Plucked from obscurity by Moonlight director Barry Jenkins to play the lead in If Beale Street Could Talk, KiKi Layne is set to become Hollywood’s next big thing. Here, she chats to Sophie Goddard about pep talks with Lupita Nyong’o, new projects and the phone call that changed her life
‘It was my dream to work with Barry…’ says KiKi Layne, trailing off mid-anecdote when our call is interrupted. ‘Yes, Barry’s great, he’s wonderful!’ adds an unexpected male voice on the line. It turns out to be the Academy Award-winning film-maker and director Barry Jenkins himself, who wrote the screenplay for If Beale Street Could Talk and the triple-Oscar-winning Moonlight in the same summer. ‘Sorry, Barry does that!’ laughs Layne, after retrieving the phone and picking up where she left off. ‘We’d be on set dealing with painful, deep concepts, so to have a kind of lightness on top of everything was a blessing.’
Rewind a few months before the 26-year-old landed the role of Tish in Beale Street, and Layne was just another would-be actress. Having graduated with a BFA in acting from Chicago’s DePaul University, she found herself living at home with her parents in Cincinnati, Ohio, struggling to break into the film industry because her prior experience was limited to theatre (she had appeared in productions of Byhalia, Mississippi, Good People and Octagon). Her decision to up sticks and move to LA was a risky one. ‘Even though logically it made the least amount of sense, my gut was telling me to go there,’ she recalls. ‘Something in my spirit was saying, “Go, go!” I found out on the Saturday about an ABC talent showcase that was taking place on the Tuesday, so I packed up and moved on the Monday. I could see some people were thinking, “Oh God, is she really doing this?” But everyone was supportive, especially my mom. She was so excited.’ It was a leap of faith that would pay off. Three months later, Layne auditioned for Beale Street and the rest is history in the making. ‘Sometimes the best thing is the thing that scares you the most,’ she adds.
Jenkins auditioned 400 hopefuls for the part of a bright, determined young woman who falls in love with her childhood best friend, but knew instinctively the minute he saw Layne that she was the one. Starring as 19-year-old Tish opposite Stephan James (whose performance in US TV series Homecoming landed him a Golden Globe nomination), the film is based on the novel by James Baldwin – a love story set in 70s Harlem, following a couple’s unbreakable bond through adversity (James’ character is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit). The narrative is told through Tish’s eyes and explores themes of racism and injustice in America during that era. ‘At the core of Beale Street is romance, but that also combines with real issues – that’s what really drew me to the movie,’ says Layne. ‘I was on my way to my friend’s agent’s office to help him tape his own audition for the film, and I thought, actually, I should audition.’ Jenkins called her himself to let her know the good news. ‘I was so excited and thankful,’ she says. And did her friend get the part, too? ‘He didn’t,’ she replies. ‘But he’s OK about it, he’s working. He’s like my little brother.’
Things may have turned out rosy in the end, but there were inevitable moments of self-doubt when Layne first arrived in Tinseltown. ‘I felt so discouraged being in LA that I was wondering whether to go home,’ she remembers. ‘I felt like an idiot moving without money or representation.’ Even after securing the role of Tish, she admits to feeling overwhelmed. ‘I definitely had moments when I was like, “How can I follow Moonlight”?’ Look who I’m working with! But, thankfully, everyone was patient, even when I was nervous. I knew there would be things I didn’t understand, and that I may have to do something three times, while someone else only did it once.’ Emmy Award-winning Regina King, who plays Tish’s mother Sharon, was also a huge help during filming. ‘There were times on set when she would remind me to trust myself. She was really in my corner,’ says Layne. ‘I still call her my “mom”.’ Lupita Nyong’o has become another cheerleader. ‘I met her recently and she reminded me not to get too overwhelmed; she’s got a lot of warm energy. It was nice to feel so supported and to hear her excitement for where my career may be headed.’
‘Sometimes the best thing is the thing that scares you the most’
Up next is Native Son, in which Layne stars opposite Ashton Sanders (Chiron in Moonlight) in an adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel, which tackles many similar themes to Beale Street. ‘It’s an important piece of black literature with very real issues,’ says Layne. After that, she’d like to keep her options open. ‘Alongside Angela Bassett, Will Smith is the actor I look up to the most, because he’s had so much variety in his career and hasn’t allowed the industry to put him in a box,’ she says. ‘That’s the kind of career I want, where I can do something really heavy, but light, fun stuff, too.’ Music could also be on the cards, since Layne has already mastered the flute, French horn and trumpet. ‘Yeah, I love to sing and write. It’s nice to have different ways to express ourselves,’ she adds.
Along the way, there are the defining moments she gets to experience that remind her why she wanted to act in the first place. ‘By far my standout moment of last year was at the Governor’s Awards in Hollywood when I witnessed Cicely Tyson receive her honorary Oscar [Cicely was the first black woman to win the accolade],’ she says. ‘I’m surrounded by all of these people I’ve looked up to and dreamed of working with, and I get to see this woman who has opened doors for so many women who look like me.’
For now, she’s enjoying any semblance of normality while she still can. ‘My friends are always messing with me, like “KiKi you’re famous now”, but I don’t feel it,’ she laughs. ‘It’s interesting to slowly see my life shifting, and I’m thankful that, yes, it’s happening fast, but not so fast that I’m getting lost. I’m still able to find my footing on each level. I’m soaking it all up while I can.’
If Beale Street Could Talk is in cinemas now