LaKeith Stanfield talks romance, representation in “The Photograph”

LaKeith Stanfield (left) and Issa Rae in “The Photograph,” written and directed by Stella Meghie. CONTRIBUTED BY UNIVERSAL PICTURES

LaKeith Stanfield (left) and Issa Rae in “The Photograph,” written and directed by Stella Meghie. CONTRIBUTED BY UNIVERSAL PICTURES

On the heels of memorable 2019 roles as Demany in “Uncut Gems” starring Adam Sandler, and as Lieutenant Elliott in the acclaimed murder-mystery “Knives Out,” LaKeith Stanfield is working overtime to distinguish himself as one of the most talented and versatile actors working today. To that end, the California native kicks off his big screen 2020 as a leading man opposite “Insecure” star Issa Rae in “The Photograph.”

Produced by Atlanta-based Hollywood powerbroker Will Packer (“Think Like a Man” and “Girls Trip”), “The Photograph” is a rare Hollywood film centering on black love. It’s even rarer to see a love story between African American creatives.

In the new film, written and directed by black Canadian Stella Meghie, Stanfield stars as talented journalist Michael Block. Working on a story in Louisiana, Michael discovers photographer Christina Eames. As he follows up on her back in New York City, he meets and falls for her daughter Mae Morton, a museum curator, as she grapples with her mother’s very recent death.

Lakeith Stanfield as Darius and Donald Glover as Earnest Marks on 'Atlanta.'

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Playing the romantic lead is new territory for Stanfield. His breakthrough role came in 2016 as Darius — the offbeat sidekick to drug dealer/rapper Paper Boi (Morehouse alum Brian Tyree Henry) — in the acclaimed FX series “Atlanta” from Stone Mountain’s Donald Glover. As Michael to Rae’s Mae, Stanfield said his goal was to venture away from Hollywood’s typical portrayal of black men in this role.

“I wanted him to be the kind of guy who was able to make a decision but still show some emotional aspects or some vulnerability,” he explained in a recent phone interview, “but I didn’t want him to be too much — too sappy and all that.”

“Oftentimes the black guy in these kinds of movies is too ‘something.’ He’s too this. He’s too that,” he continued. “So I wanted to create a balance in the romance and show that black men can be multifaceted.”

LaKeith Stanfield as Michael Block in “The Photograph.” CONTRIBUTED BY EMILY ARAGONES/UNIVERSAL PICTURES

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And Michael is. In addition to being a star journalist, he is also a brother, brother-in-law, uncle, friend and mentor. Co-stars Lil Rel Howery, Teyonah Parris (“Survivor’s Remorse”), Rob Morgan (“Just Mercy”) and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (“Luce”) help to show those sides of him.

It’s Stanfield’s chemistry with Rae’s Mae that centers the film. When asked whether he and Rae worked to establish their romantic chemistry for the film, Stanfield humorously objected to the obvious question.

“I always wonder what people think the answer to that question is going to be like: ‘No, I hated it. It sucked. We didn’t have no kind [of chemistry],’” he said, with a laugh. “I mean I just don’t understand. The chemistry, yeah, we make it work. It was easy to do because I already liked her. It was just cool. We been vibing for a minute. So, yeah, it was just easy breezy.”

LaKeith Stanfield (left) and Issa Rae in “The Photograph,” written and directed by Stella Meghie. CONTRIBUTED BY UNIVERSAL PICTURES

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Circling back to the film’s romantic theme, Stanfield acknowledged the difficulties men and women have finding love. “I think it’s kind of hard to be courageous and give in to love and be vulnerable to someone else,” he said. “It seems like a universal thing that we all go through at some point.”

Like with Darius and his many other roles, Stanfield sprinkles something extra special on all his performances, showing nuances that escape others. With “The Photograph,” Will Packer is eager for audiences to see the magic Stanfield creates.

"LaKeith's performance is revelatory," Packer shared with the AJC. "His range is incredible. He's one of the most talented artists I've ever worked with. I can't wait for audiences to see this LaKeith."

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