Kiersey Clemons is eating steak at a restaurant on the dusty Sierra Highway outside Los Angeles. She’s just wrapped her shoot, which took place at a nearby ranch in 95-degree temps. She was modeling coats, of all things, but it clearly takes a lot more than punishing heat to stop this 23-year-old.
“I’m from Florida,” she says. “That’s what it is.”
Clemons is best known for her career-launching role as Diggy, a lesbian teen growing up in a rough Southern California neighborhood, in the 2015 Pharrell Williams-produced indie comedy Dope. (A musician, she also collaborated with Williams on the soundtrack.)
The film, Clemons’s first, was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was selected to compete for the Grand Jury Prize. Clemons was surprised by the response, which later included a BET nomination for best movie. “It was that feeling of ‘What is happening?’ ” she says. “I’m not sure I’ll ever feel that again, because now I know what can possibly happen even with a small movie.”
One happy result: Clemons has a whopping five feature films scheduled, with more in the pipeline.
Up first is the Marc Webb-directed The Only Living Boy in New York, a coming-of-age story in which Clemons plays Mimi, the love interest of the titular boy (Callum Turner). The movie—which also stars Kate Beckinsale, Jeff Bridges, and Pierce Brosnan—follows Turner’s character as he navigates family dramas and mixed signals from Mimi, whom Clemons calls “the only honest person in the movie.”
As it turned out, Clemons and Mimi had a lot in common. “[We were both] certain that people were always going to be there who weren’t,” the actress says. “That’s a lesson you learn in your early 20s. That one sucks.”
Shooting in New York was also isolating. Family is everything to Clemons, who lives in Palos Verdes, Calif., to be close to her mother and three younger sisters, ages 19, 13, and 8. She says she really missed them during the six weeks she lived on the Lower East Side, particularly the feeling of “nurturing and taking care of someone other than myself.
“You have to decide what it is that shapes and defines you,” she says. “I’m a big sister and a co-parent with my mom before anything. That’s my root of all. It’s my foundation.”
Without her crew nearby, Clemons adopted a Harlem shelter dog and spent time with Turner strolling the streets and doing karaoke. “It was our bonding time,” she recalls. “We ate hot wings and sang ‘I Got You Babe.’ ”
It took the edge off her homesickness. “I grew up with a lot of karaoke and dancing and good movies,” she says. “We all like to entertain and perform. Everyone’s really funny. Everyone can carry a tune. My grandma was a ballerina.”
VIDEO: The One Surprising Thing Selena Gomez Does to Get in the Best Shape of Her Life
Clemons started taking drama classes at age 14—and it clicked. In his review of Dope in Rolling Stone, critic Peter Travers called her “crazy good,” while The Hollywood Reporter dubbed her an “MVP.”
At least so far, she isn’t letting Hollywood go to her head. Clemons’s downtime look is Levi’s and oversize T-shirts, and a fun night involves takeout and “talking for hours” with friends, including actress Ellen Page. She reads (most recently, The Girls and The Handmaid’s Tale), does yoga, and gets treatments from a Reiki-master friend who lives in a tepee in Clemons’s backyard. She also loves to write, though she says, “I’ll never know if I’m good.
“It’s kind of like acting,” she adds. “You don’t know until you do it and people validate you.” She has other offscreen ambitions, as well, which may include launching an initiative to reframe the conversation on solo motherhood. “My mom’s been separated twice,” she says. “[Society] looks down on single moms and still assumes there’s a weakness, whereas when there’s a single dad, he gets all the praise.”
The star, who famously rocked armpit hair at New York Fashion Week, is often described in the press as a feminist—and she’s fine with that.
“I think being a feminist is, to each her own,” Clemons says. “It’s kind of like asking someone what being a woman means to them. We should all be feminists. We should all want equality.”
Photographer: Emman Montalvan/Tack Artist Group. Fashion editor: Ali Pew. Hair: Randy Stodghill for Opus Beauty. Makeup: Paul Blanch for Opus Beauty. Manicure: Stephanie Stone for Forward Artists. Set design: Kelly Fondry.