Growing up in Victorville — a rough, dusty town in California’s high desert — LaKeith Stanfield would pass the sweltering summer days on his bicycle. It was a cherished gift from a father who popped in and out of his life unannounced, sometimes not showing up for years at a time. “I remember him teaching me how to ride it, and that being quite hard, and me falling and crashing,” Stanfield says.
He eventually got the hang of it and started learning tricks — first riding with no hands, then standing on the seat, then throwing his legs over the handlebars and lying backward. His daredevil maneuvers impressed the local kids — “I felt like I was a star,” he recalls. “It was the freest I ever felt” — which only encouraged him to be more daring.
One day, he was careless and crashed into a parked truck at full speed, knocking himself unconscious. A scar on his wrist reminds him of the accident, which he thinks about often. “I didn’t even know why it was significant at the time,” he says. “But now I can see that it’s a metaphor for me — to still maintain focus, not get caught up in the dream of things.”
It’s tough for Stanfield not to get caught up in the dream of things these days. Now 29, he doesn’t just feel like a star; he really is one — the kind of A-list actor sought out by directors like Rian Johnson, who cast him as a police detective in 2019’s Knives Out. “I would cast that guy in anything,” says the Star Wars: The Last Jedi director. “He’s got that special quality that only a handful of people on the planet have.”
A woozy mixture of mystery and saucer-eyed vulnerability has made Stanfield a commanding presence since his debut in the 2013 indie drama Short Term 12. That performance — he played an emotionally damaged teen living in a group home — earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best supporting actor, putting him in a group that included James Gandolfini and Michael Fassbender.
In the four years since he was named one of The Hollywood Reporter’s Next Gen Rising Stars, Stanfield’s profile has skyrocketed thanks to a string of zeitgeist-defining projects — including Jordan Peele’s 2017 hit Get Out (it was his character who shouted the title at Daniel Kaluuya, blood dripping from his nose); FX’s Emmy-winning Atlanta, in which he plays the lovable, non-sequitur-spouting misfit Darius; and the 2018 Sundance breakout Sorry to Bother You, a satire on race and capitalism whose odd sensibilities marry beautifully to his own.
Along with a rising profile has come a growing awareness of Stanfield’s eccentricity. He has been known to troll interviewers by responding in Darius-esque aphorisms (“Justice is the winner of history”). He once sat cross-legged on the Emmys red carpet and had a staring contest with paparazzi, and “had a little Kanye-esque moment,” as he puts it, crashing the stage at the 2016 Critics Choice Awards when Silicon Valley beat Atlanta for best comedy series. “I still don’t know to this day where that came from.”
But as Sorry to Bother You’s director, Boots Riley, points out, there’s nothing at all strange about Stanfield’s performances in and of themselves. “There are certain actors that act by feeling,” Riley says. “That’s what people are thinking about when they say he’s ‘quirky’ or ‘weird.’ He’s only as quirky and weird as human beings always are.”
This was gearing up to be yet another big year for Stanfield, one in which he and Kaluuya would reunite for Judas and the Black Messiah, a tense depiction of the 1969 FBI assassination of Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), lured into a trap by an informant (Stanfield).
But COVID-19 knocked that Warner Bros. feature from its August 2020 release to some hopeful spot on the horizon. Stanfield found himself ensconced inside the Hollywood Hills home that he shares with his partner, actress Xosha Roquemore (The Mindy Project), 35, and their 3-year-old daughter, whose name he declines to share. “I don’t really talk about her a lot,” he says.
After nearly a decade on the Hollywood hamster wheel, Stanfield finds that the pandemic has forced him to put “the dream of things” on pause. It’s frequently said, even by those closest to him, that there is something fundamentally unknowable about the actor. It turns out, he was a stranger even to himself. “Sitting alone with yourself has you going through questions about how you became who you are,” he says, adding that he’s come to the realization that “a lot of the way I grew up was kind of traumatic.”
The recent death of someone close to him — he declines to be more specific — has dislodged a number of painful, repressed memories. He’s been processing the trauma through his music (he’s releasing an EP of hip-hop music next year as Htiekal, his first name spelled backward, and will tackle some of these issues in the lyrics) and auditioning therapists. “For so long, I thought that was something I didn’t need.”
And while he hasn’t crashed into any parked trucks lately, for a brief moment last August it seemed as though he was headed toward danger. The darkness spilled out onto his Instagram feed, where he posted a series of photos in which he was doing shots out of empty pill bottles. The disturbing images — he captioned one, “I like to be by myself because I can hurt myself and no one can tell me to stop or fake like they care” — sent social media into a frenzy thinking he was trying to hurt himself. Patton Oswalt tweeted, “Can someone on here who knows him PLEASE reach out to him?”
Stanfield says he wasn’t on the verge of self-harm. “That was just a way to show what I was feeling in visual form,” he explains, barely above a whisper. “But the truth is, I wasn’t very happy. I was keeping sad-boy hours. I was going through things. I’m learning maybe Instagram’s not the best way to channel some of that stuff.”
Amid the wilderness of tattoos that cover his hands, arms and chest — geometric symbols, snakes and birds — is Stanfield’s mother’s name, Karen. He can’t help but giggle that her name has come to signify white female entitlement. Nothing could be further from her own experience as a single African American woman who toiled for years at fast-food joints to keep her seven children (two of his brothers are autistic) clothed and fed. “My stomach would rumble a little bit sometimes,” Stanfield remembers, “but I just thought that was part of the day.”
For several years, she had fallen into a relationship with an abusive man. He brutally beat her, and he beat Stanfield, too. Once, after the boyfriend found him playing with paint cans in a garage, he pummeled him with the buckle end of a leather belt.
The first time Stanfield saw his mother getting hit, he dialed 911 in a panic. The boyfriend was arrested. But it happened again, and the second time the police arrested the boyfriend and Stanfield’s mother. The beatings continued, but Stanfield kept his mouth shut, worried that Child Protective Services might take him and his siblings away from their mother. She eventually fled with the kids 50 miles north from where they were living in Riverside, California, to Victorville. LaKeith was 11.
Besides the long bike rides, Stanfield’s main escape from his grim reality was in drama class at Victor Valley High School, where he mingled among a racially diverse, but mostly Latino, student body from similarly struggling backgrounds. His drama teacher, Miss Scheer, quickly recognized his gifts and cast him as Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Introverted, artistic and a self-described loner, Stanfield blossomed among the oddballs of the theater scene, who helped broaden his outlook. “We could do scenes where, for instance, it was two guys who were in love, and it would just be fine,” he says, adding, “I’ve always wanted to play a gay role. Because I wanted to experience and feel and understand what that meant.”
(In 2018, Stanfield drew fire on social media for having posted a freestyle rap with homophobic lyrics. He later apologized, saying he “never agreed with homophobic thought or hatred” and that his music often leads him to “assume characters that have different viewpoints.” The controversy blew over.)
After a growth spurt shot him up to 6 feet, the lanky Stanfield convinced his mother to let him enroll at the John Casablancas Modeling Career Center in Los Angeles. There, he met a model who offered to try her hand at managing him. In 2008, she sent Stanfield, then 17, to audition for a “little movie,” he says — Short Term 12, a 21-minute San Diego State University film school thesis project with a budget of $3,500. It went on to be a Sundance smash, winning that year’s Grand Jury Prize for a short film.
He was proud of his work — he even handed out DVD copies of the short at school — but couldn’t pull together the funds to make it to the festival. He didn’t learn about the award until months later, when he randomly checked emails after falling off the grid (which he still tends to do from time to time).
It was, if not quite stardom, his first taste of being a working actor. And he wanted more. But the success of the short initially led nowhere. For the next four years, Stanfield worked odd jobs at a marijuana grow house and selling AT&T U-Verse door to door. But then director Destin Daniel Cretton tracked him down to tell him he was going to make a feature version of Short Term 12 — at great effort, as Stanfield had changed his email address several times and his cellphone had been turned off. A stunned Stanfield made the 100-mile drive with his mother to audition for the part again, convinced this was his ticket out of Victorville.
“It was clear from the start that he meant business,” says his Short Term 12 co-star Rami Malek, who recalls the quiet, intense Stanfield sequestering himself from the cast for the duration of the shoot. Once, another star of the film, Brie Larson, sat next to him at lunch. Stanfield — who wanted to maintain the alienation of his character — got up and moved to another table. Adds Malek, “He was unpredictable in the best way.”
When he attended the 2014 Independent Spirit Awards, Ava DuVernay approached him. Thinking she was a random fan, Stanfield offered to take a selfie with her. But she was actually there to discuss offering him a role in her upcoming film, 2014’s Selma, as Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was murdered in a diner by an Alabama state trooper during a march in Marion, Alabama.
The next year, he appeared in Straight Outta Compton, in which he played a young Snoop Dogg. He was informed he won the role of the West Coast rap icon just seven hours before a 5 a.m. call time. Stanfield was never much of a Snoop fan — the sexualized dog imagery on his album covers always made him uncomfortable — so he pulled an all-nighter, listening to Snoop’s music and analyzing his body language on YouTube, showing up to set bleary-eyed the next morning.
What Stanfield was amassing in these early years of his career, partly thanks to “God and forces of the unknown,” he says, and partly by his own design, was a killer résumé that positioned him at the forefront of an emerging new wave of Black filmmakers and actors that also includes Kaluuya. At Sundance in 2016, after the two had already been cast in Get Out, Kaluuya introduced himself to Stanfield for the first time.
“He was rapping in a lounge,” Kaluuya recalls. Stanfield was good at it, and Kaluuya was a bit intimidated by the wiry young actor he’d heard so much about. “It was quickly apparent that this guy is a very deep person,” Kaluuya says, struggling to put Stanfield’s magnetism into words. “There’s a lot happening there.” After Get Out became a cultural sensation and launched both men into stardom, they gravitated to each other amid the disorienting chaos of movie premieres and awards shows. When the two reunited late last year for the first table read of Judas and the Black Messiah, they greeted each other wordlessly — just a hearty laugh and a warm embrace. “Me and LaKeith are on similar journeys,” Kaluuya says.
In Atlanta, which debuted on FX in 2016, Stanfield turned Darius from what could have been a one-note stoner character into a richly drawn portrait of individuation masked as idiosyncrasy. Dropping Taoist nuggets of wisdom — “Learning requires failure,” “Stars are just a projection of what’s already inside your mind” — Darius became a bigger focus on the show’s second, much weirder season.
In one much-dissected episode, Darius is sent to pick up a piano from the plantation home of a recluse named Teddy Perkins — a high-voiced, pale-skinned figure who evoked late-era Michael Jackson. The character unsettled and mystified a lot of people, but Stanfield — the only one in the cast not told that Perkins was played by Atlanta creator and star Donald Glover beneath prosthetic makeup — was not one of them. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is a very interesting fellow,'” he recalls. “I wanted to know more about [the actor], so I started asking him questions,” he continues. “And Donald had a whole history prepared. He was saying he’s been acting for a long time. And I was like, ‘That’s funny, because this is a very small business … I would not miss your face.’ So I started asking around on the set, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’ And then someone finally just spilled the beans, which now I’m kind of mad about, because I wish the illusion would’ve gone on a little longer.”
His work on Atlanta led to Uncut Gems, in which he played a street-smart hustler who brings rich customers to Adam Sandler’s diamond merchant. Like the film itself, the shoot was tense and chaotic. There were no calls of “action” from its sibling directors, Josh and Benny Safdie. Rather, it was all action, all the time, as roving cameras captured the unfolding chaos. It was the perfect creative environment for Stanfield. Not formally trained, he is not what you’d call a Method actor. But he does employ an infinite number of methods to get into the right headspace. “If that means I need to stay in character when the cameras aren’t rolling, then I will,” he says. “If I have to read one line 1,500 times, then I do that. If I have to play a homeless man, I might need to go out there for a while.”
On Gems, Stanfield would lead the cast in elaborate improvisations. He rarely, if ever, looked at his cellphone for a break or distraction. Sandler was astonished at his work ethic. “He told me the only other actor he’d ever see get that deeply into character was Dustin Hoffman,” Josh Safdie recalls.
Taking their cues from LaKeith, soon Sandler and Kevin Garnett were ad-libbing and staying in character long after the cameras had stopped rolling. Says Benny Safdie: “That’s the sign of a great collaborator. They make everyone around them better.”
Stanfield is perhaps not so much an oddball as he is a dogged free-thinker. He has zero interest in following the Hollywood playbook, whatever that is, and unlike many of his Hollywood contemporaries, Stanfield does not make a big show of advocating for social justice. (Similarly, Kaluuya told The Guardian in 2018, “I’m not a spokesperson; I’m an individual.”) He says he never chooses projects to make sweeping proclamations. Rather, he just wants to tell good stories: “Whether it’s a Black story, a yellow story, a purple or a green story — if there’s no real story, there’s no reason to do it.”
Still, he is a Black man who grew up poor in America. He knows what racism is. He’s been tased and slammed against the hood of police cars for smoking weed. Once, after he snuck a sip of beer in a supermarket, he was chased by the spotlight of a police helicopter for nearly a mile. When it comes to race, his antennae are always up. “The kinds of stories you get in this business can be very racist,” he says. “I’m not saying that I think society is super racist or anything, but there are definitely things that are ingrained into the fabric of how we tell stories in this country, especially in cinema, that have a racist history.”
He holds in high esteem the trailblazing Black screen actors who “had to take roles that sucked, or do things that were stereotypical, or do things they didn’t like in order for us to be here.” He once spotted Sidney Poitier getting into a car. “I just ran up, and I was acting like a crazy human being,” he says. “I was just so proud of him for what he did and how he allowed me to exist. You’ve got to give praise to those who really did the hard stepping.”
He refuses, however, to allow himself to be consumed by the rage that has engulfed much of the nation. He says he supported Biden in the election, but won’t concede to being happy that Donald Trump lost. “I would say,” he offers after some thought, “that I’m happy to see that I’ve seen a global consciousness uplift in the constituency that I spend the most time around. But I have friends on the other side, as well, that have chosen other things.”
Like, voting for Trump? He nods. “I have close friends and family that have voted for Trump and for Biden. We’ve been a family for a long time and I’m grateful to see that we’re still intact. We don’t always have to agree on everything. But we don’t also have to rip each other’s heads off, either.”
In politics, as in life, Stanfield — who has recently started doing yoga — takes a “bend, don’t break” approach. “I think that everyone has things about them that we may not always agree with or understand, but we have to try and figure out. If I’m walking around with an attitude all day because I heard a word I didn’t like, then I’m putting myself in a position to not be able to navigate effectively. At some point, I have to make the decision to reprogram the program.”
That mindset has only helped his acting, he feels, and points to his role in Judas and the Black Messiah: “This is someone who infiltrated the Black Panther Party, someone most people would think is a terrible human. But he is a human. And he’s multifaceted. If I had made different decisions, I might be this exact same guy.”
Since September, Stanfield has been on location in New Mexico, filming a cowboy movie for Netflix with Idris Elba and Regina King called The Harder They Fall. “It’s hella Black, hella Western,” Stanfield says. It’s been a difficult shoot — the closed set has prevented him from seeing his family (when he checked in for this interview, he’d just awoken from a dream about his daughter) and production was halted in October after an actor tested positive for COVID-19. (It has since recommenced.)
To get in the mood for his scenes, Stanfield listens to country classics by Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins, and actual classics — Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach, “because it gets you in good spirits.” He also immerses himself in the soundscapes of Hiroshi Yoshimura, the late Japanese ambient music pioneer. “They’re basically audio paintings that are amazing,” he says.
His character, Cherokee Bill, rides a horse in the film, something Stanfield had never before done but was eager to learn. “The first horse I got on, Richie, I was a little rigid, trying to protect my jewels,” he says. “He was like, ‘Who the fuck is this dude on my back?’ And kinda bucks me off.”
When Stanfield hit the ground, he had a brief flashback to himself at 12, riding his bike through the streets of Victorville, all eyes on him, slamming into that truck. He then thought of the movie’s title — The Harder They Fall — chuckled to himself, dusted off his chaps, and looked his horse in the eye. “I was like, ‘You fucking fucker,'” he says. “So I got back on him.”
Now Stanfield loves riding so much, he’s considering getting a horse of his own. “They’re just so beautiful. And so powerful and strong and great,” he says. “It took a while. And it didn’t help doing it with all the jitters of this year. But I got past that curve eventually. And I think the horse really helped me. It taught me to surrender and shut the fuck up — that you’re not the center of everything. And it humbled me. And I’m grateful.”
Stanfield’s Impressively Varied CV
Short Term 12 (2013)
Stanfield’s performance in Destin Daniel Cretton’s debut about a home for at-risk youth earned him an Independent Spirit nomination for supporting actor.
As the eccentric Darius Epps in Donald Glover’s FX Emmy winner, Stanfield turned what could have been one-note comic foil into a core part of the show.
Get Out (2017)
His role in Jordan Peele’s $244 million-grossing genre-changing horror flick was supporting but climactic — he shouts the film’s ominous title.
Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Boots Riley’s Sundance sensation about a Black telemarketer who adopts a Caucasian accent to close sales proved Stanfield could carry a film.
The Photograph (2020)
This stylish but little-seen drama from producer Will Packer and co-starring Issa Rae showcases Stanfield in a new light — romantic lead.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.