At 18, Amandla Stenberg is the youngest talent in W's 2017 Royals portfolio, but she's earned more than earned her place alongside Tilda Swinton, Pharrell, and Tracee Ellis Ross. In fact, the Hunger Games star could have been featured in multiple categories--actress, style icon, musician--but instead she earned the title of new activist, alongside Faye Wattleton, the youngest ever president of Planned Parenthood. Stenberg regularly uses her social media platform to call out cultural appropriation, speak about intersectional feminism, and inspire her fans--both young and old--to make the world a better place.
Though, Stenberg's relationship with social media is somewhat fraught. In August, she announced that she was giving up her iPhone--something she's had since she was 11--in exchange for a flip phone. "I was worried about the mental health effects it was having on me," she says. "It was taking over my life a bit, but mostly I just kind of felt like I was floating away and I felt like part of that had to do with being in a virtual world that didn’t have any kind of tangible substance to it. I felt like my life was refreshing Instagram as opposed to refreshing life."
Did you always know you wanted to be an actress?
I’ve been acting since I was really little, since I was about four years old. When I was in school, I did participate in the theatrical department, but I was also busy with stuff outside of school, so I could never really be a huge part of the productions, but I did play the fiddler in Fiddler on the Roof. I was the only violinist in my school, so I was the fiddler. You’d think if you’re in the title of the play, it’d be a big part, but it wasn’t.
I remember wanting to be a performer. I was the kind of kid who had a really active imagination, so I would star in my own musicals and stuff. I would write these very intricate stories in my head with full ballads and dance numbers and everything. The parts weren’t all me. They were distributed amongst a large group of kids in my head, which makes me sound like kind of a messed up kid. I had all of these imaginary friends. A lot of the times, I would line up all of my stuffed animals and then have the stuffed animals play characters in my different stories and pieces.
What was the first thing you auditioned for?
I can't remember the first thing I auditioned for, but the first thing that I was ever in was a commercial for something called Fivesies, and they were these dolls that came in fives. They were five connected dolls that you would have to, like, rock them together and feed them. Honestly, why would you want five dolls? What is that teaching young girls? I don’t know, but that was the first thing I was in and I was in the background. So I was out of focus, but you can see, like, the shape of my ponytail.
Did you immediately think, this is what I love to do?
No, I think I was a little disillusioned ‘cause I thought it would be, like, this glamorous experience, but then I realized that’s not really what it was about anyways. If you go into acting for the glamour, you’ll be disillusioned very quickly and realize that you just always have to be very hot or cold and uncomfortable, but obviously it’s one of the most rewarding experiences you can have.
Did you have a favorite teen movie?
Man, I had a lot of favorite teen movies. This is pretty classic, but Clueless. Everyone loves Clueless and I love it as well. I really loved that movie Big Fat Liar with Frankie Muniz and Paul Giamatti. And it’s, like, my favorite story now, especially now that I’m experiencing actually being in, in Hollywood. It’s about this kid who lies all the time, who writes this really amazing story, and then he almost gets run over by this big Hollywood producer. And he hops in the dude’s limo and while he’s in the limo, his story falls out of his backpack. Then the big Hollywood producer takes his story and turns it into this huge movie that becomes this huge blockbuster. It’s incredibly successful and this kid gets ripped off, and then he goes on this vengeance path to, to get back at this Hollywood producer, who is played by Paul Giamatti. It’s really a great film.
Did you have a cinematic crush growing up?
I mean, Leonardo DiCaprio was my cinematic crush. My walls were covered [with posters] when I was a younger teenager. I had all kinds of influences up on my wall, like, I had a couple Quentin Tarantino posters and I had, like, a James Turrell poster, and flowers, and things, and little notes my friends had passed me in class, and definitely at least a couple pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio. Titanic reigns supreme in my heart. I have seen Gilbert Grape. He’s great in that. I mean, he’s great in everything. I was just watching the YouTube clip from that part of Django, that moment where he slices his hand open. It’s bleeding and he went with that acting choice. That’s so cool to me.
You're in W's royals portfolio this year. Who, to you, is royal?
Kendrick Lamar. I have been listening to Damn for the past couple months, ever since it dropped. And just hearing what he has to say about his position in the world, what it’s like coming from Compton, and I’m also from south L.A., so I think I feel, like, a connection to it. What it’s like coming from there, being at the place that he is in the world now, what it’s like navigating people trying to murder him. Like, I can't relate to that, but people trying to murder him admits all of the greatness he’s achieving. It blows my mind and so, to me, he’s definitely a god. He creates complete operas with his music in such an inventive way. I feel like he’s the person who’s pushing culture forward in music.
And you’re making music now, too, right?
Yeah, right now, I’m tentatively making music. I got to make a song for the soundtrack of my film Everything, Everything. It was a cover song of a Mac DeMarco tune called “Let My Baby Stay”. So that was really fun. I ended up directing a music video for it, just for kicks.
What was it like directing yourself?
It’s very easy to direct yourself, but I didn’t expect it to be so difficult to edit. That’s something that I was experiencing for the first time as I was sitting down with the footage and watching myself do these really awkward dance moves. I was like, oh, my god, like, this is difficult, but I ended up kind of overcoming some fears of mine, just by going through that process and kind of being more comfortable with myself afterwards.
You've grown up on the internet, in a way. When did you first get connected?
Well, when I was 11 years old, my parents gave me an iPhone. It was the first iPhone that came out, and I think honestly that’s completely shaped who I am as a person ‘cause I had such access to everything very, very early on. So when I was 11, I started an Instagram and you can actually scroll back on my page. You can scroll all the way back and basically see how I’ve evolved aesthetically since age 11. And honestly, I don’t think that much has changed. I’ve always had a very strong hold on my aesthetic sensibility. When I joined Instagram, I don’t think I cared about followers. I think I was interested in it as, like, a photography tool. Like, I was interested in the filters. If you scroll back, you’ll see, like, I use a lot of filters, for sure.
Do you have a favorite filter?
Oh, my god. I think back in the day, my favorite filter was Valencia, ‘cause it added a little bit of an old grain to it that I liked.
How about a favorite emoji?
My favorite emoji is the little angel emoji, but only if it’s the black one. I’m not a huge emoji person, I don’t think. Well, this is the thing. I got rid of my iPhone a few months ago because I was worried about the mental health effects it was having on me. I feel like it’s very easy for your perception of reality to get distorted when you have this device in your pocket 24/7 that you can refresh, like, a hyper reality that doesn’t actually exist. It gives you these weird perceptions of what people’s lives are like and I didn’t like that.
I still have my Instagram and everything. I have an iPad, so I will monitor my use of it, and use that to get everything I need to get done.
Was there a specific event that made you get rid of your phone?
It was taking over my life a bit, but mostly I just kind of felt like I was floating away and I felt like part of that had to do with being in a virtual world that didn’t have any kind of tangible substance to it. I felt like my life was refreshing Instagram as opposed to refreshing life.
I’m kind of reaching a point in my life where I see how I can channel my energy into other pathways as well. So while I still utilize social media as a tool, I mostly wanna use it as a tool for people to feel like they can connect to a real person, as opposed to always using that as the conduit for activism. Now I feel like I’d rather channel it into larger actions.
What was the moment where you decided to become publicly political?
I think when I was about 13 or 14 I started reading Rookie magazine and that was an opening into the fray of even thinking about politics or my place in the world in that way. And then I think I already had that intrinsically in me ‘cause of my mom, the way she raised me, just, like, identifying and being proud of the experience of black womanhood and so when I first started thinking about feminism, that kind of opened my mind to thinking about race, politics, and how I experience the world and why I experience it in that way. And when I started thinking about that, it made me think about the world as a whole and outside of myself and how I could affect these systems that I think don’t make sense and are unhealthy and negative.
What was your favorite birthday?
When I turned 17, I got my nose pierced and that was a big event. I did discuss it with my mom. I basically told her I’m going to go get my nose pierced and I got my sister to be the one who was signing off on it, because my sister is a bit older than me, and so sometimes we can make it pass like she’s my mom. So that’s what we did and I told my mom. I was, like, my sister’s going to take me and she was like, “I don’t wanna be a part of it. If I don’t have to sign off on it, then go ahead.” I remember getting it and feeling, like, yeah, I got my nose pierced. I’m a real teen now. It hurt so bad because I got a septum piercing. It’s the one right in here. It’s basically, like, an extremely painful sneeze. I had to take it out ‘cause I’ve been, you know, traveling around doing movies and it didn’t really fly to have a septum ring in for most of my roles.
And do you have ears pierced?
I do have my ears pierced, yeah. I went through a period of wearing, like, a lot of jewelry and all of the sudden, I just didn’t want it anymore. I don’t know. I think when I cut all my hair off, I kinda felt, like, I don’t really wanna be adorned with anything. I just kinda wanna be me.
And were you scared to cut all of your hair off? It looks great.
Thank you. No, I wasn’t scared. I was excited. I’ve wanted to cut my hair off my entire life, but I never could because of acting. I was always advised not to, but when I could do it for a role it was justified, and I did it for a really important reason, too. It was because I was playing a character who was a victim of the holocaust and so I felt like I was honoring that character and I got to experience not having hair, which I think everyone should experience at some point. I love feeling all of the elements on my head now. It’s really amazing. It’s, like, such a nice sensory overload in the best way.
But you don’t miss your hair?
Sometimes I miss my hair. I miss being able to play with it, but the thing is I can pretty much do anything with it. I can wear wigs. I'm letting it grow out a little bit more, so I’ve got these little tiny curls on my head now, which I really like.
Where was your first kiss?
My first kiss was at a party when I was 14. It was, like, the first time I had ever made out with someone. And I remember sitting on this boy’s bed and I remember him leaning in, like, panicking and looking away. I remember finally kind of getting more comfortable with him and making out and being, like, this is weird. I don’t like this. I think he was probably just a bad kisser. We dated for a brief moment. He took me to the museum, the movies and everything, but it was weird ‘cause he looked a lot older than me. And I think it kind of freaked out people when we were in public, even though we were the same age. I was very small. I didn’t really hit puberty until, like, a year ago.
And you just shot right up?
Yeah, everything just kinda bloomed. I was not content being small. My mom had to listen to me so much, be like, oh, when am I going to grow and all the other girls in middle school have boobs and I don’t at all. I think finally now I’m really comfortable in myself ‘cause that’s something I don’t have to deal with anymore, is feeling really behind or feeling like a like a tadpole.