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KiKi Layne refuses to be labeled. After her breakout role in Barry Jenkins’ romantic drama If Beale Street Could Talk, Layne went out of her way to avoid being categorized as a dramatic actor, something Hollywood has done to every generation’s breakthrough performers and their accompanying genres. Conversely, Layne is about to return to the screen as an action star in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard, where she goes toe-to-toe with action movie icon Charlize Theron. In December, Layne will also try her hand at comedy in the highly anticipated Coming 2 America, which follows up on Eddie Murphy’s 1988 classic. Layne plays the daughter of Murphy’s Prince Akeem.
“Even before joining my team, just having meetings, I would make it clear to people that if they were going to be a part of my representation, then they had to be committed to submitting me and putting me in conversations that may typically not include actresses that look like me,” Layne tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Even before getting into the industry, I was very aware of the boxes that artists are put in — the very small box that Black women, women and even dark-skinned Black women in the industry are put in. I’m just grateful that I’ve been able to dip my hands into these different genres this early in my career and quickly show that I am not just this small indie dramatic actor.”
One of the many celebrated aspects of Jenkin’s Beale Street is the evocative score by composer Nicholas Britell. In fact, it’s the very first film score that Layne listens to on its own. However, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the global protests that emerged against police brutality, Beale Street’s score returned to Layne in its most powerful form yet.
“Shortly after George Floyd’s death, there was a video of a protestor and he was just speaking, calling out the system, expressing his anger and why they were out there. And someone added one of the songs from the score onto the video of this protestor speaking, and it just hit me so hard,” Layne shares. “Just what this man was saying, and then hearing that score and knowing where that had come from and what it represented in the film. I still listen to it sometimes, and for the longest time, I even made one of the songs my ringtone. It was ‘Eros;’ I made it my ringtone. I’ve never been that affected by a film score a day in my life.”
As far as Coming 2 America, Layne still can’t believe that she got to be a part of the sequel to a comedy classic.
“Man, every day being on that set, I was just like, ‘Lord, I don’t know how I got here, but I am so grateful.’ I mean, I was surrounded by legends,” Layne admits. “And to be working on the sequel to Coming to America of all films, I still haven’t wrapped my mind around that, honestly. I mean, just wow. I’m so excited for people to receive it. I haven’t even seen it yet, but just based off of what we were doing on set, I’m excited.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Layne also discusses her rigorous The Old Guard training and how her on-screen relationship with Theron mirrored itself off-screen.
Hollywood has a tendency to categorize actors according to their breakout role. If you break out via a comedy, you’re a comedic actor. If it’s a drama, you’re a dramatic actor. Even your co-lead, Charlize Theron, has talked about how she was labeled as a dramatic actor for the longest time despite wanting to do action much sooner. So what I find interesting about you is that you’ve pivoted from a beautiful indie drama like If Beale Street Could Talk to a soulful action drama in The Old Guard and then a comedy in the upcoming Coming 2 America. Were you and your team conscious of avoiding these labels that are placed on young actors?
Absolutely. Even before joining my team, just having meetings, I would make it clear to people that if they were going to be a part of my representation, then they had to be committed to submitting me and putting me in conversations that may typically not include actresses that look like me. Even before getting into the industry, I was very aware of the boxes that artists are put in — the very small box that Black women, women and even dark-skinned Black women in the industry are put in. Like, “These are the types of roles that make sense for these people and these are the types of stories that make sense for these people to tell.” And I have always been against that box and those limitations. I love acting. I think it’s fun to play in all types of different worlds, and I knew that that was something that I am 100 percent committed to. And so, I’m just grateful that I’ve been able to dip my hands into these different genres this early in my career and quickly show that I am not just this small indie dramatic actor. There’s so much more that I have to give to this industry.
Your director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, made one of my all-time favorite films, Love & Basketball. What was your relationship to her work prior to The Old Guard?
Love & Basketball is hands down one of my favorite films. (Laughs.) And so, what’s funny is that my journey to even being a part of The Old Guard started with a meeting with Skydance. It was just a general meeting, and they got to talking about this new project that they were developing. They said that they attached Gina to direct it, and immediately, I was interested in it. I literally knew nothing about this project except that it was called The Old Guard and that Gina Prince-Bythewood was directing it. That was all I needed to know for me to be super excited about it. I just respect her so much, and I just appreciate her commitment to telling stories with Black people and Black women at the center that represent us in a fuller way that is often not represented in Hollywood and in film and media. And so, I was excited for the opportunity just to work with her.
Since the script’s version of Nile Freeman differs from the comics, did you try not to get too attached to the comic version of the character?
I definitely read the graphic novel and loved this wonderful world that Greg Rucka had created. Then having him be a part of creating the screenplay, I was just excited. Even when I first met Gina at my director’s session, she made it clear that they were committed to really turning Nile into an even fuller character and really creating more space to see her struggle with this insane situation that she finds herself in. As an artist, I was just happy that I was going to be given more colors, in a sense, to play with and ways to dig even deeper into the character. But they were very committed to that from the very beginning, and they really kind of did that with all of the characters. What Gina said when we were first talking about it at our director’s session was that although it is this huge action feature, she didn’t want the heart of these characters to be lost in all of that. She still wanted it to be clear that, although they have this extraordinary gift, that they are still dealing with a lot of real human pain and emotions. So, I was happy that I got to dig deeper into that with the version of Nile that they wrote for the screenplay.
Did you enjoy the months and months worth of action star training?
Oh my goodness. Man, I’ve never done anything like that in my life. It was crazy. I mean, [my trainer] would seriously spend hours a day training me. I would train more in one day than a lot of people train in an entire week because there were so many different aspects of it. We’re learning the choreography, then we’re learning how to do different stunts and how to work with all of these different weapons. I also learned a lot of boxing, a lot of military and tactical training and information. So, definitely a lot got thrown at me. (Laughs.) But it was necessary, just because the physicality is such an extension of these characters. And then, for the older Old Guard members, they’ve been alive for so long that they kind of need to look like experts with all of this stuff. (Laughs.) So, all of us had to be super committed to the training and super committed to walking away with a few bumps and bruises and soreness in places that you didn’t even know could be sore. (Laughs.) But we had to do it because this story’s told in the right way.
As far as the psychology of the character, did you happen to research people who’ve survived near-death experiences?
No, that actually wasn’t a part of my research. What I focused on was this idea of the stages of grief and seeing Nile struggle with grieving the life that she had known. To me, that was an in that I felt was more relatable to most of us. Sometimes, life throws things at us that completely catch us off guard, and they completely change how we move forward. A lot of us sometimes struggle with accepting that this is that new life and letting go of whatever life we had known before. So, I was leaning into that struggle because a lot of us can relate to that. Just look at certain events and things that have happened in our lives, it’s like, “Yeah, I couldn’t be the same after that.”
Gina is the first woman director you’ve worked with in your young career. And since The Old Guard is about two different generations of women, Nile and Andy, were there certain moments where a woman storyteller like Gina was advantageous?
It’s weird to me because I just think that a great director is a great director, regardless if they’re a man, woman, whatever. But I guess in this situation, what was nice, as I’ve said, is her commitment to really digging deeper into these characters and not getting so hung up on all of the big action and blowing shit up aspects of it. Because in this genre, we’ve seen some pretty shallow action films. (Laughs.) You’ll have these amazing sequences and choreography, but it’s just like, “Who is this character? What are they struggling with?” She made a lot of room to see what these characters are really struggling with on the inside. It wasn’t just some big bad villain that we were up against. We were really struggling from internal conflicts, and I do appreciate that Gina really wasn’t afraid to lean into that. She also encouraged us to lean into that and to not lose that just because we’ve got to go and shoot up some bad guys. (Laughs.)
I can’t help but view entertainment through our present-day lens and what’s happening in the world. The film may be called The Old Guard, but it’s really about a changing of the guard as Charlize’s character essentially passes the baton to your character. Am I reading into things too much, or did you also notice the parallel to the changing of the guard that’s slowly happening in our world?
Absolutely. I mean, there was no way to even fathom all that is going on in the world and having it happen at the same time as this film’s release. But as I was saying, I think it’s just seeing these characters struggling with things that a lot of us are starting to be more aware of in our personal lives with everything that’s going on now. And in terms of what you were saying, the passing of the baton, it was interesting. Coming into my very first action film and being able to work alongside Charlize — who has really made such a space about the capabilities of women in this genre — it’s crazy to me that it even is a type of conversation because I find it ridiculous. It’s almost like they’re trying to say that these types of women don’t exist. I’m like, “There are badass, kickass women who really do exist every single day in the world.” But I was grateful that in my introduction to this genre, I got to work alongside her, and it actually was really beautiful because it kind of mirrored the relationship that Andy and Nile start to develop and how they grow together. There were definitely some moments of similarity between how Charlize and I were looking out for each other, supporting each other and growing together throughout the process of filming.
There’s a quick character detail that I love as Nile neatly folded her uniform on the plane. Even as she was coming to grips with being an immortal, the Marine in her couldn’t break routine.
Yeah, what that moment speaks to is that Nile is a Marine. That is an essential part of her identity, and as a Marine, that’s just how you fold the uniform. And I couldn’t imagine any Marine just tossing their uniform – no matter how dirty, bloody or whatever it is. No, there is a proper way to fold that uniform and to honor what it means to be a part of the Marines and any of the Armed Forces. That’s actually such a beautiful moment because it’s one of the hardest blows for Nile to take. When she’s speaking to Andy after the fight, she says to Andy, “I’m a Marine. I can’t just desert my people like that.” And Andy says, “You’re not a Marine anymore.” And that’s huge because in that moment, Nile really has to accept that she can’t hold onto the life that she had known and everything that was a part of her identity. There’s no way to have this ability that she has now and to still try to continue to live the life that she had known. And that’s what I was saying about that thing of when something happens and you just can’t continue to live the life that you had always been living. And even with everything that’s going on, I think a lot of us are becoming aware of that. I know we’re all waiting for us to get to the other side of this pandemic, but part of that waiting is waiting to see what is going to be the new normal. We all have to be aware that the life we knew prior to the pandemic is over, and we are about to step into a new normal. What does that mean? What does that look like? Ultimately, we’re going to have to accept it and adapt to it.
When you work with the all-time greats like Regina King and Charlize, are you someone who will directly ask for advice, or do you prefer to play it cool by learning through their behavior?
I feel like I play it more cool, but when you’re working with people who are just as thorough of artists and just as amazing of women as Regina and Charlize, even if I don’t ask a question, they see that the question is brewing. (Laughs.) And they will just pull me to the side and say, “Hey girl, this is how this works,” or, “Nah, you don’t have to do it like that,” or, “Please just relax and quit stressing.” So, those are the type of women that they are, which I’m grateful for.
I asked your Beale Street co-star Stephan James the same question, but can you tell me about the first time you heard Nicholas Britell’s score? Was it during ADR?
Oh my goodness. Was it ADR? No, I don’t think it was ADR. I feel like they sent it to us, and I just remember… I don’t even know how to describe it. I had never paid that much attention to a score a day in my life. Like, seriously. Maybe I wouldn’t say pay that much attention; maybe I just haven’t been affected by it so much. And at first, a part of me was like, “Oh, is it just because I’m in this movie?” But talking to other people, even my family and friends, everybody is like, “Nah man, that score hit completely different.” And then, once you’re actually watching the full film and you’re in the theater with the surround sound, it’s amazing what he did there. And it even came back around recently. Shortly after George Floyd’s death, there was a video of a protestor and he was just speaking, calling out the system, expressing his anger and why they were out there. And someone added one of the songs from the score onto the video of this protestor speaking, and it just hit me so hard. Just what this man was saying, and then hearing that score and knowing where that had come from and what it represented in the film. I still listen to it sometimes, and for the longest time, I even made one of the songs my ringtone. It was “Eros;” I made it my ringtone. I’ve never been that affected by a film score a day in my life.
The opening shot of the film has you and Stephan walking down a flight of stairs, and what’s cool is that you’re walking in sync with each other. How many times did it take for the two of you to get your timing just right?
I feel like that just happened. We just knew that’s what that had to be, and I think I just matched his pace. He took that first step, and I’m just like “Oop, now my right foot.” I don’t even think we thought about it. Actually, no, we didn’t. Those characters are so in sync; it just had to be that way. And then, even looking at how the costumes complemented each other, I think that went over both of our heads while we were filming. (Laughs.) It’s just when you saw it, it was like, “Oh my goodness.” But yeah, it was just there. I don’t really remember us thinking too much about it. Maybe Barry did say something. He probably did. Barry’s super attentive to that type of stuff.
On one level, Beale Street is a moving drama that introduced you to the world, but on another level, it tells a tragic story that’s still happening every single day in America. Thus, is there a bittersweet feeling that emerges when you think back to it at times?
Yeah, that’s something we had recognized even while we were working on it, and when we were doing press for Beale Street, that kept coming up because not much has changed. Even with all that’s going on, seeing everybody reposting all of these different clips of James Baldwin speaking, seeing that video where they added a part of our score to it, seeing all the people that are reposting clips and scenes from Beale Street, encouraging people to watch Beale Street… I mean, that is so damn sad that nothing really has changed. But in this moment, I do feel a more powerful shift happening… I feel like this time around, it is going beyond just expressing our anger at police brutality and fighting for justice in that area. But this time, it has extended globally and into organizations and industries that weren’t a part of the conversation. Sadly, this has happened before, but this time around, I feel like voices are being heard. People in industries and organizations are being called out in a way that I don’t feel was happening before. And so, that’s something that is exciting to see happening now. This time, I hope — I really do hope and pray — that it really affects some really big changes.
You helped make a sequel to the comedy I’ve watched more than any other. How was your Coming 2 America experience?
(Laughs.) Yes! Oh my goodness. Man, every day being on that set, I was just like, “Lord, I don’t know how I got here, but I am so grateful.” I mean, I was surrounded by legends. Surrounded by legends. And to be working on the sequel to Coming to America of all films, I still haven’t wrapped my mind around that, honestly. I mean, just wow. I’m so excited for people to receive it. I haven’t even seen it yet, but just based off of what we were doing on set, I’m excited.
The Old Guard is available on Netflix as of July 10.
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