How TV Saved This Young Hollywood Star's Life
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we expect to see this guy on awards lists and red carpets for years to come.
By Andreas Hale
In the opening minutes of FX series Atlanta’s premiere episode, a confrontation begins. It goes down in a convenience store parking lot where Donald Glover’s character, Earnest “Earn” Marks, is trying to calm his rapper-slash-drug-dealer cousin, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles.
Amid the chaos, LaKeith Stanfield’s eccentric Darius interrupts the tension with a spacy observation. “Hold on, man. I’m getting crazy déjà vu right now,” he says, gazing vaguely into the distance as if the potential gunfight three feet away is distracting from what’s really important. “OK, where’s the dog with the Texas on him?” he says as everyone else looks on, puzzled. Just then, the camera snaps to a ragged dog with a spot in his fur shaped like the Lone Star State. “Oh, there he is. That’s a trip, man.”
Like all of Stanfield’s work: It was brief, effective, memorable.
It’s become natural for the charismatic 25-year-old Californian to steal the attention from anyone with whom he’s sharing the screen. He’s got quite the résumé already: playing troubled group-home teenager Marcus alongside Golden Globe winners Brie Larson and Remi Malek in Short Term 12 and portraying trumpeter Junior in the Don Cheadle–helmed Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead. You’ll also recognize him from Selma and Straight Outta Compton, where he played Snoop Dogg. “Stanfield is right on the precipice of being the next big, maybe great, Black actor,” says Hip Hop Wired’s deputy editor Alvin Blanco.
He’s still starstruck. “I’ve never had to talk about my life story before,” Stanfield says as we sit in his Park City, Utah, hotel room during the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Dressed modestly in denim jeans, a blue ball cap and a white T-shirt that hugs his slim frame, Stanfield reflects on an impoverished childhood in Riverside, San Bernardino and Victorville, where he grew up with a single mother who “did what she had to do” to put food on the table for him and his five older siblings. “My mom didn’t pay that much attention to me,” Stanfield says.
I would look to television and movies for positive Black male role models.… I said to myself that I wanted to be in that little box.
Mom had an abusive boyfriend. Meanwhile, friends “were robbing people and doing liquor runs.” He turned to television. And in a success story for the medium, in this case, it didn’t rot a brain — it saved one: “I would look to television and movies for positive Black male role models,” he says. “And after I watched all of these VHS movies’ powerful Black images, I said to myself that I wanted to be in that little box.”
But Stanfield didn’t know how to reach Tinseltown. He self-describes as a rabble-rousing hippie who disliked most of school but for drama class. He didn’t graduate with his high school class because of what he describes as “behavioral issues” (he won’t elaborate), coupled with “grades that were just plain bad.” But he managed to secure his GED and, in the interim, sojourned into modeling school, scraping up $60 for headshots “just in case.” That makeshift portfolio came in handy when he landed a role in the Destin Cretton short film Short Term 12, which explores the dynamic between adults supervising a foster home for troubled teenagers. The film won a Jury Award for U.S. Short Filmmaking at Sundance. But Stanfield hadn’t yet broken through.
Off he went to Sacramento, where he worked at a medical marijuana facility and sold AT&T cell phones door to door. But a warrant for stuff he describes as “nothing major” from his high school days caught up with him; he lost the gig. In 2009, an unemployed, 18-year-old Stanfield headed back to Victorville to appear in court. Fortuitously, he ran into Cretton, who was filming a full-length version of Short Term 12 and wanted him to reprise his role as Marcus. Stanfield auditioned, once more, in Cretton’s living room. “When I looked up, he was crying and said I got the role,” the actor says.
Since then, it’s been one accomplishment after another. He was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Short Term 12. At the award-show brunch, Stanfield met director Ava DuVerney, who offered Stanfield Selma. Breakthrough. He’s yet to play a lead, but as Atlanta garners more critical attention — the show’s premier reeled in three million viewers, The New York Times called it “intoxicating” and The Wrap hailed it as “one of the best new shows on television” — he’s on the rise. His story bears resemblance to Don Cheadle’s; Cheadle grew from supporting roles in films such as Colors and Hamburger Hill to take the lead in the Showtime series House of Lies. Then he landed big roles in Iron Man and The Avengers. Like Stanfield, Cheadle began with smaller roles and won his way to stardom thanks to his charisma. “Stanfield is a scene stealer,” says David Dennis of ESPN’s The Undefeated, who calls Stanfield’s turn in Miles Ahead — alongside Cheadle — “fantastic.” Next up, he’s appearing opposite Brad Pitt in War Machine (early 2017) and in the interracial dating horror flick Get Out.
Blanco cautions that Stanfield has to avoid being typecast as “the sidekick. The chops are there; now it’s a question of him landing roles that prove he’s not a one-note actor.” Stanfield himself is mum on the question of his dream role. He remains thoroughly unaccomplished in his own eyes. “I still don’t have any context of my success,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’ve done anything. When I land at the airport and people are standing there with my photo for an autograph, I’m like, ‘What the fuck?’ — because in my mind, I haven’t done anything.”