The in-demand actor on the importance of self-care, Black joy, and her role in the long-awaited Coming to America sequel
Words by IRA MADISON III
Photography by LEE MORGAN
Creative & Fashion Direction by ALISON EDMOND
The first time I saw KiKi Layne’s beautiful Black face was in a screening room in West Hollywood. The now 28-year-old’s feature film debut was Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), an adaptation of the classic James Baldwin novel and Jenkins’ follow-up to his Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016). It was clear then — as it is now — that the Hollywood newcomer was poised to not only seize her moment, but grab it by the throat like she literally did opposite Charlize Theron in this past summer’s Netflix hit The Old Guard.
It’s a sunny day in L.A., but that isn’t from where Layne is video-chatting me. In the early days of the pandemic, she was quarantining alone in her North Hollywood home. After the pandemic dragged on and on, she retreated to the family’s home in Cincinnati. Even our Zoom interview — the actor in a regular degular setting, wearing a bright pink sweater, septum piercing and boldly patterned front-knotted headwrap — is a confirmation that KiKi Layne is something unexpected.
It’s why her collaboration with stylists-of-the-moment Wayman and Micah makes sense. They’ve been working with the talents everyone is talking about and whose style everyone is talking about: from Regina King to Robin Thede, Tessa Thompson to Julia Garner. Layne, who has graced countless red carpets, front rows and talk show couches since her entree, describes meeting them, strutting into Soho House in a simple crop top, jeans and heels. But they saw “this 5-foot-10 supermodel walking into Soho, owning the place,” she recalls them saying.
Her Midwestern roots run deep. She studied theater in Chicago at DePaul University (just a few stops from me at Loyola University-Chicago), and then moved to Los Angeles to take a stab at the “industry.” It’s safe to say that Layne’s rise since then has been meteoric, going from Beale Street to Native Son with a script from Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (a dream for any Black theater student, for sure) to this past summer’s The Old Guard and now this winter’s Coming 2 America with comedy royalty Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, plus the forthcoming Olivia Wilde-directed thriller Don’t Worry, Darling.
To star in one of the winter’s most talked about films and one of this past year’s most anticipated, all in the midst of a pandemic, is surreal to say the least. There was no traditional press tour, no red carpets, and yet millions globally should now recognize Layne’s face, yes? Or rather, they might if everyone wasn’t donning masks to protect themselves from COVID-19. “I really don’t feel that I’m that recognizable,” Layne tells me. “It’s actually pretty rare that I’m recognized. I think I can still actually count on both hands the times where somebody just on the street has been like, ‘Hey, aren’t you …’ Things might be a little different now, but I haven’t experienced it just yet.”
Yes, the COVID of it all has to be taken into account. I want to know how she’s doing. “Something I’ve been discovering is what does self-care and all of that look like,” Layne tells me. Overshadowing The Old Guard, of course, was the urgency felt from the protests that erupted across the globe in the wake of the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and countless other Black lives lost due to the police violence. Layne has felt that urge to want to stay informed and involved, but this is scarcely a new wound for Black Americans, it’s merely another laceration on already weary skin. “I really checked in with myself and what it was doing to my spirit. And I’m like, I can’t keep absorbing all of this trauma.”
“What’s going on right now has given Black creators and artists, at least for myself, this extra shot of bravery to ask for the things that I really want”
Layne was happy when the refrain of “Black joy” finally entered the conversation. She was happy to see people start talking about how “Black joy matters at this time too” and seeing other Black people urge one another to take care of themselves, in lieu of being able to embrace and touch one another for comfort and healing, lest you put someone’s health at risk.
“So even if that means just loving on my family, all of my nieces and nephews and brothers,” Layne says, explaining the impetus for her escape from Los Angeles to Cincinnati. “I’m thankful that I can be more present with them. And then at the same time being that much more committed to the type of work that I’ve always been committed to wanting to do. Because what’s actually really dope about what’s going on right now, is that it’s given Black creators and artists, at least for myself, this extra shot of bravery to ask for the things that I really want. And to say things that maybe I would have been more hesitant to say. Like, ‘Oh, let me wait until I’m like really a superstar to make that type of request or to tell them that I actually would prefer it like this.’ And now, it’s like, ‘No, actually I can ask for that thing and say that thing right now; speak that truth right now and not have to be afraid of that.’”
If anything, she’s learned how to step into her power from working alongside some of the industry’s greatest talents. Whether it was assurance from Jenkins on the Beale Street set (“He sees where you’re at, he sees what you’re bringing, and he can be inspired in the moment. Just encouraging me to trust myself,” she says. “That was something that Barry had to say to me a couple of times, just like: ‘You’re here, you got it. You’re doing the work. I’m happy that you’re here.’”) or acting opposite Regina King, who snapped up an Oscar for her role as Layne’s mother in Beale Street. “I remember looking at her and just receiving. I’m like, ‘Yo, Regina King. First of all, you’re in a whole-ass movie with Regina King.’ At this point, I’m just in awe,” she says, describing working with King.
She also admires how King has maintained her sense of self after decades in the industry. “She’s just so real and just so genuine. And I really think that that was something that God wanted me to be next to, to see someone who has been at it for as long as she has. But she’s still a real one, because there’s a lot of people losing themselves in this industry. And I feel like even more so now, with all the social media and Instagram flexing and all of that, you lose yourself. And I think I needed to see someone who knows what she’s about and has been patient. You know what I’m saying? And has been doing the type of work, giving us the type of stories, even behind the lens that she’s been giving us. And now it’s paying off. She’s really seeing the fruits of all of these beautiful seeds that she’s planted.”
Patience is a necessity for a Black woman in an industry where, Layne says, “they’ll try to put you into a box, ASAP. Especially because I came out of Beale Street and then followed it up with Native Son. A lot of people were thinking like, ‘Oh, OK. So she does the Black adaptation. All of that. Blackity Black.’ And I’m Black, y’all, but I’m going to take that into any role, you know what I’m saying?” The stars quickly aligned again to give Layne a role that would break her out of that Black period drama box, while also allowing her to learn from Gina Prince-Bythewood, another Black woman in the industry who knows a thing or two about working hard till it pays off. After her 2000 film debut Love & Basketball, she’s had to wait two decades to direct a big-budget action film like The Old Guard.
Learning from Black artists who’ve come before her has become a theme for Layne’s career, and she’s grateful to accept it, like in the instance of the (30-plus years later) Coming to America sequel. Layne recalls seeing the film when she was way too young, but it was her older brother’s favorite film, and so they watched it all the time, and she could quote it back and forth. “I don’t really think it’s hit me fully,” Layne says of the gravity of the moment. “Because I haven’t seen it. And I think it’s going to be a moment of when I actually see it. And I see myself in the film alongside Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Wesley Snipes. … I truly feel like it hasn’t fully hit me yet that I am the Princess of Zamunda.”
“I’ve represented the strong Black woman in a way that I think goes beyond what has been the norm in Hollywood”
She credits the comedy legends on the set, along with co-star Jermaine Fowler for “breaking [me] out of my box” and encouraging her to improv on set. “I play more of a straight-and-narrow character,” she says, but she at least got her feet wet in some of the comedy. And she gushed for a moment over the costumes by Ruth E. Carter, who won an Oscar for Black Panther. “I’m excited for little Black girls to see this representation of a princess and this representation of strength, which I think is something that has kind of been a through line in the projects that I’ve done, of representing the strong Black woman in a way that I think goes beyond what has been the norm in Hollywood.”
Still, whether she’s back home in Cincinnati or even in the midst of Los Angeles, Layne considers herself super chill. “Give me some jeans and a cute top and some fire-ass sneakers,” Layne says. If there’s any flourish to her wardrobe that matches the Princess of Zamunda or her red carpet looks … it’s the shoes. “The shoes is where I get a little crazy. I have such weird shoes — sparkly, bedazzled, weird color schemes. The shoes is where I get a little, I don’t know, creative, but other than that, I’m super chill.”
FE NOEL pullover, $348, and dress, $1,098. BRONZE & WOOL earrings, $300. STEADY ROCKS JEWELRY ring (right hand), $600. OMI WOODS ring (left hand), $99, and bracelet, $199. CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN sandals, $645.
When this is all over, Layne hopes she’ll finally get the chance to settle in Los Angeles. “It’s very strange thinking about it,” she says of her home in North Hollywood. “I got there and a few months in ended up, hallelujah, booking Beale Street, and then it just kind of kept rolling from there. I’ve never even shot anything in L.A. I have a friend who spent more time in my apartment than I did!”
If there’s anything she misses about the city, what comes to mind are two of her favorite L.A. dining spots. “I’m not a vegan, but —” and I immediately knew she was talking about Gracias Madre, the West Hollywood plant-based Mexican restaurant. And there’s Uovo, a pasta restaurant in Santa Monica she insists I try. “It’s so good. It’s ridiculous. And it’s not super bougie Italian restaurant prices. It’s actually respectable. You’re not going to go in there and mess up your whole paycheck, but it’s so good. If you’ve never been, get you some Uovo.”
For the time being, Layne will do Hollywood from afar until she can return to the West Coast and resume her reign. After all, she’s learned a thing or two about when to be patient and when to pounce.
Fashion Assistant GABE DOYNEL
Hair by ASHLEY CALDWELL at Texture Management using Curls Dynasty
Makeup by FIONA STILES at A-Frame Agency using Pat McGrath Labs
Manicure by THUY NGUYEN at A-Frame Agency using OPI
Makeup: Pat McGrath Labs Skin Fetish: Sublime Perfection foundation in Medium Deep 27, $68, Skin Fetish: Sublime Perfection powder in Medium Deep 4 and Deep 5, $38 each, Mothership VI: Midnight Sun eye shadow palette, $125, and Lip Fetish balm in Flesh 3, $36. Makeup Forever Color Ink in White and Fresh Pink, $29 each.
This story originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of C Magazine.
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