To explain the nuances of Boots Riley's brilliantly inventive Sorry to Bother You is to ruin the fun of experiencing how the story is told. And as Lakeith Stanfield explains in W's annual Best Performances issue, the story of how he came to star in one of 2018's most original films is all too fitting: Riley tracked him down to hand-deliver the script. Thus begins Stanfield's journey to playing Cassius, a telemarketer who discovers he has an uncanny knack for tapping into and exploiting a society that rewards performative whiteness. The film is also a biting commentary on capitalism, because if you're going to do something, it's best to go all the way. Here, Stanfield explains how filming Sorry to Bother You was a "ride" of a production, why he could have been a contender for providing the film's "white voices," and how he's campaigning to be the first black Joker by way of Halloween costume.
What was the very first job that you booked?
That was a while ago, actually; Short Term 12. I believe I was 17, when I got it, in 2008.
__Were you always interested in being an actor? __
I wanted to perform, in some capacity, all of my life and, uh, and I fell into acting.
How did you get attached to Sorry to Bother You?
Through Boots Riley. He had been following me for quite a while, and finally we just bumped paths. I think it was on our way to Sundance that I met him. He handed me the script himself; he wanted to make sure I got it, and I was like "Who is this strange person?" Then once I read the story, I realized that I had no idea how strange he was. But his strangeness just revealed itself to be another form of beauty.
Was it fun to film?
Yes. Sorry to Bother You was quite a ride to film. It was quite difficult, we did it in 20 or 21 days, so it was a really quick shoot. And there was a lot to accomplish, so it was definitely hard. But I got to be covered in poop, on my last day, so it was fun.
[Laughs] And you got to do many voices.
Yeah, I got to move my mouth, as if I'm sayin' something, and then David Cross and Patton Oswalt came in and said stuff. I wanted to do the other voice. I’ve got a good Patton Oswalt voice.
You could do the other voice.
That's what I told 'em. I could do the other voice, but Boots wanted to keep the white authentic. [Laughs]
Had he seen Get Out prior to wanting to work with you?
I think he started looking for me before that movie came out, and then I think he saw it. I hadn't really asked him if he'd seen anything.
In Get Out, you’re the only person to actually say the name of the movie. Did you realize that?
Yes, and I love that. Often times when I read a script, I can tell what will be in the trailer, just based on how it's formatted. I can just tell visually what people are gonna show, and I knew that would be it. Also, the name of the movie's always nice to be able to say. You can't not be conscious of it, no matter how much you are in the scene, you just know, "Oh there's the title of the movie, just came outta my mouth." It's fun.
What are you working on now?
Knives Out, with Rian Johnson. A little murder mystery. I love it so far. It's Chris Evans, that dude's awesome. And also Daniel Craig is sweet. Ana De Costa is sweet. She dances with me in between takes. And what's her name, that was in Halloween? Jamie Lee Curtis. She's awesome.
What was your favorite film when you were growing up?
The Lion King. My aunt named us all different characters in the movie when I was little. Everybody got a name, and I got Simba, and I wanted to be Scar. Jeremy Irons is so good at playing the villain, and he's skinny like me.
What was the first email address you ever had?
The same one I have now. I have many, but this one, I can't tell you.
Who did you have a cinematic crush on when you were growing up?
What's that girl from Can't Hardly Wait? Jennifer Love Hewitt, I loved her. I was really young, so I couldn't comprehend anything, except that she was beautiful to me.
What was your favorite birthday? Not the year, but your favorite event on your birthday.
Tupac was alive. So, that's nice. All of my birthdays when he was alive. After that, I don't even celebrate no more.
__Do you do Tupac for a karaoke song? __
Oh yeah, all the time. “I Get Around” is usually my go-to, it's funny you asked that. Or “Hit 'Em Up,” or “Temptations,” or “All About You.”
Have you ever gone as Tupac for Halloween?
No, I can't see other renditions of Pac. It makes me very sad.
What is your favorite Halloween costume?
I'm always a Joker, every year. And soon there will be a black Joker movie, and it will be me. I basically just draw in the dark, and then whenever happens is ... [Laughs] That's my makeup.
You’ve got great style. Were you always like that, as a kid, or did you inherit this from somebody?
I was really poor, so I didn't really have very much style. I just wore whatever I could, every day. I had this pair of overalls, I probably wore like for two years straight, which I quite miss now. But no, I didn't know anything about style, I just wanted a pair of shoes. [Laughs]
Church was a time to get all fancy. My aunt had so many hats, so I would always play around in her clothes, and her hats and stuff. So maybe that's where it started.
What was your first red carpet outfit?
My first red carpet outfit was for Short Term 12, I think, and I was wearing my mom's hat and an orange button-up, and some brown pants that I had for a long time, and some moccasins I got from Payless.
Where was your first kiss?
On the playground, in Kindergarten. I had plotted for several days that I was going to kiss this girl because I liked her. I didn't know anything else other than, you kiss people you like, I guess? So I was like "Alright, I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it," and then one day I just ran up and kissed her, but we had been on the playground, so she was sweaty and then salty, and I threw up all over myself. That was the end of me runnin' up kissin' people. Lesson learned.
Did it take a few years for you to get back in the swing of things?
Yeah. Then I learned that you actually must talk to people.