A Conversation with Kiki Layne — ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

January 3, 2019

“If Beale Street Could Talk” stunningly depicts the beauty of black love. The film, directed by Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), focuses on the relationship between Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne) as they navigate the 70s and find comfort in each other. Tish and Fonny are ripped out of their Harlem vacuum when Fonny is thrown into jail for a crime he did not commit. Tish attempts to get Fonny out of jail in addition to living her life as a daughter and wife-to-be; along the way, she remembers what brought her to Fonny in hopes that it’ll be strong enough to keep them together.

Out now in theaters and already predicted to be a Golden Globes frontrunner, the film adaption of James Baldwin’s novel of the same title is dreamy, yet realistic and personal. I sat down with Layne to discuss her attraction to the role and how it felt to bring a Baldwin character to life.

Kiki Layne plays Tish in the adaptation of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” (COURTESY OF KRISTINA BUMPHREY)

Chelsea Ashley (CA): So, I saw the film myself, and I was amazed that you played a 19-year-old as a 26-year-old. What was it like getting in to character and into the mindset of a 19-year-old?

Kiki Layne (KL): I kind of pushed into, “What does it feel like to be someone experiencing so many of these things for the first time?” Like when it’s all just so new when you’re making all of these discoveries.

CA: What was interesting to me was how you had to express everything Tish was feeling. Almost the entire film was centered around Tish’s voiceovers, but I felt like Tish was still very soft-spoken and you had a lot of facial expressions. What was that like?

KL: I think a big part of preparing for that was just really getting to know the book really well. In the book there’s so much information about what Tish is feeling and thinking and what she’s responding to. So, Barry says this thing of like you know, “Not everything from the book could make it into the film but it had to make it into our performances,” and so I just tried to be very clear about what all was actually there in the book that maybe wasn’t on the script page but I still had to find a way to allow it to still be a part of my internal, you know, things I’m working through.

CA: And had you read James Baldwin’s work before or was this your first time coming to it?

KL: No, I hadn’t read any of his books. I was familiar with Baldwin through the online content, a lot of his interviews and speeches that you can find. So, “Beale Street” was the first novel of his that I read, and I read it in preparation for my chemistry read with Stephan. Now, since then I’ve read more of his work. He’s really one of those people where once you start, you can’t stop. You just realize, “Oh my goodness, how have I not read this before.”

CA: So, before reading the book for your chemistry read, how did you interpret the work, because I heard you got information about the part from doing a read with a friend. What led you to the character of Tish, if you hadn’t already read the book?

KL: Honestly, I don’t know. It was just a really spiritual thing. When I was on my way to help my friend submit his tape, I was looking at the information and everything that he sent me and I felt something leap in my spirit. The words that came out of my mouth were, “That’s me.” I don’t even think I was looking at the sides. I was looking at the character breakdown [for Tish]. There was just really something in my spirit that was just like, “this is you,” which was interesting to me because Tish and I are actually so very different. So, I really think my connection to the film, and in particular, my connection to Tish is just an inexplicable spiritual thing.

CA: And have you felt that before?

KL: That was the first time it happened like that, where it just seriously was where I can’t explain what that was, but it really was just something in my spirit was like, “this is you.”

CA: So, one thing I liked with the movie were your interactions with Regina King and I feel like in the black community we all see her as this mother/model figure. How was working with her?

KL: It was amazing because she really is such a genuine down-to-earth person and, I mean of course, ridiculously talented. She and the whole cast took such good care of me. How you see in the film all of these people coming around to support and love on Tish as she’s experiencing all of these new things, that’s what this entire cast did for me, KiKi, as I am experiencing all of these new things and having to learn so much. So, it really was a family, like Regina King [who plays Sharon Rivers] definitely looked out for me like a mom. Teyonah Parris [Ernestine] really looks out for me like a sister. All of that is very real.

CA: And why do you think this film is important now, even though it’s set in the early 70s?

KL: Although it’s in the early 1970s, we’re still having those conversations and dealing with so many of those same issues today. What’s powerful about the film being told today, with all the images and everything that we now have in the media and the news, and specific stories about people that are really experiencing the things that Fonny and Tish are experiencing, I think that now people can watch this film and look at these circumstances of these fictional characters and have a greater understanding of, “ this is real.” Yeah, these are fictional, made-up people but they are representative of real people in real experiences that are actually happening and that’s across the board every character in the film. So, I think that’s what makes it more powerful, the story being told today, because I think it can get a lot more personal.

CA: I feel like now in society, there’s this thing where you have to either be like, “Oh I’m an independent woman,” or, “I’m a ride or die,” where no matter what happens you won’t leave your significant other. Where do you think Tish falls into those two categories or even in between?

KL: I would just say she’s a fighter. I think it’s something that she learns about herself, but I think she just knows that she doesn’t give up. She is dealing with a lot of really heavy stuff, but she perseveres and pushes forward and of course, with the help of all those around her. So, I guess that would lean more into the ride or die, like I think she definitely is a lot more open to all of the love and everything that’s around her and recognizes that she doesn’t have to do it all alone as the independent woman. So, I guess it’ll be leaning more towards the ride or die. Tish is ride or die!

CA: And my last question is, what would be your advice for people, specifically women, who are Tish’s age in terms of what you’ve learned from playing Tish and also what you’ve learned from being past Tish’s age now?

KL:  You really don’t have to do it all by yourself. You have people around you that really love you and want to be there for you. It’s not a sign of weakness or some type of failure on your part if sometimes you actually need them. I think the whole independent woman idea can go so far to the extreme sometimes that we aren’t really allowing all of the love that’s around us to really fill us up and build us up as strongly as it could.

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