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Chances are you don’t yet know the name Keith Stanfield — but, if my gut is right, one day soon everyone who cares about film will. That day could, in fact, be only a week away, because Stanfield, a tremendously promising 22-year-old actor and rap artist who stole every scene in which he appeared in Destin Daniel Crettin‘s Short Term 12 — his first role in a feature — has an outside shot of scoring a best original song Oscar nomination on Jan. 16 for “So You Know What It’s Like,” a heartbreaking rap song that he co-wrote, with Crettin, for his character, Marcus, to perform in the film.
Before you dismiss the notion that the Academy, which is famously composed largely of old white men, would ever give the time of day to a rap song co-written and performed by a young unknown — let alone a rap song that uses several cuss words that could never be spoken on the Oscars telecast — don’t forget that, within just the last 11 years, the Academy gave Oscars to Eminem for “Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile and Three Six Mafia for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from Hustle & Flow.
Rap, Stanfield said to me, is “an art form like any other and it can be taken to many different places in its expression.” He continued, “It’s just as multi-dimensional as any other form of music; it’s just not perceived that way by the masses.” But, he insisted, many people are more open-minded than you might assume: “At one of these Q&As, a 90-year-old lady came up to me and said, [imitates old lady’s voice] ‘I love the rap!’ I was like, “Wow, man, I need to open up my mind a little bit, ’cause this shit is a lot more accepted than I thought!”
Moreover, many members of the Academy who belong to its music branch, and therefore get to nominate songs, have a strong preference for entries that are relevant to and advance their film’s narrative over songs that, say, play over the closing credits in order to qualify for awards consideration. I, for one, can think of no 2013 song that fits the former description more than “So You Know What It’s Like,” through which Stanfield’s Marcus, an emotionally and physically scarred 17-year-old living in a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers, finally shares his heartbreaking story with a staff member.
The song, which Crettin wrote and then Stanfield rewrote in order to make it feel more authentic to him, is not only about Marcus, Stanfield says, but also, to an extent, about himself and his own life which, as he discusses, has had major ups and downs of its own. “That shit’s a slice of me that happens to be told through Marcus, and I think that’s why people really identify with it — because it’s real. The story that’s being told is very real.”
Though Short Term 12 and its cast — which also includes the great Brie Larson, John Gallagher, Jr. and Kaitlyn Dever — have not had anywhere near the audience or attention that they deserve, it was very heartening to see that Stanfield received a Spirit Award nomination for best supporting actor for his performance. As a result, he will be in the tent down by the Santa Monica waterfront to attend that ceremony on Saturday, Mar. 2. And very soon, we’ll find out if, against all odds, he’ll have a commitment on Sunday, Mar. 2, as well. I, for one, would like to see Stanfield at the Dolby — so he knows what it’s like.
* * *
The Hollywood Reporter: Growing up, did you go to the movies? And, if you did, were any films or people particular favorites or influences for you?
Stanfield: I like this question — it’s different! My earliest memories are when I was two to four years old and I was watching movies like Jason’s Lyric (1994), Menace II Society (1993) and all the different movies that were in my house at that particular time. I was just really fixated on this little glowing box. All of the images that were coming out of there were very influential on the way I interacted, the things I did and really kind of influenced me to be who I am — all the movies that I used to watch. I grew up watching a lot of different movies. All the kids movies — The Lion King (1994), FernGully (1992) and all the Disney stuff. After I watched Jason’s Lyric so much, I would talk to my mom and say what they said in the movie. She was like, “Where did you get that from?!” You know? I would get a lot of my vocabulary and the way that I came off to the world from those early images. And then I hit a time in my life where I really didn’t watch very much of anything at all — that was, like, right after I came from San Bernardino and moved out to Victorville. I really didn’t too watch much of anything. I was, sort of, just in this blank state, which was just as much of an influence on me. So I kind of saw both sides. But, really, when I was younger, I just dove straight into cinema and really was attracted to everything about it.
Do you remember when you first tried acting, even if it was just something for fun? And then was there are a moment or event after which you knew that you wanted to be an actor?
Yeah. We used to do sock puppets for my auntie. [laughs] She would say, “Do that little thing you guys do!” We had so much charisma because we were free, we were kids, you know? We were just, like, doing whatever we wanted to do, and she would just be so tickled or touched by what were doing. My earliest memories of performing were doing that and doing the voices for the sock puppets. It just felt really good to me, for some reason. And then my brothers would do, like, little skits and stuff, little plays around the house, and I would dress up as anything — I would take her wigs and put ’em on and perform whatever I was performing. [laughs] I always liked to be seen when I was little. They would, you know, encourage me to do those little things, and that was kind of cool, but I never really thought about it outside of that. I just really liked to perform. I’m not sure when it really hit me, “This is what I want to do!” I think what it was is in high school I was always in drama — I was a thespian all four years — and we did a little short film for school and it just really felt cool to me. I was actually directing it, but it was like, really awesome, to do it — I think I was in, like, ninth or tenth grade — and when I finally completed it I was like, “This is just awesome!” So I guess that’s when I, kind of, said, “This is something that I really want to do.” But I always, like, tried to perform.
What was or is the John Casablancas School? Because I understand that when that entered the picture, there was really kind of a crazy series of events that led you from there to Destin…
There are so many people in your life saying, “Well, you’ve gotta do something in the world! What are you gonna do?” You know, I never really looked around at anything and was very interested in it. And then I was like, “Hm, I really like to perform. I guess I want to do this.” So I jumped on the Internet and I just started looking up anything that was related to performing and acting and stuff. I must have filled out a whole page of things — 90 percent of them scams — and I filled out this one thing for John Casablancas. They reached back to me a couple of weeks later and said, “Congratulations! You have an opportunity to audition for this movie!” I was like, “Oh, shit! It’s that easy?” It wasn’t, you know? I got down there and they were like, “No, you can be in the school, provided you can pay the tuition.” You know? So they suckered us into that, but I looked around and I really liked what I saw there, and I was fortunate enough to have parents that could help me out with that, so I went through that. I went there a couple of years, and they send you up in front of representation, so I got a manager through that. And my manager would, like, send me on these little, like, student films and things, and she sent me out on Destin’s thesis project, Short Term 12, the short, and that was the very first thing I did, in 2008.
Was your experience of making the short exciting, fun, nerve-wracking? How would you characterize your experience on that?
[laughs] I think I went through pretty much every human emotion possible going through that first thing. It was very intimidating, nerve-wracking, inspiring, fun and all of those things, you know? It was like a whirlwind of emotions and I think it kind of translates in my performance the first time. My mind was in a lot of different places when I was doing that. It was crazy for me. I couldn’t believe that I was on the set of a movie, you know? So by the time I got through that, it was just like a surge of inspiration. I was like, “Wow, man!” It just felt like it was something I had to do. I think I did another short or a couple of other shorts after that, and then I just went back home. I had no real connection to anything because my manager was, sort of, just having me there on a backburner, so I just went back home and started doing mundane things and working odd jobs. But I still really wanted to perform. Destin emailed me about five years later [laughs] — I never checked it because I really wasn’t doing anything that required me to check my email, but when I finally checked it he said, “We’re shooting a feature. Would you like to come down and audition?” Before he finished the sentence I was in his living room! We did the audition in his living room, and I looked up and he had tears in his eyes, and I was like, “I guess that’s a good sign?” And he was like, “Yeah, man. We’d love to have you work on the film.” And I’d never felt anything better than that feeling, you know?
You’d had such a life-changing experience making the short — and then had those five years when it was pretty dry. Did you ever get down about that? Did you ever think about giving up acting altogether?
No. My heart and my energy was still in it. This is why I was such an abysmal failure at any other thing I tried to do, I think; I just really wasn’t feeling it, I wasn’t in it, it didn’t feel right and I knew I always wanted to perform. I didn’t know how I was gonna do it, but I knew that I was always wanted to, you know? I didn’t even know if I would be able to, but I just knew that I still wanted to. For me, life is like an act within itself. Everything I do is an act. Where I’m going is an act. The only difference between being in life and in front of a camera– To me, there’s not very much of a difference except there’s a little bit of direction there. But, other than that, I’m in a constant state of acting all the time, so I’m always gonna stay fresh because I’m always doing it in everything I do. I went through a lot of stuff in that five-year span. It was just, like, inspiration to, I guess you would say, reflect or express the emotions that you saw. They were very real. You know, I went through a lot of things that influenced that. So when it came time to deliver, it was just going inside and letting it come out.
Were you working other kinds of jobs during that five-year period?
Yes. I did a lot of different odd jobs: working on a roof; I worked at AT&T for a little while, I worked planting — I did a lot of gardening and stuff like that. Just a lot of different odd jobs to try to get by.
There’s sometimes information that’s inaccurate on the Internet, but one of the things I read–
–was that one of those jobs was at a legal marijuana factory?
[laughs] Yes, it was, yeah. I mentioned that in an interview and the dude just put it as the title, so I now just say “gardening” ’cause it’s like, “What the hell, man?!” And don’t you put this as a headline! [laughs] At a legal marijuana factory. It was crazy, though, man. It was such a cool experience I couldn’t hold it in [when the other interviewer asked me what I had been up to]! I was like, “That’s what I did!” Because it was crazy for me, like, wild. You’d walk in and see, like, a million plants! It was a crazy experience.
It’s funny that you say, “I couldn’t hold it in” — talking about marijuana, that can take on more than one meaning!
For someone who hasn’t yet seen either the short or feature version of Short Term 12, but reads this interview and is curious to know more about them, how would you explain who Marcus, the character that you played in both, is?
Marcus is a chamber of yourself, I think. I think that’s why so many people identify with the character, because he’s a chamber of ourselves. He’s one of the children. He’s one of us. He’s, like, the neglected side, the side that you sweep up under the rug. And the only reason that people are thrown off by people like Marcus is because you fear what you don’t understand. And because he’s to himself a lot, people don’t understand, like, “What is the source of his pain? Where is he coming from?” So it causes them to back off from him. And I think people identify with him for that very reason, as well. They identify with that feeling and they know that it’s there, and it’s real and it’s true. I think that Marcus is no different from anyone else. He’s human, and when humans are neglected or humans go through a lot of different changes, it’s likely that they will put out what they receive, you know? So I think Marcus, if anything, is just an inspiration for people to love in a real way, and be careful and cherish the moments that you have with people, man, because you never know what’s gonna happen. And especially your kids! You should cherish them and do what you can to give them a straight-laced life. Because there are so many people like Marcus that are neglected by, if not one parent, both parents. It’s very critical in someone’s life to have something guiding them. You can be the most intelligent person and you can have so much potential, but if you don’t have a guide by which to channel that energy then, a lot of times, it’s futile. You try to go through the motions, which is a shame. We would have less of that if we had more people like Grace in the movie and everyone else that was around him attempting to help him build himself. At the end of the day, a person has to build himself, but it’s all about relationships. It’s important to give people what we can to help them continue to move forward, I think.
You were the only actor who appeared in both the short and the feature, so I have to ask you: did you re-watch the short to prepare for the feature, and do you think that you and Dustin changed between the short and the feature?
I must have watched the short a good 30 times — I’m not even kidding. [laughs] Every time I looked at it, I saw something different that was really inspiring. I really like watching myself a lot because it gives me an opportunity to see it from outside the flesh, and when I view it like that I can be a lot more cynical and see the things that need to be attacked. But really what it is with that performance is just the comfort level. I was very uncomfortable, so I knew that the next time that I did it I had to be comfortable or I couldn’t do it. So, you know, in five years, a lot of things, a lot of experiences, especially where I lived– A lot of stuff happened in one day, left alone five years. So I’m not sure in what particular ways I changed; I’m sure I changed, but I don’t really look at myself that much and reflect on it to be able to tell you. But I grew. I was less fearful. And, by that time, I guess I was just more courageous. And I think Destin was, too. With the short, it was his first film — a student film — and there was a lot less at stake, I’m sure. But I’m not really sure how much change there was, but definitely there was.
With regard to the feature, I’m curious to know where was it shot and over how many days, but also why you elected to stay in-character throughout the shoot, which cannot have been a lot of fun for you or for the people around you…
[laughs] It was shot — I forget exactly the place, it’s horrible — but it’s about 30 minutes outside of L.A. at an international foster care facility. It was an abandoned one — it used to be an up-and-running one — up on this big, crazy, spiral hill. It was creepy as shit and it was, like, in the middle of nowhere, so you really got the feeling of isolation. It was really cool. I’m kind of digressing a little bit, but I went to Youth Village in Tennessee to visit the kids who actually live in places like this. It was like, “Man!” It was out in the middle of nowhere, just like Short Term 12 was, and when I walked in there I saw that the only difference between the real one and the one in the film is it’s just a lot less animated and it’s a lot less– I don’t know, the kids just seem to be in a zombie state. But, back to the other part of the question, what made me be so introspective and not give anybody anything? Well, I thought that it would lend to the performance in ways they wouldn’t know. Like I was saying before, what you don’t understand you tend to judge, and so I kind of thought, “If they don’t know where I’m coming from, it could be kinda cool, when we get into it, to hit ’em from the unknown place.” But, for me personally, it helped a lot to just be away and isolated from people. It was very, very difficult to do, very difficult to maintain that for that long of a duration. But I felt that I had to do it; I don’t know, I just felt like I had to be Marcus already so that way I didn’t have to transition into it. So I just maintained the thought. And it was very interesting for me to go on that journey, man. It was, like, wild to become that person. I found myself, a couple of times, like, “Damn,” you know, “is this really how I want to view things?” So it’s a crazy thing. I guess you’ve gotta be careful with it. But I went to that place for a long time, and I think it was necessary to really bring out the genuine nature of him. It’s very difficult. I’m not sure if I’ll approach another role in that way; maybe not exactly in that way — maybe I’ll say “hi” every now and then, you know? But to be a character, I feel so much more comfortable if I’m already there and I don’t need to go into this, like, transition five seconds before I actually start. So it helped in that way. But, as far as the people that were working with me, I know it was probably pretty difficult for them. They wanted to develop at least somewhat of a relationship so it makes it a little bit more easy of a set. I wasn’t aware of this when I was doing this film; I wasn’t really aware of all the intricacies of relationships. I just thought, “You do whatever you’ve gotta do to deliver the performance and that’s it. That’s all.” That was, kind of, my disposition. But, you know, everyone on there was a professional and they were able to deal with the energy accordingly. I’m sure it wasn’t easy, but was is that’s worth it? Nothing’s easy that’s worth it.
Marcus has to go to some pretty dark places in the film — especially through his rendition of “So You Know What It’s Like” and having his head shaved — and I’m just curious to know where you, Keith, go, mentally, to dredge up those emotions for scenes like that? Did you create a backstory for him or do something else?
When Destin originally wrote the Marcus character and when he wrote the rap, as well, everything that he said was, sort of, to me, a skeleton for somebody that’s real, a real human being. The intent is real, the thought is real, the character is not real, but it’s a, sort of, perception of what this would be if you were to understand it completely. So I just looked inside of the things that I go through in my mind and the ways that I feel. “What in me is Marcus?” is basically the question that I asked myself. And I looked around and I saw a lot of things that are in Marcus that are in me. And so those things I just incorporated into my being. And that is probably another reason why I was always in character, not even consciously; it’s just those parts of me were awakened when the script came to me, and I was exploring myself, so I really just synchronized what he wrote and what his intent was with what I already know and feel, and I kind of let that be the preparation. I didn’t do too much, as far as– No research. All the research was just, like, my family, my friends and things, and myself. But I would go through the lines dozens, and dozens, and dozens, and dozens, and dozens, and dozens, and dozens of times — just keep going through the lines a million billion times so I get where it’s feeling right. I would deliver it in different ways and just try to catch the feel of it and catch the groove of it. Same thing I did with the rap. But the original rap that he wrote was a bit stale to me; it just didn’t seem like it had life in it, and I felt like it was very necessary for it to feel real to me, because if it doesn’t then the performance is not gonna be real and then I’m just acting. I don’t want to act; I want to show. So I rewrote the whole rap and I just told him, “Well, this is how I would do it,” and I sent it to him. He said, “Whoa, this is a little bit much.” So we chopped it up. And I have no problem with chopping it and picking the best of all, man. So we shot it back and forth to each other, and the final product is basically Destin’s rubric, his skeleton, and I, kind of, just added a little bit of blood into it and some other things into that made it come to life to where it was real for me.
And you’re a rapper in real life, aren’t you?
Yeah. I write poetry and I put it to a beat — I mean, that’s what they call rap.
So for the “So You Know What It’s Like” scene, in particular, which is obviously super emotional, how many takes did it take for you guys to get that?
It was crazy — we only shot that, like, three times. And the first time we shot it, he was like, “I think we got it!” We shot this film in 20 days, so a lot of stuff was just, like, in the moment and you got it, so it was really important to be in the moment. That’s, kind of, what we all did, is try to maintain that feeling of being in the moment. But with that rap, I really — like, man, that rap is a piece of me. That shit’s a slice of me that happens to be told through Marcus, and I think that’s why people, I think, really identify with it — because it’s real. The story that’s being told is very real, so that rap is a pivotal moment, because it’s just a raw translation of the kind of things that, you know– I think it’s a lot bigger than just, you know, a kid talking about his parents struggling and his mom, man. There’s a lot of emotions in there. It depends on which angle you look at it from. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s shocking — it’s a lot of different things, and I think that’s why it’s universally been accepted. You know, it’s crazy, at one of these Q&As a ninety-year-old lady came up to me and said, [imitates old lady’s voice] “I love the rap!” I was like, “Wow, man, I need to open up my mind a little bit, ’cause this shit is a lot more accepted than I thought!”
It’s interesting because sometimes you encounter that sort of open-mindedness, but then there’s also the opposite end of the spectrum. We’re 14 years into the 21st century now and there are still a lot of people who think that rap is basically just a lot of swearing, boasting and yelling–
Yeah. Chains and hos. [laughs]
Right! The Academy, overall, has recognized rap — it gave Oscars to “Lose Yourself” and “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” — but some individual members are still resistant to it, and I just wonder what you, as a rap artist, would say to one of them who doesn’t see rap as a real art form?
Rap is music, like anything else, and it’s multi-dimensional; as much as it’s perceived to be linear, I don’t think it really is. Rap comes from the streets and the dark places that we sweep up under the rug a lot of the time. And it can be taken and capitalized upon because people want fear, and drugs, and violence and shit. But, really, it’s an art form like any other and it can be taken to many different places in its expression, like any other. It’s just as multi-dimensional as any other form of music; it’s just not perceived that way by the masses. Now, there’s a difference between an artist that raps and expresses himself and an entertainer that just does it because it’s a way to capitalize off of it. I think that distinction needs to be made because it’s not really seen that way. Any time you categorize something and blanket it like that, then you’re, sadly, limiting yourself. I had a lot of friends when I was little, “I ain’t listening to no rock music! That shit whack!” But they had never really listened to it. They were just saying it’s “whack” because it’s outside of their comfort zone and they’re not familiar with it. But then I showed them some Nirvana and they said, “Oh, shit, what the f— is this?!” I’m like, “It’s f—in’ awesome, right?!” Because it’s true, and it’s expression, and you feel it and you identify with it. And I think it’s the same thing with rap if you get into it — but the real rap. You can’t pay attention to all the stuff that’s, sort of, already out there for you; you’ve gotta dig around a little bit and you’ll find the joy. This is the kind of music I make. I make music that comes from the heart, comes from a real place. I got this group called “Moors,” and that’s basically where I’m coming from with that, just really coming with the real heartfelt stuff, you know, because that’s just musical expression. Rap is the medium, but rap doesn’t mean anything but, you know, rhyming poetry on an instrumental.
What were your emotions the first time you saw the finished feature, and then when it won the Grand Jury Prize at South by Southwest? Those must have been pretty significant moments in your life…
Yeah, it was wild. When I first saw the film, I didn’t really know what to think. I saw it and I was a little shocked. I was like, “Wow, we did all that damn shooting and this is all that came out of it?!” But I didn’t really know what to think. I just was, sort of, thrown off and, I don’t know, like, “Wow, this is cool. I guess this is how movies are made.” After about the third or fourth time, it really started to sink and it started to make sense and I found myself, kind of, like, “Damn,” you know? Those feelings came back again. I think it was, like, the third time that they started to rise up in several parts of the movie. I just remember walking away from it thinking, “This is wild!” For this to be my first thing is amazing, and I wouldn’t want to do it any other way. You know, it’s meaningful, funny, riveting — it’s just f—ing crazy, man. It’s just a great thing to be a part of and I just remember feeling very grateful seeing it up there. I went to an IMAX theater to see it and I was like, “Wow, man, this is f—in’– What am I doing here?” I’m enjoying it, you know. I just try to soak it all in and continue to move forward, just keep moving and keep building. I’m so excited for anything that comes next. I just got done shooting something last night, man — we did that from eight ’til six this morning, six-thirty this morning. It was crazy, man. It was, like, a house party for something you’ll probably see somewhere down the line. And it was just, like, so much work. The extras were all like, [moaning] Aw, f—!” But I can’t stop. It’s almost like a drug. I just love doing it. I get no feeling like performing, man. It’s beautiful. I want to mention too, that I’ve got The Purge 2 coming up — just secured the role in that — and also something’s coming out with James Franco next year. And there’s a couple of other little things I’m working on.
And you may have a commitment on March 2, too, if everything works out right with “So You Know What It’s Like.” Would that be very exciting to you, to receive an Oscar nomination?
Oh my god, that would be so crazy, yes! That would be wild, man. I can’t even comprehend anything like that. It would be amazing. I don’t even know what to think. It’s just like, wow, that would be crazy.
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