Her performance in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk is one of the most powerful performances you will see all year. You’ve heard all the talk. Get ready to see Kiki Layne as Tish, the 19-year-old who finds out she’s expecting a child with her lover Fonny. Except their happiness is short-lived when Fonny is sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit.
The film is adapted from the 1974 novel by James Baldwin. The love story has a purity that we rarely see on screen. The magic of their chemistry comes from Layne and Stephan James who plays Fonny. Layne tells me Jenkins created an environment for the two of them to be open, joke and yet be completely vulnerable.
Layne is a revelation on screen and in person, she lights up a room as she talks about how a chance reading led to her first feature debut. She had just moved to LA when she sent in her audition tape and was soon on her way to a chemistry read with James who Jenkins had already cast.
Read our chat below:
This is your first feature. You’ve done TV work, but when did you first realize you wanted to “do that” and be an actor.
Since I was a little girl. I’ve always wanted to do it. I went to a Performing Arts School when I was seven. I kept going all the way and went to college for acting.
Was there a movie or a TV show that triggered it?
My family told me that I used to watch The Lion King all the time, so I don’t know if that was a part of it. I laugh because it’s just always been in me to do it.
So, I read there were over 300 people who auditioned for the role, but you have an interesting audition story.
I found out the film was casting because one of my friends was auditioning for the role of Fonny and he asked me to be his reading partner. I thought I needed to be auditioning for this, but I didn’t have representation in L.A. yet, so it took a few weeks and then I was able to submit my own tape. From there, I went to New York and did the chemistry read with Stephane who had already been cast. A week later, I got the call that I’d got the part.
You’d only just moved to L.A. when this came up?
I had moved to L.A. in June and submitted my tape in August.
You go in for the chemistry read. What happened after that?
He told me I got it. I went away, read the book again. There were a few weeks between getting the part and production starting, so I got to work. I printed the script and got back to the book, it was time to go.
What was it like for you on the first day on a Barry Jenkins set?
The way Barry runs his set, and the energy he gives off, invites a certain type of people into his space. It was a really supportive environment.
Take for example my first day on set, I didn’t have any lines. We were in the subway on my first day. I didn’t have to speak. It was a conscious decision by Barry and his team to give me time to get used to being on set and having a camera in my face. I had so many nerves, but I could feel, that even on that first day I was going to be taken care of.
On the subject of scenes, that opening scene is so beautiful but then, bam!, that shot of the prison.
That park scene was so easy. It was me and Steph, walking and cracking jokes. The prison scenes were interesting because there really is that glass in between us. We could feel that. It was so real. We made a point to not interact as much as Kiki and Stephan when we were doing those scenes because we needed to feel that distance and to capture that feeling.
James Laxton explained how he shot that birthing scene. What was that like from your perspective? Was that a tough one with the baby?
The thing that worried me the most was the fact that I had real babies. I had real newborns that belonged to someone. That’s what I was thinking. I’m so thankful that Regina was there with me on that day to have my mom there with me for this really beautiful moment.
All the technical stuff got weird, but once I had the baby in my hands, I could feel that moment and what it meant.
Was there another scene that was particularly challenging?
The scene after Fonny and I are confronted by the store. I think that was the first time Stephan and I really had to go at it and we could really feel that disconnect and this question Fonny asks, “Do you think we’re going to make it?” It was tough, especially for me, having to really fight and to not be on the same page.
How did the character resonate with you?
I grew to appreciate so much. She is a strong black woman in the way that I’ve never seen a strong black woman be portrayed. I learned so much from playing Tish in that, it’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to lean on people. It’s okay to not be able to do it all by yourself. It doesn’t make you weak or failures or shortcomings. That’s the biggest thing I took from playing her.
What was it like seeing the film in all its finished glory?
The post-production version! Yes! I kept saying, “Why did I make that face?” The second time I saw it, I could really appreciate that we had done something so special. When I saw it in Harlem at the Apollo, that’s when I realized that this was something we needed. The first time was super weird, the second time was we did something special, and the third time was a feeling of I needed that.
The thing is, Barry is so true to Baldwin’s words, and it’s still one of those stories that could be happening today. It’s so special in that sense.
It’s such an unfortunate thing that so much of what is happening in the film and the book, those same circumstances people are still dealing with today. What’s so beautiful about this work from Baldwin is that it’s wrapped up in so much love. I feel that’s what he’s forcing you to look at and acknowledge. Those people who have been done wrong by the judicial system. These people who have experienced police brutality. They have loved ones. They love and they are loved. This film forces you to acknowledge that you have to look us in the eye and you have to witness the pain and the trauma that all of these characters are going through. I think that’s what makes this story so special. At the core, it’s about that love and fighting for that.
Your friend who you talked about was at the SAG screening too?
Afterwards, we were looking up at the screen and the poster image. We were reflecting on where I came from and I told him how thankful I was because he was the person who saw that role and saw me. He thought I’d be great in it.
How are you finding this year since you made the film?
I still have moments where I say, “What is my life right now?” I love the film so much and the people so much, it’s exciting. It’s cool to hear what’s resonating with people and what they want to talk about.
You also had Regina King playing your mother.
She is amazing. She is such a genuine person. If there’s anything I will take away from working with her is that on matter how big my name gets or how many awards I get, it doesn’t have to mean that I cannot be genuine, respectful, can’t be supportive. She is really the most down to earth person. The whole cast took such good care of me. They really supported me.
You worked with Steph. What was your bonding process like?
We had fun. Barry created this space for us to have fun. Even though we were complete strangers, he created this environment that was completely OK for us to be open and to joke and to be vulnerable. We recognized that in order for this to succeed, some of our walls had to come down. I think we were both on that same page. The whole set supported that and gave us space together to know each other. I think we were committed to doing right by this project and knew that was critical.
Long-term, aside from Disney, what would you like to do?
Will Smith is my favorite actor and there’s so much variety in his work. That’s the kind of career I want. I don’t want to be put in any boxes. That’s the fun of acting, to play in all these different worlds and plays all these different actors. It’s important to do everything.
What’s next for you? There’s a Lion King Live Production. [laughs]
I know. I think it’s mostly cast. Can I slide in as a hyena or part of the pride?
Yes. Yes. Let’s throw that out into the universe.
I mean, please! I’m in the adaptation of Native Son which is coming out next year.
It’s all systems go for you. You made the leap of moving to L.A. and this happened. What advice would you give to people who are going to be looking to you?
You have to be patient with your journey. There are so many people going after the same thing and it’s so easy to start comparing yourself to other people and looking at what’s happening for so and so. That’s my main advice, you have to trust the journey you are on. Everything is happening in the time that best serves you.