Kiki Layne has been acting since she was seven years old, but until recently she had one professional credit (an episode of Chicago Med) to her name. But it was the next job she would book not long after she moved to Los Angeles that means everything in Hollywood—Layne beat out 300 others for a lead in If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins's adaptation of James Baldwin's 1974 novel and the director's follow-up to the Oscar-winning Moonlight. In the film, which has received rave reviews and figures to be in the Oscars race, Layne plays 19-year-old Tish, whose beautiful romance with her childhood friend Fonny, an artist played by Stephan James, is destroyed by a racist cop who pins false rape charges on him. Tish's journey of innocence lost has confirmed Layne, 26, as a major new star to watch. Here, she talks how she got here, and reveals a few things you probably didn't know about Kiki Layne.
What was the very first thing you auditioned for?
The very first thing I auditioned for in L.A. would have been If Beale Street Could Talk.
What was the audition like?
It was a self-tape. That was my first step in that audition process, and then the next step was a chemistry read in New York.
Wow. So, it went pretty fast?
It did. It went very fast.
Were you nervous?
I was extremely nervous. Stephan James had already been cast; I met Barry Jenkins for the first time. But it was a really warm room. Barry called me the Monday after the chemistry read. It was like 9 a.m. and I was sleep, so his call woke we up. He just got to talking and didn't even introduce himself at first, but then finally he was just like, "Girl, do you even know who you talking to?"
I said, "I think I'm talking to Barry Jenkins and I'm just trying to be chill right now." And then he just went on to tell me that they were giving me the role.
What did you do right then? I was just like, "Oh. Thank you. I'm so excited." But I was just trying to rush him off the phone so I could really go crazy, and cry, and call my mama, and all of that. I definitely screamed.
It's a very hard movie to watch. It's so sad.
But still very hopeful though and filled with so much love. So even though it's painful, there's so much love and beauty in it at the same time.
Did you know the book very well?
No. I didn't read the book until I was preparing for the chemistry read.
That must have been an intense day for you.
The chemistry read? Yeah. I've been acting for quite some time. So, it just was... I don't know. The nerves. Like, Academy Award winner Barry Jenkins. I had just been watching Stephan James on Shots Fired. But once I got into the room I just felt so much warmth and support that a lot of my nerves just were able to fade away and I just got to enjoy playing in the room.
How old were you when you first decided you wanted to be an actress?
I was like six or seven.
Did you pursue it at that age?
Mm-hmm. My mom put me into a performing arts elementary school back in Cincinnati, so I started studying acting in school when I was seven. And then I went on to study it in college at DePaul [University] in Chicago. I don't know. It's just always been in my heart to perform.
Did you ever dance? You have such a dancer's build.
No, actually. At least, officially and professionally. I got a couple moves though, you know?
What's your karaoke song?
Go-to karaoke song? Oh. What have I been singing? Adele, "Set Fire to the Rain." That's a very fun one. "Drunk in Love," Beyonce. Especially if you got somebody that'll hold down Jay-Z's part for you. That's definitely the move.
You must have some pipes if you can sing Adele and Beyonce?
I mean, karaoke... I'm not one of those people that's like, "I'm about to serve on this Whitney Houston song at like 2 a.m.." No. Karaoke? I'm just like, "Live your best life." We're not worried about those notes, we just living.
And you got your Jay-Z with you?
What was your very first red carpet outfit? Was it for this movie?
Actually my first red carpet was supporting Sorry to Bother You, actually. In the Annapurna family. What was I wearing? It was like this leather dress. I had my faux locks in. Oh, I was living on that carpet. I mean, I live on every carpet, but we started off strong. I don't know, it's so fun. It's just fun to me.
And I feel like you have mood hair. Sometimes it's long, sometimes it's not...
Oh, yeah. Girl, we gotta switch it up. We gotta keep people on they toes. You never really know. You know? How's it gonna be? Will it be long? Curly? Straight? And watch out when those colors start coming in.
Who did you have a cinematic crush on when you were growing up, or even now?
Who do I have a cinematic crush on? I mean, it's such a go-to: Michael B. Jordan. I was like, it's everybody's go-to. Who else?
Have you met him now?
I have not met him yet. Oh, no. That's a lie. Yes, I did. I was just standing on the sidewalk, and I was outside this party, and I see these two guys coming down the street and I'm like, "Man, that dude on the left kind of look like Michael B. Jordan." And then, as they walked past I'm like, "Oh my God. That is Michael B. Jordan." I'm just like, "What do I do? Do I say hey? Do I say what's up?" It was very awkward for me.
Really? You didn't have a nice chat?
No, no, no. I'm a little... I don't know. I get a little weird. I do.
What was your favorite birthday?
My favorites are the ones where I'm back home, because usually what my mom will do, she'll have a fish fry and she'll invite a bunch of my family over. Those are my favorite birthdays. When I'm back home and able to celebrate with my family.
How do you feel about the chili in Cincinnati?
I love Cincinnati chili. I really do. I love me some Cincinnati chili. Okay? Give me that spaghetti, that chili, the cheese, the beans, the onions, the mustard. Give me all of that. Yes. Cincinnati chili.
Do you have a particular spot?
You know, I kind of go back and forth between them. I think usually when I make it at home I use the Gold Star seasoning packs, but Skyline has the vegetarian. I don't eat red meat. I don't know if Gold Star has it.
So, you're gonna have to bring that to L.A.
Yeah. Oh, but Skyline hot sauce though.
That makes it?
What was your favorite Halloween costume ever?
Pink Power Ranger. Oh, yeah. Classic. Throwback. Pink Power Ranger. I feel like if you were a 90's baby and you never were a Power Ranger for Halloween, like, come on. I think everybody had that one Power Ranger costume.
Do you have a secret skill?
I can cook.
What's your signature dish?
What is my signature dish? I'm really good with fish. Especially frying fish. Like I said, fish fry.