The lead actors in If Beale Street Could Talk, the latest work from Moonlight filmmaker Barry Jenkins, had two very different paths that brought them to this extraordinary movie, adapted from the novel by James Baldwin. Stephan James and Kiki Layne play a young couple, very much in love, living in Harlem circa the 1970s and fresh to finding out that Layne’s Tish Rivers is pregnant. The couple find a place to live and shortly thereafter James’s Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt is arrested on trumped up charges and sent to prison, leaving Tish alone to prove his innocence. The film is a stunning love story and a heartbreaking story of African-American life that has more connection to the modern world than is perhaps comfortable to admit.
James is an established actor with a long career in television and films, including Selma (playing civil rights activist and future congressman John Lewis), Race (in which he played Olympian Jesse Owens), and the recent Amazon series Homecoming, starring opposite Julia Roberts. In mid-July his next film, the crime drama 17 Bridges is set for release. A DePaul University graduate (for acting), Layne began making a name for herself within the Chicago theater scene before she was tempted by Los Angeles, and within three months of moving there, was auditioning for her part in Beale Street. A bright future seemingly assured, she also has two films set for release in the coming months, including Native Son (based on the novel by Richard Wright), which is set to debut on Day One at the Sundance Film Festival; and the sci-fi thriller Captive State, set for release March 29.
I sat down with these two incredible performers recently in Chicago to discuss the nuances of playing a loving couple whose relationship is responsible for pulling the audience through some very dark times in this story. They are a fascinating pair to be sure. Please enjoy our conversation…
What did you love both about playing these characters, as well as playing this couple, because both are important. If we don’t believe in this couple’s love, the movie doesn’t work. Whether they are in a scene together or not, we have to care about them as a unit.
Stephan James: We realized how important that relationship was, how the whole story believed in their love and people believing in that. They have this magical thing that has been threatened. For me, going back to the novel, Baldwin described an incredible love—black love like I’ve never heard it described. Certainly, I knew that visually, we had a chance to do something really special just from the language in the screenplay and the way it was translated. Recognizing that it’s such a unique story; it’s essentially the first time we’ve been able to show two, young black people as soul mates—something that’s bigger than lovers—and show them with real families and people who they love. We approached it from that standpoint, and it struck me as a beautiful love story.
KiKi Layne: [points to James] Yeah, all of that. [laughs] But because it’s James Baldwin, even with all of that love, there’s so much truth spoken about social issues and different injustices. The book was written in 1974, and we’re still having those some conversations and dealing with those same issues. That’s also what adds to the power of these characters and their connection to each other. It’s showing their love surviving through all of this; it’s the thing that’s getting them through all of that, even though it’s also under attack.
It feels like such a mature, fully-realized relationship, but I had to keep reminding myself that they are so young. But they end up being some of the most grown-up people in the film because they’re dealing with all of these things that they shouldn’t be. With this being your first film, how are you ever going to top the emotional weight of something like this role?
SJ: [laughs] It’s all downhill for you.
KL: [laughs] I know! Oh my goodness. I definitely had moments where I was thinking “How am I going to do this?” Thankfully, in this story, it’s about all of these connections, and as I tried to navigate carrying something like this for the first time, I’m connected to all of these really great artists and great people around me, supporting me, KiKi, the same way you see Tish get supported in the film as she’s experiencing all of these new things.
Speaking of connections, the jailhouse scenes are the moments that push us through some of the horrible things they have to go through. As long as they find those moments when they can reconnect, we know they’re okay at the end of those scenes, and that gives us something to get us to the next time. Did you shoot those chronologically?
KL: I don’t think we did.
SJ: I’m not really sure if we did.
KL: We shot so much out of order; they might have been as well.
SJ: They might have been actually. They were definitely done in the same week. But you’re right, those moments are about standing the test of time. It’s this trajectory of this young couple as this man is in prison, seemingly disintegrating within these walls that are meant to completely break you down in a system that doesn’t expect people like us to survive. It’s designed that way. For us, you constantly see that thread of love being tugged on as they go through these prison visits. It’s really a testament to their love.
KL: You get to see what he’s doing to our characters through the weight of those prison scenes, and you’re also getting to see me getting more and more pregnant, you’re seeing the growth of our love and seeing it doing well. That’s also what’s so important about those scenes as well.
I feel like the scene with the two families meeting to announce Tish’s pregnancy is the one most people are going to talk about, and I feel bad that you, James, are not in it. That scene takes the tone and the language to a whole other level.
SJ: Baldwin at his finest!
Oh yes. No audience will ever quite be prepared for it. Regina King is one of my all-time favorite actors, period. What do you learn from working with someone like her?
KL: So, so much. Actually, the thing I took away the most from working and acting with Regina is, yes, she is so successful and all of these amazing thing, but she is still so very true to herself, and still so genuine and supportive and down to earth. That’s something I want to take with me for the rest of my career, that it doesn’t matter whatever success I find, I can still be true to myself and a really genuine person. She’s just amazing. I still call her “Mom,” and she calls me “Daughter,” and it’s really that relationship. I’m just so thankful.
Stephan, you have a handful of incredible scenes with Brian Tyree Henry. He has such a history in every branch of acting. Same question, what do you gain from working with someone like him?
SJ: Brian Tyree is a beast, and he’s one of my favorite actors. And he’s the biggest Baldwin fan. The way he came to work, he had only a day or two on set, but he came so prepared to capture that moment. He’s maybe in the film for 10 minutes, but his work resonates so thoroughly at the end of it all. He’s just a guy who really brought a depth and feeling to these characters. There are a million Dannys and a million Fonnys in this world, and to be able to speak life to people like that and give them a voice, and the way he has to describe his horrors and deepest fears with his brother and be vulnerable with him, I think it’s a special moment in this film and a special moment in cinema, in general.
Not a lot of actors can pull that off, and once he’s introduced in the film, his presence never leaves even after he does.
SJ: Exactly, yeah.
KiKi, you went to school at DePaul, so how did Barry find you?
KL: Barry actually found me after a I moved to L.A. from Chicago, which was June 2017. And then it was September when I booked Beale Street.
You’re going to make a lot people think this comes easy.
KL: [laugh] It was not easy. I was ready to leave; I almost left and went back to Cincinnati [her hometown] two months in, because I moved really unexpectedly and I didn’t have the things in order that one should have
SJ: L.A. is an expensive town.
KL: Yes, so I was struggling, and I was ready not even to pack up and go back to Chicago, but to go back to Cincinnati. But something in my spirit kept me there, and things lined up so that I could still be there when everything came together.
So was it just about an audition for you?
KL: Actually, for me it started out that one of my friends was auditioning for the role of Fonny and asked me to read with him. So that’s how I found out it was being cast. Thankfully, I was able to get some representation in L.A. a couple weeks later and I was able to submit my own tape.
Having talked to Barry a couple of times over the years, I get a sense that he has a really unique way of working and giving his actors time to settle into these characters and relationships. You have to not only act like a couple but like two people who have known each other since they were kids. Talk about how he is different as a filmmaker.
KL: My experience in film is so limited, and he may have spoiled me—at least some people tell me that I might be because of him. It’s something that comes across in his work, but I witnessed that he’s just so patient, which for me being a newcomer coming into this project, carrying this size of a role but having the least amount of experience, that was a huge blessing having a director who was that patient. I was learning so many new things, but that was one of the biggest standouts about working with Barry, and it helps you to be more open to playing and being vulnerable and possibly making mistakes.
SJ: Again, he allows us all to be patient. And the freedom he allows gives us as actors a lot of time to find ourselves within these characters. He creates an environment that’s conducive to that, where we can explore and make mistakes and take risks without looking silly. I feel like he has a way about him that is very spontaneous. If he sees something, he has the courage even if he has things set up a certain way and say “I saw something else. Let’s scrap that because I’m going to do this.” That’s an incredible quality to have as a filmmaker.
For both of you, what do you want people thinking and talking about when they leave this film?
KL: The first thing that popped into my head was about the strength of love and how much strength is in that when you are loved and are loving other people. I know that’s something the film taught me. I’m naturally a lot more of an independent person and have this narrow view that strength is the ability to do as much as possible by myself. I definitely learned from the film, and it had me thinking and rethinking the question of “What is strength?” And how much strength and power is in all of that love.
SJ: Honestly, I’m just grateful for the perspective that I believe that this film gives people. It allows people to be a fly on the wall on some of the deepest issues that affect this country in such a big way. Even though Baldwin’s words were written in 1974, they mean so much in 2018. We were able to make these families real people and show that this is a real love that is under attack. That’s the most remarkable thing about it, and I hope people are left with that.
Thank you both so much, and best of luck with this.
SJ: Hey, man. I appreciate it. Thanks.
KL: Well, thank you. Take care.
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