On Friday, at SCAD Savannah Film Festival, the young actress and activist sat down with EW’s Devan Coggan after a screening of her new movie to a tear-stained audience. “The reaction’s been incredible,” she told Coggan. “It’s more than we ever anticipated. The emotional response has been big; there’s a lot of people crying…. We don’t want you to cry, but we want you to cry.”
In the film, based on the book of the same name by Angie Thomas, Stenberg plays Starr Carter, a teenager who witnesses her innocent best friend needlessly murdered at the hands of an overzealous cop. For the actress, the project began when she read Thomas’ novel — which she calls her “bible” — and realized how important the story was. “I was able to read Angie’s book before it was published,” shared Stenberg. “I felt like I was witnessing something I’d never seen before. In the first few pages she basically described the experience of code switching: changing the way you present yourself depending on binary that you are in and having that experience of dual identity. A lot of us have that, but particularly if you’re living a contemporary black experience, you have to switch up how you present yourself in order to be accepted in certain spaces. That blew me away, seeing that written down and being able to vividly relate to that experience was really special.”
Stenberg’s really relished that, while her character is growing up and learning how to use her voice throughout the movie, so is Starr’s father Maverick “Mav” Carter, played by Russell Hornsby. “Something I found really important to Starr’s journey was her relationship to her father,” she said. “The heart of the story lies in that relationship and the way in which they both have coming-of-age narratives. Mav is understanding his place in the world through his daughter and his daughter is basically growing alongside her father. I found that to be one of the most heart wrenching and important parts of the movie.”
The actress also spoke about the strong sense of unity among the cast and crew on set. “Every single day was just so beautiful,” she said. “I was really moved by how everyone that was a part of this project really showed up with their intentions in the right place and showed up because they wanted to tell the truth and speak for those who can’t.”
Stenberg also shared that she got physically nauseous on the day they were shooting Khalil’s (Algee Smith) death because she looked at it and recognized “this is not just fiction. This happens all the time and it’s our responsibility to respect those events and communities affected by it as much as we could. In order to do that it was necessary to get as deep into that mindset as possible.”
In those regards, the role — and movie — is an extension of her real-life activism. “I love making art and, for me, the way that it feels fulfilling is to be able to discuss issues that maybe are hard to approach,” she said. “I love that with art, you can explore qualms around being human in a multidimensional way and approach it from different perspectives and create some real empathy and real understanding. That’s what I love most about it and hope to do for the rest of my career.”
Stenberg added that she was “emotionally wrecked” after shooting the movie, but it was completely “worth it.” As for future roles, the actress said she’s “always looking for characters that challenge stereotypes and tropes we have internalized around blackness” and that she isn’t “interested in self-policing or portraying us in a way that could be detrimental to us.”
The Hate U Give is in theaters now.