Since playing young tribute Rue in The Hunger Games, 17-year-old Amandla Stenberg has emerged as one of Hollywood's most promising rising stars. But a quick search of "Amandla" (that name, by the way, means "power" in Zulu and Xhosa) will turn up more headlines admiring her intelligent discussions on race relations and feminism than it will on her on-screen character development. Starting with a history-class assignment that went viral ("Don't Cash Crop on My Cornrows"), and continuing on through her vibrant social media presence (@amandlastenberg), Stenberg is bringing some much-needed truth-telling to the table.
So since we already have a solid grasp on Amandla the Activist, we wanted to get inside the head of Amandla the Actress. But sitting down with her near Echo Park, Los Angeles, earlier this week, we quickly realized that when you're talking to Amandla, you're never going to just get one or the other.
"The movie is called As You Are, and yes, that's a Nirvana reference. It's about three teenagers in the '90s asserting their identities, finding themselves, and exploring their sexualitites. My character, Sarah, is this girl who is adopted into a primarily white, suburban neighborhood, so she feels like an outcast. She befriends these two other boys who are outsiders in their own ways, and the three of them go on adventures, do some wild stuff, get into a little bit of trouble, and...well, I don't want to give away the ending."
"Honestly, it's difficult to find characters for black girls that have substance. I am always looking for roles that have meaning—I don't want to be just the token daughter of a character who doesn't actually have anything to say. Sarah's a teenager and a nuanced character, which is a rare thing to find, and since I'm a teenager and I'm finding myself, too, I really wanted to bring her to life. When I talked to Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, the director, we had all the same ideas about the meaning of the movie, and we instantly connected. He told me I was the only actress he talked to who asked him about the role of women in the movie. I had read the script and I was like 'OK, Miles, I got to ask you something: Sarah's the only female character—how is she serving the plot?' And he was like, 'Yes! Let's talk about that and break that down.'"
"During filming we would drive through the foggy streets of deserted Albany and blast The Smashing Pumpkins. My co-stars Owen Campbell and Charlie Heaton are such cool kids and we had so much fun on our own adventures. There was a lot of intimate work on the characters and the relationship between all of us, and I think sometimes our actual friendship shines through."
"I'm a huge film nerd, so I'm really pumped to go to Sundance and meet directors and learn about their processes. I definitely learned a lot from As You Are as an actor, but I really learned as a potential director. I've directed a bunch of short films—including my college application film, which I'm going to share soon, even though it's very homemade and personal. I got the opportunity to sit down with Miles and edit next to him, which was really cool. We were editing as we were shooting, it was that crazy! Miles is such a warm-hearted director, and he taught me how to work with actors and make an environment on set that feels like we're all in this together. That concept is really refreshing when you're in an industry where a lot of movies are made for money, and this didn't feel that way at all, which definitely reinvigorated my love of film."
"I should mention that this film gets kind of dark, so be prepared for that. We didn't even realize it on set because we were having so much fun, and then we turned around all of a sudden and were like, "Oh shit, this is fucking dark. This is wild." The film will resonate with anyone, but it specifically addresses homosexuality and how being different in any way in a conservative setting affects one's sense of identity. Hopefully people will watch it and feel represented by it."
Photographed by Chantal Anderson. Styled by Laurel Pantin. Hair by Ryan Richman. Makeup by Kirin Bhatty