Her performance in The Hate U Give, George Tillman Jr.'s adaptation of the best-selling YA novel by Angie Thomas, may have ultimately earned her glowing review after glowing review, but Amandla Stenberg cried every single day she was on the film's set. If you've been keeping up with Stenberg's career, which launched in 2012, with The Hunger Games, you'll know that that was not because the 20-year-old actress wasn't qualified the lead role of Starr Carter. The film is simply that moving—and Stenberg is, of course, right at its emotional center. Newly enrolled in an all-white private school in the suburbs, yet still living in what she's sure her classmates would call the "ghetto," Starr is still adjusting to her newfound double life on the night that she unexpectedly reunites with her childhood best friend—only to then witness a white police officer murder him shortly thereafter. It almost goes without saying, but her friend is black—just like far too many victims of police violence, which is just one of the facets of racism in America that the film tackles. For W's annual Best Performances issue, Stenberg reflects on the "eerie similarities" between herself and Starr—and, on a much lighter note, why she's convinced that her longtime love for '90s Leonardo DiCaprio was an early sign that she's gay.
The film's title, The Hate U Give, is a reference to Tupac. You're quite young, but were you familiar with him before?
I knew Tupac through my sister. She's 12 years older than me, and she got me hip to hip hop growing up. We'd talk about Tupac and Biggie, and she'd give me lessons from the skreets. I remember listening to "Keep Ya Head Up" and really understanding those lyrics. And "California Love"—I feel like if you're from California you inevitably end up loving that song and blasting it in high school.
Tell me about your character, Starr.
Starr is a girl who's code-switching between two different worlds, which is something that we all do—we present ourselves differently depending on the space that we've entered into. But she’s really challenged to choose what her true identity is when her best friend, who is a black boy, is shot in front of her at the hands of a white police officer. I was able to read the book really early on—before it was actually out, because, you know, industry illuminati stuff—and I fell in love with the character immediately. She's multi-dimensional, she's authentic, and she's so unafraid to be truly herself, which she realizes through these really challenging, traumatic circumstances that reflect what's happening in our world right now.
Could you relate to her?
There's an eerie amount of similarities between my life and hers. I grew up in South L.A.—and I'm very proud of that—but went to a school across town that was mostly white and privileged, so I learned to compartmentalize parts of myself just like she did. Learning the language of that school, but never being quite enough for it, is both Starr’s story and my own. It’s only since I graduated that I’ve realized how isolated I was, and how many messages it made me internalize.
It's a very emotional movie. Did you get emotional making it?
Yes! I was hella emotional the whole time. I cried every day, whether during a scene or off-camera but still on set. There's this one scene that really got me: I don’t want to reveal too much, but you see the family and a few police officers, and then you see a little black boy with his hands on a gun. And this boy, TJ [Wright], was 10 years old when we were filming, and he just handled it like a champ. He had to cry in the scene, but he kept crying after they yelled cut because he understood the material. His mom had to stop herself from running over and holding her baby, because she knew that he was doing his best work and she was giving him the space and the freedom to do that. But just to see a mom see the pain that her kid is going through, and see that he has an understanding for societal structures and problems that are against him? I cried, for sure.
How have other people been reacting to it?
We've had a lot of different reactions, which is exactly what we were hoping for, because the film isn't for one particular group of people. Hopefully, it's for everyone. There was this one older white woman who raised her hand at a Q&A and said, "I just didn't know it was like this for you people." And I was like, Wow—content really great; intention really great; delivery, eh, not so much. But her heart was in the right place, and at the end of the day, that's kind of the response that we were hoping for.
How old were you when you decided you wanted to be an actress?
I don't really remember making the decision, but I've always wanted to do it. I was about four years old when I first started acting and doing commercials for Walmart, Kmart, McDonald's. Looking back, those are all horrible brands. They're all huge, corrupt conglomerates, but we weren't woke back then. I was just trying to get that check.
Did you like going on auditions?
I loved it and I hated it. Child acting is so weird. Sometimes I think back to things and am like, That was really bizarre, maybe children shouldn't be in those circumstances. I remember doing this one commercial early on with someone who asked me if I was in SAG, and I was like, What’s that? What’s a SAG? He told me if I wasn't a part of SAG, I couldn't sit with him, and as a child, I was shooketh. But I got my SAG card eventually. I think it was from a McDonald's commercial.
Did you have to do things like eat a million Big Macs?
Yeah, because as a kid, you see food in front of you, you don't think, "Oh, I'm gonna have to eat this over and over and over again." I remember getting really sick on a KFC commercial—I almost threw up.
How old were you in The Hunger Games?
I think I was 11 when we shot it, and 12 when it came out. That audition was probably the most nerve-wracking of my whole life. I was already the biggest Hunger Games fan—like a fan-fan-fan-girl. I remember kids telling me that the description of Rue in the book reminded them of me, and then I read it, and it became my favorite book. I was going on YouTube for castings and trying to see who might get the roles, but also just getting excited to see the movie as a fan.
And then you got the part. When you went back to school, did people make a big fuss?
No. I went to a weird school with rich white people whose parents pulled them out of school once a month to go to the Bahamas. That's an exaggeration—but not that much. Anyway, these kids’ parents were in movies, so they didn't really care, which I think was for the best—I think I would've been an asshole if I’d been given that sort of attention that young.
What was the first outfit you wore on the red carpet?
Oh my god. I think the first was for something Nickelodeon-related, when I was around 12. I wore this pink felt miniskirt from Forever 21 and a white t-shirt with puffy sleeves. And since everything was kind of tribal at that time, and it was okay because no one was woke yet, I had tribal earrings on. Studs and top-knots were both really in then, too, so I had a little top-knot on my head.
Last time we talked, you said your cinematic crush was Leonardo DiCaprio. Have you developed a new one since?
Yes—and since then I've had multiple people ask me about my crush on Leonardo DiCaprio.. And then I have to be like, "Well, I'm gay, and so it might have shifted a little bit," which makes people kind of lose it and ask about it again.
You can still have a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio and be gay.
Of course. Well, I also feel like if you're into '90s Leonardo DiCaprio, you might be on the path to being gay. That might be your entry point: the femboy. Now when I look at all of the boys that I thought were hot when I was younger, they all look like pretty girls. I was just in denial that I really wanted them all to have titties.
So, who would your crush be besides Leo?
Well, now I have to say a girl...
You don't have to. It could be, you know, Timothée Chalamet.
It could—he's a very pretty boy. If you're into Timothée Chalamet, you could be gay. It's possible. It's definitely possible.