The first time you ever saw Lakeith Stanfield, he was probably playing Darius, the most comic of comic relief on the hit, Golden Globe-winning TV show “Atlanta.”
But here at the Sundance Film Festival, the 25-year-old actor has quietly become one of the most sought-after talents on the indie-film scene.
“Last time I came here and landed at the airport there were about three people there with my headshot asking me to sign my autograph,” Stanfield told Business Insider over the weekend.
“This time I get here there are about 50 people and there were so many things I had to sign my wrist was getting tired, but I love, love, love the love.”
Stanfield is in two films at the festival this year: closing-night film “The Incredible Jessica James,” which also stars former “The Daily Show” correspondent Jessica Williams, and “Crown Heights,” in which he gives an incredible performance as Colin Warner, who in 1980 at 16 years old was tried for a crime he didn't commit and was in prison for a decade until he was finally exonerated.
As in previous titles he's had at the festival — “Short Term 12,” “Dope,” and “Miles Ahead” — he never plays the same character twice, but always delivers an intensity and authenticity in his characters that make him shine on the screen. That holds true if he's holding his own across from a legend like Don Cheadle playing Miles Davis in “Miles Ahead” or if Stanfield is briefly playing a legend himself, like Snoop Dogg in “Straight Outta Compton.”
But in “Crown Heights,” directed by Matt Ruskin (“The Hip Hop Project”), Stanfield gives a glimpse of the talents he can bring to a movie that he's the center of. Sporting long hair and a Caribbean accent, he captures Warner's levels of emotion throughout his incarceration including disbelief of his situation, understandable anger and frustration, and finally faith that his name will be cleared.
A lot of that came from spending time with the real Warner. But instead of peppering him with questions about his time in jail, Stanfield wanted to get deeper.
“I wanted to know more about his history and his family and where he's situated now because that would give me a lot of information as far as to what kind of persistence this character has in order to exist and the way he existed,” he said. “And that's very, very peacefully and very calm and understanding. He pulled out a photo album and started telling me stories about everybody in the photo album and the events in these people's lives that he missed because he was in prison. I could see how this all affected him deeply. It was a very special experience.”
Warner also spent years in solitary confinement during his time in prison, so Stanfield would use his trailer on the set of the movie as the space to prepare for those scenes of isolation.
“I would keep my phone away and would be in my trailer with the lights off,” he said. “It's been weird because I've been having these reoccurring dreams of being pursued by law enforcement. I never had them before doing this movie. It's pretty weird.”
For audiences who only know Stanfield from his wacky Darius character on “Atlanta” (or doing that insane dance on the Golden Globes stage after the show won best comedy) this serious side of him may come as a shock.
But for Stanfield it's keeping his fans guessing that's the fun. And the added attention he gets since “Atlanta” started is something he's completely fine with.
“The attention is normal because I anticipated it,” he said. “There would be at some point a lot of attention and that's okay. I have my quiet time, but the rest I just give it away.”
Though we won't see him on “Atlanta” until the show returns in 2018, Stanfield isn't slowing down. He recently shot the anticipated Netflix movie “War Machine” with Brad Pitt.
In fact, though “Atlanta” has only one season under its belt, he thinks the break is a good thing.
“The world's in a very interesting place right now so I feel like for a TV show that's great ammunition,” he said. “The writers are going to be sucking this stuff up and getting it really nice, so I'm really excited to see what they come up with and how it changes over time. And how the characters change, too.”
“Crown Heights” has its world premiere Monday at the Sundance Film Festival.