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Amandla Stenberg: ‘People really, really want to see black girls as leads in movies’

From Rue in ‘The Hunger Games’ to ‘Everything, Everything,’ Stenberg is taking the lessons of growing up to the screen

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“Growing up is weird, and then in the context of acting and movies and being in the public eye, it gets weirder.”

That’s why you haven’t seen much of Amandla Stenberg since first appearing as that little District 11 kid named Rue, fighting for life alongside Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen in 2012’s The Hunger Games. Stenberg, now 18, has had brief roles on TV’s Sleepy Hollow and the short-lived Mr. Robinson sitcom, but otherwise spent recent high school years in actual high school, keeping busy with her website and some activism videos like her YouTube sensation “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows,” but otherwise being a young adult.

Now that she’s got her diploma, she’s bringing that experience to her work on the big screen in as big a way as possible, starting with a starring role in the adaptation of Nicola Yoon’s YA best-seller Everything, Everything (out May 19) as a teenager with a dangerously fragile immune system, isolated in her home because the outside world could kill her.

Later this year, she’ll costar in writer-director Amma Asante’s historical drama Where Hands Touch, about a mixed-race girl trying to survive in Germany during Hitler’s rise. She’ll also at work on two other YA adaptations, the sci-fi saga The Darkest Minds, from a book by Alexandra Bracken, about teens who survive a plague and emerge with superpowers. After that, Stenberg will star in The Hate U Give, based on the novel by A.C. Thomas, about a girl who witnesses the police shooting of an unarmed black friend.

“Since I graduated I’ve pretty much been working nonstop,” Stenberg tells EW. “So it definitely felt like jumping into the deep end of the pool when it comes to adulthood.” For now, her focus has been young adulthood, especially books that she feels are a little braver about the growing-up experience than most movies.

“Books allow you the space to get into the nuance of what it’s like to be a teenager,” she says. “It’s such a complicated period of time that I’m still experiencing – and transitioning out of. With the projects that I work on, I want to be able to explore the whimsy of the story or the depth and the intensity of it.”

In Everything, Everything, directed by Stella Meghie, Stenberg stars as Maddie, a girl who falls in love with her new neighbor (Jurassic World’s Nick Robinson), although she can’t set foot outside her doorstep. Her doctor mother (Anika Noni Rose) is protective to the point of stifling, even when it comes to this long-distance love for the boy-next-door.

Nicola Yoon, author of the novel, says Stenberg was her dream choice for the role of this young girl who unleashes her mind while she’s locked inside. “She has a real strength, but she’s really optimistic and positive. That’s something Maddie is,” Yoon says. “[Maddie] is in this terrible situation, but she believes what she believes, makes the best of it, and has a core, a center that’s really strong. Amandla also has an innocence about her, which Maddie does, too.”

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR

Stenberg grew up in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, which she describes as “a black neighborhood surrounded by diversity.” Questions of who fits in and why fascinate her. “I was raised by an interracial couple,” she says. “My mom is from the Bronx and she’s black and she moved to L.A. as a writer. And my dad is from Denmark and he came to L.A. after he was in the music business for a while. Then my mother had me but I also have two older sisters who are my half-sisters and my favorite people on the planet.”

She has also moved around between schools, some with mostly black students, others mostly white. As someone caught between, she found herself shaped by thoughts about who is welcomed, and who isn’t. “It was difficult at first but it taught me a lot and it made me think about race from a very early age,” she says. “I’ve been thinking about all the different components and factors in my life that have kind of led to me being the person I am now.”

Stenberg is a fighter. Equality, justice, fairness, are the broadstrokes. She also said in a recent People magazine interview, “I’m comfortable with using the pronouns ‘they’ or ‘them’ alongside ‘she’ and ‘her.'”

“I’m always thinking about the best way to apply my activism to the world and how to get it out there in a way that’s not intrusive and that doesn’t target certain people and make them feel like they aren’t able to be a part of the conversation,” the actress says.

Stenberg grew up with roles not being available because of race. “As a 13-, 14-, 15-year-old there aren’t necessarily… you don’t see roles for black girls that age,” she says, but times are changing. “At first the roles weren’t available to me, and now they are because people are bored. People are bored and it’s the responsibility of studios and the mainstream media to catch up to what people want.”

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

And what do they want? “Diversity is something that people desperately want. I’m lucky enough to be here and see what’s happening and take those roles when they do appear,” she says. “I’m very aware of how special it is that I get to have this experience of creating representation while talking about representation at a time where people really, really want to see black girls as leads in movies.”

Just as important as representation is connection. “I definitely think it’s important to balance creating content that speaks directly on race and content that doesn’t talk about it all, but it speaks for itself,” she says. “It can be more powerful to create a film like Everything, Everything and then get distributed to kids in the Midwest who maybe don’t live in very diverse communities and get to see this black girl in the lead, you know? In many ways they’ll be able to understand that much more than they’ll be able to understand an article about representation.”

She’s ready to be herself. Or just the person she’s playing. “That’s something that I’ve always believed in,” Stenberg says. “That just existing can be a political act in itself.”

FROM HERE TO EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING

Although most kids don’t have to deal with a life-threatening illness that keeps them locked away, Stenberg hopes the story of Everything, Everything strikes a nerve with anyone who has felt trapped – either by their parents, the things that make them different from other people, or even the things that make them feel the same.

Doane Gregory/Warner Bros.

“It’s about that creepy feeling you get when you’re in high school and you feel really isolated or you’re surrounded by people and wanting to escape, and are figuring out how to,” she says. “Sometimes it can be unsafe, sometimes it can be risky. Sometimes it can be really powerful and you learn the most beautiful lessons.”

Holding off on the rest of her formal education is the chance she’s currently taking. Stenberg was accepted to New York University’s film school, and someday she hopes to return. She has wanted to become a director since age 10, when she did her first movie (the 2011 Zoe Saldana action film Colombiana.) But for now, she’s waiting.

For now, Stenberg has an opportunity for lots of on-the-job training in front of the camera.