Boots Riley and Lakeith Stanfield Aren't Really 'Sorry to Bother You'

An interview with the filmmaker and lead actor behind the summer's most uproarious sci-fi comedy.

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Jul 5 2018, 3:02pm

Photo by Getty Images

It’s a Wednesday afternoon, the beginning of a press junket for Sorry to Bother You, an upcoming sci-fi comedy showing late capitalism’s role in a dystopian future, and a telemarketer’s place in it all. The biting satire was directed by first-time filmmaker Boots Riley and stars Lakeith Stanfield. In a conference room at lower Manhattan’s Crosby Street Hotel, it doesn’t take long for me to realize Stanfield, the 26-year-old breakout star of Atlanta and Get Out fame, who plays telemarketer Cassius Green in the film, prefers to be in the present. “As I’m sitting here looking at you right now, I’m looking at all the little things you do, kind of downloading them,” Stanfield tells me, in the same type of intensity he brings to the screen as Cassius. “And it’s quite interesting.”

In a film that establishes itself as ambitious, original, and “bonkers,” Stanfield’s first turn as a leading man amid a loaded cast—including Tessa Thompson and Armie Hammer—is already earning early high marks, scoring a 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. “Two years from now, these are your Oscar winners,” says Riley, calling the cast, “the 2018 Rat Pack.” “All I had to do was not make a terrible movie.” Days before the July 6 release of Sorry to Bother You, Stanfield and Riley sat down with VICE to talk about finding their voice, how they came together for the film, and the jobs that helped shape them. Questions and answers from separate interviews have been edited and combined here for clarity and brevity.

VICE: Lakeith, a big part of this movie, specifically with your character, Cassius Green, is about finding your voice. When did you think you found your voice as an actor?
Lakeith Stanfield: I think voice can mean many things. I don’t know when I found my voice as an actor. I think it was always lying dormant in me that I wanted to be a person that reflects what I see. I have always just mimicked things. I guess this was the only logical [career] option for the way my brain was set up—to mimic things and do things I see. So it made sense to pursue this, but I didn’t think it was possible until it became a reality. In that sense, the voice found me and we found each other.

I remember reading a line from Donald Glover about how you are unafraid in finding yourself and how you push yourself and your art. Where does that come from?
I just push for myself and the art is what I do so it naturally comes under that umbrella. I can’t spend my life concerned about what people think. I’d never be able to move. After all, it’s very temporary. No one gives a fuck about you; they’re only concerned about themselves. If someone has a thought about me, that’s not going to last. Who cares? It’s like pain and tattoos, which I quite enjoy because pain is temporary and so are people’s judgments unless you allow them to linger with you. If I keep your thought in my head, then who’s got the problem? It’s not you, it’s me. It’s all about the perspective, I think. It’s much easier said than done. We’ve been programmed to give a fuck immensely about what people think and to some extent I still do; I have to. I just kind of keep it where it belongs. I’m blessed to have a job where it kind of requires me to not care about that. It kind of works out. If I had a different job, I’d have to adapt in a different way. If I was a politician, I’d definitely have to think about what people think and it wouldn’t be a problem—it’s what’s required. Luckily for what I do, I have a little bit of elbow room. Just a little bit.

Boots, take me back to how you connected with Lakeith. How did he become Cassius Green?
Boots Riley: Let’s just say it like this: Donald Glover wanted to play Cassius Green. He got the part in Solo. He asked if it was possible to push production back a year-and-a-half. I said "Sorry." Ten minutes later, I get a call from Lakeith Stanfield’s manager, who maybe was standing in earshot of Donald Glover and said, you should meet with Lakeith Stanfield. At the time, I had only seen like one episode of Atlanta and the only other stuff I saw, he was all the way shaved and I thought he might have been too young. I went to the meeting not necessarily sold. When I met him in late 2016, first of all, he looks totally different when he has facial hair, so that solved part of the problem. Then, talking to him, he’s such an old soul. And we just talked about people and talked about family members in the sense of analyzing people and what makes people tick.

There was a full frontal nudity scene that Cassius Green was going to have. I felt like we needed it to have Cassius be at his most vulnerable; we needed to feel that vulnerability. I was explaining this to him and he cut me off very quick and said, “I’ve been waiting for a role with full frontal nudity.” During the filming of it, the thing you’ll notice about him is that he is able to get what many actors, even ones we consider great, can’t get. He feels open and wondrous about the world. He feels vulnerable. And it occurred to me figuring out what scenes to cut that when we’ve been up in his face, we’re seeing him naked all the time. That [full frontal] scene would have been overkill, and was cut.

Lakeith, there are a lot of important issues addressed in the film—class inequality, workers’ rights, corporate greed, celebrity culture, balancing right and wrong. What sold you about the project?
Stanfield: I liked Cassius’s journey. I came from nothing and I worked to get something. During that journey, I met a lot of different pitfalls and things I had to adapt to get through and did some things I’m not proud of but were necessary at the time to do what I had to do. Cassius has a similar journey and I identify with that. And I identify with the moment you feel like you finally have something and the moment is so addicting that you sometimes think that’s where you get value. That’s why I walk around with jewelry on: It’s a representative metaphor for that. Worth is sometimes put in material things, but sometimes the distinction is that real worth that can’t be measured by those things. It’s not till much later that you begin to learn those things. The journey spoke to me and I had similar thoughts. And I realized, damn, I have all this jewelry and nice stuff, but I somehow feel lonely still.

You have to learn, and perhaps that’s chapter two to this particular way of thought—letting the sun explode and realizing your happiness isn’t tied to those things. You do have to survive and live. You need a bed and you need food, but your happiness isn’t directly tied to the things you accumulate. You can be a miserable motherfucker with or without things, and often times we see that. I made a choice when I was living in my car that I was going to be alright and OK eating this motherfucking Subway. So when I made that choice, I’ve been OK ever since, and I’m still working on being OK.

I know the both of you have stressed that you wanted to make Cassius as relatable as possible. Do you think you ultimately accomplished that?
Stanfield: I think so. I think the beautiful thing about humans is that none of us are perfect. We just strive to do the best we can. Everyone wants to be the best they can be. Even the people doing the most fucked up things, in their mind they’re doing something that’s putting them on the path to perfection. I think we’re always searching for that and for ourselves, and that’s what this character is doing here. I think people will ultimately identify with that since that’s a universal theme and it’s dressed by other things, like him being black and being in Oakland. We are going through the journey of coming to a respectable self. Even if you’re not trying to do that, you’re exploring. We’re here in this life to explore. Even if you’re sitting there flicking your thumb and flicking boogers or whatever, you’re exploring. I think all those things kind of tie this movie together. Those universal ideas are what I look for in stories and they have that. It’s nice I can be a black person in that space. It opens people’s minds to the idea that maybe we can be multidimensional beings and perhaps we can go from one place to another. I think that’s an important journey. It feels good to be surrounded by creative people who are telling human stories.

Riley: This movie would not have been able to work without the kind of performance that Lakeith brings, which is this natural thing. I’ll say this: The actor that I hired that day was nowhere near as good of an actor who showed up on set six months later. He’s someone who is always learning. He’s studying other actors to see what they’re doing right and wrong. He’s thinking about the world. That’s his thing. Some people are trying to get more famous. He’s trying to get better.

I know the both of you have had less-than-glamorous jobs growing up. Lakeith, you’ve said you worked at a marijuana grower and as a door-to-door salesman for AT&T. Did either of you pull from those experiences for the film?
Stanfield: Well, I thought that marijuana job was pretty glamorous. It was a beautiful experience for me.

What did you do there?
I took care of plants and raised them and grew them. There was this big room dedicated to different plants and strains. We watered them under the lamps. Sometimes, I was high, so it was a very spiritual kind of experience working with these plants. And I realized they are beings like us. It’s another expression of life. It’s a really beautiful thing.

Riley: I had all kinds of terrible jobs.

Were you in telemarketing, like Cassius is in the movie?
Riley: Yeah, a few different times. The last time was after I had a midlife crisis at the age of 24 after [The Coup’s] second album. I quit in order to help start this organization called The Young Comrades. I took a telemarketing job, because I was good at it and I could work one day every two weeks. It was calling from Berkeley and raising money for the Los Angeles Mission, which was six hours south. I was calling to folks in Orange County, which is notoriously right-wing. My pitch would be something like, “Hey, this is Raymond. We’re doing a survey this afternoon and we wanted to make sure you’re OK. I guess it hasn’t affected you yet, but there’s been a rash of break-ins in the last few weeks of people’s cars and houses, and I guess that hasn’t happened to you so maybe our plan has been working.” They’d be interested in the plan and I’d continue: “Well, what we figured out is that the police aren’t going to be able to help this problem and you don’t want more police in your neighborhood anyway; it makes you feel like you live in a poorer neighborhood. What we’re doing is we think this is the better plan: We’re going to move all of the homeless people out of your city and move them downtown to the LA Mission. We’re going to teach them how to bathe, teach them how to take an interview, and feed them, and ultimately give them God.” And the money would come in.

Lakeith, I remember you saying how you want to make black royalty and make people of color feel like they can be royalty. Given the significance of the projects and the roles you’ve been a part of in the last couple of years, where do you think you are in that journey?
Stanfield: My hope is that people can feel worthy within themselves, that’s all. Just feel worthy to be a human. As humans, we can feel like royalty at points in our life. And other times we feel like shit, but that’s OK to feel all of those things. And I hope we can feel them all and don’t always walk around feeling like shit or feeling like we’re not human. I don’t think I’m necessarily the thing that will usher that in for them or the projects I work on will be that. But by proxy, in seeing me, if people can get a sense that they can be more, then that’s awesome because I was inspired by people who lived true lives. I’m glad I could be a part of that and I’m humbled by that.

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