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Amandla Stenberg regrets not being able to attend the Sundance premiere of her new film My Animal, but she’s been a little preoccupied in a galaxy far, far away. Fortunately, Paramount picked up the ‘80s-set supernatural romance prior to the Park City festival, so Stenberg’s collaborators didn’t really need the budding superstar to help garner interest on-site.
Jacqueline Castel’s feature directorial debut revolves around a small-town romance between Bobbi Salvör Menuez’s Heather and Stenberg’s Jonny, as both characters struggle to embrace their true selves. The two lead actors had already been friends for a number of years, so Stenberg immediately connected with the material and said yes to Menuez and Castel’s pitch.
“[My Animal] felt like the kind of queer teenage dreamscape that I wish I’d grown up with. It was the queer world that I had fantasized about and dreamt about while growing up,” Stenberg tells The Hollywood Reporter.
At 13, Stenberg broke out as Rue in The Hunger Games, and it was a role she manifested shortly after finishing the first novel. Conversely, a decade later, the most storied franchise, Star Wars, manifested her as the star of its upcoming Disney+ series, The Acolyte, created by Leslye Headland. Lucasfilm knew exactly who they wanted, so much so that they designed concept art featuring Stenberg in the lead role before even approaching her about casting.
“It was a very astounding moment for me,” says Stenberg.
In a recent conversation with THR, Stenberg, who goes by she/they pronouns, also discusses the many firsts she experienced on the My Animal set and how an Olympic figure skater supported her performance.
Well, you’ve got a pretty good reason [The Acolyte production] why you couldn’t attend, but do you still wish you could’ve made the trip out to Sundance?
Yes, so badly! I’m in a group chat with all the folks over there, so it’s just on a constant live-stream update.
But then again, My Animal was already picked up by Paramount, so they really didn’t need you to help sell the movie on the slopes of Park City.
(Laughs.) We’re blessed, for sure.
So where did My Animal fall on your timeline of conquests?
(Laughs.) Well, we filmed it in the spring of last year. Actually, it was winter going into spring. So it was the last thing that I worked on, besides the job that I’m currently on [The Acolyte]. It came to me at least a year and a half beforehand through Bobbi [Salvör Menuez]. Bobbi was enamored with the project and thought it was something that I would love and then pitched me for it. And then when Bobbi and [director] Jacqueline Castel came to me, I instantaneously fell in love with the script. I’m also a huge Boy Harsher fan; [Jae Matthews] is the screenwriter. So the idea of there being a script that existed within the artistic world of an artist that I already deeply admire was really exciting.
When you finished reading the script for the first time, what feeling did it leave you with?
It felt like the kind of queer teenage dreamscape that I wish I’d grown up with. It was the queer world that I had fantasized about and dreamt about while growing up. Within the canon of queer films, it occupied a space that I always hoped for.
What were you eager to explore through the Jonny character?
What was really exciting for me was these two very different archetypes of queer people who are in different stages of understanding their sexuality and their acceptance of it. And through the format of the werewolf metaphor, there’s a lot of rich territory to explore how fraught with tension that relationship can be when you’re that age.
My Animal is Jacqueline Castel’s feature debut, and I have to imagine that your commitment helped it get made on some level. Is it pretty flattering to know that you now have the ability to lift up other artists like this?
Absolutely. These artists command a lot of respect and attention on their own, but to be able to have the freedom now to truly stand behind projects that I love and do them with people that I love is a huge privilege. It’s where you dream of arriving. And Bobbi and I have been friends since we were teenagers, so the opportunity for us to produce this together was just a really special celebration of the ways that we’ve grown over the years.
This movie has such a vibe to it. Some of it likely comes from music and editing, but did the director do anything on set to create that quality?
We had a really special rehearsal period, and this film was also backed by the Canadian government, which meant that we filmed in a small town in northern Ontario called Timmins. It’s a very, very small town, and I learned that one day when I asked the driver where we were. He said, “We’re in midtown,” and then about two blocks later, he said, “Now we’re downtown.” So that gives you a good idea of how big it was. It was freezing cold, and there was about 10 to 15 feet of snow everywhere we went. So it was a really insular environment, and within that space, we were able to tap into that indie magic that happens when you work on an indie. You have that really intimate experience of world building with people that you become very close to.
Every movie has a first of some sort. First time doing hiccup acting, first time putting on figure skates. What were your firsts on this?
There were lots of firsts, and putting on ice skates was definitely one of them. (Laughs.) I was really lucky to have an incredible stunt double who did a lot of the work for me. She actually came straight from the Olympics. Her name is Vanessa James. So I was really lucky to have that support from her, and it was probably one of the coolest experiences.
Did Jonny’s earmuffs end up in your suitcase?
(Laughs.) Yeah, they did.
So the movie was obviously picked up by Paramount, but in general, do you root for these indie-type films just a little bit more than some of your other projects that you know will have a global machine powering them every step of the way?
Definitely. I love working on indies. I love the freedom of not working within the studio system and the special colors and shades that can arise from that freedom and that personal connection and intimacy.
So how’s Shinfield Studios [home of The Acolyte] treating you?
It’s good. It’s wild. I actually didn’t understand how many films were shot out in the countryside of London. The studios are huge. It’s definitely a huge contrast from coming off of this last job. So it’s incredible to have this infrastructure and this many resources.
Are your wildest dreams coming true on the daily?
(Laughs.) Yeah. I mean, I’m surrounded by aliens all day. It’s pretty surreal.
So is it true that you were the proof of concept? They conceived the whole series around you?
Oh God, I have no clue if I’m allowed to talk about this. I haven’t actually been media trained by Lucasfilm yet, so I’m not sure.
I read it somewhere, so someone felt safe enough to say that you were part of the concept art before you were actually cast.
Yeah, that is how it happened. It was a very astounding moment for me.
It’s interesting because you manifested your Hunger Games role way back when, and now, the most enduring franchise, Star Wars, manifested you. That’s not necessarily a full circle, but it’s certainly poetic.
Wow, yeah. Thank you for drawing that gorgeous metaphor for me. That’s a really beautiful way to think about it.
So I’ve talked to a number of former child actors, and most of them have said that once they became adults, they had to ask themselves if acting was something they truly loved and wanted to keep doing, or if it was just something they fell into when they were a kid. Did you reach a similar crossroads as well?
Of course. It’s a continual crossroads. Asking yourself if you’re doing what you love and if it aligns with your beliefs is something that you have to ask yourself every day. So it’s a continual process for me, and I think my life is going to be filled with a lot of different art forms. But for the moment — and like you’ve been speaking to — the roles that have come to me have come from a place of manifestation.
Of all your past sets, which one do you find yourself reflecting on the most?
I still reflect on the environment that I was lucky enough to be a part of on The Hate U Give. When there’s a collective vision that comes from such a poignant and powerful place, it changes the entire process and the way people approach their art.
Was Bodies Bodies Bodies a pretty eventful set given the nature of the movie and how contained it was?
It was awesome. It was like working on a play. That’s also because of our director, Halina Reijn, and her theater background. Myha’la Herrold is also a beautifully trained theater actress. So it had an element that is similar to My Animal. It’s an element that felt very insular.
I have to say that I was pretty bummed when your Fear reboot didn’t work out. How close did it get?
I’m pretty sure it’s coming out, just not with me involved. (Laughs.)
Well, it’s been retooled as a TV show, so I guess your film version didn’t get too far.
Yeah, it was listed on my IMDb for a long time, but IMDb is strange. (Laughs.)
Decades from now, when you’re reminiscing next to a crackling fireplace, what day on My Animal will you likely recall first?
(Laughs.) Probably being on a pink satin-covered rotating bed with one of my best friends, Bobbi, doing a sex scene for the entire day.
Part of me was banking on the hiccup scene.
(Laughs.) I actually had no clue what you were talking about when you said hiccup acting the first time, but now I understand the reference. Yes, that was my first time doing hiccup acting. It’s definitely easier than drunk acting. Drunk acting, I find, is the most difficult.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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