KiKi Layne isn’t afraid to speak up.
As the country grapples with calls for racial justice surrounding the deaths of unarmed Black people like Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd, the 28-year-old actor is using her platform to amplify Black voices and Black stories. “With everything that's going on, I just feel so much more powerful,” she told InStyle over the phone on July 9.
Layne grew up in Cincinnati which steeped her in a mix of hard work and humility that she calls “Midwest energy.”
“That love and loyalty, that groundedness, is always there. I got the type of family that no matter how far I go in Hollywood, they will quickly remind me who the hell I am and where the hell I came from,” she says with a laugh.
At 17, she moved to Chicago to work in theater. There, she learned what it means to be an artist and to give oneself over to a role completely, a skill she took with her to Hollywood casting offices in search of a big break. That came in 2018, when she played Tish in Barry Jenkins’ poignant drama about Black love and racial injustice, If Beale Street Could Talk. The film made her an instant critical darling.
In her latest film, Netflix’s The Old Guard, released July 10, Layne is Nile, a tough Marine turned mercenary with a supernatural secret who is taken under Charlize Theron’s ass-kicking wing to outsmart a team of corporate henchmen. And later this year she’ll star as Prince Hakim’s daughter in a modern sequel to the classic Eddie Murphy comedy Coming 2 America, bookending her 2020 with two characters who couldn’t be more different from each other.
“As an actor, my commitment is to be really mindful of how I’m representing Black women. It’s the heart of my drive, and my career is to expand how Black women have been represented. I’m committed to jumping into roles, worlds, and stories that historically actors who look like me have been left out of,” Layne says.
“I used to think you had to accept what was given to you. And what we're seeing right now is that there's this call to not just accept the status quo and what has been the norm, and to really speak out about underrepresentation and having Black creators and artists left out of conversations we should be a part of,” she says
“The heart of my activism lies in my craft,” Layne points out. And for her, that means making sure Black women are part of the conversation — and not pigeonholed into singular, stereotypical roles.
“When you’re a Black actress, the box that we often get put in is so small,” Layne says. “And me being a dark-skinned Black actress, the opportunities become so limited in a way that is just wrong. It’s not fair. I'm so capable of playing a wide variety of roles. It comes down to whether or not I’m given the opportunity to do it.” And data shows that all too often, actresses like her won’t be given that chance.
In 2019, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that while 68% of all female characters in the top 100 films that year were white, only 20% were Black. Things are getting a bit better, if very slowly. This year, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences added 819 new members and finally met guidelines that it presented back in 2016 to diversify the awards ceremony’s voting pool. But there is still much work to be done to ensure authentic and inclusive stories are being told.
The Old Guard is directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, director of beloved classics that center Black women, Black ambition, and Black love, including Love + Basketball and Beyond the Lights. Working with such a talented Black filmmaker to tell a story that centers a Black hero was an opportunity Layne couldn’t pass up. When she first heard about the film, the only thing she knew was that Prince-Bythewood was attached to direct. And that, she says, was all she needed to know.
The film is an adaptation of Greg Rucka’s serialized graphic novel first published in 2017, but in the original, Layne’s character, Nile, is more auxiliary. Rather than accept the limitations of the source material, Prince-Bythewood built out the role to make Nile more complex.
“Gina came in so committed from day one of really filling out the character of Nile because it was important to her to have a full, well rounded, and complex Black female hero,” Layne explains. It takes that type of commitment and courage to not just accept the way it was first given to you,” and that’s a lesson she plans to continue paying forward. “I'm glad to be able to step into the role and I hope then lead to more of us being tasked to be leaders in these films, because we're heroes every damn day.”
Working with Black filmmakers like Jenkins and Prince-Bythewood has given Layne an added level of authenticity in her work portraying Black women on screen. For instance, in both Guard and Beale Street, Layne wears her hair naturally, a seemingly small detail that grounds both characters and films in authentic Blackness. “I'm grateful that [Beale Street] was my introduction to Hollywood with people being able to see me. I'm like, ‘This is my hair. This is my skin.’ With a character like Tish, it would be wrong to have it any other way.”
“For me, acting is giving myself, my body, my voice, my experiences, over to whatever character it is ... However I need to use this instrument to tell their story in the most authentic way.” And for Nile, a Marine stationed in Afghanistan, that meant following a recently established allowance for Black women in the military by wearing her hair in cornrows, a staple style for Black women in sweaty situations. “She is a warrior. She’s a Marine, you know. I didn’t need my bright orange lipstick for this one,” Layne says.
Layne is heartened to see more Black artists create opportunities to showcase our stories with this kind of care and intention.
“Right now in the industry... we are seeing a lot more Black creators taking hold of getting our stories told in the way they should be told, and not waiting for old white Hollywood to tell the stories and give us the job,” she says, adding that it’s “really wonderful to see.” But she doesn’t want to stop there: “I want more of Black people controlling the wallets, too,” she says with a laugh.
Even as studios and productions have scaled back to slow the spread of COVID-19, (Layne’s InStyle shoot took place over Zoom) Layne is trusting her power, and that her time has come. “Right now, I’m just spending time with my family and just trusting that whatever is supposed to be next for me already has my name on it and that nothing can stop it — not even a worldwide pandemic.”
Photographs by Rochelle Brock. Styling by Wayman + Micah. Hair by Larry Sims. Makeup by Rebekah Aladdin. Production by Kelly Chiello.