Keith Stanfield may have grown up in Victorville, a sleepy L.A. suburb, but these days he doesn’t have much free time. The 23-year-old’s starring role in Short Term 12 put him on the map, and now he’s scored roles in Selma, Rick Famuyiwa’s Sundance-bound Dope, and biopics about Miles Davis (Miles Ahead) and N.W.A. (Straight Outta Compton). He also started an alternative hip-hop project, Moors, with the enigmatic producer HH.
When he spoke to EW in Chelsea late last year, Stanfield talked about what sets his raps apart from 2 Chainz, how he met Selma director Ava DuVernay, and how the artwork for Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle influenced him at a young age. But before any of that, he saw the artwork for Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on my iPhone—and had to get some talk about the iconic MC out of the way.
KEITH STANFIELD: I love Watch the Throne, because Kanye was acting so ratchet. He has crazy balls to go out on a limb and do different shit. That’s what I respect about him, and hopefully that’s what we bring to Moors. I haven’t witnessed this contemplative, introspective version of rap much in contemporary hip-hop. Although rap is about boasting, it’s also about honesty and expressing your emotions. We’re digging into those parts we don’t want to talk about and talking about them.
EW: How did you choose that direction?
Me and HH found that intimacy portrays our message best. How would you talk to someone you care about? It’s really conversational. It makes it more meaningful for us, and hopefully for the listeners as well.
How did you start working with HH?
I met him on the festival circuit for Short Term 12. He was this mysterious dude, and [after approaching me] he sent me an instrumental. It was different, and I was looking for that. I wrote something to his instrumental and we came out with something great. He came up with the name Moors, based on a lyric I said.
“I’m a moor / As sure as the world turns…” I don’t remember exactly. He said, “Let’s make our name ‘Moors,’ that sounds perfect.” When I was 18, I got this tattoo [on my forearm] which is two slanted squares coming together to create a sharp chain link. It’s the African symbol for slavery. It looks like an ‘M’ and that’s what we are: Two squares coming together. He went to Yale and I’m from Victorville, but it all fell in line in some weird, serendipitous way.
Were you looking to get into music regardless of who you’d work with, or was it HH specifically?
I’ve done music since I would sit and make songs on my computer mic when I was 11. I saw the potential in the first prototypes [HH] made for it to be really, really good. We’ve been progressing since. He’s been through the music game for a while, so he has experience. He offers me knowledge, and I’m able to bring my poetic skills. It meshes well.
“Asphyxiated” is pretty heavy. Are you drawing on your past, or are you just thinking of solemn, serious things to talk about?
Pretty much everything [I write] is based on personal [experience]. A host of things led me to write “Asphyxiated.” It was based on my family. Everyone around me was going through something—but I was just starting my film career, so I was feeling good. Then the stuff around me made me miserable and when I took on my family’s problems I felt asphyxiated. That song flew out—I had never written anything that fast. I had a friend who passed away recently. He used to always say, “Man, I’m f–ked up and out of gas.” I picked up that phrase and used it [on “Gas”] to describe how I felt after his passing.
Has writing songs helped you through rough patches in your life?
It helps me in the moment, but after I make music it’s hard for me to listen to it, because I feel like that’s a chapter I’m trying to get away from. So what we’re doing on tour…
That’s what I was about to say. It seems rough playing every night if…
Yeah. In our first show I got emotional, but that comes with the territory.
Your EP doesn’t sound like most current hip-hop. How would you describe your sound?
Introspective regurgitation. Just me going inside and letting things out. Hip-hop is not all 2 Chainz—although 2 Chainz is awesome. How he does that with metaphors, I don’t know. But as far as content, it’s run-of-the-mill shit.
Who are your influences? What are you into?
I really, really like Grimes. 2Pac. Pro Era are a big influence for me. They’re young, forward-thinking, and really bringing hip-hop back to where it needs to be. I like Flatbush Zombies. Missy Elliott’s eclectic style and craziness are f–king great. Marilyn Manson is really honest and free. The Allman Brothers Band. I’ll send HH some ratchet shit, like RiFF RAFF. I f–king love RiFF RAFF. Spooky Black, as well. Oh, I saw this musical Show Boat, which is the shit. It inspired me a lot.
How did you start acting?
I’ve always wanted to act. Since I was little, I’d be in the mirror, dancing around and shit. In 2008, I did a short film called Short Term 12 and it won at Sundance. That was my first thing—it’s my baby, my love. Then I went back to Victorville and started working at this legal marijuana facility doing small jobs. I auditioned [for a feature-length version of Short Term 12] and when I looked up the dude was crying. I’m like, “What did I do wrong?” He’s like, “It was f–king great!” He hired me, then I got nominated for the Independent Spirit Award after it premiered at South by Southwest in March of ’13. That opened up doors for everything else.
In Selma you play Jimmie Lee Jackson, a protester who was shot and killed by the Alabama state troopers in the 1965 Voting Rights marches. How did you get involved with Selma? What does it mean to you?
I was at the Spirit Awards for Short Term 12. I’d been drinking—at the Spirit Awards that’s all the f–k you do. So I’m faded, and this woman came up to me and I’m like, “Hey, you want a picture?” because so many people had been asking. I give her a hug, take a picture—and come to find out she was Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma. We had a couple meetings and I was like, “I f–king love this woman.” I auditioned for Jimmie Lee Jackson and she said, “That was great, you exceeded my expectations.”
Selma has been so meaningful for me—and not just historically, with the relationship between the police and everything. It’s understanding what it means for your environment to encroach upon you and affect you in ways others may not understand. I’m super excited for this role and it goes hand-in-hand with my music.
The movie is heavy, good, and great for the soul. Selma shows that you can’t always take everything for granted. I know I did when we started filming it. They were like, “OK, we’re going to do a scene where the police beat you up, here’s these pads.” And I’m like, “No, f–k the pads, I want this scene to be real. Keep the pads over there.” That was a mistake, because that shit hurts—bad. I woke up the next day with [swollen] forearms, just from getting hit so many times. I was like, “Damn man, you’re a bitch.” Because somebody actually got f–ked up doing this and I’m just an actor.
We look back and say, “Well, if I was around back then I would’ve done this, this, and that.” No. You probably wouldn’t. You probably would’ve gotten f–ked up. The dudes who went out there, who were fighting and struggling, they went through it. It inspires me to continue to fight, to continue to struggle, to continue to get the truth out there. It was very rewarding.
Did you meet Oprah?
Yeah. I did a scene with her. It was f–king great! She came to me, [gave me] three pats and said, “Good job, honey.” I was like, “F–k! My life is complete!” That was awesome. She’s a real girl—I mean, a real woman. A good person. Really honest, down to earth and just cool beans, man. I love Oprah. She comes with this energy. I wanna be like that one day.
How did you land the Snoop Dogg role in Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A. doc? What was it like to get a phone call saying, “You’re going to play Snoop”?
I auditioned maybe seven times. Two days before Snoop’s part comes up, they’re like, “You got the job, you’ve gotta be there tomorrow at 5 a.m.” I was up all night, listening to anything Snoop-related, watching anything I could find Snoop-related. I saturated myself in everything Snoop. Before I knew it I was like, “Bow wow wow, yippee yo yippee yay.”
Did you prepare for the role with a lot of gin and juice?
Well, I’d do that anyway.
Snoop is one of those rappers who’s gone beyond the genre and is just an icon.
Snoop is so much more than music at this point. I grew up listening to him and I remember seeing the Doggystyle album. It did something weird to me sexually when I was little. Like, this is a sexy dog—this is weird, but I like it. Playing him was f–king crazy. I met Cube, I met Dre, I met everybody.That was f–king wild. I couldn’t have imagined doing anything like that, not even two years ago.
The other movie you’ve got coming up is Miles Ahead.
Don Cheadle’s playing Miles [Davis] in Miles Ahead. I play a foil character named Junior who’s basically a young Miles and looks up to him. He’s addicted to heroin; he’s a struggling musician with a lot of issues.
Do you have Miles Davis recordings you like? Do you like the hard fusion or the cool, spaced-out modal stuff?
I respect the fusion stuff, because he was really blurring the lines, but I like his older shit better. I’m a big fan of the blues. One big inspiration is Ma Rainey, she’s like early 1900s blues. Skip Jackson. F–king Ella Fitzgerald, of course. Amy Winehouse. All those dudes. Howlin’ Wolf, “Smokestack Lightning,” that shit. I love the blues because it’s honest, simple, and timeless. It’s always going to be there.