Talent Discovery

Verge List: Sundance

Lakeith Stanfield

Interview by James Patrick Herman

Photographs by Jeff Vespa

Where are you from?

I’m from San Bernardino. The most Southern California thing about me is the hustle: Taking a little bit of something and trying to make something else out of it. The people I grew up around were all trying to mold the world around them into a better place to exist. Which meant that I had to do whatever was necessary in order to make ends meet. California is a beautiful, vast place but there are definitely certain pockets that are jumping with the hustle and creativity.

Are you a Sundance virgin?

No. I first went to Sundance in 2013. I was invited by a friend who said: “You want to see this thing?” I was like: Yeah. So I get out there and I was like: Wow. This is crazy; there are a lot of moving parts here. But it was really beautiful to see all these cool films and have this camaraderie with everyone else. I was amazed by the scale and the energy and all the people running around.

I actually went again last year because I had a VR film. I like to run around in the cold and look forward to being back; I’ll be glad to see friends and huddle up around the fireplace drinking coffee.

How does it feel to be a Sundance sensation?

I really appreciate it. Thanks to Sundance and to you guys for shedding a light on these stories. But I think the real sensations are the people behind the stories who write them and create them.

What’s the buzz about Crown Heights?

People know that it’s based on a true story that deals with the prison industrial complex. That’s something that has really been on people’s minds as of late: How we go about “rehabilitating” people in America. I think everyone knows it can be revamped, so this might be an opportunity to open up a discussion about that. And also, race relations within the police force. These things can’t really be discussed enough as far as I’m concerned. We have so much work left to do. So I hope this film causes people to reflect on things and hopefully mobilize and spark a little bit of change. The guy who inspired Crown Heights, Colin Warner, is still alive and well. He didn’t have to be as open with his story as he was, but he allowed us to come into his life, so I have the utmost respect for him and his family. This film will make you feel something. So I would say just allow yourself to feel completely. I had to learn how to do that — I used to not want to cry in theaters. But you’ve got to just let it out; it’s a good feeling. You’re definitely going to be taken on an emotional ride — you’ll go up and down and around.

Lakeith Stanfield


Lakeith Stanfield

How would you describe your character?

Unwavering persistence in the face of insurmountable odds. Colin was a young man — a kid really — when he got mistaken for someone who does something horrendous. He has to deal with someone else’s debt, so he takes on a vicious crime that he did not commit, but he continued to maintain his innocence. That’s what I think is courageous about it: He could have easily said that he did it and maybe got out sooner. But instead he said: “I refuse to plead guilty to something that I didn’t do.” And he held that [stance] for over 20 years until he was finally able to get out. You can easily become exhausted by life itself, let alone being stuck in a four-by-four box with people who have really committed crimes. He always maintained [his innocence] and I’ve got a lot of respect for that.

Do you relate to your character?

Parts of him were taken that he can’t get back, and I identify with that struggle a lot — having to deal with the past when something traumatic has happened. But you have to continue to push and move forward in the face of it regardless. And be strong enough for you and for everyone else.

What was your first acting experience?

In ninth grade I did Honk: A Musical. I played a frog.

Did the frog sing?

Yeah. He sang in a deep register. It was super-fun. It was comedic — and it had to be because I can’t sing.

What was your big break?

Short Term 12. That film changed my life in many ways; it was just a transformative experience. It was the first thing that I had ever done on screen. I wanted it so bad, and I was just happy to be there. Those feelings I appreciate reliving now.

Did you ever have a normal job?

I worked for a third party agency for AT&T that sold Uverse to people. Basically I’d go door to door having to convince them that this was good cable and then close the deal. I met a lot of different personalities and learned how to gauge and read people. It was kind of like acting experience.

What do you think of Robert Redford?

Who is that?

He is the actor who founded Sundance.

Oh, shit. I didn’t even know that. I appreciate him a lot because Sundance has been great to me. Shout out to him, man. Good stuff.


Instagram: @LakeithStanfield3

Lakeith Stanfield
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