Lakeith Stanfield gives polar-opposite performances in two of winter’s biggest sleeper hits. In the all-star whodunnit “Knives Out,” he plays an unflappable detective investigating the murder of a wealthy crime novelist (Christopher Plummer). In “Uncut Gems,” he’s a cocksure broker whose diamond-dealer boss (Adam Sandler) becomes engrossed in the frenzy of a high-stakes transaction involving NBA bigwig Kevin Garnett. The latter better reflects what we’ve come to expect from Stanfield, which is to say it’s much more madcap, though both rank among 2019’s best movies.
The 28-year-old actor has been a rising darling since his breakthrough roles in “Straight Outta Compton,” “Get Out” and the FX series “Atlanta.” Stanfield’s idiosyncrasies were destined for the screen. His oddball energy is countered by tender eyes and a croaky baritone; you never know whether he’s about to smile or scream. Last year’s superb dystopian romp “Sorry to Bother You” confirmed his leading-man flair, which he’ll soon bring to “The Photograph,” a romantic drama co-starring Issa Rae.
Amid the box-office success of “Knives Out” and “Uncut Gems,” as well as their ongoing awards-season acclaim, I hopped on the phone with Stanfield to process the two films and his broader career. Along the way, he talked about working with Garnett, hanging out with Chris Evans, falling asleep during “Joker” and how his scene-stealing orange “Gems” sweatshirt came about.
It’s a big moment for you. You’re in two massive hits. You must be feeling pretty good.
Isn’t it insane? It’s insane.
It’s especially nice to get to talk about box-office hits that aren’t superhero-Disney-franchise-type things that everyone expects to make a ton of money.
Definitely, man. Especially with “Gems.” I feel like that one is such a raw, broad depiction. It’s nice to see that on the big screen, man, especially with cinema being in this strange place right now where it’s becoming more and more of the same kind of manufactured stuff. It’s nice having really classic villains [with] old-school, dope, great cinema-making. And I don’t say that with all of my stuff, but that’s a really well-crafted film.
I was surprised by how restrained your “Knives Out” performance is. You’re kind of the straight man, whereas we usually see you in much more energetic roles. After hearing Daniel Craig’s big Foghorn Leghorn accent, did you feel you needed to play it chill so you would balance each other out?
No, I liked what he was doing. I like that he was making choices [and] doing some random stuff. I just felt like, for my character, it didn’t really require that. I’m glad that it worked like peanut butter and jelly for us. We complemented each other. We just let it happen naturally.
The movie has a dynamite cast across the board. Who did you bond with on the set?
A little of everyone. Plus you chill with everybody at one point or another. I get along with people. I am just going to let you do you. I will do me. Let’s make a party.
Did you guys hang out a lot throughout the shoot?
We did. Several get-togethers and situations. Chris [Evans], I think he lives close by where we were on filming. Unless it was not even his house. Him and Daniel [Craig] were hosting different things, and we were chilling. It was cool.
Did Chris Evans look as sexy in that white sweater in person as he does onscreen?
[Laughs.] I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t really looking at him. But as you said, he’s a very handsome fella.
Has Rian Johnson spoken to you about the sequel that was just announced?
Did they actually announce that? Because I’ve been hearing about it, but I didn’t know if it was really a thing. Is that a thing?
Rian said it was a few days ago. It’s going to be centered on the Daniel Craig character. I’m not sure what the rest of it will entail.
Oh, wow. OK, so Daniel’s just out here making sequels out of everything: 007, now he’s about to do “Knives Out.” He’s chilling. I love it. If they call me, I’m winning.
Most of “Knives Out” takes place in one location and has a sleekness to it, especially compared to the gritty chaos of “Uncut Gems.” Did filming them back-to-back feel like stepping into totally different worlds?
It does, for many reasons. For one, the directors are different, so they make a different environment on set. The energy is different. We were in two different locations. We shot “Knives Out” in Boston, and we shot “Uncut Gems” in the busy streets in Manhattan. Also, the cast and the people that you are working with, and the characters themselves, come with a different rhythm. So it definitely did take some adjusting, like, “OK, boom, we’re getting into a whole other type of thought.”
Did you enjoy the Safdie brothers’ way of making a movie? I gather the “Uncut Gems” set was as chaotic as the final product that we see.
You’re right, it is. It was dope. The energy was always flowing, anywhere you might be on the set. You might be experiencing something that’s interesting with a lot of the people being on set that were not actual actors, or at least not established actors at that point. And a lot of different characters in New York were walking up curious about what we were doing. There just wasn’t really a dull moment, which was dope. It was cool.
What was your first meeting with Kevin Garnett like?
It was cool. I met him on set, and it was like, “Damn, he’s tall.” Very sweet guy, smart, dedicated. He seemed like he really wanted to learn and do a good job, and he did do a good job.
What was the most chaotic “Uncut Gems” scene to shoot?
The club scene because there were 300 extras or something.
I love the neon-orange hoodie that you’re wearing in that scene. How did you guys settle on that particular hoodie? It’s sort of its own character in that scene because it stands out so much.
Yeah. The scene was a black-light scene, and the original wardrobe that I was wearing was pretty cool in the black light. But there was somebody who was in the crew who was around on the set wearing an orange sweatshirt. One of the directors, I think Josh, saw it and was like, “Yo, that shit? No, put that on.” And I was like, “Oh, OK.” So I just threw it on, and there you go.
What did you have on before that?
I think it was some kind of two-toned jacket or something.
Something not as eye-catching, I assume.
OK, that’s funny. Walk me through the introductory scene where you bring Kevin Garnett into Adam Sandler’s store and you guys are handling the diamond-encrusted Furby. Everything feels spontaneous. How did that sequence evolve?
Shooting that was on the fly. We were making it up as we go, really, so a lot of improv and the directors really just feeling it out. Here and there, they were feeding us different things to add to the scene. It was dope. It was really built from the ground up. The Furbies were already there. They were made by production. We were just finding some way to get to them in the scene.
Were you guys not really adhering to a script, per se?
At certain points. We had the spine of it and what the objectives were and what we were trying to do, but there were certain places that were definitely just improv.
So with that scene, are you just told, “You need to incorporate the Furbies somehow, so just figure it out?”
Basically, but we kind of already came up with what the story is. Yeah, there are some points in the jewelry store where we would just kind of wander around and add things in.
You’ve said that one of the characters you most want to play is the Joker, so I’m curious what you thought of “Joker” and Joaquin Phoenix in the role?
I went to the premiere, but I probably had one too many shots because I fell asleep. And then I woke up and the movie was over, so I was like, “Damn.” I still got to see it again.
Now that there’s yet another Joker adaptation in the world, do you still have as much of a desire to do the character?
Having not seen the newest one, of course, do you have an idea of the character that has not been explored yet? Or a tone for it that maybe we haven’t seen yet?
What is it?
Well, if I tell you, that would spoil it.
I guess you’re right. Have you had conversations with anybody about putting together a Joker movie of your own?
Yeah, I definitely have. I’ve been moving around, talking to different things. I’ve been writing different things. One day, it shall happen, even if I have to do it on my own. Even if we have to screen it at, like, little small theaters or something.
So you’ve been writing some Joker-specific stuff?
Yeah. I’m mixing around a little. I’ve been writing some Joker stuff, I’ve been writing some different off-color projects, things that have nothing to do with anything that I’m doing. Just trying to build my own little story. But I’m definitely going to need some help because I suck at writing.
How much does the non-Joker stuff you’re writing reflect the Lakeith Stanfield that we’ve seen in “Sorry to Bother You,” “Uncut Gems” and the other more eclectic movies that you’ve made? Do you feel like they share some spiritual DNA?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think they probably do because all of my experiences are influencing everything. So I think my experiences with those movies obviously might find themselves in some ways creeping in. Not that it’s something I’m doing consciously.
If you’re making movies written by people as smart as Boots Riley and the Safdies, you’ve got to infuse it into your bloodstream in some fashion.
Yeah, man. Experience is locked in. I feel like everything you experience is locked in and talking to your subconscious. It’s just about tapping into that.
In about a month, you have a star-driven romantic drama opening, which used to be the sort of thing that Hollywood thrived on. It’s still kind of a big deal to have an original studio movie that will open on some 3,000 screens. In that sense, does “The Photograph” feel like you’re breaking out on another level?
Well, Chris Evans told me it would be, but I don’t know. I don’t really have that experience, so maybe it will.
What did Chris Evans say?
He was like, “Bro, that’s the one.”
After “Knives Out” and “Uncut Gems,” it’s coming at the perfect time for you.
It is. It’s really cool, man. And it’s on the opposite side of the spectrum, too. It’s almost like the people that love “Knives Out,” I don’t even know if they’re the same [as the people who love “Uncut Gems”]. There’s probably a lot of crossover. It just seems like two different sides of the world.
They really do orbit in different worlds, if you will. Now that everything has taken off for you after “Atlanta” and “Get Out” first came around, do you have a sense of how you’re being perceived as an actor based on the types of roles that you’re offered?
I think so, a little. I don’t think these people have seen anything yet. They think they have, but they haven’t seen me yet. I’ve only got a little drop in the bucket.
I like the sound of that. Do you have a specific idea about what we haven’t seen, or will you know it when you see it?
I think it’s a combination of both. There are things I know people haven’t seen that I still have, and there are things I feel like I can grow into and bring out of myself eventually. The goal is to go through the experience.
This interview has been edited and condensed.