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 Lakeith Stanfield talks about Tupac, cockroaches, and his star turn in Sorry to Bother You

Lakeith Stanfield is one of the hottest actors in the business right now, known for his chameleon-like ability to disappear into a role that he still makes all his own. He’s beloved for his turn as Darius in Atlanta and shows up all over indie cinema, most recently in films like Get Out, Come Sunday, and Crown Heights. (He’s occasionally dubbed the “Prince of Sundance.”)

His newest film — and a big lead role — is Sorry to Bother You, the directorial debut of activist-rapper Boots Riley of The Coup. Stanfield plays Cassius (or “Cash”), a young man in Oakland who’s desperate to find a job and lands one in telemarketing, where he’s advised by an older coworker to use his “white voice” for more success. It works.

From there the movie gets pretty wild, but Cash is the center of it, a guy trying to figure out which social forces are pulling him and which he can harness himself. And Stanfield’s understated performance keeps it all together.

I sat down with Stanfield to talk about making Sorry to Bother You, working with some of the most interesting directors in the business, and his childhood fear of turning into a cockroach.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

sorry_to_bother_you___still_1_37952712494_o Lakeith Stanfield talks about Tupac, cockroaches, and his star turn in Sorry to Bother YouDoug Emmett/Sundance Institute
Lakeith Stanfield stars in Sorry to Bother You

Alissa Wilkinson

That is a great jacket.

Lakeith Stanfield

Cool, right?

Alissa Wilkinson

Yeah, I like it. Is it silk?

Lakeith Stanfield

I think so? Super fine.

Alissa Wilkinson

It looks really nice.

Lakeith Stanfield

Does silk hurt the worms?

Alissa Wilkinson

No?

Lakeith Stanfield

Okay, good.

Alissa Wilkinson

Comes from the trees, I think. [Note: Turns out I was mostly wrong.]

Lakeith Stanfield

So it hurts the trees.

Alissa Wilkinson

Yeah, I don’t know all the ins and outs of the silk industry.

Well, this movie is pretty crazy. What did you think when you first read the screenplay?

Lakeith Stanfield

“This script is crazy, and I’m going to need to come back and revisit it, set it down for a bit.”

Alissa Wilkinson

And did you?

Lakeith Stanfield

I did, and the second and third time, the third time I was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.”

Alissa Wilkinson

On paper, the story must look weird — the first half of the film has to do with how people’s voices sound. When you saw the final film, did it match what you had expected from the screenplay?

Lakeith Stanfield

Nah, not at all. It was completely different.

Alissa Wilkinson

In what ways?

Lakeith Stanfield

For one, I was doing all the “white voices” in my own white voice, so it wasn’t as good as David Cross or Patton Oswalt. [Cross and Oswalt provide “white voices” for characters in the film.] It was completely different in my imagination. I couldn’t imagine.

sorry_to_bother_you___still_2_26894346199_o Lakeith Stanfield talks about Tupac, cockroaches, and his star turn in Sorry to Bother YouDoug Emmett / Sundance Institute
Stanfield stars in Sorry to Bother You

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s a pretty surreal movie. Is surrealism challenging for you, as an actor?

Lakeith Stanfield

Yeah, it can be challenging, but I like working in a space that allows for imagination, so I find it to be sometimes something that draws me to projects. But it’s not the only thing I look for. It can be as fantastical as it wants to be, but if there’s no story, there’s nothing for me to work off of.

I liked Cassius’s journey, really. It was one that I could identify with — just wanting to find your place in space. I never was big on “purpose.” I never really needed a purpose. But I have needed to get out of the situation I was in and get into a better one. So I identify with that struggle.

Alissa Wilkinson

Have you done any jobs like telemarketing?

Lakeith Stanfield

I actually was a sign-waver for a little while. [Steven Yeun’s character in Sorry to Bother You is a sign-waver.] For like one day. I sign-waved in the middle of a thunderstorm. I’m skinny now, but this was like when I was 18, so I was like 90 pounds and some boots.

The wind was blowing me every which way. I started at one point and I was at a whole other establishment by the time the day was over. And it was cold, and my lips were chapped, and I was miserable, and I had no meat on my bones, so I was near death. By the time I was all done, I was like, “I fuckin’ hate this. I can never do this again.”

That one day was quite an experience.

Alissa Wilkinson

What was it for?

Lakeith Stanfield

What was it for? I think it was like a furniture place.

Alissa Wilkinson

The journey for Cash is that he first needs a job, then he gets a job, and then he discovers he’s actually good at the job.

Lakeith Stanfield

I wish I was good at sign waving! I would probably still be doing it if I actually had tricks up my sleeve. It was fun to perform for people. I see these guys on the side of the road, like, I wanna give them money because they’re so good and it’s entertaining me, and I feel like I shouldn’t get this shit for free. But I never really got that good at it. Not as good as Steven.

Alissa Wilkinson

Did you have to spin it?

Lakeith Stanfield

Yeah. I tried to spin it. Motherfucker was spinning me.

Alissa Wilkinson

Did Cash’s journey in the film feel familiar to you?

Lakeith Stanfield

Yeah, the constant exploration of one’s self. When I was 18, I had a big ol’ shift in consciousness. All of a sudden I was getting a bunch of tattoos, and I dropped my belief in organized religion, and then became anti-religion for a little while, and then as I’ve grown more, become like a mesh of religions — like I’m definitely religious about certain things. But that was a spiritual journey that started with me being miserable, and feeling lonely, and feeling like I had no one who cared about me, and then moving into realizing that sometimes you gotta be your own best friend, and sometimes your friends start in your head, and if you can get ’em there, then they’ll come.

Sometimes they’ll also come when you have a movie that comes out, which is weird. But you’re able to differentiate them now because you’ve become situated in yourself.

So I’ve had that internal journey, just trying to find it, and I’m still having it every day. I identify with that.

Alissa Wilkinson

Speaking of religion: You just did the movie Come Sunday, too —

Lakeith Stanfield

Yeah, that was sweet, baby.

Alissa Wilkinson

— which is a religious film. Or it’s about religion anyhow.

Lakeith Stanfield

That’s why it was so close to me, because I grew up super religious and I was in the choir. My auntie used to — she was kinda like the mom on Precious a little bit, she’d be like, “Get over there and sing that song, boy.” [Sings] Jesus loves me / Yes, I know / Cause the Babel… [Slap noise] “Bible!” She was kind of a bit of a tyrant.

Early on, that kind of drove me away from it, because I felt it was hypocritical — that one person could do this or say they believe this but then act this way. So we’d be doing prayer and be in a circle and I’d just always have one eye open, like, “Huh…” It started making me skeptical, asking questions, and before I knew it, my curiosity led me to what you see today — just a wired bundle of questions.

So I needed to do Come Sunday, because it questioned the validity of one’s belief. It pointed out the hypocrisy which can come with stringent belief — not always, but sometimes. I don’t judge people who hold those positions, I think it’s perfectly fine, but my journey made me break what I perceive to be the chains of stringent religion in order to try to find some truth. So that movie was special for me.

And also my role raised questions of sexuality. I have friends that are homosexual, pansexual, all kinds of things, and they’re my friends and they’re good people. I’ve seen them be judged. So I thought I should maybe, if I could, walk into this story.

Thank you for mentioning that. No one has mentioned it, and I really love that movie.

976792050.jpg Lakeith Stanfield talks about Tupac, cockroaches, and his star turn in Sorry to Bother YouPhoto by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for MTV
Stanfield with co-star Tessa Thompson and writer/director Boots Riley

Alissa Wilkinson

So, Sorry to Bother You is also an activist movie. You’ve recently done movies like this one, Comes Sunday, and last year’s Crown Heights that are about justice. Going into this movie, did you have a sense that it was about justice and race and inequality?

Lakeith Stanfield

I actually didn’t know. I followed the story of Cassius’s journey. So I didn’t really see all the deeper implications behind some of the smaller things that are a part of the larger story. I just kind of was like, “I want to see Cassius win.” I wanted to see him win for himself and learn something. So I stayed focused on that.

Alissa Wilkinson

The movie starts out feeling pretty real, like a comedy, but then it becomes horror somewhere in the middle …

Lakeith Stanfield

I know. I’m surprised it’s not more of a thing that people are talking about, because when I watched it, I was like, “Yo, that shit is scary.” I mean, the idea that someone can be … I don’t know if I should say it if this now —

Alissa Wilkinson

I won’t let anything come out that spoils it.

Lakeith Stanfield

Well, a transformation. I’ve always been afraid of that kind of thing.

I used to sneak my auntie’s Coca Colas. When we lived in San Bernardino, she had a really bad roach infestation problem, so there were roaches everywhere. Roaches would get in the drinks and stuff. It wasn’t uncommon to see a dead roach floating on the surface of a soda.

But I loved soda. And they didn’t let me have it, so then I wanted it more. I saw that she had a soda one time, and I took her soda and I drank it, and she told me that it had a roach in it, which I didn’t know. She said, “Well, now that you drank that soda, you’re gonna turn into a roach.”

I was young, I was a really small kid, I was like 5 or something. So I believed it that I was turning into a roach.

I still remember this. I’d be in the mirror looking at myself, she’d be like, “You see that lump right there? That’s the antenna poking out.” I just had a lumpy head, but she was like, “No, your antennas are coming out, you’re turning into a roach, and then you’re going to shrink, but don’t worry, I’ll take care of you and I’ll put you in my little kit.” I was like, “I don’t wanna be a roach!”

It taught me a lesson to not pick up people’s stuff, weirdly. But I was so terrified by that, I think it still bothers me. Stuff like that always kind of freaks me out a little bit. Turning into stuff.

Alissa Wilkinson

Yeah, and in the movie, people are being turned into something, by somebody else.

Lakeith Stanfield

Yeah, you can’t control it. It’s just like, “I’m turning into this fucking thing.” So that scene where I had to [makes transformation noise] and then you see it, I was scared. I was really scared, man. I was nervous. I had to sit down a couple of times.

Alissa Wilkinson

What is so scary about that, do you think?

Lakeith Stanfield

Not being in control at that time, and also not being a human. When I was a kid, I thought it was pretty fun to be a human, and I saw what happened to roaches, and I saw what I did to roaches, and I was like, “No, I don’t think anyone would want to be that.”

But I began to talk to the roaches and discuss with them the fact that I might be joining them and just to be nice to me, and everything would be fine. I also have clothes that we can eat. I know where they are. Be my friend and we’ll have a big smorgasbord of Mickey Mouse shirts.

Alissa Wilkinson

I think roaches are gonna be left after the apocalypse.

Lakeith Stanfield

Yeah, for sure. They’ve been here before, they’ll be here after.

Alissa Wilkinson

They’re like little tanks.

Lakeith Stanfield

Roaches on the moon.

983766482.jpg Lakeith Stanfield talks about Tupac, cockroaches, and his star turn in Sorry to Bother YouPhoto by Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb
Lakeith Stanfield and Boots Riley during an interview in May 2018

Alissa Wilkinson

So, tell me about working with Boots.

Lakeith Stanfield

Yeah, I couldn’t believe Boots. If you meet Boots — have you met him?

Alissa Wilkinson

I will right after I talk to you.

Lakeith Stanfield

So you’ll see that if someone were to describe Boots to you, he would sound like a cartoon character. This guy with the big afro, these mutton chops, and boots — he really wears boots! — and this crazy getup. He’s a very peculiar individual. He’s almost like right out of a comic book. Those were all the things that made me want to work with him because I realized he was … I’m kind of drawn to odd people, weirdly, maybe because I am one. So I was magnetized towards his creepiness.

But I didn’t know whether or not it was going to be good or bad, until I read the script and then I realized, oh wow, this guy has a beautiful mind, as I kind of suspected. I didn’t know how beautiful it was until I worked with him and saw that he’s a really compassionate, nice human being that everyone loves to be around. He goes to Oakland, and he really is like an ambassador — everyone loves him there, and you can get anything you want if you walk into a café with him. I’ve even met friends of him that know I did this movie with him, and they’re just like, “We’re taking care of you. What do you want? What do you need? You got it.” That’s because of who he is, and his music, and how it speaks to that.

Alissa Wilkinson

Had you listened to much of his music beforehand?

Lakeith Stanfield

No. But I found out he met Tupac and I almost slapped the shit out of me and him, because I am a big fan of Tupac. I was like, you walked the Earth with this n***a, and I kind of did too, but I was a baby, so I was maybe crawling on the Earth with him. Boots was like right next to him, and E-40, and I was like, yo, I love E-40. My mom is a big fan of that Bay Area music. If my mom knew that he knew E-40, she’d probably take a plane to Oakland right now.

So it’s pretty cool that he’s coming to the dawn of the hip-hop that I enjoy, because this new shit is cool, but my shit is, like, that shit where he comes from. Yeah, it’s exciting to be able to work with him; that’s in my spirit, that music. He’s like OG, somebody I look up to for that.

And he got a real cause. A rebel with a cause! Unlike me — I’m just a rebel with no cause.

Alissa Wilkinson

That’s kind of what’s crazy about the movie, too: it’s from a first-time director, but it’s got a very strong point of view about capitalism and inequality, that in some way feels like it’s contrary to the movie business.

Lakeith Stanfield

True. And that’s what we have to do. That’s how you create change — the creation of a union starts with going against the grain. That’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to upset boundaries and question things. As I was saying, from my religious talk, that’s always how I’ve been. So anything that’s in that vein, you might see me attached to it. I’m interested in exploring those things. I’ll also do a fun, cute, cool movie that you can tie a bow on, something for the kids that’s nice. I’d love to do a Disney movie.

But my life’s goal is to challenge and push myself and those around me.

983090634.jpg Lakeith Stanfield talks about Tupac, cockroaches, and his star turn in Sorry to Bother YouPhoto by Leon Bennett/Getty Images
Lakeith Stanfield attending the BET Awards in June

Alissa Wilkinson

So, as an actor then, you’re coming in and inhabiting roles that someone else has written. What’s your part in the creation?

Lakeith Stanfield

Oh, it’s overblown. I’m just bringing to life someone else’s great vision that they had. I’m just playing the connection between that idea and the human, letting them see somebody that looks like them inhabit that, and that’s all. I think it’s important, but it’s not as important as people blow it up to be. I think people should be standing outside waiting to take pictures with Boots, not me, because he’s the one that came up with this great idea.

I think once they realize that it is him, they will be. Because that’s a creative genius. I’m just a stripper.

Alissa Wilkinson

You’ve definitely worked with a lot of interesting directors — Boots Riley, Jordan Peele, Donald Glover. Do you think there’s something that ties them all together?

Lakeith Stanfield

That they have the opportunity to give me a job. [Laughs.]

Alissa Wilkinson

What makes for someone you like working with, then?

Lakeith Stanfield

Someone who is not ego-driven, as much as you can be in this field of work. Someone who’s like, “I’m putting it up.” Whenever directors are like, “I’m gonna make you the best you’ve ever looked,” I want to go in the other direction, because I don’t give a fuck about looking the best I’ve ever looked, man. I’m not in this shit to be looking cute, man. I’d be a model if I wanted — not to say that all models want to do that, but I’m not going for aesthetic. I just want to tell stories.

“This is going to be your best role yet.” What are you talking about? Hopefully, I push myself to be my best that I can be, but I’m not doing it for those aesthetic reasons. If I was, how you gonna sit up on a camera and cry and do all that shit if you’re trying to be cute.

I want to be surrounded by people that are not preoccupied with that, that just want to make dope shit that they believe in, and are willing to get dirty. Sometimes that’s what you gotta do. Life is real. So if you’re ain’t willing to get real, then leave it on the playground, as Mo’Nique would say.

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