Actor LaKeith Stanfield explodes on screen as outlaw Cherokee Bill in this year’s pivotal film The Harder They Fall.
“The big three-O, baby,” shares LaKeith Stanfield when I speak to him the night after celebrating a monumental birthday in Atlanta where he is filming. Even through the morning-after haze of what was surely a big night, Stanfield’s brilliance cuts through like a blinding beam. Devilishly handsome? No doubt. But it is his artistic genius that will stop you dead in your tracks. This star’s rapid rise is powered by a supercharged and deeply sensitive intellect we rarely see these days.
Born in California, Stanfield made his film debut in the indie Short Term 12 for which he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. He is often celebrated as a master of the sublime, giving surreal twists and enigmatic complexity to the characters he plays. “I do think that I’m inclined toward things that have me question philosophical questions in myself and question reality,” he says.
Stanfield clearly picks his projects carefully, earning critical acclaim for a litany of films to date ranging from the Sundance standout satire Sorry to Bother You and Jordan Peele’s Get Out to starring roles in The Photograph and Judas and the Black Messiah—the latter for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nod. His highly nuanced, eccentric genius is perhaps best on display as the madcap Darius Epps in Donald Glover’s FX Emmy winner Atlanta. Stanfield also performs as a musician under the stage name Htiekal. With wide emotive eyes and an exposed artistic spirit, it is easy for an audience to be drawn in. Madcap moments IRL not uncommon for other genius method actors (there was a sit-in on the Emmys red carpet in 2017 and more recent social media moments) are clearly authentic and never contrived—just an artist finding his own idiosyncratic way in the world.
“I’m the type of person that likes to question things—an analytical person,” Stanfield says. “So anything that makes me question things that go on internally in the way that we relate to each other—I’m more apt to be drawn to those kinds of things. The unknown is something that I’m very interested in exploring. I like when things are kind of turned on their head in order for us to derive some sort of truth. The things that speak the most to me in the artistic world—and the things that I take in—are things that challenge the notion of normalcy… things that we take for granted as this is just the way it is… perhaps, maybe it’s not. I’m drawn toward things that ask that question. I’m also a little weird. So some of the things that you see me situating myself with are things that maybe are a little weird. That’s certainly part of my sensibility.”
This month, Stanfield brings the infamous outlaw Cherokee Bill to life in the Jeymes Samuel-directed, Jay-Z-produced Western The Harder They Fall. With a star-studded cast including Regina King, Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz and Delroy Lindo, the Netflix film is getting buzz as an awards front-runner. “It was a great environment,” he says. “I was working around people that I was really excited to work with, like Regina King. I wanted to work with her ever since I’d seen her growing up on TV. So that was a dream come true. … Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors—I’m a big fan of all of these people. It was just a really great experience. I found myself grateful to be sharing the set with all these people who were so talented and inspirational.”
“In terms of the way he’s able to carry himself on set, it’s always really important that the director set the tone for a lot of the other people involved in the project in terms of temperament and rhythm,” says Stanfield of the film’s director, Samuel. “Jeymes would play music on set in between setups… beautiful, good music—as you can tell, the movie has really good musical taste—and this is something that I had never seen on a set before. It just felt like we were going into a mini celebration, even though we were filming in a very difficult time. All safety protocols taken, this was a party for us. And that made it that much easier.”
“[Cherokee Bill] joins forces with Rufus Buck, who is someone who’s well known in the city of Redwood and across the land as just a really tough kind of criminal character played by Idris Elba,” Stanfield says of his character. “He’s a criminal in the eyes of certain people, but then there’s a constituency that uses him as a hero, someone who is bringing wealth and prosperity to the land. So we started to see a divide within the community. And this divide will drive us through the story,” he shares. “I’m on one side of the divide, and there are other people on the other side… so we’re fighting for what we believe in.”
“Cherokee Bill is a spiritual person who uses the stars to guide him,” Stanfield says. “This type of person won’t hesitate to engage in a firefight and tries to do so with a sense of morality and fairness on his rubric that he created. He lives by the rule of the streets—or I guess if we’re using appropriate terminology for the time, the rules of the dirt. He walks by his own moral barometer and is a pretty fun, stylish character.” Stanfield is quick to share his admiration for the character. “I think Cherokee Bill is a lot more in control of himself and his impulses, and is a person who is a lot cooler than me,” he says. “Basically, Cherokee Bill is cooler than I’ll ever be. He’s smooth. I am very dorky and clumsy. This guy’s way cooler than me.”
It is clear Stanfield enjoyed the role, fully immersing himself in the project. “I learned how to ride a horse, which was quite interesting,” he shares. “I had never been on a horse before, prior to going to work on this movie, so I was very out of touch with the being that is a horse and I was a little nervous,” he shares. “I think that the horse could tell that, so the first time I was bucked off the horse. I was trying to tell it where to go and guide it. One of the trainers told me to just be confident in what I did, so I got overconfident and was trying to get the horse to do what I wanted to do. It wasn’t happy about the way that I was interacting with it (which is understandable) and bucked me off. I fell in the dirt and I was laughing,” he shares, saying he immediately wanted to get back on. “I wanted to get over my own self; I wanted to get out of my own head—so it was an extra exercise for myself to get over myself, which was a metaphor for a lot of different things in my life. I wanted to get back on the horse and out of my own way. Eventually, I learned how to ride this horse and got to a point where I was able to get into a gallop in a loop. It felt like I was flying at a certain point. You know how life goes in slow motion in those moments? ‘I’m flying; I’m really doing it.’ That’s how I felt. It was amazing. It was one of the experiences I really, really cherish. I actually have a necklace I just got with a little horse—because those horses to me were a metaphor for life, going with the flow; learning how to deal with these big, beautiful creatures; humbling yourself; and also taking initiative to be in control of your life and things around you. That was amazing. That was one of my favorite parts.”
“They’re so smart,” Stanfield says of working with horses. “I’m a sensitive person. So I’m falling in love with the horses and wanted to get a horse by the end of it. And then I realized I’m way too busy right now… but at some point, maybe. I love animals. And you really do develop a relationship.”
Stanfield also worked with an armorist on set, learning how to do tricks with a six-shooter. “I studied Cherokee Bill, who was an actual person, and Black cowboys (that were very prevalent in California) and watched a bunch of Westerns. ... I was watching stuff, old stuff in cinema studios and stuff from Quentin Tarantino… and just inundating myself with that world.”
“This will be something that they can reference years from now, hopefully to be something that was a nice change in cinema,” says Stanfield of the monumental and historic nature of the film. “We don’t have a lot of full Black-, cowboy-, Western-type movies,” he says. “And so I think it’s nice to have that in the arsenal of things that we can enjoy. And hopefully people see the love in it as well.”
Photography by: PHOTOGRAPHED BY DAVID ROEMER