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Kelsey Clemons
Photography Scott Leon; styling Sara Paulsen

Kiersey Clemons: so dope

As lesbian punk Diggy, the 21-year-old star of Sundance hit Dope plays a new kind of girl in the hood

Arriving for lunch with Kiersey Clemons at a chic, open-air lounge atop Cannes’ Palais des Festivals, it appears I’ve been stood up. Having just seen the 21-year-old American actress in Dope, Rick Famuyiwa’s hit geekz-n-the-hood comedy now swaggering into the world’s biggest film festival, I’m on the lookout for Clemons’ mellow, dowdy Diggy, clad in baggy skater gear, cropped tight curls hidden under a baseball cap. The film’s hip young cast – Zoë Kravitz, Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel’s bellboy), model Chanel Iman – dutifully pose for photos while I scan the lounge anxiously. It’s only then I realise: the lively, petite, glamorous figure in the middle, with straight bobbed hair and rocking a shimmering, off-the-shoulder tangerine top, ivory skirt and gold heels is the person I’m here to see.

Clemons’ chameleon-like qualities and innate charisma, not to mention her fierce work ethic, are marking her out as one to watch right now. Dope centres on three 90s hip hop-obsessed teens from LA’s notoriously crime-ridden neighbourhood The Bottoms, who inadvertently end up having to overcome their lack of street smarts in order to sell a local drug dealer’s stash. While the film’s main character is clearly Shameik Moore’s flat-topped Malcolm, it’s Clemons’ Diggy, an easy-going lesbian entirely comfortable in her skin and her chosen world of “white boy shit” (Game of Thrones, skateboarding, playing in a punk band) that steals the show whenever she’s on screen. She’s tough without being butch, though apparently Dope’s stylists pushed Clemons to sport an even more severe look.

“They wanted to shave all my hair off but I thought, ‘Diggy wouldn’t do that,’” says Clemons. “Diggy doesn’t want to be a boy, she just thinks certain things are cool that other people identify as masculine. She’s different. We’re similar in that I don’t wear much make-up or do a lot to my hair – unless I’m doing things like this (press tours).”

Dope’s writer-director, Rick Famuyiwa, is effusive about Clemons’ hands-on approach to the role. “Kiersey came in with such a fresh take and perspective,” he says. “It made me redefine how I thought about (Diggy) in relation to her friends, the movie and everything else. Her audition was more feminine than I’d initially thought – she had a way about her that was so cool. Diggy’s the coolest of the three in many ways, so at ease.”

The cool self-assurance that Clemons identified is clearly what makes Diggy a potentially key figure among current depictions of LGBT characters. “Diggy has found what made her comfortable and, at the end of the day, that’s going to make you happiest,” says Clemons. “If you want to wear lipstick and you leave the house and you feel like that bitch, that radiates. No one’s going to fuck with you. You can’t let who you are be your weakness. If you’re gay or transgender – it’s what makes you and is part of your story.” 

So is Clemons’ own fashion MO closer to Diggy or the designer get-up she’s wearing today? “I’m totally into fashion and working with a stylist,” she says. “I love shopping, but I try not to overdo it. I only allow myself what I can fit into a suitcase.” She shows me a pair of sunglasses embroidered with colourful flowers, and flashes a gleeful grin. “I just bought these. I love accessories. But then, I like glasses, because I’m blind as a bat…”

You’d never know it from watching Dope, but Clemons herself is straight. Not knowing either way, I dance around the subject with Rick Famuyiwa, asking if he cast her for any real-life sexual correlation. He booms with incredulous laughter. “Kiersey’s completely the opposite,” he says. “(She’s) a girly girl... I had to make a ‘no hugging’ rule while she was on set and in character!”

Nonetheless, Clemons is committed to LGBT causes. She asks if I’ve seen the great Transparent, Jill Soloway’s award-winning Amazon TV show with Jeffrey Tambor as a 60-something divorcee who comes out to his family as transgender. In the programme, which will return for a second season this year, Clemons plays free-spirited Bianca, stepdaughter to the on-off girlfriend of Tambor’s married eldest daughter.

We talk recent positive transgender stories in the real world (Caitlyn Jenner), in fiction (Transparent’s Tambor) and in both (Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox). But what’s also heartening, if Clemons’ own experiences are in any way typical, is the growing acceptance and normalisation of LGBT relationships among a younger generation.

“If you want to wear lipstick and you leave the house and you feel like that bitch, that radiates. No one’s going to fuck with you” – Kiersey Clemons

“The first person I met who was gay was my mom’s best friend,” she recounts. “I grew up around him and for the longest time, he wouldn’t tell her he was gay, but she knew. Eventually he came out, but it never registered in my head, ‘Oh, Uncle Blake likes boys, that’s weird’ – because my mom never made it an issue. I was like, ‘Oh, whatever.’ And it is whatever.”

It’s telling that, among Transparent’s cast of characters, Tambor’s transitioning parent-of-three comes off as the least emotionally and sexually screwed up. Clemons’ own character is straight, but it’s still the kind of risk-taking role more cautious career advisers might have recommended avoiding.

“I’m so involved with the LGBT community, especially because of Transparent and now (Dope),” says Clemons. “I’ve been able to meet so many people, go to events and speak about it. In interviews, I actually have more to talk about. I feel like if I solely do my job, do movies and go to red carpets and photoshoots it turns into...” She breaks off, trying to articulate the double-edged nature of getting what you want so early in your career. “It’s only feeding your ego at the end of the day, and I don’t want my life to be about that. I’d rather use the platform I have to talk about other things that I’m passionate about.”

LGBT advocacy aside, what’s refreshing about hanging with Clemons is that one second you’re talking platforms and noble causes, the next she’s worrying whether, on our lofty seaside perch, a seagull might crap on us. She interrupts her thoughts on US gun control to announce that “my eyelash just fell off into my salad – I’m still going to eat it though.” She shows me her Instagram – profile name ‘lzybtch’ (“I think my mom had just called me that one day”) – and a shot from earlier that day of her leaning towards a shades-sporting Tony Revolori. “He was wearing aviators,” she laughs, “and I have a zit and was using them (as a mirror) to cover it up!”

Clearly, Clemons knows how to have fun. And looking back to her childhood, there’s a certain sense that all of this was meant to be. Her official bio proudly notes how, as a kid growing up first in Pensacola, Florida, then in Redondo Beach, California, she was “immersed in creativity”, singing, modelling and acting in shows. At 16, she was snapped up by an agency, and soon landed TV gigs including shows for Disney and CSI.

And sure, it’s not Madonna or Beyoncé, but ‘Kiersey’ is unique enough a name in showbiz circles (“my dad wanted to call me ‘Kierstey’ but my mom said no, so they took out the ‘t’ and she was like, ‘That’s better.’”). She’s biracial, yet despite her mother being white, her glowing, café au lait skin tone will inevitably be defined as “black”. However, she plays down her own experiences of racism.

“When I was about nine, I would hang out with this girl in our apartment complex, and one day she said, ‘My grandma says I can’t play with you any more because you’re from Africa.’ So I went home and told my mom and she was like, ‘Sarah’s grandma is ignorant, you’re not from Africa, you’re from America. Your ancestors are probably from Africa, that’s it.’ She didn’t go into a whole speech about slavery or how stupid Sarah is going to grow up. My mom never forced her opinions on me.”Given Clemons’ forthright stance on racial abuse, perhaps she didn’t have to. “I can’t be offended by a slur – there’s no meaning to it,” she says dismissively. “There’s always that one person in college who’ll use the n-word when he’s drunk, but I’m not going to give someone the power to upset me.”

It’s interesting that she brings up the ‘n-word’, since one of Dope’s standout scenes sees a white stoner pal argue with the trio about using the term affectionately, only to get repeatedly smacked upside the head by Diggy. But given her own frequent ‘bitch’ usage, is Clemons liable to react like Diggy to such language?

“Until I’m on every magazine cover and you have no other option but to go, ‘Who the fuck is that?’, I’m going to be in your face” – Kiersey Clemons

“No, I’m not!” she laughs. “I use ‘bitch’ all the time, it’s like a term of endearment. I don’t really use the n-word, but my friend from Inglewood uses it all the time. I do think the word should maybe not be used at all, by anyone. Self-control, not money or seduction, is the root of all power, right?”

It’s no rare thing to hear young people in the public eye sound so worldly-wise: after all, part of what’s gotten them here so early is a certain maturity and poise. So it’s almost a relief when they also exhibit more typical insecurities and doubts that a smooth, PR-led line seldom allows for. Quizzing Clemons on her self-declared writing and musical aspirations, she becomes unusually reticent. “I write poems, stories – I like to daydream,” she says hesitantly. “I don’t play, I sing.” She does reveal a stellar voice in Transparent, but Dope has given her a huge opportunity in this respect, allowing her to work with Pharrell Williams, who provides the songs that Diggy’s geek-punk outfit Awreeoh plays in the film. Still, Clemons remains cautious on the topic for now.

“I think I’ll probably stay underground (with music), just ’cos it’s so close to me,” says Clemons. I’m only just comfortable with people hearing my words so I’d rather play small shows. I want to keep them separate.” She smiles bashfully, as if surprising herself. “It’s like, I wouldn’t mind being this big actress but with music, I want to keep it small.”

Yet for all her obvious performing talent, Clemons’ acting career wasn’t a given, either. She hated taking classes, making a breakthrough only with the introduction of a new acting coach. “I didn’t start getting the sort of jobs I wanted, like on Transparent or (Steven Spielberg exec-produced sci-fi show starring Halle Berry) Extant, until then,” she says. “(My new coach’s) whole thing is about the ‘experience’. She doesn’t talk about a ‘role’ or ‘doing a scene’, everything is about ‘me’ and ‘I’ and how that person will experience something. That changed everything for me.”

Clemons grows animated on the subject. “On Transparent, Jill Soloway took us to this workshop, like an energy exchange thing, doing yoga moves. And it got you to this place where you really started crying. It drew things out of you, and that’s what acting is. She had the crew there... It’s about people. It made you so comfortable with everybody. Environment is so important.”

Next up for Clemons is more Transparent – “I’ve been pitching the idea that, in season two, Bianca should lose her virginity,” she grins, “I think that would be really funny and cool.” After that comes a recurring role in hit sitcom New Girl, and a major role in the second season of Extant

“I’m a ‘humanech’, like in (Alex Garland’s recent sci-fi thriller) Ex Machina,” she explains. “Completely human on the outside, but inside I’m a robot. And it kind of goes wrong... It’s really fun; I just did the first scene with Halle (Berry), which was amazing. I love her, she’s one of those people I look up to.”

Clemons is hugely ambitious for her career, hence the Instagram enthusiasm. “I realised it’s part of my job,” she shrugs. “So until I’m on every magazine cover and you have no other option but to go, ‘Who the fuck is that? I’m going to read about her,’ I’m going to be in your face. I know I’m a good actress so if a director puts me in their movie because people are excited for me to be in it, why not?”

At the same time, Clemons wants to use this whole enterprise for something more, citing the likes of Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley as actresses who promote their passions, be they feminism or the environment. “I want you to have a genuine interest in me,” she says earnestly. “That (Instagram followers) count is so important to me because it’s like a metre of how many lives I’m affecting, whether it’s on the surface or it’s deep, posting an inspirational quote or just something about... eating fruit!”

She laughs delightedly, aware that what she just said might sound silly. But to Kiersey Clemons, it makes perfect sense. Changing perceptions, confounding expectations and shaking things up are what it’s all about.

Dope is released in UK cinemas on September 4. Extant season two debuts on CBS TV on July 1. Transparent Season 2 will be out in autumn 2015

Lead image Kiersey wears denim vest by 7 for All Mankind; black trench coat by Elvine; ring and earring by Amanda Marmer; gold bracelets by Mara Carrizo Scalise; photo Scott León; hair Juanita Lyon at Art Department; make-up Nicole Chew at Art Department; fashion Sara Paulsen; fashion assistant SJ Mendez