Amandla Stenberg Is Coming to Terms With Being a Revolutionary

The Hunger Games actress and NYU student opens up about her viral short film "Don't Cash Crop My Cornrows," being a social justice warrior on Instagram, and why Rihanna is a role model.

At an age when most young women are seeking out mentors, 17-year-old Amandla Stenberg is already a role model. Last year, “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows,” a video on cultural misappropriation that she made as a school project, went viral. Nearly 2 million views on YouTube and an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul Sessions later, Stenberg is embracing the scope of her voice, which is only growing: this fall, she’s headed to New York University where she plans to study directing and she currently stars in Stella McCartney’s fragrance campaign for Pop.

It’s a heady time for Stenberg, a Los Angeles native still often most recognized for playing Rue in the first Hunger Games movie, and one she’s navigating with a precocious level of grace and poise.

What was the genesis of starting to act at such a young age? I think getting into the industry was kind of an accidental thing for me. When you grow up in Los Angeles as a kid, you do a lot of different activities, like ballet is one of them, tap is one of them. And because it’s the city of entertainment and Hollywood, people just go on auditions as a fun thing to do. So I started doing that when I was about three or four, because I told my parents that I wanted to do it. And they actually followed through and took me to my auditions and it became something I was very passionate about. I was kind of able to find who I was through being on set. I think it’s a challenging environment because you find kids who are so precocious and so they’re putting on acts a lot of the times. So navigating that was something that was really challenging for me, but also forced me to think about who I was and figure out how to stay grounded at a very young age.

Were they TV commercial auditions to begin with? It was mostly commercials. I didn’t really go out for many TV or movie auditions until I was about ten. But I was very much in the commercial realm. And I did that for a long time. And it’s kind of interesting being a kid, going to rooms where everyone’s eight years-old and yet it’s for a Kraft mac ‘n’ cheese commercial or whatever and a little eight year-old girl tells you “Good luck” except it doesn’t actually mean good luck.

She totally wants you to bomb it. It means, “I’m going to win.” Yeah, she wants you to bomb. And so it was crazy experiencing those power dynamics. And growing up learning them. But I think it’s given me the tools to navigate them now.

If you’re dealing with hyper competition when you’re eight you’re going to be pretty set by the time you’re seventeen. Did you actually do a Kraft mac ‘n’ cheese commercial? I did a Kraft mac ‘n’ cheese commercial. I did a Ronald McDonald commercial, like a commercial with him where we were dancing and blowing bubbles. That was the biggest deal to me. It was mind-blowing to meet Ronald McDonald in real life. And I also did Walmart commercials and all kinds of different brands. And it was kind of cool. It was training wheels for being on real sets. Not that they aren’t real sets, but being on productions for movies and TV and everything.

And then making the transition from commercial work to film and TV, did you know that you wanted to push it to the next level even at the age of ten? I remember doing these commercials and kind of realizing around nine that they weren’t weren’t fulfilling for me anymore. And I experienced playacting and doing the commercials and I realized that it would actually be more fulfilling for me to do something with an actual storyline and character. And so I told my parents that I really wanted to focus on that and I guess that’s the point when I really started self-managing and having some kind of direction in terms of a career.

And you stayed in a proper school system the whole time. It’s pretty amazing that even after "The Hunger Games" things managed to stay so normal. I think that’s also something that’s kind of strange about this time in my life is that I’ve always had my school life and it’s completely normal and my life outside of that which is being on sets and kind of getting attention from the media and everything. And now it’s like my two lives are merging because I’m moving forward and I’m graduating and I need to figure out how to keep that feeling of being grounded without having the normal environment. And I think definitely going off to college, to NYU, will help, but it will be different because everyone will meet me as who I am now with a perception of who I am and how I’ve been presented in the media and articles about me and followers on Instagram and all of that as opposed to when I met everyone who I go to school with now and no one cared about any of that. I’m a little bit nervous about it, but I think in some ways it will actually be kind of relieving. Like I’ve appreciated this sense of being grounded but it can be exhausting sometimes to live these two different realities. And it will be nice to just be one person as opposed to my school self and my everything else self.

You've been acting since such a young age. Have you known for a while that you wanted to focus on directing, too? I’ve been passionate about film since I was in ninth grade when I made my first short film, which was called "The Yellow Wallpaper"—it was based off of that short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. And immediately when I started shooting it, something clicked in place for me and it kind of felt like the culmination of all the things I was good at wrapped into one package. I think what’s been most fun for me being on set, aside from the meat of the acting and finding myself through those roles, is seeing how movies are made and the process behind it. And oftentimes the most exciting aspect of that is the technical aspect and the cameras that are being used and how many times things have been shot and what kind of artistic choices the cinematographer is making, those are the things I was super hyped on.

You released the short movie "Blue Girls Burn Fast?" that was part of your NYU application—why? I came to the realization that I wanted to share it directly with my followers because they’re the people I’m making stuff for and I wanted people to be able to connect to the storyline and the characters. And I feel like the most authentic and genuine way to do that is by sharing it directly.

I thought it was great. How would you describe the story you were trying to tell? It’s pretty personal to me. I see a lot of myself reflected in the main character. Just because growing up in a certain industry has forced me to grow up very quickly. And [there’s the idea of] saying goodbye to my childhood at a very early age. And so I wrote this story about this foster kid who experiences moving out of her childhood home, which I was also experiencing, she experiences the loss of her childhood home, probably at a much earlier age than I did. And she navigates what it’s like to be living in a house with someone that’s not your family. And she learns, basically, through this mysterious girl who climbs through her window, that she has to let go of the past and she kind of has to let go of this nostalgia that she’s holding onto in order to move forward.

Your video "Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows" has millions of views. Was activism something you were raised with or did you think of yourself as an activist before posting that video and getting the reaction you did? I guess I was raised as an activist in the sense that my mom is a black woman who refuses to be victimized and does her thing and believes in her own power and her own strength, I think that’s been a model for me in terms of how I perceive my own identity. I never really talked about issues and prejudice publicly until that video came out and it went viral. And that’s because I kind of came to a crossroads where I realized I had a choice to either continue speaking out about that or to remain silent. That video actually did become viral accidentally. I guess everything goes viral accidentally. But it was a particular accident because I made it for my school, for my history class. And then I posted it online, not really thinking about it, just thinking maybe some people would appreciate it and then it went crazy. And so, yeah, then I came to that choice of okay, well people are really responding to this and it wasn’t like I had made an active decision before to not speak up about things, I just didn’t realize I had all of this power from the platform I had. I didn’t realize that I could really utilize it to speak out about things until the video. And so then I began using it more.

On Twitter and Instagram and other forums do you feel a responsibility, perhaps, in a weighing way, to put things out there? And what about the pressure of being a role model for so many young women? I do feel that pressure and I’m learning how to deal with it still. But I realize that people can be role models in all kinds of ways and often the way that they are a role model is just by being true to themselves. I had the chance to go to the Black Girls Rock awards the other night in New York and Rihanna was getting this award for a rock star. And basically Black Girls Rock is all about being role models for black girls. And when she got on stage she was like, “I really appreciate this award because I don’t normally get awards for being a role model.” And I was thinking about that and then I had the chance to talk to her afterwards. And I was like, “You really are a role model and you probably don’t realize it. You’re a huge role model to teenage girls who experience all kinds of crap for enjoying their sexuality, for being themselves, for getting what they want, for not letting the perceptions of men get in the way of what they want to do.” And I told her that she was a role model in that way and that she’s been a role model to me oftentimes when I’ve been navigating high school, letting boys dictate what I wear or how I present myself or what I decide to do and being afraid that they will judge me. But then a Rihanna song comes on and I don’t care about that anymore. And so I realized that basically the best way for me to be a role model is to be as true to myself as possible. And that doesn’t mean I have to achieve some kind of image or be this icon or mold myself into a role model. It just means I have to keep doing my thing. Oftentimes your authenticity is your activism and being as true to yourself as possible is the first step toward revolution.

The word revolutionary was applied to you quite soon after "Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows." Was that a surprising term to have applied to you? It was surprising. And it was also a learning experience for me that wow, just by speaking out I can be revolutionary? I’m not even facing any danger or violence or being targeted in a way that could actually physically harm me. I can just use the Internet to spread my ideas and that’s really powerful.

With the importance of your presence on platforms like Twitter and Instagram, do you feel like you constantly need to engage with people who have more narrow-minded views and share them in not necessarily positive ways? That was definitely my approach at the beginning. When I first got into talking about social activism on a public platform, I was all about calling people out, having conversations, schooling people on what they were doing wrong and it was an important moment in my process. But recently, I’ve felt that hasn’t been the most constructive for me personally, just because when you get into debates it can get pinned as the social justice warrior who’s angry all the time. And I don’t want to be pinned as that. And so I just subconsciously stopped doing that and doing things that were more active as opposed to critical. And so making more art and posting more of my own writing and calling out systems, not calling out specific people because the systems are the problem, not the people themselves and utilizing opportunities like Black Girls Rock, Super Soul Sessions to call out those systems and talk about things I care about.

Your next role will be as the lead in "The Hate U Give," based on the YA novel of the same name. What the draw of the project and the character of Starr? I’m always like, “There are no leads for black girls that are actually cool and dynamic.” And then I read "The Hate U Give" and I was attracted to this character who had a lot of parallels to my life. She lives in this low-income area, but goes to this fancy, rich, white private school that’s lacking any kind of diversity. And she has to figure out how to navigate those two spaces and then she has an interaction with the police. And I’ve had interactions with the police that have been much more scaled down versions of what happens in the book, which is that her best friend gets shot and killed, but I did see parallels that were eerie to me. And it was cool because the book is not just like, “Here’s a girl whose best friend is killed and then she leads a revolution and changes the racial dynamics forever.” It’s about this teenage girl who witnesses this horrific and traumatic event and she still keeps going to school and she has friends and she has a boyfriend and she watches "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." She’s a sneakerhead and she keeps living her life trying to figure out how to get past it. Then it’s not like she chooses this active role, like, “I will lead the people now.” It’s like those events come to her and she has no choice but to be a part of them. Which is oftentimes how people end up being leaders, it’s often by accident. At least that’s the way I feel.

And you’re also in the Stella McCartney fragrance campaign for Pop. Was that something you were immediately into or did you have any reservations given the beauty world is a very different realm than the other creative ones you’ve participated in? I’ve always been very passionate about fashion. I’ve always been passionate about that realm and the artistry behind it, how clothes can have a piece of historical, cultural meaning. I was always very wary of beauty. I was never that into it just because I know that it can perpetuate these really negative ideas and half the time I’m preaching about how beauty standards make black girls feel ashamed of their natural features. So I was wary because I don’t normally delve into that realm. I’m not a huge fan of it just personally because I went through a stage where I wore tons of makeup and perfumes in ninth grade and then I got to the point where I didn’t really like myself without any of it. And I was like “God, this is gross.” And I stopped interacting with the beauty world. But recently, I’ve seen a lot of girls on the Internet using makeup as a straight up art form and doing all kinds of creative and cool things and using different kinds of makeup to make different color palettes and beautiful eyeliner shapes. It’s definitely been an introduction for me. And so with Stella, I was really excited about it because it’s all about the treatment. It’s about perfume, yes, but also it has this huge emphasis on being a teenaged girl, being a young woman and experiencing freedom for the first time. It had this creative team of women—and Stella’s also awesome— who have this very intentional idea for the campaign to be about a young woman who also supports other young women. I was like, “Okay, I want to be a part of this.”

Beauty representations can also be a tool: it can be a great opportunity to help a lot of people who don’t see someone out there who looks like them. The worst thing is to grow up and never see anyone who looks like you, right? Exactly. And that was definitely another part of my decision of, “Man, when I was little, I wish that I had seen a black girl on a billboard.” So I’m glad it can be me. Just by putting myself out there and providing the representation and building the self-confidence of other young girls is cool and I’m glad I can do that.

You’ve also done a comic book and you have a band and an art collective @arthoecollective that you started on Instagram and you’re now going to NYU and you have this film coming up and you’re interested in directing…how do you see yourself juggling all of these creative outlets that you enjoy and are obviously really passionate about? I think it helps that they’re all interconnected and so my acting fueled my passion for being a director. And when it comes @arthoecollective, it’s about providing a space for people of color to share their art. And the band is another extension of my artistic self. So I think oftentimes all of my artistic endeavors and my activism they all just culminate into this one goal, which is to provide space and provide the support and representation of black female artists. So it’s just about shining the light, doing my thing, so other people can feel comfortable to do the same thing.