In a recent episode of Atlanta, Darius debates with his friend and business partner, Paper Boi, about the weird sexual implications of using the word daddy for anything other than one’s actual father. “Daddy” is what Darius affectionately calls his gun, which Paper Boi thinks is weird, even though, as Darius points out, he’s willing to let women he’s sleeping with call him “Papi.” Darius pauses, squinting ever so slightly, as if reading into his friend’s soul. And then: “You’re not gonna see this, but: Your assumed perversion of the word daddy? I think that’s stemming from your fear of mortality, man.”
This kind of amusing, off-kilter, slice-of-life banter is par for the course on Donald Glover’s great new FX series. But what makes it sing is the delivery of Lakeith Stanfield as Darius. Of the show’s many enigmatic characters, Darius is by far the most enigmatic, a perpetual stoner whose seemingly nonchalant and soft-spoken demeanor could easily allow him to recede into the background—until he speaks and reveals that there’s more going on there than you might have thought. Atlanta provides the 25-year-old Stanfield with his most high-profile role yet, but he’s been stealing scenes for a few years now, carving out a niche as one of our most reliably mesmerizing character actors.
You’ve likely seen Stanfield already if you’ve been to the movies in the last few years. In Straight Outta Compton, he pops up with an uncanny take on Snoop Dogg, swaggering into a scene with a pitch-perfect Snoop cadence to rap the opening of “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang.” In this year’s Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead, he imbues the shy, up-and-coming trumpeter Junior with a wistfulness and an oddly endearing sense of insecurity that balances out Don Cheadle’s performance as a manic, bustling late-career Miles. And more recently, he stood out as a whip-smart colleague of Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone’s Snowden—one who, with a single, intense glance, is able to deftly keep the whistleblower from being caught stealing National Security Agency data.
That skill with just a look—what Stanfield is able to convey so forcefully with his puppy-dog eyes—is a huge part of what makes him such a fascinating actor. “You look in his eyes and see this vulnerability and sweetness,” said Ava DuVernay, who cast him as civil rights protestor Jimmie Lee Jackson in Selma, in a recent Complex profile of the actor. Regardless of whether his character is a stoner or a loner or a nerd, when his eyes lock in, he opens up, revealing a swarm of emotions—fear, shock, pain, defiance, knowingness, joy. In Dope, he’s the bully who ambushes the film’s geeky protagonist, Malcolm. Frankly, it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role—Stanfield has just a handful of lines and gets maybe 5 minutes of screen time. But it’s also proof that he can do a lot with even the smallest, most thinly written characters. At a pivotal moment in the film’s final act, when Malcolm pulls a gun on his character, he’s able to bring all of those feelings (but joy) to the surface at once, with barely a word.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton plays up this aspect of Stanfield to great effect in 2013’s Short Term 12, the actor’s feature film debut. As Marcus, a teenager living in a group home for at-risk youth, his withdrawn nature belies a smart but hurting young man. In one scene, his supervisor Grace (Brie Larson) gives him a haircut, and he’s concerned that the shave will reveal lumps on his head where his mother beat him. As he stands up to look in the mirror, he stares long and hard at his reflection, ultimately breaking down, overwhelmed by the sight. It’s deeply affecting, and again, his eyes do most of the work. It’s the exact kind of demo-reel–ready highlight that should make filmmakers cast him in even bigger, meatier roles.
Which is why seeing him employ these talents on a weekly basis in Atlanta is so exciting. Once again, Stanfield brings much more to the role than what is written on paper. His mumbling drawl is hilariously disarming when he makes off-the-wall observations—like, say, when he seriously proclaims that AIDS was invented in order to prevent Wilt Chamberlain from beating actor Steve McQueen’s record number of sexual partners. And his kooky, mysterious vibe keeps you on your toes, such as when, in the same episode, he takes Earn on an an ambling, bewildering quest for extra cash, whose method we only come to understand at the end of the episode.
There are signs that Hollywood is starting to take notice. Stanfield has been cast alongside Brad Pitt and Ben Kingsley in the upcoming comedy War Machine, though it’s still a supporting role, and he was recently tapped to play Jessica Williams’ ex-boyfriend in a rom-com from indie writer-director James C. Strouse. It’ll be most interesting, however, to see what he does with the lead role in Crown Heights, an upcoming biopic about Colin Warner, a Brooklyn man who was wrongfully convicted of murder. Like Darius, Stanfield seems to have a lot more to share and a lot more to convey from behind those eyes.
Update, Oct. 4, 2016: Lakeith Stanfield’s first name has been updated throughout this post. He has previously used the name Keith but now professionally goes by the name Lakeith.