By Patrick Mullen
“Of course, I just lost my shit,” laughs KiKi Layne, recalling the moment Moonlight director Barry Jenkins offered her the lead role in his new film If Beale Street Could Talk. Layne plays Tish, a 19-year-old woman who discovers she is pregnant shortly after her lover Fonny (Canadian actor Stephan James) is arrested for a violent rape he didn’t commit. It’s Layne first role, and she’s a revelation as the shy, reserved, and resilient Tish. Offscreen, she’s a bubbly, outgoing, and outspoken delight.
Layne, speaking with BeatRoute at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, credits Jenkins and James for making her big screen debut a breeze.
“I spent so much time investigating who Tish was and Stephan spent so much time investigating Fonny. Naturally, in doing that, you start to kind of tap into that love that they have for each other,” says Layne. “When we brought all of that work together, it just blossomed.” Beale Street flows like sweet jazz as the film cuts back and forth between Tish and Fonny’s present-day predicament and the early stages of their romance in 1970s Harlem. It’s a slower, smoother love story than Moonlight, but equally poetic.
As with Moonlight, Jenkins’ film demands natural down-to-earth performances that anchor the story in reality. Layne, who studied theatre at DePaul University in Chicago, adds that her theatrical roots helped with Beale Street’s longer takes, like a memorable scene in which Fonny brings Tish to their new loft and encourages her to imagine their life together. The camera dances around the young lovers as they move through their invisible kitchen, pantomiming with the appliances as they envision the future.
“I pulled from what I knew,” says Layne. “Theatre was what I knew, and that’s what I brought to the table. Barry knew how to direct me and show what works for stage, but for film it can’t be that big or it needs to be a little tighter – that technical part you can only learn by doing.”
The star adds that If Beale Street Could Talk had a special energy on set as the cast and crew brought to life the novel by James Baldwin.
“From the people very high up to everybody that was there on set every day knew how special it was,” reflects Layne. “We knew it meant so much to be bringing James Baldwin’s words to life and I think it created this beautiful, supportive family energy on the set.” As the first American adaptation of Baldwin’s novel, If Beale Street Could Talk is a significant step for putting stories by and about black Americans on the screen after decades of systemic inequality that culminated in the back-to-back controversies of #OscarsSoWhite.
Layne recalls watching the Oscars with her theatre company the night Moonlight made history as the first Best Picture winner with an all-black cast. “It was crazy!” she exclaims. “The company that I’m a part of, Definition Theatre Company, does a lot of work with Tyrell Alvin McCranee [whose play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, inspired Moonlight]. Moonlight’s win spoke to us almost like saying, ‘It’s our time.’ I think it speaks to how Hollywood wasn’t quite with it. We’re here and we’re making beautiful things that deserve this type of recognition.”
The actor finds it inspiring to be part of a new generation of artists getting to tell their own stories. “I’m not too concerned anymore about asking for anything,” she says when probed on what she hopes the industry will do moving forward. “I want to see more people take control. Whatever type of film you feel is missing from Hollywood, don’t expect Hollywood to do it. You figure out how to do it. We’re done asking.”
If Beale Street Could Talk opens December 25.