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Interview: Kiki Layne Talks ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’, Black Love, Diversity in Hollywood & More at TIFF 2018

Rising Star Kiki Layne has come onto the scene in a big way, starring as Tish in the highly-anticipated new film by Barry Jenkins. GoC had the pleasure of sitting down with Layne after the premiere of If Beale Street Could Talk at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Based on the novel of the same name by the acclaimed James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk is a timely piece of cinema in which Layne shines as Tish.

In our sit-down, Layne chatted with us about how she came to be a part of this remarkable movie as her debut feature, Black love, diversity in the entertainment industry, strong Black women and much more.

Check out the full interview below:

Since this is your first feature film, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what the process was like for you leading up to securing the role of Tish?

Kiki Layne: My first step was that I submitted a self-tape and then a few weeks after that I was in New York to do the chemistry read. So, that was the first time I met Barry, Stephan and the whole production squad, which was really special. Then a few days later, I found out I booked it! Then we shot in New York, which was awesome! We were there for six weeks working, which was really cool to be working in New York. That’s a fun one! [laughs]

Then, just working on it was amazing! The whole team behind it, the cast, everyone was so supportive and just cared so much about this project. I think we all knew this was something so special – I mean, this is James Baldwin and we’re bringing these words to life. So, there was just this beautiful energy on set all the time. It was really, really special.

Kiki Layne and Colman Domingo in If Beale Street Could Talk (Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

And could you tell us a little bit about what it was like to work actors like Regina King, Colman Domingo?

KL: [laughs] I still remember when I found out Regina King was playing my mom! We were actually at a pre-Emmy party, I think and Jeremy Kleiner just casually comes by and says, ‘Ya, we got your parents cast.’ And I said, Oh okay, cool – who is it?! So, he goes, ‘Colman Domingo’s going to play your dad.’ So, I’m like, alright dope! Then he says, ‘Regina King’s your mom.’ Then he just walks off! He just drops that, and goes! And I remember just turning around like, what am I doing?! And my manager just hands me a glass of champagne because she’s a real one [laughs] and we knew we should celebrate!

But, I don’t know – working with some real veterans, but also people that are such genuine people and such genuine artists, I think was so special. For this to be my first project and for that to be the environment, it really felt like a family. You know, these people are ones I can really reach out to when I’m having some problems, they really took care of me when I was on set, excited to teach me things and excited that this my first time. I learned so much! So, so much that I will carry with me for the rest of my career by working with these people.

What was one of your favourite parts of the movie to actually film?

KL: [laughs] The part where me and Stephan are screaming in the street. That was so much fun!

In keeping with that scene, there’s a part where Fonny is telling Tish, ‘I’m supposed to take care of you’. What was it like filming that part, because although he says he doesn’t want her to take care of him, Tish is always doing just that.

KL: That was the hardest scene for me to film. It was the hardest scene for me because there’s just so much vulnerability, but then also seeing how vulnerable he was and really fighting that feeling of I want to be there, but you don’t really want me to be there, and now I’m just here. It takes you through so many different emotions. So, it was seriously the hardest scene for me to film.

Kiki Layne as Tish in If Beale Street Could Talk (Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

When the audience first meets Tish she is very sweet and very kind, and sometimes when we have a female character that shows this, it’s almost as if she can’t be strong on top of that. But of course with Tish, this isn’t the case. So, how did you tap into that while you were filming?

KL: You know, Barry he’s really a great director. He was able to say the things to me that kind of let me know what a scene needed. If I was going in a different direction, he was just such a great communicator and also great collaborator. And with everyone I was working with it was just so easy to receive what they were giving, and allow that to inform – like, is this a moment where Tish can learn this is the part where I stand up for myself, or this is how I take control of things for myself.

There’s something in the book where she says something like, ‘I look like I need help.’ In the film when she’s thinking at the perfume counter, she says that some of the men see that she looks like their helpless baby sister. So, I was tapping a lot into that. Like, what does it look like to come off as somebody who, I don’t know, almost needs to be held? But then, at what point is it: ‘I have to hold myself up’? So, that’s why that moment with Sharon is so important because she’s telling her that she’s got this baby now. We’ve been holding onto you, but now you’ve gotta hold on to this baby.

I had an interview with Barry earlier today and we spoke about a recurring theme in his films being love. If Beale Street Could Talk is another love story, but it transcends the romantic relationship and also shows the love between family, the love between friends, and all of loves different forms. So, it’s something that many can relate to. Was there a part or a scene that you related to most?

KL: A moment like that for me was definitely the moment where Regina comes in to comfort me when I’m having the nightmare. That was definitely a familiar moment for me of just mommy taking care of you and just having those words that only a mom can have to get you through. That was definitely a very familiar moment and something that I was easily able to tap into.

I also just think me and Stephan were just so committed to investigating the vulnerability that’s in our characters and that allowed us to come together, and be more vulnerable with each other as well to build that relationship into what it become in the film.

When you think of James Baldwin, you just think ‘wow’. So, there must be so much pressure to get it right and after I watched it, I felt as if all of it was meant for you and the rest of the cast – you were meant to be the ones to bring If Beale Street Could Talk to life. Did all of you on set feel the same way at all while you were working on the movie?

KL: Yes, we definitely felt like that. Even on stage during our Q&A, I think it was Colman that said he feels like Baldwin picked us for this – like it was always meant to be this team, this cast and it definitely, definitely felt that way.

The setting of the novel and film is 1970s New York, but so many of the topics in the film today and the scenes with the photography by Gordon Parks, you can easily see images that are pretty much the exact same in a newspaper from yesterday. So, what would you say about the timeliness of If Beale Street Could Talk releasing now?

KL: It’s just like you said. Everything that we talk about in the film, that’s talked about in the novel, we’re still having those same conversations. It’s unfortunate, but we have to acknowledge it and it forces us to say, ‘Okay, progress has been made’ but also forces you to acknowledge, ‘but not that much.’ And what does that really mean?

But that was one of the things that I really love about the book. Although all of these issues and injustices are present, the love is never overrun. The love is the thing that is really pushing the story forward in spite of all of that, which I think speaks to how we should be tapping more into that. There’s power in leaning on each other and being there for each other, and allowing ourselves to be held and to receive that type of love and attention when going through all the shit that we go through. So, that was one of my favourite things about this book.

Teyonah Parris, KiKi Layne and Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk (Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)

Barry always makes it a point to have films that highlight strong black women and with Hollywood’s diversity issues, it’s something that (in my opinion) we don’t see enough of as we haven’t been able to tell our own stories for so long. So, how did it feel for you to be in this movie as the lead, a strong black woman and how do you feel being in the entertainment industry at this time?

KL: It feels amazing! Not even just for Beale Street, but coming up in the industry in this time, I’m so thankful that I’m coming up when women, Black women and Black artists are taking more control of what stories are being told that are supposed to represent us. So now there’s a different level of authenticity that’s happening as well. So, we have the ability to tells these types of stories. My next project is Native Son and so, it’s even having these stories brought to life because there was a time that shit wasn’t going to happen in Hollywood period. I mean, Moonlight winning Best Picture – that speaks to shift that we are making happen. We’re not asking anybody for it to happen anymore, we’re doing it! And so, I’m thankful to be a part of that.

Lastly, what are you hoping that the audience takes away from the film when they leave the theatre?

KL: I hope the power of that love. That’s really what I want people to walk away with; just this feeling that love and how it can really fill you up if you let it. There are so many things that are attacking it – especially attacking Black love, so just letting that (love) breathe and resonate in their lives. However that may be – if it’s in a relationship, if it’s through parents, friends because there’s beautiful love between friendships like that scene between Brian Tyree Henry and Stephan is beautiful. So, I am hoping the audience is tapping into that.

If Beale Street Could Talk is in select theaters now; expanding to additional cities on December 25!

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