- 15 Feb 19
Ain't nothing like the Beale thing! Kiki Layne discusses her stunning performance in Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk, the powerful drama many are hailing as the film of the year.
Learn Kiki Layne’s name – you’re going to be hearing it a lot this year. The 26-year-old actress has landed the breakthough role of a lifetime – playing Tish, the lead in Barry Jenkins’ superb adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk. The powerful drama sees quiet-but-resilient Tish fall for her best friend, Fonny (Stephan James). The two lovers are blissfully happy, and Tish becomes pregnant – but when a racist cop ensures that Fonny is falsely accused of rape and imprisoned, the young couple’s dreams are shattered.
Ironic then that for Layne, Beale Street represented a dream come true. The actress heard about the project when her friend was recording his audition tape for Fonny, and asked Layne to read lines with him on.
“I immediately felt a connection to the part and the film,” Layne says. “I read Tish’s lines and the first words out of my mouth were, ‘But that’s me!’”
Living alone in Los Angeles without representation, Layne didn’t think she had a hope of getting the part – but then she got a phone call from the Oscar-winning director of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins.
Layne, though, neglected to pick up at first. “Of course Barry Jenkins is calling me from a number I don’t recognise, so I didn’t pick up!” she laughs. “Who picks up unknown numbers? But it immediately called back again, so I thought I’d better answer. But then he doesn’t introduce himself – just starts making fun of me for sounding asleep. So I’m half asleep thinking, ‘Who is this, what is happening here?’ Then I start thinking I recognise his voice – but not quick enough, because he literally asks me, ‘Girl, do you even know who you’re talking to?’
“I said, ‘I think I’m talking to Barry Jenkins, and I’m trying to be chill right now.’ Then he told me I got the part, and I was not chill! I knew what this role was – it was going to be life-changing.” Layne’s performance is simply luminous. With her soulfulness, grace, tenderness and quiet strength, she elevates every scene she’s in, and shines even among a cast of incredible actors. Regina King has rightly received an Oscar nomination for her role as Tish’s mother, while Teyonah Parris, Coleman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis and Brian Tyree Henry are also impeccable as Tish and Fonny’s friends and family. For Layne, the community spirit created by Barry Jenkins and the cast can be summarised by Baldwin’s famous line: “Love brought you here.”
“I feel like Tish and I are very different,” says Layne. “But I learned from Tish. My idea of strength was being someone who can do as much as possible on their own, to be independent. But Tish’s strength comes from the love and connection she forges with her family and the love of her life, Fonny. I learned that from this role – the strength of being vulnerable, being open to love and being loved. And I experienced that on-set; we created a family, and just like the family onscreen supports Tish through her life-changing experiences, everyone on-set supported me through mine.”
If Beale Street Could Talk tackles racism and the justice system, but it’s also a deeply personal tale of love and family, and the toll that injustice takes on not just the direct victims of injustice, but everyone in their lives.
“One of the beautiful things about Beale Street is that we have all of these beautiful, powerful moments where characters are looking to camera,” says Layne. “And what makes that connection with the audience so important is that, although we’re playing fictional characters, we represent real people who are going through these things, today. And in those moments you have to look these people in the eye and acknowledge all of the pain and trauma and injustice that they’re going through.
“You have to acknowledge their whole humanity, and you see the ripple effects. You see how these situations don’t just destroy individuals – they destroy families, they destroy love. You have to see all of that. They’re not just one more faceless victim of police brutality or mass incarceration, they’re not just another hashtag: these are people with communities and loved ones, who are all devastated by these injustices. So I think it’s very important to see this movie today, and to be able to acknowledge the full humanity of people who are so often reduced to just mere statistics.”
Speaking of hashtags, it’s now three years since #OscarsSoWhite became a dominant talking point in Hollywood, though things quietened after Barry Jenkins won Best Picture for Moonlight. Does Layne think the issues of race and representation in the film industry are being adequately addressed?
“There’s still so much more work to do,” she replies, “because there’s still quite a difference in the opportunities that are available for white actors and artists and actors, and artists of colour. But I definitely feel blessed to be coming up in the industry at this time; there has been a shift. There was no way that, even a few years ago, you were going to have a Blackkklansman and a Black Panther and a Beale Street all nominated for Oscars, and shows like Atlanta, Insecure and Blackish on TV.
“So change is happening. People of colour are taking more control behind the scenes; we are producing more and writing more, and we’re not asking for permission as much. We’re finding the ways to get our stories out there, because we know our stories have value. So I’m thankful – and I know there’s still more work to do. I want to be an actress and explore different universes and characters. But I also want to produce and direct, because on that side of the table, you have real power over what stories get made and whose work gets elevated. I want to be a part of that.”