There are many notable young actresses in Hollywood, but only a handful who have the kind of meteoric rise that we’ve seen with Kiki Layne. Since her 2018 feature-film debut in the Barry Jenkins–helmed If Beale Street Could Talk, Layne has made commanding choices, both professionally (seeking smart, meaningful projects that have cultural impact, including 2019’s Native Son and Captive State) and on the red carpet (working with celebrated styling duo Wayman and Micah).
This summer, we get to see another facet of Layne’s on-screen prowess: action star (in Netflix’s The Old Guard). And later this year another, when she flexes her comedic muscle in the highly anticipated sequel Coming 2 America. Layne sees no bounds when it comes to her artistry, and these exciting twists and turns in her résumé make her a unique presence in the industry. "Of course, I want to do these very powerful films and to send that message, but I’m also an actor because it’s exciting,” she tells me from her family home in Cincinnati. She is back in Ohio after spending the last few months quarantining alone in Los Angeles. While Layne admits sheltering in place solo was challenging, she took the time to do things not often afforded to a successful working actor: check in with herself, connect with friends and family via FaceTime, and revisit important career goals. First on the list? To do "a little bit of everything.”
As we consider Layne’s drive to do it all (her mission to defy industry norms, her genre-spanning career, and her notable fashion sense), we can be sure of one thing: We will always tune in.
This summer, audiences get to see yet another facet of your wide-ranging acting skills in the Netflix film The Old Guard. Hello, action star! How much fun did you have working on this project?
The very first thing that interested me in the project was just the opportunity to work with Gina [Prince-Bythewood]. Even before I read the graphic novel and some of the script, I had a meeting with Skydance, and they mentioned that Gina was a part of this project and there might be a role in it for me, and that’s all it took! Then, once I read it and learned Charlize [Theron] was attached, I was like, I need to be a part of this. Once we got into actually preparing for it, it was very different for me. I have never done anything so physically demanding. You have to get adjusted to all of the training and learning the fight choreography and the weapons and all of that, so thankfully, the team that we were working with made it super fun because there were definitely moments where I was like, girl, what have you gotten yourself into? The stunt guys and stunt choreographer were all super dope and supportive because they knew they were throwing a lot at me, but they definitely made it a fun and also safe environment to be in. And then it was cool watching [the film] and seeing how it all came together. I’m like, oh shit. This is insane!
You don’t often see women at the center of action films, but this film focuses on two strong female leads, which is refreshing.
Oh definitely, definitely. Usually for women in these types of projects, they are maybe the love interest or the damsel in distress. They are the side story, but for this film to be really centered on these two women and to see them leading this small group of men, I think that’s super dope. And then also showing the industry, and the world, we are kick-ass too. I know how to shoot and blow shit up and throw a punch and kick some ass as well, and it’s not any less interesting because I am a woman. We are extremely strong. It’s shifting the narrative to say look, I’m perfectly capable of doing these things, and it’s just as interesting.
Charlize Theron is no stranger to the action genre, and the two of you have a pretty skillful fight scene early on. How was it going toe-to-toe with Charlize?
You know, that was insane. That was actually the very first thing that we shot for the film, and I was just like, what have I gotten myself into? Am I actually ready for this? What if I actually hit her? Oh my goodness, I’m never going to work again! Thankfully, I had Charlize, who was like, relax. It was cool, though, because immediately I got to see how hard of a worker and how knowledgeable Charlize is and what she brings to set every day and that commitment, which I really respected so much. I knew from that first week working with her that I was going to walk away from this film having learned so much. I could just see that immediately. And then also, just feeling very grateful, honestly, to see where my career has taken me so far. Here I am on set doing an action film and, above all things too, with Charlize! And being a part of Gina’s first entry into action drama and a film of this size, which was nice because we could kind of lean on each other and understand and support each other because we were both coming from these quiet films and smaller budgets and all of that.
Your character, Nile, learns early on that with immortality comes loneliness, which got me thinking about your own quarantine experience. I saw on Instagram that you were in Los Angeles by yourself. How did you overcome any loneliness that came with that experience?
I honestly don’t even know if I overcame it. I was just like, this is what it is. I was committed to making sure that I was taking the time to do things that, you know, our lives in the industry often do not give us time to do. So just really checking in with myself, getting clear about different goals that I may want to start working toward with the time that I have, and just trying to find ways to be productive but also really checking in with how I take care of myself in this. I just tried to use the time wisely because the way the industry works, once this time is gone, we’re back at it, we’re doing all of these different things and being pulled in all of these different directions, so I really wanted to make sure that I got some things done and reflected in a way that I don’t always have the time to. So although it was tough, I’m actually very thankful for all of that time because I feel like it helped me strengthen the foundation of where my career will continue to go based on the things I’ve learned about myself by having this time to even dig that deep.
I want to touch on your next project, Coming 2 America. With this, we get to see yet another facet from you: comedy. Can you tell me a little about your experience working on this film?
Every day on the set, I thought, Am I really in this movie right now? Because you are just watching a bunch of legends work and being able to just sit back and learn. And then at the same time, I got to work with Jermaine Fowler, who is up-and-coming himself, and so it was nice to have him there showing a lot of love and support and encouragement because this is my first time doing a comedy, and he was very encouraging to help me step outside the box and try improvising a little bit more. So all the way around, there are so many wonderful people I got to work with, so I’m super excited for Coming 2 America. I think people are going to lose their minds and really enjoy it.
Let’s back it up a bit. When and how did performance become an important part of your life?
It’s always been a part of me, actually. I’ve always been into it since I was a little girl. I started going to a performing arts school when I was 7 or 8 here in Cincinnati, so that’s when I started to study drama and acting, and it never left. I ended up going to college for it in Chicago, and after I graduated from DePaul, working in the theater scene, I was like, I want to see what L.A. has to offer me, so I decided to take that leap of faith. But yeah, I’ve always wanted to do it. I feel like I’m one of those people; this is truly what I was born to do, what I have been called to do.
What were some of the performances that solidified your pursuit to become an actor?
You know, it’s interesting, I don’t even remember watching or seeing anything that made me say I want to act. I’ve just always wanted to do it. But definitely a performance that I always go back to that was oh, so this is what acting can really be is Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got To Do With It. That performance blew my mind. And even Viola Davis in Doubt. I’m like, how did you just come in here and do that? Those are two performances, in particular, that made me go, oh, okay—so it can look like that for me as a Black actress. I can come up and do meaningful work.
You moved to Hollywood and shortly thereafter landed the lead role in Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, which was followed by an award season run. A breakout moment like that can lead to a lot of open doors in Hollywood. Have you found that to be the case for you?
What was nice about being introduced to the world with Beale Street is it kind of made it clear the type of work and the type of artist that I am and the types of stories that I love to be a part of telling. I think it made it clear that I wasn’t just coming in to be a part of the Hollywood scene. I’m glad that I could be introduced to the world and the industry in a way that clearly shows I am here to be an artist and to create on a deeper level. Of course, I still want to do super-fun things, like I have Coming 2 America, but I still want to be a part of that and just ultimately be a part of projects and doing roles that historically the industry has overlooked. I want to break down those barriers. I’m thankful because I feel like I’m starting to lay the groundwork with that. But then it’s also great because Beale Street is what broke me into fashion in a way that I had only dreamed about. I mean, man, that first award run… I’m like, what am I wearing? Wayman and Micah, they are so special and just so amazing at what they do.
Oh yes, we will definitely be talking about your work with Wayman and Micah, but first, I want to talk about your project-picking philosophies. Your art contains a lot of powerful messaging. How consciously are you thinking about that as scripts come in?
It’s kind of what I touched on earlier. Is it pushing the boundaries? Is it out of that box of the assumption of what a Black actress believes in and even a dark-skinned Black actress, what we are capable of and what roles make sense for us? I think Hollywood for a long time has made it clear that this is where darker-skin actresses belong, and the type of roles that we are expected [to play] or roles that Hollywood just believes oh that’s what this type of actress is capable of doing. I’m very much still committed to breaking out of that and not being limited in the ways that I express my artistry and my gift, because to me, that defeats the purpose of being an actor. That’s the point of being an actor. You get to play so many things that are outside of yourself. I made it clear to my team, I want you all to send me things, even if you are unsure. This something she would be interested in—just send it to me because even if it’s that little bit of a question, I want to see it. Thankfully, my team has been very supportive in that as well because of course I want to do these very powerful films and to send that message, but I’m also an actor because it’s exciting and I want that to be a part of my career as well—to do a little bit of everything. A career I look up to the most is Will Smith because, to me, he is an actor who seriously has done it all. I don’t think there is any genre that Will Smith hasn’t done, and so it’s to the point that no matter what, if it’s announced tomorrow that Will Smith is doing, I don’t know, whatever type of movie it may be, whatever type of role it may be, no one is really going to question that. Nobody is going to be like, Wait what? He is doing what? That’s what I want is to have that ability, that there really is no box.
You’ve spoken out about the lack of great roles for Black women. Is there a role you’d like to explore but haven’t had the opportunity to yet?
I mean, there is so much just because I’m just getting started. I’d love to do something kind of darker, almost like a villain and something that is dark and gritty. That would be kind of cool. Literally, I’m open to anything and everything. That’s just how I try to approach it if it’s speaking to me or there is some type of connection, like this would be really fun to do, or I just want to support the other artists who are a part of it. There are so many things that I think about.
We are starting to see more Black stories at the forefront in Hollywood thanks to Black creators like Lena Waithe, Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, and Ryan Coogler, to name just a few, but there is still a long way to go. How do you hope the industry moves things forward even further for people of color?
I think it’s us continuing to take matters into our own hands. I think that’s been one of the biggest differences in what we’re seeing with the industry right now is that instead of waiting around for old white Hollywood to give us opportunities, there are so many ways to create and get our own content out ourselves, and so I think we’re seeing a lot more Black creators and Black people in positions of power and with the ability to create and get the work out there. Hollywood has had a very limited view of what Black life looks like, and so it’s taking all these Black creators to show that it also could look like this, and we also think like this and love like this and experience life like this. I’m thankful to be coming up in an industry at a time when there are more Black artists who are committed to getting those stories out and giving us the same amount of work to explore life in all the different ways life happens and give us the opportunities that the white actors in Hollywood have been given.
Who are the creators on your radar that we should be paying attention to right now?
I love Lena [Waithe]. I hope we get to work together at some point. I’m excited for Nia DaCosta; she just directed Candyman. I’m excited for her because she is super dope. Who else am I excited about? Oh, Katori Hall! I’m excited for P-Valley. She is a playwright, so I know her work from doing theater. I’m excited to see her working more and breaking into the TV-and-film space.
Fashion is such a big part of Hollywood, especially for female actors. It’s considered important to have relationships with designers, participate in fashion week, brand deals, etc. Do you enjoy all of that?
Oh, I love it! I love it so much. Also, working with Wayman and Micah makes it even more fun, getting to experience all of that and building relationships with the brands and designers and having the greater knowledge of fashion. And it’s just an opportunity to play dress-up, which I’m still young enough at heart to be like, yes, more of this.
You have been working with stylists Wayman and Micah since the beginning. Do you remember your first meeting with them? At what point did you know that it was going to be a good match?
It’s funny to hear their side of the story because I think they had seen Beale Street, and they were like, "Aw, she looks so sweet,” and I guess I maybe looked, I don’t know, a little shorter. And they were like, "You walked in, and we see this 5’10” glamazon model walking into Soho House, and we were like, Damn, is that her?!” Once I was talking to them, I appreciated that they spoke to me in a way that they were like, we are committed to what stories are we telling and how that story supports the type of work that you want to do and how you want to be seen in the industry and how we can use fashion to support that image and that narrative that people are starting to develop about you. I just appreciated that they spoke about it in a way that went deeper than just, you know, fancy dresses and really cool looks. They spoke about it in a way like this can be a way to support what I’m actually here to do because I am an actor and an artist first, so the fashion and everything that we do there, how does that support what I’m trying to accomplish as an actor? So yeah, from that meeting, I knew these were the stylists for me, and I could just tell that we would have a lot of fun as well.
There is always this wow moment when their clients step onto a red carpet. What do you personally love about their fashion point of view?
I love that they recognize it as a way to support us, and I love how they carry themselves. They are so fun and respectful, and I think that’s why they are able to do the things with their clients that they are able to do. Like hey, first Golden Globes custom Christian Dior because they have such a clear love and respect for it. There is something really genuine about their approach to it, and I think that’s why you see that they attract genuine artists to them.
If Beale Street Could Talk was not just your first feature film; it also marked your first award season run. You said in a past interview that red carpets make you very nervous. How did your styling and glam team help you find confidence in that space?
They are so amazing at what they do. Having Wayman and Micah and Larry [Sims] and also working with Lacy Redway—I’m working with people who so clearly love what they do, but they also want to try new things and all take some risks as a team effort. So getting ready for the carpet, they are all just such great people themselves in addition to great artists, so they know how I get before a carpet [laughing], so they try to be there and be encouraging but also give me my space because everyone recognizes okay, this is just what Kiki has to go through before she steps out there and becomes a whole new person. Once I’m out there, it turns on as soon as the first flash. It’s kind of insane how nervous I get. There are just so many things that you are thinking about, but once that first flash hits, it’s kind of like all of that goes, and we’re here, so just work it.
Of all the looks you have worked on together, is there one that stands out to you?
The very first one that popped into my head was from the LACMA gala this past year with the green sequin Gucci dress. That look and the way it all came together was just like, wait what?! That look will always be a top look for the team I think. What Larry did with that [hair], when he walked in and got to talking about it. He has such a creative mind, and I just said, "Larry, just do it.” And once he executed it, I was like, oh my God. And once Rebekah [Aladdin] got there and she saw it, she was like, "Oh, okay. We are going to keep the makeup really clean because that hair is about to be the talk of the town.” And then once we put the dress on with it and just how perfectly it fit me, I mean, we all were like, oh my God. So that will always be a highlight for us.
Handwriting: Kiki Layne. Imagery: licensed from a prior 2019 feature.
Jessica Baker is Who What Wear’s Executive Director, Entertainment, where she ideates, books, writes, and edits celebrity and entertainment features.