The star of Netflix’s The Old Guard opens up on representation in the industry and the physicality of her role as Nile.
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2019 was a year of firsts for Kiki Layne. First Oscars, first Golden Globes and first NAACP nomination for Outstanding Actress – for her first-ever movie role. Since her phone call with director Barry Jenkins in 2018, where he asked her if she’d be the lead in his first film since his Oscar-winning production Moonlight, Layne’s world transformed. Her breakout role in the intimate and moving adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk was met with critical acclaim.
Playing the precocious yet timid 19-year old Tish, Layne’s warmth and self-assurance radiated through the character – all while showcasing the challenges faced in the Black community. Following up with another literary adaptation, Native Son, Layne continued to break down barriers and give us riveting and compelling performances. But it’s her latest role in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard that leaves us stunned. From playing a shy teenager from Tennessee, to a badass immortal superhero, Layne is making it known that you can’t put her in a box.
(LEFT) all items GUCCI (RIGHT) top CHRISTOPHER JOHN ROGERS, skirt CHRISTOPHER JOHN ROGERS, pants CHRISTOPHER JOHN ROGERS, earrings LORRAINE WEST, Rings LORRAINE WEST
all items GUCCI top CHRISTOPHER JOHN ROGERS, skirt CHRISTOPHER JOHN ROGERS, pants CHRISTOPHER JOHN ROGERS, earrings LORRAINE WEST, Rings LORRAINE WEST
As soon as I get on the phone with Layne her energetic personality radiates almost instantly. Her soft, subtle American accent is filled with charm as she answers from her home in Cincinnati. After spending two months quarantined by herself in LA, Layne couldn’t be happier to finally have human interaction. “I couldn’t do it anymore,” she happily sighs. “At first I thought I was good, but then I thought, ‘This is not good for you’ – I needed that interaction.” While the experience of quarantine in itself is challenging, Layne spent time checking in on herself and reconnecting. But if there is one thing she has been focusing on, it is making sure no one sets her any boundaries.
Playing US Marine Nile in this summer’s The Old Guard, the actress is thrown into a whirlwind of immortal mercenaries and pharmaceutical companies attempting to harbour their immortality. The energy-packed film is filled with intense and vigorous action sequences, topped with female empowerment and an intriguing storyline – but for Layne, it’s more than just another action film. “I definitely felt a deeper sense of love for this opportunity,” she expands. “I got to portray a young, Black female kick-ass hero saving the day and being the leader, leading this team into battle. I think this representation is extremely important.”
As we both sit back and dissect her new film, Layne reflects on the importance of Black representation in Hollywood, the physicality of her role as Nile, and her upcoming part in Coming 2 America, the sequel to 1988’s original cult classic.
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You had your big screen debut in If Beale Street Could talk – which is absolutely stunning – what was it like working on that film?
It was extremely special to be a part of bringing James Baldwin’s work to life and the people I got to work with were incredible. I feel so blessed to be able to say that was my big break.
How did you approach your role as Tish in the film and what did you take away from it?
It definitely opened me up more into expressing vulnerability and more emotions.
And then you jumped from that role to Native Son, another really powerful film. What drew you into that role when you first heard about it?
It was another opportunity to bring Black literature to life. I had a meeting with the director Rashid [Johnson], and I just love talking to him. I loved how he spoke about the project and the adaption – it was such a great conversation!
This all kind of blew up for you in the past couple of years – what stood out the most to you over that time?
Oh man, (laughs) I don’t know. It was my first everything. My first award ceremony, red carpet, my first experience with the fashion world. It’s all still blowing my mind, really! There’ve been so many wonderful things that I’ve wanted to do, see and accomplish and having these things really come to be… I don’t know, it feels really great. I’ve worked so hard at this and I’ve been so committed to this dream for so long. Everything is still blowing my mind!
Congratulations on The Old Guard! I watched it last night and I thought it was incredible. How did that come about?
The way I heard about The Old Guard was through a meeting with Skydance [Media] and it was just a general meeting, really. They just happened to bring up this project and the first thing that got me excited about it was that Gina Prince-Bythewood was directing it – I didn’t know anything about the project! Straight away it got me excited, so once I finally got to read the script and novel I just thought it was dope. This opportunity to jump into the action genre is something that I’ve always wanted to do. I got to explore a really complex character and that is what made it special, because sometimes action films can be pretty flat. It’s like, ‘Oh, I gotta get the bad guy.’ So I thought it was pretty dope that I got to play a character that struggled with things that even us as mere mortals will understand.
The role definitely required a lot of physical strength. Watching the film I was like wow, these guys went all out in the fight scenes and stunts. How did you prepare yourself for that?
There was a lot of training. They were not messing around – which I’m grateful for. It was great that they were able to prepare us to do as much of our own stunts as possible. It feels great because it is such a big part of storytelling. I was going to the gym, building strength and muscle and learning the choreography to do stunts. Boxing was a big part of my training which was really cool. I also got to work with weapons for the very first time; military practical training was also big part of it as well because I was playing a marine. It definitely was a lot, but also really fun and cool. It’s dope because you are actually acquiring skills and learning how to work with the weapon. That’s pretty cool to me.
Definitely! I think my favourite scene was the aeroplane scene. How did you guys even do that? It looked wild!
That was insane and it’s even crazier because that was our very first scene on set for the film. Day one I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t believe they did this to me!’ I already had first-day jitters and now they’re telling me to get on this tiny aeroplane and fight Charlize – which is crazy. But looking back on it I’m really grateful that’s where we started; it gave us such a great starting point for what the relationship between Andy and Nile is. The relationship is the centre point of the story. Man, that shit was crazy! But it was so wonderful to be on an actual plane alongside Charlize – who for what she represents as a woman in action and film is so important and special. It shows that we’re just as kick-ass and we’re just as capable of leading these films. So to have that entry into the action genre alongside her made it that much extra special.
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Your character Nile dealt with a lot of personal conflict throughout the film, whether she agreed with their views as a group or not she ultimately became a leader. What made her come to this decision?
I definitely felt what Nile was going through. A lot of us can relate to things happening in our lives that can turn everything upside down. It can put you in a place where life as you know it can no longer be what it always had been and there is a struggle of accepting that – and accepting that this is now life under these circumstances. On that level, I can very much relate to that struggle of acceptance and grief. You know, Nile is kind of grieving herself. She dies and she loses the life that she had known. So I really tapped into that.
Nile is represented as a young Black female superhero throughout the film. How important is it to have this representation?
It’s extremely important. Representation really makes a difference in real life and how we see people represented in media and overall is important. If someone has only seen Black people being portrayed in a certain type of way, then what happens when they actually meet a Black person? What are they going to assume what a Black person is like? That’s why it’s important, you know, especially with what’s happening now in the industry and how people are getting called out. Because it’s not like there aren’t real Black heroes and kick-ass women in real life. Hollywood is so unrepresentative – period. Like this is led by two women and there is a woman directing this big ass action movie. It’s like wow, that crazy, but why is that even such a big topic of conversation? Women kick ass every day; women are in the armed forces and there are amazing female directors. Hollywood is just so slow with representing the world. So being able to play Nile, I definitely felt a deeper sense of love for this opportunity ’cause yes, I got to portray a young Black female kick-ass hero saving the day and being the leader.
What would you say was the most challenging part of playing Nile?
The biggest challenge was the physicality of it. This was the most physical type of acting that I’ve ever taken on, the training and all that. It’s my body and I’m doing these things. It was very different for me; I’d never done anything like that before. I would train for more hours in a day than the average person would train in a week. I think that was the biggest challenge, as well as tapping into that athlete mindset and pushing my body into doing things I’ve never done before. But that was what the character called for, and I have to make sure that whatever character I’m playing I’m giving them the best representation I can.
There was a surprise ending for the film. It laid down the groundwork for a sequel, do you think we would get one?
I hope so! Everyone has to watch it. Tell your mama, your auntie, your cousin, old college roommates – everyone watch this movie! We would love to go back and be in that world again and I would love to work with the people that I got to work with again.
The way it ended. I was like OK… Where’s part two?
Yes! That’s what we need more of! Like, Netflix, where’s part two?
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You are also set to star in the highly anticipated sequel for Coming 2 America, how does it feel to be apart of the cult classic?
It hasn’t really hit me yet. We’ve filmed it and it’s wrapped and it’s done, but I haven’t seen it yet. I’m not sure when it’s going to fully hit me, like a punch in the gut like, ‘Oh my goodness you are the sequel to Coming 2 America’. I got to work with amazing people and iconic artists. Just to be on set with Eddie Murphy and Wesley Snipes – I couldn’t believe it.
I saw the cast list and I was like, oh wait, everybody is in this sequel?!
Right! It was so great. Working with Jermaine Fowler was super dope. We had so much fun on that set. This is what I love to do, and I’m grateful that this early in my career I’m already expanding my genres so much because that has always been something so important to me. I don’t want to be put into any kind of box, so I’m glad that I can lay the groundwork and foundation for that. I just hope that by December things are a lot better globally, because I hope we can get the release that we’ve been planning and hoping for.
I think everyone is such a big fan of the first film. What can we expect from this one?
I think people are gonna feel really good about seeing some of the old cast that we love so much return for this film and giving us more.
When lockdown starts to end, what else are you most looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to getting past this weird anxious energy; that’s been really tough for me. You go outside and it feels really weird. Like, should I be outside at all? I’ll go for a walk and I’ll be like ‘I feel weird’. I’m just looking forward to getting over this really weird stage right now.
What else can we expect from you in the coming months outside Coming 2 America?
Honestly, quarantine came and shut everything down. I’m looking forward to what doors The Old Guard opens for me. I don’t have any limitations in what type of role or genre I can do. I just want to keep expanding and keep telling great stories. Because it’s funny, you do one movie and Hollywood are like OK, this is what you’re good at. And I’m like wait, wait, wait… You’ve only seen this one thing! I have to make it clear so they don’t box me in just yet, like hold on – give me space to breathe and show you what I got. So I’m excited for people to see a new side to me in The Old Guard.