She beat 300 rivals to the role after what she describes as a “chemistry reading” with co-star Stephan James. Her debut lead role in Oscar winning Barry Jenkins’s film “If Beale Street Could Talk” does not filter her performance. What she “loved” about Barry was his “patience” as a director and she points out “that can be seen in the film”. It was last year that we spoke to Layne already a press junket pro she shared with us what she liked most about the film, working with Jenkins and how she “hopes the film encourages real life conversations of us being more open about how painful you know some of the things that black men/we experience”
ALT: Tell us about Tish, her motivations?
Kiki Layne: Tish is you know, is the one of the beautiful things about this film. You get to see Tish.. really see her grow into herself as a woman. But I think what’s beautiful about her is that she’s so open and vulnerable and that even in these circumstances that isn’t lost. I think the circumstances can definitely harden a lot of people and that does not happen to her. And I think another of the beautiful things about Tish is that her strength is so much, in how vulnerable she is and how hard she loves, and she finds you know so much power in that especially as she is learning that she has her own family to take care of and to stand up for.
AA: How does the character resonate with you?
KL: You know what’s interesting, me and Tish are actually so different. But when I first learned about the project through helping a friend with his audition for Fonny I really felt something in my spirit just leap and say but that’s me and I still feel like I don’t know what that is just because I feel like we’re so different. So, I really I had to learn a lot about vulnerability, and I had to learn a lot about you know this new way of seeing a strong black woman portrayed that I just hadn’t seen before. And so yeah actually I learned a lot, just from how different we are actually.
AA: In regards to adapting the book for screen how much was changed?
KL: No, I mean Barry overall really did a great job of just staying true, to you know Baldwin’s words and Baldwin’s vision for these characters. I think it was especially important you know for Tish because she is the centre of the film. She is the narrator, I definitely, very definitely stuck to what Baldwin had to say about Tish and you know who she was as a character.
AA: The book was published in the early 70’s, then it was described as a book that humanizes black men. So why do you think that is?
KL: I mean it’s,…. I think a lot of the people in these situations you know, dealing with wrongful incarceration, you know police brutality in the community, a lot of the people that experience this I think are reduced to statistics and just like oh this number of black men in this percentage of this, etc. You know this book and this film force you to see the humanity of these people because you are forced to see that these are members of people’s families, of communities. These are people who you know love and are loved. And I think that’s what’s special about what Beale Street does is that it gives you this full picture of these people that I feel like who are often reduced to some type of statistic or some victim of something, but these are full human beings with full lives that often get forgotten as a result of these circumstances. And so I think that’s really something that’s so special about Beale Street (BOOK) and then with the film adaptation something really special about that is that we have these moments of these characters looking directly into the camera which then forces the audience to look these people in the eye and recognize that although you know Tish and Fonny are fictional characters they are representative of real people in these circumstances and you have to look them in the eye and look their humanity in the eye and receive all of that.
AA: Just picking up on what you said about real circumstance. Do you think it’s is a bit sad that in 2018 that we are still get excited about Black love and Black love scenes? What is amiss?
KL: Definitely so much progress still which has to be made. You know we are still dealing with issues that are in the book in the early 1970s, we are still experiencing those same exact things today you know heading into 2019. But you know cinema and media overall has always had a very you know narrow vision of what the black experience looks like. And so, we are in a time where I think more black artists and creators are starting to take more control of getting our stories told and getting our stories told in a way that you know historically just has not happened in Hollywood. So yeah I haven’t seen a black love story like this but I’m praying that you know this is the beginning of us seeing you know more and more and more so that it doesn’t become this like I don’t know when it happens it’s like oh this thing that rarely ever happens is happening. I’m hoping that it’s more you know black artists and creators starts to take more control that it will become more of the norm in terms of the images that we are seeing about black love and the black experience as a whole.
AA: So, can you tell us how did you landed the role?
KL: So I actually found out that the film was being cast because one of my friends was auditioning for the role of Fonny and he thought that would be great as his reader you know reading Tish and so that’s how I found out the film is being cast but it wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that I was able to submit my own tape for the project and then from there I was in New York doing the chemistry read with Stephan who had by that time already been cast. So yeah that was kind of my how I found my way into the role.
AA: Talking roles and obviously you are the leading lady in this role. Do you think the #TimesUP movement is liberating black women say perhaps helping you at this moment?
KL: I mean we still have a long way to go but you know what is wonderful about these movements is that it is giving women I feel, we are feeling more supported by each other. So that if you do experience you know something painful or uncomfortable working in the industry you know to speak out now. I feel like you have people behind you who will hold you up and support you through that instead of being ostracized. And so, I definitely think it is the beginning of something that will really bless a lot of women coming into the industry. I know I definitely feel thankful to be coming up in the industry at a time where being more vocal about things that have historically just been accepted as part of life, as that’s the Hollywood way. And now we have people saying no no that’s not but that’s how it’s been but it’s wrong and it’s not how it should be and it’s not how it will be. And so, I think it’s definitely the beginning of major major shifts happening in the industry.
AA: So, talking about natural major shifts, we have seen Lupita and yourself, black women with natural hair, a rarity and in Hollywood, in Nollywood, anywhere?
KL: I mean I know there was a time you just you just wouldn’t see it because I mean we feel like from a young age that you know to have your natural hair was some type of.. I don’t know it was inferior. And so, I think we all experience the hot comb and the relaxer. Now it’s beautiful that there’s so many more images of black women just being their natural selves. You know how we were created and embracing that and believing that is beautiful. I think it’s something really special about Beale Street that you know here’s this young black woman you know with dark skin and natural hair who is loved so hard. You know watching it I realized I haven’t really seen this I’ve not seen someone who looks like that be loved like that by her man, by her family. And so, it’s so important I guess is so important and I know for me seeing everything with Lupita I mean that encouraged me to feel more confident about myself and more confident in my chocolate skin and my natural hair. So, it’s very important to keep putting those images out there. We need to see more images of black women just loving themselves as themselves.
AA: What was it like working with Barry Jenkins?
KL: Now working with Berry was amazing. My favourite thing about working with him was just how patient he is, and I think you see that reflected in his work. You know there’s some moments that I feel like other filmmakers you know would cut away from you know a lot sooner. But he’s just so patient with everyone which makes you feel so safe and supported as you are you know trying these new things and you know even passively making mistakes. And so that was my favourite thing about working with him. And he’s also just fun. He might not come off like that immediately, but Barry is so fun it was just great.
AA: With your character Tish did you stick to the script?
KL: We definitely stuck to the script and I mean it’s the words of James Baldwin. You know you really you don’t really need to make too many adjustments. I mean it’s so much it’s just greatness right there on the page. And so yeah we definitely stuck pretty verbatim to the script.
AA: When did you discover Baldwin?
KL: I don’t know exactly when but my introduction to Baldwin was through online content speeches and interviews know things like that. It wasn’t until preparing for my chemistry read that I read Beale Street. And that was the first novel of his that I read.
AA: Is Beale Street on the American curriculum, do you read Baldwin at high school?
KL: I think for some like I’ve heard some people say oh yeah we had to read you know read that in high school or maybe read another one of his works. It wasn’t a part of my curriculum growing up, it should be. Oh yeah. my introduction was through online media.
AA: In terms of the Black male relationships and how Jenkins depicted it, that whole experience was very poignant. So why is that important?
KL: I mean overall in the film you see all of these different very variations of what you know black love can look like and so seeing these relationships in a particular way between two black men. The scene between Fonny and his friend Daniel I think is a beautiful representation of two black men just really being open and vulnerable with each other and speaking to the truth of the pain that is so unique to the black male experience and so to see two you know, two black men just being that honest about how painful it can be I think is a really really special thing that I hope encourages real life conversations of us being more open about how painful some of the things that we experience can be because I think we hold on to a lot. So, you see in this film a lot of people being open and vulnerable about the things that actually really hurts.
AA: They say art mirrors life, do you think that films like Beale Street are part of a healing process that we’re going through?
KL: I think people you know will find some healing in this film because I think it starts with just an acknowledgement of the full humanity of these people and being you know made aware of that. Because I think often when you hear stories about you know this instance of police brutality, the instance of you know someone being wrongfully incarcerated like you only hear about that part and maybe you know the initial thing that maybe led up to that one incident that is not told. That they have whole lives, that they have left people behind. And I think in acknowledging that you know it builds this different awareness, you know a way of acknowledging the full humanity of these people and I think there is some healing that can start to happen when you see the full picture of what you know who these people were represent.
AA: If you could say in one sentence what would you want people to take away from this film.
KL: That you know its love is the strongest weapon that we have in the face of adversity.
If Beale Street Could Talk is on UK release nationwide from 14 February 2019. Read our review here:
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