Life & Culture

Lakeith Stanfield, the Actor That Everyone In Hollywood Wants to Work With

The Californian actor, who rose to prominence with roles in Get Out and Atlanta, talks to Another Man about his already cult new movie, Uncut Gems, by filmmakers the Safdie brothers

There is something deliciously unpredictable about Lakeith Stanfield, the 28-year-old Californian chameleon who has rocketed from sleeping with dogs to one of the most coveted actors in Hollywood in a short matter of years.

“People I was staying with always had dogs, and I had to sleep in the same quarters as them,” Stanfield says of the years that came immediately before breaking out in foster home drama Short Term 12 in 2013. He laughs. Stanfield’s back in California at the time of our interview, shooting one of five productions that he’s currently involved in, a schedule testament to his rapid rise in renown. 

There’s no clear trend in Stanfield’s films to date; this is an actor who’s careful with his choices. After gaining a foot on the rung with supporting roles in Ava DuVernay’s Selma and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, the star has moved onto meatier stuff: the beleaguered lead in Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You, the love interest of Netflix rom-com Someone Great, a chin-scratching lieutenant in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out

Off camera, Stanfield maintains his own offbeat brand. His personal style swerves from silk pyjamas worn as formalwear to a studded vest and black balaclava, as he sported for the Atlanta season two red carpet. He’s elusive, enigmatic, and everyone wants to work with him. In the coming months he will take the lead in Spike Lee’s Prince of Cats, playing Black Panther William O’Neal in the formerly titled Jesus Was My Homeboy, fall in love with Issa Rae in The Photograph, released on Valentine’s Day, and reprise his role of loveable oddball Darius in Donald Glover’s prize-winning show Atlanta for its third season.

But we’re here to talk about Uncut Gems; the anxious, gaudy new thriller from cult filmmakers Benny and Josh Safdie. Set in New York’s Diamond District, the film stars Adam Sandler as Howard – a spineless jeweller drowning in debt – with Stanfield playing Demany, a Barbie-pink tracksuit-wearing local who hustles clients for Howard’s business.

When we speak, Uncut Gems has been on theatrical release nationwide in America for just over 24 hours. It’s already taken $6 million – the biggest opening day gross ever for an A24 release. Stanfield – currently on a shoot – hasn’t heard the news yet, so the conversation begins on a high.

Beth Webb: Firstly, congratulations on how successful Uncut Gems has been at the box office already...

Lakeith Stanfield: I wasn’t aware, how has it done at the box office?

BW: It took $6 million in 24 hours.

LS: I didn’t realise, that’s great, cool!

BW: What do you think that people love about the film so much?

LS: A lot of people have got misconceptions about Adam Sandler, and when they see someone coming from the comedy scene go into something more dramatic, it feels more real. I’m not surprised at the success, though. It’s a really well-crafted story, you never know what’s going to happen next. And it’s got a unique style. The kind of filmmaking the Safdies do? It’s something real, something dope. And a couple of people went to see it because of me [laughs].

BW: How well-versed were you in the Safdies before boarding the project?

LS: I took a meeting with them a while ago in New York. They had fresh ideas and they were genuine in their approach to things. They told me to check out some of their work, so I watched Good Time and was like, ‘Man, this is exciting’. I showed up on set and they were ready with this filmmaking process that I’d never seen before. Benny was always on the boom getting all the audio. We called him Benny Boom. Josh was at the front directing, but both of them together had this kind of weird language; they were always whispering things in each other’s ear, and then they’d execute. 

BW: Both actors and non-actors were cast, what did that bring to the film?

LS: I always think that people should put more non-actors into movies; find raw talent. That’s how I got into acting; I was basically plucked off the streets. If you pluck people off of the streets you find people who really have a depth to them, especially some of these people from the crazy parts of New York... 

BW: The film is set in 2012, what were you doing that year?

LS: 2012? I was pursuing acting in LA, living in my car [laughs]. I was in Echo Park, out surfing, sleeping with dogs and shit. That’s where I was at. I had to bring that shit to life. 

BW: Does that feel like a long time ago for you?

LS: Kind of and not really. It’s strange, I still remember the smell of that car. I remember snapshotted moments and being like, ‘I’m going to remember the fact that I was here’. I remember the only pair of jeans that I had. But it doesn’t feel like yesterday either because I’ve been through so much. 

BW: Talk to me about Demany’s style in this film. Did you personally bring anything to the look?

LS: People in 2012 were into big stuff at the time: chains, silver, it was cool. I was picking different things out, I could kind of make Demany whatever I wanted, they trusted me to bring light to it. I chose the hair and everything. I like fucking around with hair anyway, I was like, ‘I wanna have my hair like Pusha T’. 

BW: What’s your approach to your personal style?

LS: I don’t know, I just throw on whatever I feel like at the time. Usually I don’t care what I wear but if I’m going to an event or something, I’ll get creative. But I ain’t got no deep explanation. With the characters I’m playing, I’ll wear something that’s uncomfortable for me if that’s what the character is comfortable with. I just did a movie from the 1960s and there’s a lot of tight pants. I don’t really like tight pants but it’s like whatever. You’ve got to get into it.

BW: Music is integral to Uncut Gems, what’s your relationship like with music?

LS: Music is great. When I was on the set of Uncut Gems, Josh put me onto all sorts of ambient and crazy European EDM-style music, which I didn’t really mess with that much. I thought the soundtrack to the film was dope because it really amps up the energy while giving a nostalgic style and feel to the movie. It makes the film feel like it’s a classic.

BW: What are you listening to at the moment?

LS: I’ve been listening to a lot of Hiroshi Yoshimura, which is like Japanese ambient music. I’ve been listening to Neil Young a little bit. Blac Youngsta.

BW: You’ve expressed an interest in directing before. Moving forward, is this something that you’d still like to pursue?

LS: Yeah, I’m always thinking about ideas and ways to bring my ideas to the forefront. I’ve got like four or five different projects now in production, so I want to get into producing more first of all. I want to tap into that aspect of just being close to a film, being around it. But I do want to direct TV. Hopefully I can start directing some episodes of Atlanta. I mean, I didn’t say that I’m going to do that, just that it would be cool. I want Donald to read this and be like, ‘That’s a good idea’. 

Uncut Gems is in select cinemas from January 10 and on Netflix from January 31, 2020.