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'Straight Out Of Compton' Actor Keith Stanfield Is Breaking into Music with MOORS

The performer pays tribute to his hometown in the video for "Gas."

by Justin Staple
Apr 28 2015, 2:10pm

Photos by the author

At age 23, actor and musician Keith Stanfield has already had the kind of career that most actors dream of. After breaking onto the independent film scene as the captivating Marcus in the critically acclaimed film Short Term 12, Stanfield has successfully secured supporting roles in some of Hollywood’s most exciting and anticipated new films: Selma, Straight Out Of Compton, Miles Ahead (the upcoming, Don Cheadle-directed Miles Davis biopic), and Oliver Stone's upcoming Snowden. Stanfield began acting as a kid, and his rise to mainstream success is a testament to the raw and organic power he perpetuates on the screen. With MOORS, Stanfield's new inventive rap project led by himself and mysterious Los Angeles producer HH, Stanfield hopes to bring this same authenticity and determination outside of movies, and to the music industry.

Despite his busy acting schedule over the past few years, Stanfield has managed to keep music close to his heart and career. Most recently, Stanfield starred in the latest AG Rojas-directed music video for Run The Jewels' "Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)" where he participates in an unsettling choreographed fight-dance with a divisive police officer. Stanfield’s theatrical roles have a common musical thread as well, ranging from his gripping self-written freestyle in Short Term 12 to playing younger versions of musical legends Snoop Dogg and Miles Davis. Music is clearly a passion for Stanfield—as he describes it, he is a performer first, and hopes he can successfully transcend any medium.

With MOORS, Stanfield showcases his talents off the screen as a poet and a rapper, pushing the political and personal messages that have shaped him. After meeting at the screening for Short Term 12 and trading ideas for a long time over email, MOORS released their debut self-titled EP in October. It’s filled with HH’s hard-hitting, dance-inspired production and Stanfield’s fierce, politically driven lyricism delivered in a flow reminiscent of early Dre and Snoop. For the EP's second single, "Gas," Stanfield turns a reflective eye on his humble upbringing in the small distressed desert city of Victorville, California. The single arrives with a new video, premiered here, which casts a discerning eye on the sleepy Victorville, as well as on Stanfield and his childhood hometown friends.

The video, directed by Andreas Brauning and AFI graduate Logan Sandler, shows the dark and eerie details at Victorville's heart: It’s a barren, creepy city littered by miscreants who appear intermittently through the choppy editing. Sandler is a close collaborator of Stanfield’s, and after the two completed the short film Tracks—which was selected for the AFI Directors Guild screening—they have embarked on a feature length film titled Live Cargo, set for release later this year, which Sandler describes as set in the Bahamas and focused “on loss and how people deal with it.” Stanfield is now traveling across Europe shooting scenes for Oliver Stone's Snowden, but as I learned in my roundtable interview with Keith and the video’s creators, life was not always so glamorous for the actor.

A lot of your recent acting roles are ingrained in music. Is that a common theme you'd like to keep in your career?
Absolutely. Music and performing for me are one in the same—when they come together that's when I most enjoy it. Straight Out Of Compton, for instance, was something that happened to be musical and it worked out great, I play a young Snoop Dogg. It was kind of surreal. I never met Snoop, but I met Ice Cube, and he would take scenes and elements of the film back to Snoop and always told me his feedback was positive. Dre was on set and had a good amount of creative control on the film.

What was it like shooting Miles Ahead, the Miles Davis biopic with Don Cheadle?
It was beautiful. I had self-taped the audition back when I was filming Selma. When I got back from shooting, Don Cheadle just called my phone and was like, "I loved the audition. You just seemed to get it, bro." I was like, "oh shit! Are you really talking to me?” So then I immediately dived into the musical world of Miles Davis, which is an amazing body of work. With the film, I had the opportunity to deal with an instrument, which was something new for me. In my music, my instrument has always been my voice, but going into Miles Ahead I had to become one with the trumpet.

I didn't leave the trumpet the whole time I was there shooting. If you go to my car right now, I bet the trumpet is still in there. I brought it everywhere while we were shooting and learned everything about it and Miles Davis. Don Cheadle was super inspirational to work with and so full of talent. He directed the film, and he was leading it. Just watching him work was incredible. I went back in time and got to play a heroin addict who knew he had the talent but was just banging his head trying to make it work. And I've felt like that too, so it was a great experience.

What was it like growing up in Victorville?
Victorville is an interesting place for me because I've watched it grow over time. When I first moved there I thought it was a safe haven because I came from San Bernardino, which was super poor and gang infested. When we moved to Victorville it was nothing but a desert, and we had a two-story house. So it felt fresh, like we were starting something new. As time went on, we started seeing an influx of people from the city, and it became a sort of stomping ground for people who wanted to prove something. I came into contact with a lot of people who just wanted to come in and piss on the territory. It was interesting watching the infrastructure of the whole city change and, with that, the people I was hanging around change.

There's not a whole lot out there in Victorville, so it was really up to us using our imagination to make it fun. Most of the zeitgeist and energy there is just sad. It's either old people retiring there, or young people who live off the government. So people are just sitting there all day. But when you have creative juices flowing it becomes something beautiful, and I was able to explore all these other sides of me that I don't think I would have been able to do in the city.

How did you find the audition for Destin Cretton's Short Term 12?
Back in Victorville, when I was looking online for work, I signed up for John Casablanca’s Modeling and Acting Center. When I got there it was mainly fashion and walking on the runway and shit, but they had a decent acting division and took some of their prospective students in for representation meetings. I got a commercial agent through that, and he sent me on a bunch of commercial auditions. But I didn't book shit.

But one day one of his managers decided she was going to send me out on some auditions in her free time. On of these was Destin’s thesis project for his Master’s degree at San Diego State, a short called Short Term 12. I auditioned for it, and Destin loved me. We shot the short, and five years later he called me and told me he was going to turn it into feature. I was in Sacramento at the time but had just been fired from my job. The same day I got fired I found out that he wanted me to come to LA and audition for the feature. So I packed my stuff and went straight to LA and auditioned in his living room.

At that time I was selling weed, mowing lawns, doing whatever I had to do. But I always had wanted to act, I wasn't into that other shit, and Destin gave me that opportunity. We shot the feature over 30 days.

The film garnered a ton of attention and accolades. You were even nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Male that year, with a key scene being your character Marcus freestyling for John Gallagher Jr.'s character Mason. Was the raw energy of that freestyle planned?
Destin's approach is really hands off, so everything actually felt organic. The freestyle scene just happened the way it happened, a lot of the scenes were only shot in two or three takes and came out really natural. I felt like acting was the only thing I wanted to do in life, so I really go into the character and took it very seriously.

Destin had originally written the verses for the freestyle, but when I was reading it, I knew I wouldn't be able to do it his way, in a way that felt organic, because it was coming from a different place. So I re-wrote it with that same format and I sent it to him. He was like, "I like it, but we're going to cut it up a little bit". It was a nice collaboration. We only did three takes and wrapped the scene.

What is the single “Gas” about?
Gas is about my homie from Victorville who would always come up to me and say, "I'm out of gas". And he really was. He had just broken up with his girl and really couldn't take life day-to-day. He was losing his mind and trying to jump out of windows. I had to stop him from doing it. His family was super poor, he was an alcoholic, and his whole family had problems with alcohol. Every time I saw him he would say to me, “bro, I'm out of gas.”

We got in a drunken fight one night when it snowed in Victorville. He was lying down in the snow, significantly drunker than me, so it wasn't much of a fight. But I picked him up out of the snow and we started walking back to the car. He just all of a sudden broke into tears. It was a beautiful moment for him and I, and shortly after that he died. I thought back to the feeling of that night and feeling “out of gas,” that term he kept using. And I put all of that into the song.

How did he die?
He was killed by his brother. I had known him since I was 11.

What inspired the “Gas” video?
Logan Sandler: I always had an affinity for the song, I felt like it was really powerful. Keith and I hang out a lot and share a lot of different tastes in photography and film. One night Keith was over at my place, and I showed him this powerful Lele Saveri book filled with black and white prints. The prints had this really spooky, haunting, enigmatic quality where you can feel what they're about but can't really fully understand what the context is. It's clear when the images hit you emotionally though. So that was the first reference for the video. I've known Andreas Brauning for a while, and he has a raw aesthetic that he wanted to approach Victorville from. Andreas and I wanted it to feel as if we almost missed capturing each of the moments.

How does the video depict Victorville?
Andreas Brauning: There’s a lot of untapped energy in Victorville. Nothing is happening, and time is moving so goddamn slow there—people kicking cans, old dudes walking around aimlessly. We wanted to create a duality with how the video is edited (real fast and abrasive, almost seizure-inducing) and the slowness and stillness of the city. There are time lapses, still shots of the town, and creepy corners that one wouldn't necessarily expect from the city. More than anything, I wanted to come up with really strange images that felt awkward and deserted. Bunny masks, deserts, tiki flames. Images that you wouldn't really expect in a hip-hop video.

Keith Stanfield: You wouldn't expect it at first, but Victorville is kind of a violent place. There are a lot of kids running around with guns and shit. 2013 was a record violent year for Victorville. I think it's because it's in the middle of nowhere and people think they can get away with anything. But we wanted to show how the desert can be a canvas. It can be—you can make the desert something cool.

Do you go back to Victorville now?
Yeah I love going back there. I like to be with my family and at peace when I'm not working. I'm running around and doing these bigger movies, and it's nerve-wracking. I like to go back there where it's peaceful. I've had a lot of issues in my family, and I've always had to be the one that's mediating it. So I want to be there for them, and inspire people in Victorville to create. Victorville is pumping in my veins and everything I do. I think “Gas” visually captures what it's like there.

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Short Term 12
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Straight Out of Compton
Live Cargo