KiKi Layne interview: ‘Emma Stone and Jennifer Lawrence have multiple awards and nominations. We can make Oscar-worthy performances and disappear’
The star of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ tells Douglas Greenwood people of colour still face the same injustices they did in the Seventies and why black artists want to make the same waves as white artists
It was in the summer of 2017 that actress KiKi Layne got the call that would change her life. An Ohio native who’d landed in Los Angeles just two months earlier, she picked up her phone to hear director Barry Jenkins tell her she’d be the lead of his first film since the Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016).
In If Beale Street Could Talk, Jenkins’s masterful adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, Layne plays Tish, a precocious 19-year-old in 1970s Harlem. Tish narrates the love story between herself and Stephan James’s Fonny, whose relationship is the beating heart of Beale Street. These protagonists are soulmates, but their lives are thrown into disarray when Fonny is falsely accused of rape, and Tish discovers she’s pregnant with his child. The film rests on her shoulders, yet instead of choosing a seasoned Hollywood star to take on the lead, Jenkins chose an actor who’d never been seen on the silver screen before.
When we meet face-to-face, in the sanitised setting of a press junket in a London hotel room, Layne’s smile and presence suggest the sort of confidence you don’t associate with a “newcomer”. But it’s important to recognise how much legwork the 27-year-old had done before she wound up in front of the lens of the celebrated arthouse director.
Nowadays, it’s become commonplace for Hollywood stars to be born by way of street castings (the way Andrea Arnold found her American Honey protagonist Sasha Lane) or having been scouted on social media (Sean Baker’s The Florida Project was anchored by a surprising turn from Bria Vinaite, an Instagram star), but Layne’s route has a slightly old-fashioned feel to it. Raised in a working-class family in Cincinnati, as a child she was obsessed with the prospect of acting (“There was never a moment when I thought I’d be a dentist, I’ve always wanted to perform”), constantly rewinding a videotape of Disney’s The Lion King, making her stuffed toys dance and sing along in unison so often it drove her brother around the bend. As she grew older, she recalls being mesmerised by Angela Bassett’s turn in the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It. That need to act, she says, is “just a part of me and I don’t know where it came from”. It was a fascination that led her to a performing arts school where, from the age of seven, she began taking acting classes while learning how to play the flute, French horn and trumpet.
That discipline carried her through to college, as she avoided the saturated scenes of New York and Los Angeles (“Not all of the most talented artists are in [those two cities] – that’s just not true!”) and headed to Chicago’s DePaul University instead, where she enrolled to study a theatre degree. It was the school’s storied history as a place where stage performers truly toiled at their craft, as well as the opportunity to know herself better, that lured her in. “I always knew I’d go to college to have that experience and training,” she says. “ [College] isn’t for everyone; for some, it’s just about jumping into it right after high school, but I just knew that wasn’t for me.”
That slow-burn approach is a rarity nowadays, but it landed her the role of a lifetime. It’s something Layne repeats several times over the course of our conversation, but she’s keen to prove she had a “spiritual connection” to Tish – even if she and Tish are, personality wise, polar opposites. “It’s funny because when I first got introduced to the character, I literally said out loud, ‘That’s me!’” Layne’s laugh is so hearty and assured it could cause a power surge in the hotel’s electricity. If Tish was the vulnerable, stoic soul of a family, then Layne would be her headstrong sister. “Spiritually, I felt like this was my thing,” she adds with a smile, “but it’s true, we are very different people.”
On one hand, Tish is tentative and vulnerable in nature, but her circumstances mean she’s learned to navigate life with a certain sense of resilience and patience. “Her strength is directly derived not only from how vulnerable she is but how loved she is and how she loves,” Layne says. “Those kinds of circumstances and situations could easily harden someone and remove their gentleness and vulnerability, but that’s not lost on Tish. That’s what makes her so strong.”
Layne’s co-star, Regina King, who plays Tish’s mother with searing urgency and emotion, has already picked up the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, and now has an Oscar nomination. It’s a great recognition of the talent of a performer, who, after her early career in films, has become better known in recent years for her work in TV shows such as The Big Bang Theory, The Leftovers and American Crime – until Jenkins cast her in Beale Street.
“Regina is phenomenal,” says Layne, “so down to earth, genuine and true to herself.” I wonder what working alongside a woman like King was like for an actor who’s also reaped the benefits of taking her time. “That’s what I needed to see at this stage,” she says. “We witness so many people lose themselves in this industry, and sacrifice who they really are for success and accolades. She represents someone who remained grounded and allowed things to take their time. She’s been working for so long, so I have a lot of respect for her patience. That’s what I’ll take from her.”
But that recognition of performances by women of colour is a rarity when it comes to the awards circuit. Every year, it seems to feel as though the legendary white stars of Hollywood lap up praise and statuettes aplenty for strong, if unremarkable, performances; people of colour doing rare, career-best work are expected to be grateful for earning the slightest acknowledgement. As someone whose film career is in its opening stages, does Layne think Hollywood has historically let down the women who came before her? She pauses for a second (“Um… I mean, definitely, that’s been an issue”), gathering her words before letting them go…
“There’s just such a lack of opportunities in terms of great roles for black women, especially when you can look at women around my age,” she says. “Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, Saoirse Ronan – [they] have multiple Academy Awards and nominations. Then you look at these amazing actresses like Viola Davis, Angela Bassett – and they have one, maybe two nominations? [In Angela’s case] Not even a win?” Layne’s candour shines a stark light on an industry culture that permits white careers to thrive, while roles for women of colour are seldom written with as much depth or complexity of character.
The two most celebrated black women actors in Academy history, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, have been working in cinema for almost 25 years, and their shared statistics stand at one win and two nominations apiece. Jennifer Lawrence, by comparison, had earned one win and three nods by the time she had turned 24; a Hollywood darling blessed with a sea of celebrated writer-directors who would pen roles just for her. “It’s unfortunate that we can do this ‘Oscar-worthy’ performance and almost disappear,” Layne shrugs. “[To date,] Hollywood has had a very limited view of the stories they’re willing to tell about black people and what we experience.”
But Layne has entered the industry at a time when change feels more urgent and palpable than ever. After #OscarsSoWhite, the representation of the Academy’s voting body has diversified. While Beale Street might have criminally missed out on a Best Picture nomination (its nuanced execution and near-unanimous praise from critics didn’t sway the Academy, who opted for more on-the-nose flicks such as Green Book and Vice), at least Marvel’s hit Black Panther and Spike Lee’s raucous detective movie BlacKkKlansman did make the final cut far more diverse than pundits had expected. “I do think that we’re in a place where black creators are taking more control, and getting our stories told,” Layne says. “I’m just hoping that, as more black artists take control of the narratives that are out there, more opportunities will come around for artists of colour. We want to make the same waves that the white artists do.”
That quiet call to arms is imbued in every frame of If Beale Street Could Talk; in every moment of Layne’s starmaking performance. The film might be set in a 20th century America rife with racism, but the story at its core still resonates today: one of love against the odds, and of an institutionalised problem affecting the lives of those who should be free to exist without fear of persecution. “We’re still dealing with the same injustices,” Layne says, “but because it’s wrapped up in a love story, you realise that these are full human beings with families who love, and are loved. The film is forcing you to look at these people who often get overlooked; to see them as full human beings, and acknowledge them with all of their humanity.”
Every actor’s career is shaped by some kind of serendipitous moment: a role that arrives, as if out of nowhere, that they were born to play. But for KiKi Layne, her satisfying slow climb to Hollywood stardom has started to pay off already. This might just be the beginning of a career that could see her ascend into the same realm as some of her long-standing idols; to get there, she’s ensuring that she’s fully invested in every character she plays. After Beale Street? A supporting role in Native Son, an adaptation of Richard Wright’s classic novel about the life of an underclass African-American boy growing up in 20th century Chicago, which has already garnered strong reviews at Sundance this year. With two film roles under her belt, the powerful through-line of KiKi Layne’s work is already clear: “People will definitely know that my art has something to say,” she professes, those parting words set to ring in the ears of Hollywood’s dated gatekeepers.
‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ is out in UK cinemas now