn’t lose them, which he tended to do with most of his things.
Mr. Stanfield likes to inject his press appearances with a bit of subversive je ne sais quoi. He has randomly adopted British accents during junkets, showed up to a radio interview wearing a massive grill that made him lisp, sported a green wig to a glitzy screening, and at last year’s Emmys, sat down on the red carpet and glowered. Destin Daniel Cretton, who cast Mr. Stanfield as struggling youngster in “Short Term 12,” his first film role, said Mr. Stanfield “rightly sees all of this as a big game.” Not in a negative way, Mr. Cretton added. Just having to do the press, the interviews, the photo shoots seemed, to Mr. Stanfield, like playtime. (His professions about plant life, though, date back years, and as far as I could tell, the love is real).
The harmless antics are also part of his plan for self-preservation, pushback against the claustrophobic feeling he can get when the news media zeros in. “I’ve tried to come to understand it so I can play with it, without feeling like it’s trying to play me,” he said. He sees the Hollywood hoopla as the shadow side of success, but maybe a necessary one. “The reason why being pure can be something is because there are things that aren’t that,” he said. Still, he’s a loner who needs seclusion and doesn’t quite understand why anyone would be so interested in his life. “Most of the time when you get into something, it’s, ‘Oh, they’re human, it’s boring,’” he said.
Which may be true, except it doesn’t remotely apply to him.
Mr. Stanfield spent the first part of his life in San Bernardino, about an hour east of Los Angeles, where his mother worked at a string of Del Tacos and fought to keep her family fed. It’s safe to say he wasn’t much like the other kids. One of his first loves was a giant satinleaf tree that grew in his auntie’s front yard. He’d hug it, climb it and kiss it, imagining he was in one of his all-time favorite movies, “FernGully: The Last Rainforest,” the eco-minded animated kids film from 1992. When he was 11, his mom moved him along with four of his brothers and two of his sisters to Victorville, a hard-bitten, often violent desert city 50 miles to the north that carried the unfortunate nickname of Victimville.
There, Mr. Stanfield learned how to bust open change machines and steal sandwiches from Subway, and got thrown onto cars by cops, Tasered and arrested for smoking weed. Things could have been a lot worse. Gangs sucked up the youngsters around him, but Mr. Stanfield’s supreme disinterest helped him elude their grasp; he just wasn’t their type. He knew the scientific names of the little plants he grew in the sparse yard out back. His best friend taught him discipline and how to wrestle. He covered his bedroom walls floor to ceiling with sketches, poems and ancient symbols that he’d later have tattooed all over his skin, and stapled egg crates in a corner to create a mini recording studio, where he’d rap. (Mr. Stanfield still raps, and recently freestyled homophobic slurs in a video he posted to Instagram, deleted and then apologized for. Also, he told me he has since repaid the Subway shop he stole from, and said he once spent an afternoon in Vancouver handing out $500 worth of $20 dollar bills to homeless people. “It could be weird and douchey, but I thought it was like a nice gesture,” he said.)
When Mr. Cretton, the director, visited and saw Mr. Stanfield’s Victorville bedroom, he said he knew that Mr. Stanfield would’ve been creative whether Hollywood scooped him up or not.
“It was, ‘Oh my God, this guy is legit, this is an artist from the core of who he is,’” Mr. Cretton said.
In high school, Mr. Stanfield joined the drama club (that would be the extent of his acting training), and, after landing a role in “Honk! The Musical” playing the frog, resolved to become an actor. A photographer who took his headshots was encouraging, to a point. “He said, ‘Yeah man, I think you’re going to be good. You have this real disenfranchised look and feel about you,’” Mr. Stanfield recalled. Mr. Stanfield didn’t know what that meant, so he asked his mom. “And she’s like, ‘it’s not a good thing.’”
If others rolled their eyes at Mr. Stanfield’s acting dreams, his mother believed in him and called him her superstar. Part of their connection was forged by pain. Mr. Stanfield said he would get involved when his mother and stepfather fought, and scream at him to leave her alone. When she could, she would drive him to Los Angeles for auditions. When she couldn’t, Mr. Stanfield tried to hustle up money for the train. And when there were no lawns to mow or cars to wash, he’d panhandle.
For a good while, nothing much happened in Los Angeles beyond a series of awkward auditions. Eventually, he was connected with Mr. Cretton, who cast him as a teenager living in a group home for his 21-minute master’s thesis project, “Short Term 12.” The film made waves at Sundance in 2009, and back at high school, Mr. Stanfield proudly handed out DVD copies. He told himself that even if he never got another Hollywood job, he’d be satisfied (he says he still keeps that attitude today, and that it’s been a ballast). And for a few years, it looked as if that would be it, because he couldn’t land another part. He worked at the marijuana place, and then briefly moved to Sacramento to live with his dad, where he sold AT&T contracts door to door until he got fired over outstanding marijuana warrants.
Around 2012, Mr. Cretton found the financing to make his short into a feature, and put new actors — among them Brie Larson and Rami Malek — in every role. But no one felt right for Mr. Stanfield’s old part. And Mr. Stanfield was nowhere to be found. He’d fired his manager, and dropped his old email and phone number. Mr. Cretton eventually tracked him down on a messaging board. Mr. Stanfield drove down with his mom from Victorville, riven with certainty. “Never was I more ready,” he said. He read through a few scenes in Mr. Cretton’s living room, and when he looked up, he saw Mr. Cretton was in tears.
The film debuted to raves, and Mr. Stanfield was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Yet for months afterward, he drifted about Los Angeles lucklessly, alternately sleeping in his car or on Mr. Cretton’s couch, as all of his auditions led to naught. Lying in his own bed, Mr. Cretton would silently send anguished prayers to the Hollywood gods, imploring them not to mess this one up. “Someone recognize this dude,” Mr. Cretton recalled pleading.
And finally, someone did.
It’s hard to capture in words the place Mr. Stanfield goes to in his performances, where everything gets stripped away except for something so intense and pure it vibrates off the screen. In acting lingo, he is wide open. Mr. Riley, the director, said Mr. Stanfield feels everything his character feels, and also doesn’t give a fig what that might look like. “He’s raw, he’s experiencing something that needs to be felt right then,” he said. Hiro Murai, who has directed the majority of “Atlanta’s” episodes, said Mr. Stanfield was the most intuitive performer he’s worked with yet. “He sort of lets himself free-fall in the moment,” Mr. Murai wrote in an email. “He’s fearless that way.”
Mr. Stanfield can’t fully explain his process himself, or how he gets there. That’s why he likes symbols so much, he said, and has them tattooed on his fingers, arms and neck: the sign of Saturn, a fire tetrahedron, a dagger-slash-cross. They mean something and make him feel something that language can’t describe.
Armie Hammer, who plays a twisted corporate titan in “Sorry to Bother You,” said he quickly realized during filming that he hadn’t a clue what direction Mr. Stanfield would go with his character next. There were moments when he was so taken with Mr. Stanfield’s performance that he almost fell out of the scene. Off-camera, he found Mr. Stanfield equally mystifying. One day, Mr. Stanfield showed up on set and announced that his Tesla’s windshield had been smashed in. Mr. Hammer’s jaw dropped. “I said, ‘You drive a Tesla?’” Mr. Hammer recalled. “‘I picture you riding a unicorn to work. Or 300 Pomeranians harnessed to a chariot.’”
A few highlights from Mr. Stanfield’s still short dazzler of a career:
In 2014, a year after the release of the feature-length “Short Term 12,” he appeared in “The Purge: Anarchy,” and Ms. DuVernay’s “Selma” as the slain civil-rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (Ms. DuVernay extolled the “vulnerability and sweetness” of Mr. Stanfield’s eyes in an interview with Complex). In 2015, he appeared in “Dope,” “Miles Ahead,” and “Straight Outta Compton” (as Snoop Dogg). Then came, among other pictures, “Snowden,” “Get Out” and “Crown Heights.”
By that point, “Atlanta,” and Mr. Stanfield, had left audiences and critics in a swoon. One especially deep dive came from Frederick McKindra at BuzzFeed, who credited the actor with revolutionizing black masculinity.
Mr. Stanfield saw the piece and said he hated being dissected. “I’m not coming in with an intention game,” he said. “I’m just doing me.” If people were surprised by it, he said, it’s more a testament to a narrow-minded perception; because everyone feels strange, whether they admit to it or not. In fact, maybe it’s a little strange not to feel weird, existing in this world. All he knows is that when he’s acting, he’s doing what he feels, which takes him to places that we all go to but rarely reveal.
Mr. Stanfield may not want to be the symbol for black weird, or for anything, but people close to him said he was part of a profound shift around black identity.
“He’s interested in being weird and holding that space that, particularly for artists of color, hasn’t always been accessible,” said Tessa Thompson, who plays Cassius’ performance-artist girlfriend in “Sorry to Bother You.” She added, “The folks that take that and own that, those outliers, are remarkable, and really important culturally.”
Those outliers include Mr. Riley, Mr. Glover and Issa Rae (“Insecure”), who have helped create a moment that Mr. Stanfield has met perfectly, even if he won’t embrace what it means for most everyone else. “I’m a black man and I love being a black man,” he said, “I just don’t want to be categorized as being a conscious part of a movement.”
Mr. Stanfield was dancing drunkenly at a party when Mr. Glover approached him about the part of Darius, a non sequitur-spouting stoner whose bon mots include “Can I measure your tree?” His first thought after reading the script was that this guy was an idiot. “Who’d want to play him?” he asked himself. But he soon came to see Darius as a mad, beautiful genius, one he drew solace from. “I tapped into this beautiful space that you can live in,” Mr. Stanfield said. “When I go into ‘Atlanta,’ I can go into that world. It’s just like everything’s O.K., everything’s free, and there’s not a worry in the world.”
Mr. Stanfield is, by his own admission, a worrier. Mr. Murai said the actor always appeared very chill on set, but there was a discernible nervous energy roiling below. The first time they met, Mr. Stanfield was wearing earphones, and Mr. Murai asked what he was listening to. Death Grips, Mr. Stanfield replied, referring to the hard-core industrial rap group. “Their music sounds like the inside of my brain.”
Outside the Studio City cafe, night had fallen, and Mr. Stanfield’s mind was flitting to his mother, who was at his home, visiting from Victorville. After “Sorry to Bother You” opens, he’ll have a breather before his next film, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” is released this fall. He was looking forward to getting back to his private life, to puttering around, painting, reading — he was rereading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” — and hanging with his girlfriend, the actress Xosha Roquemore, and their baby, who was born last year, and whose name and gender, per Mr. Stanfield’s desire, have been kept under wraps.
Mr. Stanfield told me he suspects he might have unwittingly forecast the entry of Ms. Roquemore and their baby into his life. When he moved to North Hollywood, he drew a Saturn on his vision board, and he said that Ms. Roquemore was a Sagittarius and that the baby was born in Saturn, and it all felt connected. “That was me seeing it before it happened,” he said. “I often have these times when I’m moved by the spirit of something I don’t understand.”
He’d lost me a bit, but that was beside the point. Not everyone might get him, but somehow we all still understand.
“You can’t play a complete weirdo onscreen that somehow anybody can connect with unless you’re in touch with your humanity,” Mr. Cretton said. “And Keith really is.”
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