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.
Best Performances: Featuring Nicole Kidman, Claire Foy, Rami Malek, and 29 of Hollywood’s Biggest Stars
Claire Foy wears a Burberry top, corset dress, socks, and shoes; Charvet scarf. Emily Blunt wears a Burberry dress, shirt, socks, and shoes; stylist’s own top.
Kiki Layne wears a Prada top and headband; Tiffany & Co. earrings. Jonah Hill wears The Row jacket, shirt, and tie.
Margot Robbie wears a Chanel cardigan and skirt; stylist’s own top. Michael B. Jordan wears a Calvin Klein 205W39NYC cardigan and vest; Brioni trousers.
Nicole Kidman wears an Armani Privé dress; Cartier earrings; Cornelia James gloves; stylist’s own veil.
Mahershala Ali wears a Prada suit; his own top and bracelet. Amy Adams wears a Givenchy dress and belt.
Eddie Redmayne wears a Givenchy shirt and pants. Rami Malek wears a Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello shirt.
Saoirse Ronan wears a Celine by Hedi Slimane dress.
Nicole Kidman in Boy Erased and Destroyer
“In Destroyer, I play a cop who’s been through a lot—she’s very American, very angry, distressed, and disturbed. I wasn’t the first choice for that role—it went to somebody else and she didn’t want to do it. I read the script and put my hand up and said, ‘What about me?’ ” Did the wardrobe contribute to the character? We took so long to find the leather jacket that I wear in pretty much every frame of the film. I became so obsessed with that jacket, I would wear it at home. I put it on first thing in the morning. My kids visited the set and were shocked at the way I looked. You know, I’ve been working as an actor since I was 14 years old. It’s a choice, but it’s also a calling. Sometimes, I kind of try to move away, but it always pulls me back.
Comme des Garçons coat, T-shirt, skirt, tights, and boots; headpiece by hairstylist Malcolm Edwards. Inflatable latex costumes by artist Sasha Frolova (throughout).
Amy Adams in Vice
“My role in Vice is Lynne Cheney, Dick Cheney’s wife. It’s a huge responsibility to play a living person. I didn’t meet Lynne, and that’s interesting too—playing somebody who’s alive but whom you’ve never met. Plus, I age from 20 to 70 in the film, so that was another challenge.” Did her conservative politics affect your performance? I really just absorbed her point of view. Whether I agree with it or not doesn’t really matter. To get into character, I would have long debates about policy and politics as Lynne Cheney with our director, Adam McKay. I called him many names. I teased him about wearing shorts on set and how that was disrespectful. But I didn’t swear, because Lynne wouldn’t swear.
Valentino gown; Valentino Garavani earrings; Marc Jacobs boots.
Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots and On Chesil Beach
“This is the first time I’ve played any queen or monarch. Mary had to hold herself in a certain way when she was presenting herself at court, but when she was on her own, in her intimate quarters, she was quite different. I began to feel like a bit of a boss. A boss queen!” Did you learn any royal skills? Yes, I learned to ride. My horse in the film was also Wonder Woman’s horse—his name is Prince, and he is the biggest diva I’ve ever met. Prince doesn’t do anything for anyone, especially me, and had a nervous cough that you’d hear right before we’d do a take. Everything I did was for that horse, just to get his approval.
Balenciaga dress and shoes.
Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You
“The director of the film, Boots Riley, had been following me for quite a while before I finally met him. He handed me the script for Sorry to Bother You literally put it in my hands. I was like, Who is this strange person? When I read the script, I realized I had no idea how deeply strange he is. But his strangeness revealed itself to be another form of beauty.” Growing up, who was your cinematic crush? Jennifer Love Hewitt. I loved her. I couldn’t comprehend anything, except that she was beautiful. What’s your favorite Halloween costume? I’m always the Joker. Every year. Soon there will be a black Joker movie, and it will be me.
Maison Margiela Artisanal Men’s Designed by John Galliano suit; Tiffany & Co. earrings; John Hardy cross necklace; Chrome Hearts thick chain; Hoorsenbuhs long chain; Stanfield’s own rings.
Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots
What was your first red-carpet outfit? I was 18. The Australian equivalent of the Emmys is called the Logies, and I was nominated. It was my big moment, the biggest thing that had happened to me. So I went all out on the dress: It was very short at the front, long at the back, lots of layers, bright colors, and shiny fabric. It was, like, orange, black, orange, black—with a big bow at the back. I had stipple-looking hair, and I was very tan. It was…a look. I don’t regret it, because I was 18 and having fun. I can dress boring for the rest of my life.
Staud coat; Giu Giu turtleneck; Vex Clothing tights; Urstadt Swan gloves; Manolo Blahnik shoes; stylist’s own veil.
Timothée Chalamet in Beautiful Boy
“Beautiful Boy [which is about a father and his son, who is addicted to drugs] was a script they’d been trying to get made for 10 years. Every guy actor my age had gone up for it. I’ve been lucky, but a lot of the bigger Hollywood movies like Spider-Man, things like that, I didn’t get. So, for Beautiful Boy, I did a lot of research and read about drugs, and I brought the books to my first meeting with the director. I could see in his eyes that he was thinking, This kid is nuts. But I felt this movie—the subject of drug addiction—was so important. I wanted to make an anti-glorification-of-drugs movie. And I think we did.” Did you meet Nic Sheff, whom you play in the film? Yes. I met him a week before we started shooting. And there was nothing about Nic that fit my stereotype of an addict. That was the learning grace of this movie: Nic is alive and well, but the reality is, it’s a day at a time. You never really beat it. You lost so much weight. Was your mom worried about you? My mom was worried! I lost 18 pounds. First, I’m in a movie where I was having sex with a peach, and then it was like, “I got another movie!” She said, “Great!” And then I had to tell her what it was about.
Claire Foy in First Man
Growing up, what was your favorite toy? I had a disgusting pillow until I was about 21. Shamefully, I took it to university. Do you get nervous before filming? Oh, yes, I get nervous. It’s a gradual process of trying to work yourself up to being brave enough to be on set. You always worry that everyone’s going to say, “Ooh, we’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake.” What was the name of your first pet? Thumper. And the first street that you lived on? I don’t know. So you’re a one-name sensation: Thumper is your porno name. Thumper it is.
Burberry cape; Falconiere bonnet.
Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
What was the first record you bought? Bon Jovi. “Livin’ on a Prayer” is such a good song. I love a good emotional ballad. The greatest YouTube hole to go down is Leona Lewis when she was on The X Factor. Every week, she just came and delivered. Occasionally she’d take her shoes off. Do you watch other reality shows? I’m quite excited because The Hills, which is my original reality-TV guilty pleasure, is coming back. I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Heidi Montag. Do you have a secret skill? Yes. I’m incredibly good at being early. I’m always the person who gets to the airport four hours early. I drive everyone crazy.
Dior Men jacket and pants; Urstadt Swan gloves; Givenchy boots.
Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther
Do you have a favorite movie villain? For me, it’s a tie between Heath Ledger as the Joker and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. Villains, like Erik Killmonger in Black Panther, are the most interesting characters. They are the ones you can empathize with—they want you to not like them, but you can still understand their motivation.Even though you’re the villain in Black Panther, do people on the street still say “Wakanda forever” to you? They don’t immediately realize that my character is not exactly pro-Wakanda. Midway through saying something, it registers: Oh, he wasn’t really with Wakanda. But by then they’ve already committed.
Is it difficult to act when you’re basically naked? I’m always naked. So, no.
Joanna Kulig in Cold War
“The director, Pawel Pawlikowski, wrote the part of Zula for me. I knew that the inspiration for the character came from his mother. Zula is her real name, and, like me, she was blonde. I saw her photo.” Was that the hardest part about portraying the character? No. The hardest part was the dancing. In general, I have a problem with coordination. I spent six months in a Polish folk ensemble learning how to dance. We partied together, we drank together, and we’d dance for six hours during a concert. It was like a family, and I started to build the character of Zula. Soon, I had her thoughts and personality. And I finally learned how to dance!
Chloé dress; Louis Vuitton hat.
Elizabeth Debicki in Widows
“I was a dancer for many, many years, and I thought I was going to be a ballerina. When I was about 12, I went to a summer school for the Australian ballet and I was already taller than my teacher. So I remember saying to myself, I’m going to have to rethink this plan.” Did you audition for Widows? Yes, I put myself on tape in my friend’s garage. How glamorous! I remember wearing a lot of eyeliner. I picked out some hoop earrings. And, funnily enough, in the finished film, she ended up looking a lot like she did in my test.
Marc Jacobs coat; Noel Stewart headpiece; Cornelia James gloves; Falke tights; Vivienne Westwood shoes.
Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk
“I took a break from making films. My son, Ian, was getting to the age, around sixth grade, when kids are starting to spread their wings, and everything that was being offered to me was outside of Los Angeles, except for TV. I didn’t want to travel to make films. So I like to say I was one of the first movie actors who made the leap into television.” Do they call Beale Street your comeback film? I like to use the LL Cool J song: “Don’t call it comeback. I been here for years.”
Givenchy dress; Graham Tyler hat; Linda Farrow sunglasses.
Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate
“I painted in a movie called To Live and Die in L.A., but it wasn’t about painting—it was more about counterfeiting and killing people. In playing Vincent van Gogh, painting was the key to the character. I had to know what I was doing. The director, Julian Schnabel, would say, ‘Hold the brush like a sword’ and ‘There’s no such thing as a bad mark.’ I began to think that painting is about making an accumulation of marks. Acting is the same: You create a character scene by scene. It’s a series of marks that start a rhythm, and that rhythm sends you where you need to go.” Who is your cinematic crush? Warren Oates. When I saw him perform, I thought, That’s not an actor, that’s a man. It kind of broke my heart to find out he was actually a trained actor.
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Leave No Trace
“I play a girl who is with her father in the wild, far away from civilization. Since I live in New Zealand and couldn’t fly to America, I auditioned on tape. We had a lot of props: a bucket, a toothbrush, a sleeping bag, and a rabbit named Coco. I also ran through the New Zealand bush with a GoPro in my mouth and sent that off as well. I didn’t meet the director in person. Six months later, on Christmas, I found out that I had gotten the part.”
Moschino Couture dress; Capezio tights; Sergio Rossi shoes.
Steven Yeun in Burning
“I like filming death scenes. When I was on The Walking Dead, I had known for some time about my character’s death. I was really excited for that day—I was looking forward to getting my skull bashed in. In Burning, my death scene was really fun. That was the only time it snowed, which was unexpected, and it added some magic to the moment. Everybody fantasizes about what it would be like to die. If I could make a career out of being killed, it would be okay.” Do you have a secret skill? Yes. I’m really good at getting parking spots. I’m so confident that the spot is going to be there, that it’s always there. Right in front.
Gucci jacket, shirt, pants, hat, and shoes; Charvet tie.
Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade
“I have been acting since I was 5. My first job was doing the voice of Agnes, the youngest daughter, with the big ponytail on top of her head, in Despicable Me. I was in the sequel, but I was too old for Despicable Me 3, because I can’t do my 5-year-old voice anymore.” In Eighth Grade, there is a pool-party scene that is nerve-wracking. You wear a very awkward green bathing suit. Yes, it is anxiety inducing. I did not pick the bathing suit. They wanted a lime green one so my character would stick out. I still have it. I mean, I don’t go to the pool that much, but that’s my bathing suit now. I love it.
Gucci dress; Eugenia Kim hat; Sophie Buhai necklace.
Jonah Hill in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
In the film, your character, Donny, has a fantastic fashion sense. One of the things that inspired me was a photograph of Yves Saint Laurent in Morocco in the ’70s. I looked at it and was like, Oh, level-10 Marrakech! So Donny wears a lot of caftans and Moroccan stuff in the movie—kind of our Tom Petty and Yves Saint Laurent level-10 Marrakech. He also has a very calm, Zen outlook on life. Donny had conquered a lot of the things that were dark and demonic about himself, and he was able to be peaceful and calm. That was a joy to play. I miss being Donny— even his long blond hair. What was your most memorable birthday? My mom once sent a mariachi band to play my favorite song, “Feliz Navidad.” It was winter in New York and eight mariachis played my song. I was like, “Am I hallucinating right now?”
Raf Simons coat; the Row T-shirt and jeans; Paul Smith boots.
Kiki Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk
How did you find out you had the part in Beale Street? It was nine in the morning and Barry Jenkins, the director, called and woke me up. He just got to talking and didn’t introduce himself. Finally, he said, “Girl, do you even know who you’re talking to?” He went on to tell me that they were giving me the role! I was trying to rush him off the phone so I could really go crazy and cry and call my mama. What is your go-to karaoke song? “Drunk in Love,” by Beyoncé. Especially if you’ve got somebody that’ll hold down Jay Z’s part. That’s definitely the move. I feel like you have mood hair: Sometimes it’s long, sometimes it’s short—up, down. Oh, yeah, we gotta switch it up. You never really know how it’s gonna be: Will it be curly? Straight? And watch out when those colors start coming in!
Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello dress and boots; Prada headband; Tiffany & Co. earrings.
Carey Mulligan in Wildlife
“Paul Dano, who cowrote and directed Wildlife, called me and said he was going to send me the script. I was kind of flattered that he thought I could play Jeanette.” She’s a tormented character. Did you have trouble shaking her off at the end of the day? No. When you’ve got kids, they expect you to come home and be Mom, not some weird drunk woman. At the end of the day, I take off that hat, leave that person at work, and come home and watch the Food Network. I love Chopped. They make disgusting things, but I do like Bobby Flay. Chopped and Bobby Flay are the perfect antidote to films like Wildlife.
Michael Kors Collection dress; vintage hat from New York Vintage, New York; Tiffany & Co. earrings; Carolina Amato gloves; Capezio tights; Jimmy Choo shoes.
Yalitza Aparicio (far left) in Roma
“The shoot for Roma lasted six months. We shot in chronological order. It was a very long process for me. I had not seen any of Alfonso Cuarón’s films. I actually didn’t know who he was. Alfonso asked me not to watch any of his films until we were done with the filming. He didn’t want me poisoning my mind with any images or ideas.”
Marina de Tavira in Roma
“I was the only actor in Roma with any previous experience. It was really challenging. First-time actors—and many of them were children—have a completely different way of working. Alfonso Cuarón would play tricks on us—make things happen that we were not expecting. That way, he made real life appear on set.”
From left: Valentino gown. The Row gown; Tiffany & Co. earrings.
Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns
“The hardest thing about playing Mary Poppins was learning how to dance. One day, you’re handed a hat and a cane, and I was like, Oh, my God. And, also, the initial idea of taking on a character that iconic was daunting. But once I got over my fears, it was deliciously fun.” What was your first red-carpet outfit? It was for My Summer of Love, and I was far too tanned. I was wearing a very bright yellow dress. I always laugh at how sweaty I looked. Horrible. Who is your girl crush? Rihanna. I mean, come on. She’s smoking.
Louis Vuitton coat; Eugenia Kim hat; Manokhi gloves.
Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody
“The first thing I auditioned for I almost wasn’t allowed to audition for. I got a call from a casting director, and she asked to speak to the agent representing Rami Malek. I said, ‘Uh, speaking.’ She kind of laughed and said, ‘Call me when you have an agent.’ I go, ‘You’re already laughing—give me a shot.’ It was three lines in Gilmore Girls. I convinced her to let me read, and I got the part.” Besides in the film, have you ever sung any Queen songs in public? In Japan, with our version of the band, we dressed up in animal onesies and did “Bohemian Rhapsody,” like the original video. It was filmed, and I’m sure someone will get drunk and throw it out there into the ether.
Officine Générale pants; Atsuko Kudo Couture Latex Design gloves.