Lakeith Stanfield stars as a young man wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to life in the drama ‘Crown Heights.’ IFC Films
SAN DIEGO — Lakeith Stanfield has quietly become one of Hollywood’s busiest actors, though it’s a goal he’s been planning since high-school drama class.
“I was the theater weirdo who never wore shoes,” the 26-year-old California native says, chuckling and recalling how there was “no question” what his career path would be, even when he was a teenager.
“I just loved playing characters and, you know what, I really like humans a lot. There are things about them that I don’t really (care for) but I love them.”
So far in 2017, Stanfield has been a victim of white brainwashing in Jordan Peele’s acclaimed thriller Get Out, and played a soldier and a lover respectively in the Netflix films War Machine and The Incredible Jessica James.
Two new films hit this week. In Death Note (streaming on Netflix Friday), Stanfield stars as a high-tech detective on the hunt for a teen (Nat Wolff) who’s using a supernatural notebook to kill people. He also takes on the true-life role of Colin Warner, a Brooklyn man wrongly convicted and sentenced to life, in the Sundance Film Festival favorite Crown Heights (in New York theaters now, expanding Friday to Los Angeles and nationwide Sept. 15).
The actor got his start in commercials before getting cast in Destin Daniel Cretton’s film-school thesis project Short Term 12. His first professional role was alongside Brie Larson in the 2013 feature-film version.
Death Note director Adam Wingard praises how Stanfield finds a way to “ground even the most outlandish character personalities. Anybody can be frenetic but very few actors can achieve what Lakeith can: eccentric authenticity.”
But in playing Warner, who often visited the Crown Heights set, “I’ve never felt so much pressure,” Stanfield acknowledges. He played civil-rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson in 2014’s Selma and rapper Snoop Dogg in last year’s Straight Outta Compton, though the challenge with Warner’s story was “to portray such a traumatic thing in a realistic way without looking like a buffoon and tarnishing his legacy.”
When jail scenes were shot, other actors would leave “to sit somewhere comfortable,” says Crown Heights director Matt Ruskin, while Stanfield requested his holding area be just another prison cell “so he really stayed in that place of discomfort.”
“He’s not a halfway kind of guy,” Ruskin adds.
Stanfield says it’s been “amazing to see” the popular reception for two of his favorite projects, Get Out, which could be a player come Oscar season, and FX’s Emmy-nominated Atlanta. Both reinforced “some things that I firmly believe, which is that you can tell stories from different places and different people and there’s a common thread among them.”
The projects that meld artistry and realism “speak to me more,” Stanfield says. “I feel like if it’s going to be good, in some way it must tie into reality, right?” That said, sci-fi is on his to-do list; he’s now filming the fantasy comedy Sorry to Bother You, about a telemarketer who discovers a magical way to do business.
As for what he wants new fans to know about him, “there’s nothing really to see here,” Stanfield says with a laugh. “In everything you see me in, you’re getting a piece of me. Hopefully, that will give you some sort of idea and maybe you’ll get something from the story, too.”