When Ashton Sanders met KiKi Layne in 2012 during his freshman year at Chicago’s prestigious DePaul University theater program, she had a reputation. “Everyone was like, KiKi is the goddess of this school,” Sanders remembers.
Sitting to his left in a conference room at HBO’s midtown office, Layne doubles over in bashful laughter. “Oh my god, you did call me that,” she says, shaking her head. “She was like the queen of acting,” Sanders says. “But with us, it was just always super chill.”
The past year saw the rest of the world catching up to Layne’s allure, thanks to her breakout performance as the lead in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, based on James Baldwin’s novel. As far as goddesses go, she proved herself to be one the most exciting ones Hollywood has to offer. And Sanders, who similarly saw his career skyrocket after being cast in a Jenkins film (he played Little in 2016’s Oscar-winning Moonlight) is right alongside her at the altar.
They’re together right now not just to reminisce about their college days—“Damnnn, that was seven years ago! We old!” Layne exclaims—but to talk about their new film Native Son, an adaption of Richard Wright’s seminal novel that airs Saturday on HBO. They’re an intoxicating pair onscreen, delivering a hypnotic chemistry that makes the film’s traumatizing message bubble over. Off screen, they’re two stars emanating such cool and casual mid-twenties confidence that the collision should have galactic repercussions.
Layne, her long braids cascading down the back of her chic, army green Prabal Gurung jumpsuit, lightly ribs Sanders’ ensemble: “Gucci down to the socks.” Sanders blushes. “Gucci rings, Gucci socks, Gucci everything,” he says, readjusting his slick blazer before gesturing at the black hat pulled down so far it nearly covers his eyes. “This is my Ashton Sanders beanie, of course.”
The high fashion is accessorized with a high-mindedness, routinely on display as Layne, 27, and Sanders, 24, engage in conversations about race, history, and the world around them in ways most young actors are hesitant to do.
In part, it’s necessitated by the nature of their major projects; Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Native Son certainly invite such conversation. But it’s also owed to their desire to take what we know about culture and their industry and use their positions in both to fundamentally, well, blow it all up.
At a time when the industry’s notion about what kinds of stories can be told, who gets to tell them, and, maybe most importantly, what audience there is for them, Layne and Sanders are leaders of a new generation of Black Hollywood as it looks toward the future. It becomes abundantly clear as we talk that we’d all be fools not to follow.
“It’s been a blessing to be coming up in the industry at a time when this movie can get made, a Black Panther, Get Out, Us, Beale Street, all these different movies,” Layne says. “And then even on TV, with Atlanta, Insecure, and black-ish. All these different representations of black people and the black experience that gives us more opportunities to not just play the same stereotypical roles that actors who look like us have been given.”
As Sanders nods along emphatically beside her, she continues. “So it’s definitely been a blessing to those who have chosen to take the power in their own hands, write their own shit, produce their own shit, and stop asking for permission from Old Hollywood to tell our stories the way they deserve to be told.”
Sanders gets a wily look in his eyes and leans forward, for maybe the only time in our conversation raising his voice above a controlled, meditative whisper. “Move over, Old Hollywood, New Hollywood is in town,” he says, as Layne starts to laugh. “Quote me on that.”
It was Sanders who got Layne to Hollywood. Sort of.
After graduating from DePaul, Layne was making a name for herself in Chicago’s theater scene, but also started to cause a splash with Hollywood casting directors. She and Sanders were shooting the film Captive State together there, and Sanders, who had already moved out west, laid it out for her. “I was like, Kiki, you have to move your ass out to L.A. ASAP, because it’s happening for you,” he says.
Two months later, her friend was auditioning for the male lead of Beale Street, Fonny, and asked her to read the role of Tish, Fonny’s girlfriend who becomes pregnant with his baby at the same time he is falsely arrested, on his audition tape. She thought, “Why am I not auditioning for this?” She sent in her own tape, and soon was being flown to New York to do a chemistry read with Stephan James, who was cast as Fonny, and writer-director Barry Jenkins.
“I texted Ashton before my chemistry read, like, ‘Yo, I’m about to have my audition with Barry. Got any tips?’” Layne says.
Sanders knew the power of having your big industry coming-out in a Barry Jenkins film. The director provokes his audience with resonant themes while seducing them with gorgeous, sometimes confrontational super close-ups of his actors’ faces, softly lit, staring directly into the camera.
Layne was confused when Jenkins directed her in those shots for Beale Street. But when she saw the results, she was blown away.
“I realized, wow, this is the first time a lot of those people in the audiences will have to look these people in the eyes,” she says. “Although Tish and Fonny are fictional characters, they represent real people that still today are in those exact same circumstances. Now you have to look them in the eye. They’re not a statistic, they’re not just a victim, they’re not a hashtag. They’re real people.”
Native Son provokes in its own way. Richard Wright’s novel, about 20-year-old Bigger Thomas and the systemic inevitability he faces as a young black man in Chicago’s South Side, was set in the 1930s. The HBO film, which premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival, modernizes the setting in a screenplay by Pulitzer-winner Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Rashid Johnson.
In this version, Sanders’ Bigger is a quiet Afropunk misfit who finds solace in his intense bond with his girlfriend, Layne’s Bessie. He gets a job as a chauffeur for a rich white family, until a horrific mistake tilts the narrative on its axis. “Hard to watch” doesn’t even begin to do it justice.
Perhaps what is most jarring about this take on Native Son is how little had to change in order to modernize Bigger’s story. The same inevitabilities haunting black men in the 1930s are still very real generations later.
“It’s so relevant,” Sanders says. “It makes you frustrated. This film is almost like a rebellious move. Like, yeah, this is what’s happening, America.”
Layne shot it immediately after filming Beale Street, in which her character was in nearly the exact same situation as Native Son’s Bessie is.
“You have this text that is decades old, and yet nothing really has changed,” she says. “They took Native Son and modernized it, but if you change the clothes and a couple of cars in the background of Beale Street, you don’t need to change anything else, really. So it just made it even more powerful of really just seeing how much hasn’t changed.”
During the press tour for Beale Street, riffing on the intensity of Fonny and Tish’s relationship, she told reporters that the film was a reminder that “black love is powerful in the face of justice.” It’s a statement that Native Son has only made her consider further.
“The black community is under attack in so many different ways,” she says. “The history of black people in America, it’s so painful. But throughout all that history there has still been the ability of our community to find love and laughter and joy even in these very painful circumstances. That’s why I think in particular black love is so powerful, because it’s constantly under attack.”
“When these men or women are killed or experience police brutality or are falsely incarcerated, it’s not just happening to them,” she continues. “It’s happening to all the people who love or are connected to them. It’s breaking relationships and ties. We see that in Native Son, where this situation that he finds himself in really starts with the fear and anxiety that black people carry with them every day just because of the history and what people assume about us when we walk down the street and what type of choices you make and what type of behaviors you fall into.”
It’s something that Sanders has contemplated a lot, having played, in Moonlight and Native Son, black men who would be deemed “other” even by their own communities at different formative points in their lives.
“It doesn’t matter how much money you have, how much wealth you have, how much clout you have in America, for some reason you’re going to feel the same level of conditioned fear, conditioned anxiety,” he says. “Conditioned hope for your American dream, but also being certain that it’s not going to happen. Because when does it ever happen for us?” He laughs. “I could talk about this all day.”
But he and Layne are the first to admit they are living out versions of their dreams. Sanders will follow up Native Son with a role as RZA in the upcoming Wu-Tang Clan TV series. Layne is prepping to shoot a comic-book action film with Charlize Theron.
“It’s important for me to not just do the same type of roles and movies that I’ve seen actresses that look like me do,” Layne says. “It won’t be the same stereotypical roles that we’ve seen dark-skinned women with my hair texture do.” Sanders nods: “We can play anything, and that’s just a fact.”
After the Moonlight roller coaster—remember the Oscars’ #EnvelopeGate?—Sanders shot a film with Denzel Washington, The Equalizer 2. “I had Denzel Fucking Washington telling my ass to keep shit simple,” he says. “Everything feels so high-strung sometimes. There’s always this anxiety in Hollywood. Just to keep it simple has taken me a long way.”
Earlier this year at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon, Layne was an honoree and asked to give a speech. Regina King introduced her and right before Layne took the stage, wrapped her in a hug and whispered, “Just breathe.” She still thinks about that. Even the afternoon we meet, after someone mentioned the spectacular view of Bryant Park outside the window of the room we’re talking in, Layne realized she hadn’t stopped to take it in.
“So yeah, breathe,” she says, in fact doing it, her deep breath melting into a fit of laughter as she reaches for Sanders’ hand. “Look at who we’re getting advice from! Denzel Washington and Regina King!”