How LaKeith Stanfield, Issa Rae's 'Photograph' Roles Reflect Future Ambitions

The Photograph Still 9 - Publicity - H 2019
Sabrina Lantos/Universal

The stars of the romantic drama and producer Will Packer talked to The Hollywood Reporter about what it means that Universal released the film on the big screen.

In Universal's recently released The Photograph, stars Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield take on roles different from both their familiar TV characters in Insecure and Atlanta, respectively, and their past film characters.

Instead, as the romantic leads in the drama, Rae and Stanfield play a couple falling in love as Rae's Mae grieves the death of her mother, learning more about the woman she was and fearing that, like her mom, Mae won't be able to commit to people she cares about.

And as she moves forward with her film career — Rae also has The Lovebirds out in April — the Insecure star said she's looking for projects that take her out of her "comfort zone."

"Anything that feels new or fresh or feels like it will challenge me, that feels outside of my comfort zone and movies that I would want to see," Rae told The Hollywood Reporter at The Photograph's world premiere in New York earlier this month of what she's interested in making. "I don't want to do movies just to do it. I want to be a part of things that will either provoke conversation or that feel fresh and fun."

For Stanfield, it was the chance to "stretch" and "do something different than what I'm usually seen doing" that was part of what drew him to his role as Michael, a journalist who meets Mae as he works on a story about her mother.

And going forward, viewers should expect more roles that keep them on their toes, Stanfield told THR at the Photograph premiere.

"Everything you see me do is going to be different than the last thing," he said. "I'm interested in challenging myself and taking on different things. You'll never be able to catch me."

The film's cast also features Kelvin Harrison Jr., who — after breakout roles in Waves and Luce — also wants to "keep trying to tell stories that challenge me."

"I just want to keep working with people that intrigue me, I think that's the biggest thing. And when you're in a job like this, you give so much out all of the time that I think it's important to feed yourself again," he said. "I think when I'm surrounded by artists that inspire me, art that challenges me, art that makes me want to research and discover more of the people around me, that makes it worthwhile, so I'm just looking to extend this."

Writer-director Stella Meghie has said that the initial idea for The Photograph came about when her grandmother was about to meet a daughter that she hadn't seen in nearly 30 years. 

"That was the impetus for the backstory, like what are the things you don't know about your mother, what are the things that informed who they are…and how would that affect you," Meghie said.

When asked why she wanted to integrate revelations about Mae's mother, Christina (Chanté Adams), and Christina's relationship with a man played by Y'lan Noel into the story of Mae's own, contemporary romance, Meghie said she wanted to tell the story of a daughter understanding her mother as a woman.

"I really just wanted to tell a parallel story. So many times when you're growing up, you don't realize your mother is a woman, so [I wanted] to show a mother and daughter at the same age going through the same things just to make those parallels stronger," she told THR.

Meghie said she also wanted black audiences to "see themselves" in a film with a predominantly African American cast.

The film's portrayal of black love is something that Rae, Stanfield, other castmembers and producer Will Packer all said was key to getting them involved with the project.

Rae, who said she was "honored to be thought of as the lead" for the film, explained, "I think stories like this in the past where black love is concerned have kind of had gimmicks or have been rooted in something nefarious or there's always a catch. And this just felt like a pure love story that I was excited to be a part of."

Beyond that, Adams and Packer both said it was significant that Universal was releasing The Photograph on the big screen.

"It means the world, honestly truly. I think representation is incredibly important, especially on this scale of things," Adams said. "This shows the world that black movies, black stories, black actors, they're all important."

Packer added, "We're in an era of increasingly shrinking profit margins for the theatrical marketplace. If there is not a comic book hero or a lot of sci-fi and special effects, those movies are increasingly getting hard to make. Universal Pictures are amazing partners because they believe in these movies, believe in helping us put images on the screen that we can never have enough of and still don't today."