KiKi Layne was destined to be here. When helping a friend prepare for an audition in Barry Jenkins' If Beale Street Could Talk, the Cincinnati native stumbled across the opportunity of a lifetime and hasn't slowed down since. Beyond lighting up screens as Tish in the James Baldwin adaptation, KiKi has starred in HBO's take on Richard Wright's Native Son and is now ready to bare her range in the newest Netflix original, The Old Guard (July 10).
In the action film, directed by Love & Basketball's Gina Prince-Bythewood, KiKi takes on the role of Nile, a U.S. Marine whose world takes a drastic turn the moment she discovers she's immortal and collides with an intimate camp of mercenaries wielding the same superpower.
It's KiKi like we've never seen her before, yet the exact shot she's been longing to take.
"There is so much that Black women have to offer and are capable of, and Hollywood does not always make space for that--and the world in general," she tells xoNecole. "I would hope that, wherever my career goes, that even just a handful of Black women can feel encouraged to not accept those limitations, to not accept those boundaries, to not believe that those things can keep us boxed in."
In this xoChat, KiKi dishes on the role faith plays in her career, lessons learned on set, and her undying commitment to represent the fullness of Black women on screen.
xoNecole: When people think of you, they think of your breakout role as Tish in 'If Beale Street Could Talk'. As sudden as your success in Hollywood seems, some people might miss that you set your eyes on becoming an actress long before that moment. When did you embrace your calling as a creative?
KiKi Layne: Oh, that was when I was a little girl. I always knew that I was going to act and be in entertainment. I started going to a performing arts school when I was seven, so I've just been interested and committed to it since then.
Do you remember what those first moments in Hollywood were like for you?
My first few months were extremely tough because I didn't really have things planned out in a way that someone should when they move across the country (laughs). I was starting to feel discouraged in terms of questioning what had brought me out there and thinking maybe I had made a mistake and should have waited until I had more stuff together. Then, it was only a few weeks after I had a really bad night--maybe two weeks after that--that I got the audition for Beale Street.
"I was starting to feel discouraged in terms of questioning what had brought me out there and thinking maybe I had made a mistake and should have waited until I had more stuff together. Then, it was only a few weeks after I had a really bad night--maybe two weeks after that--that I got the audition for Beale Street."
Last year, you were honored at ESSENCE’s Black Women in Hollywood where you spoke on the power of representation. Growing up, what shows and stars did you turn to when you desired to feel seen?
The first person that popped in my head was Brandy because she was so big in music and with Moesha. Then there was the movie Cinderella that she did with Whitney Houston. I used to wear my hair in braids--Brandy was definitely a person I saw myself represented in in a big way. Then, I fell in love with Angela Bassett. Those were my biggest [influences] growing up--and Aaliyah, but that's just because I love Aaliyah (laughs).
Your latest movie, 'The Old Guard', deviates from the first two films that we’ve seen you in ('If Beale Street Could Talk' and 'Native Son'). In it, we see you grace the screen as Nile, a U.S. Marine who discovers she’s immortal. What drew you to this project?
The first thing that got me excited about it was the opportunity to work with [the film's director] Gina [Prince-Bythewood]. Then, once I got to read the script and the graphic novel, I was excited because it was an opportunity for me to do action, which is something I was always interested in. Gina was very committed to offering these real moments of genuine groundedness, and even though we're playing these characters with these really cool abilities, they're still very human and relatable, so it was exciting for me to take on both aspects of that: playing this very physical, kickass character but still being able to bring the vulnerability that people know me for.
What was your biggest takeaway from your time on set with Gina?
What I loved about what Gina did for this project, and she made this clear the first time that I met her, is that she wasn't going to let the heart of these characters get lost in the action. That's one of the things that she does such a great job of in her work. To see her being fully committed to that and come to the table knowing that that's what she wanted to do and that this was a gift that she had and being confident in that, that was definitely something that I appreciated about working with her. She didn't lose herself in the fact that she was on this big, action set.
"What I loved about what Gina did for this project, and she made this clear the first time that I met her, is that she wasn't going to let the heart of these characters get lost in the action. That's one of the things that she does such a great job of in her work."
KiKi Layne pictured with 'The Old Guard' director Gina Prince-Bythewood and co-star Charlize Theron
There are so many themes running through 'The Old Guard'. One that stands out to me, which actually pops up in the trailer but hits harder when watching the movie is, “Just because we keep living doesn’t mean we stop hurting.” What is one lesson that you personally hold close?
What are we doing with the time that we've been given? You see these [characters] who have so much time, and even they're struggling with what they're supposed to be doing. What is it serving for them to still be here? Especially with all that's going on now, what are we doing with the time that we have? If you're alive in this time right now, what does that mean?
Where do you see yourself most in Nile, and in what areas did you have to stretch yourself the most to tap into her world?
Definitely the biggest stretch was the physicality (laughs). All the training. Hours and hours of training, that was very different for me. Something that I connected to her with was her faith. That was definitely something that I saw, and I knew exactly what that was and also her love of family.
How does faith show up for you in your career?
It's the root of it. It's the root of my life. I feel like faith is super important. It helps me to not put so much pressure on myself, to trust that if it's meant for me, then it's going to be mine and to believe that my name has already been written on certain opportunities. When I don't get something that I really wanted, faith helps me to move forward and not get stuck on why I didn't get a part. I'm able to say, through faith, "That just wasn't meant for me, and there's something that is really right and special and great for me on the way, so now I have to channel my energy, intentions and prayer into getting prepared to receive whatever that is."
"When I don't get something that I really wanted, faith helps me to move forward and not get stuck on why I didn't get a part. I'm able to say, through faith, 'That just wasn't meant for me, and there's something that is really right and special and great for me on the way, so now I have to channel my energy, intentions and prayer into getting prepared to receive whatever that is.'"
What does it mean to you to share your art in the midst of the ongoing fight against systems of oppression that deplete our community?
A big part of it is representation. If someone has only seen a Black person being portrayed in very limited ways, they're going to make assumptions based off of what has been fed to them through TV and film. That's why I'm super committed to pushing against what has been the norm of how we've been represented in film.
For more of KiKi, follow her on Instagram. Netflix's The Old Guard is now streaming.
Featured image by Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com