Taken from the summer 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here
KiKi Layne is going to the Met Ball. Two days after our interview, the 27-year-old actress would put on a gown (custom Gucci, five tiers of Lurex fringing and an embroidered velvet bodice like a tall, tasselled wedding cake) and step out of her carriage (OK, car). Layne is not a morning person, but over FaceTime from New York at 8am sharp, she insists that she “literally woke up singing”. “Shit was like a musical. ‘I just woke up! Oh my God! You’re in New York! You’re going to the Met!’” she chirps, adopting a Disney-princess singsong voice. A Cinderella story, indeed.
Layne’s breakout role was a love story. In Barry Jenkins’ acclaimed 2018 romantic drama If Beale Street Could Talk, the camera is reverent, with frequent close-ups that glorify her glowing skin and cloud of natural afro hair. Layne, the leading lady, wears a vulnerable expression, remaining tender despite her character’s brittle personal circumstances. An adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel about a young African-American couple whose connection is tested when one of them is wrongly accused of rape, it launched the Cincinnati native as a serious actress.
Layne followed her role in Beale Street with Native Son, artist and director Rashid Johnson’s contemporary reimagining of Richard Wright’s seminal novel of 1940. The two projects were filmed back-to-back; Layne describes this coincidence as an act of “divine purposeful intervention”. The decision to introduce herself to audiences through these two adaptations of iconic black literature was deliberate. “I want to be able to do everything,” she says, “but I also knew that, if I was entering into Hollywood, it was important for me to do the type of work where people would know I’m not here for Hollywood bullshit.” And so, she spoke her plan into existence. “I think the universe heard me – like, ‘We’re gonna make sure that if you’re gonna (do this), they’re going to know what you’re actually about.’”
A performing arts student since the age of seven, Layne spent two decades training for this moment. “I feel like I’m one of those people that was born to do it,” she says. “I was singing, acting, performing, playing instruments... I started off with the flute and French horn, and then I was playing trumpet in the jazz band.” In 2012, Layne met fellow actor Ashton Sanders while studying at DePaul University in Chicago. The pair didn’t have any classes together (she was two years above), but they soon knew of one another. Most of the black kids did. She describes the school as “a private Catholic university in the most affluent neighbourhood of Chicago” with a “mostly white” demographic. “There were definitely a few conversations (with the university) about how to take better care of us,” she says.
Layne and Sanders (“the homie”) became friends on the set of Richard Wyatt’s sci-fi thriller Captive State, released in March this year. When she found out he was being considered for the role of Bigger in Native Son, she called him up. “I’m like, ‘Yo, you doing Native Son? They’re looking at me for Bessie,’” says Layne of the part she ended up playing in the film, as Bigger’s beleaguered girlfriend. “He’s like, ‘Oh shit, if you do that shit, I’m gonna do that shit.’ I was like ‘OK, well, if you do that shit, I’m gonna do that shit! OK, we doin’ it!’”
Native Son opened this year’s Sundance film festival, where HBO snapped up the A24-produced title. It’s quite brilliant; a wonky, strange, darkly funny film. Not that many people have seen it. After the film’s release in April, Sanders took to Instagram to criticise HBO for burying it. “I honestly wasn’t tripping about it too much; I’m too new to all this to understand what is supposed to happen with this marketing shit,” Layne maintains. “There’s still whispers (about the film in) the Emmy conversation, so I guess some people in the right places are fucking with it.” Even though it didn’t land with the force it should have, Layne is still glad to have been able to tell this story, especially in this new iteration, which finds a different narrative arc for the character of Bessie. For the actress, the film was “an opportunity to see this young black woman choose herself”. Beale Street, conversely, allowed her to play a girl who is chosen: “We don’t get to be loved like that. We don’t get to be that gentle.”
“I want to be able to do everything, but I also knew that, if I was entering into Hollywood, it was important for me to do the type of work where people would know I’m not here for Hollywood bullshit” – KiKi Layne
“Hollywood has had a very limited way of telling stories about black people,” says Layne, pinpointing the need to break with cliched narratives when it comes to black representation on screen. “I’m interested in stories that push those boundaries, those limitations on how we tell stories. Historically it’s been like, ‘This is what black people do; this is how black people live, love and fight; this is what their families look like. It’s all been extremely limited; you don’t get to paint with the same amount of colours everybody else does.”
Though these roles are “everything that little KiKi dreamed of,” Layne is quick to assure that these weighty projects are “not all that I’m capable of”. She wants to do it all, “every type of genre”, because she’s yet to see someone who looks like her play a range of parts. “There’s no reason for that. We’re not any less capable. I will not be put in a box,” she says firmly, excitedly. If she were, I have a feeling she would fizz out of its confines immediately. Layne’s If Beale Street Could Talk co-star, Regina King, describes her as “more than an actor”. “She is a boss,” says King. “A mogul in the making. She is starting to look at things from a producer’s perspective as well as an actor’s.”
In less than two weeks, Layne will be on the Cannes croisette, promoting a small role she has in Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino’s new short, “The Staggering Girl”. After that, she starts work on her first comic-book movie, The Old Guard, directed by Love and Basketball’s Gina Prince-Bythewood and produced by Netflix. Excited, she says, doesn’t cover it. “I get to do a movie with Charlize Theron and Gina? Come through, Jesus, come through!” Layne is more into the characters than the comics themselves, about a group of mercenary soldiers who also happen to be immortal. She is, however, a Marvel fan. “Lord knows my ass was there opening weekend for Endgame with my Marvel Avengers t-shirt on!” she enthuses, clutching her chest. “My heart. Tony (Stark)! I was like, ‘What the fuck?! Yo, this is it!’ I was a mess. You’ve been with those characters so long. It’s the same feeling I had with Logan; (Hugh Jackman) has been my Wolverine for 19 years. The first X-Men came out in 2000, so I was a wreck.” For the record, Iron Man is her favourite Avenger. “Was I supposed to say Black Panther for the culture?!” she cackles.
Actually, I’m a little surprised that Layne finds time to go to the cinema at all. “We left for New York in October,” she says of Beale Street’s gruelling festival and awards-circuit schedule. It wasn’t until February that she finally unpacked her suitcases. Pausing to take it all in is something she’s yet to get around to. “Seriously, to be able to sit on my couch and chill and not be thinking about all the hundreds of things I’m supposed to be accomplishing, that’s something I need to work on.” Layne and I are the same age; I wonder if this inability to switch off is a generational problem, specific to millennials, or simply the curse of an overachiever. “I think that it’s a mix of both. Once upon a time you could actually unplug and it wasn’t, like, a weird thing. Now your friends will say, ‘I’m fasting from social media’. I’ve got my phone off after 10pm. We seriously have to do shit like put our phones in another room when we try to get to sleep. We are so attached to that stuff.” She says she’s trying.
“I’m the kind of person, when I don’t get something fast, (who’ll be) like, ‘What’s your problem?’” says Layne. I suggest, tentatively, that maybe she’s being a bit hard on herself. She agrees. “Definitely, I’m extremely hard on myself. I like to get it right. I don’t like to consider that I’m the weakest link.” At Essence magazine’s Black Women in Hollywood awards in February, she admitted to feeling terrified by the steepness of her ascent. “When we get the exact thing we ask for,” she said, voice wavering, “we freak out. Why?” Imposter syndrome is an affliction that affects successful people, but I want to know how she quiets that questioning voice. “I’m having conversations with filmmakers and artists I’ve dreamed of working with, so I definitely have those feelings sometimes. It’s a common thing for us to ask, ‘Do we actually deserve this? Is it really happening?’ Especially when what we do doesn’t happen to a lot of people. It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was at Bed, Bath & Beyond organising toaster ovens.”
“We don’t get to be loved like that. We don’t get to be that gentle” – KiKi Layne
“I think the biggest thing is reminding myself how hard I worked for it,” Layne continues. “It wasn’t just handed to me. I trained so hard; I’ve been so committed. Also, it’s so much bigger than me – it’s not just about this opportunity for me to shine. As I said in that speech, what is the power of my just being here? Of being seen in these places which have historically left people who look like me out, or shoved us in a little corner at the back?”
Layne, who has two older brothers, was a tomboy growing up. She describes her younger self as “extremely dramatic” despite being introverted and, at times, reserved. In fact, she still is – until she gets to know people, at least. Parties, she tells me, can be fraught. “I’m like, ‘People are talking to me, I gotta talk back!’” she says, describing the anxious chatter in her head. “I’ve had to give myself pep talks: ‘You gotta go to this party, and you’re going to talk to people, and you’re not going to be weird in the corner on your phone.’” Like a lot of actors, Layne thinks of herself as naturally shy. A friend saw her on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and was delighted to see Layne being “a little shy, a little uncomfortable”. “She was like, ‘Oh my God, that was so cute! That’s the KiKi people don’t always get to see, you’re actually just like that!’ I was like, ‘Shut up, stop!’” she says, cracking up. “That’s definitely an example of me being like, ‘Oh, goodness, girl, what are you doing here?’”
And yet, here she is. While Layne’s friends (and indeed, fans) have started to think of her as famous, she isn’t convinced. She walks around her NYC neighbourhood and drives her own car (a green Honda she’s nicknamed Elaine Viallantro, currently parked in her mum’s garage in Cincinnati), just like anybody else. “Fame to me is like, I can’t go to Target and get my own damn toilet paper because people are coming up to me like, ‘Oh shit, that’s KiKi Layne!’ Ain’t nobody know me like that. Even at Sundance, somebody tried to get me to sign a picture of another black actress.”
What has changed is “the fashion shit”. “The brands in my closet now – that’s the biggest change. When shawty can go to her closet and say, ‘Is it a Valentino bag today, is it Gucci, or maybe it’ll be your Chloé bag?’” she grins. Layne works with stylists Wayman + Micah, who also dress Tessa Thompson, Regina King and Ava DuVernay. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Whose life is this?’”
Speaking of fashion shit, Layne’s “Met glam team” is only two sleeps away. Red carpets still scare her, and she tells me she plans to spend Monday morning “in prayer”. “People are surprised to hear it because I get so ‘Hello, world!’” says the actress, “but in the car ride over I’m just like, ‘Shit-shit, I got on this dress worth more than my existence right now, all these jewels, I hope the pictures look OK.’ Sometimes my face comes out looking weird. That’s seriously why I’m just like, ‘Argggh!’” A few days after the interview, the photos appear online. Layne needn’t have worried: she looks incredible in white gold rings studded with rubies, diamonds, pink tourmaline and a fire opal. A leg peeks out from beneath the folds of her dress, the words ‘GUCCI DOWN 2 THA’ hand-painted on her tights; a pair of futuristic glasses sit on her face. She finishes the look with socks and sandals; any traces of a pre-party meltdown are invisible.
Layne recounts a story from last year’s Governors awards in Los Angeles. She was in the bathroom, freaking out ahead of the evening’s red carpet, talking to herself in the mirror. “‘You gotta do it. Might as well slay, bitch.’” Suddenly, Maggie Gyllenhaal entered the room. “Maggie Gyllenhaal comes over to me, like, ‘Hey, have you done the carpet yet?’” She hadn’t. “She was like, ‘You’re gonna go out there, take a couple photos, and then you can sit down and have a really nice evening. Girl, relax. What are you freaking out about?’ I was like, ‘Thank you!’” Looking at the photos from the event, it seems as though Gyllenhaal’s mantra has served her well. That, or, six months later, Layne is already a seasoned pro.
For now, though, she is excited to be going to the ball. “It should be a special day,” says Layne. “I just hope that I get some sleep, ’cos I can definitely see myself in bed like, ‘You’re going to the Met, bitch.’”
Hair Lacy Redway at The Wall Group using Nexxus, make-up Susie Sobol at Julian Watson Agency using Fenty Beauty, nails Maki Sakamoto at The Wall Group using NARS, set design Whitney Hellesen at Webber, photography assistants Stefano Ortega, Gaspar Dietrich, Nigel HoSang, styling assistant Shant Alvandyan, hair assistant Sequilla Brooks, make-up assistant Ayaka Nihei, set design assistants Gregg Huff, Alex Raspa, production CLM, executive talent consultant Greg Krelenstein at Starworks Group