KiKi Layne first met her Native Son scene partner Ashton Sanders in 2012. They were both students at DePaul University before either of them booked HBO’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 book, or the Barry Jenkins movies that would make them stars. (For her, it was last year’s If Beale Street Could Talk; for him, it was the middle chapter of 2016’s Moonlight.) In Native Son, directed by Rashid Johnson, they have an enviable, easy chemistry. Sanders’s Bigger is slick and rebellious; young enough to feel like everyone around him is living a life he’d never want. Layne’s Bessie is independent but enchanting; she wraps her legs around Bigger and polishes his nails, but also gets onto him for staring at another girl for a few seconds too long. It’s a modern romance.
When Bigger scores a job with the wealthy Daltons, who are in need of a driver, he gets a glimpse of a different world. He lives with the family during the week, carting them to and from parties and appointments. In scene after scene, Bessie peers at Bigger’s new white acquaintances with a little bit of disbelief. The Dalton kids, especially, move through the world with a kind of weightlessness that seems dangerous. Mary (Margaret Qualley) dares her dad into political arguments, distancing herself from his ideology but never his bank account. Jan (Nick Robinson) slouches in left-wing student groups, probably thinking he’s countercultural because he’s wearing Carhartt instead of Patagonia. Bigger makes excuses for them, but Bessie knows that something’s up with white friends who ask where you spend summer because it’s “better not to assume.” Ahead of the movie’s premiere on HBO, Layne spoke to Vulture about Bessie’s expanded role in Johnson’s movie and what it was like to revisit a character she first encountered in high school.
What do you recall about that first meeting with director Rashid Johnson? I read that Native Son came along as you were still working on Beale Street.
I shot this right after I filmed Beale Street. I actually met with Rashid about playing Bessie during the last week of filming for Beale Street.
What resonated with you about Bessie?
I think the screenplay just gives all of the characters a fuller sense of humanity that I don’t think is as strong in the book. [Note: Wright’s novel revolves around Bigger’s life in 1930s Chicago.] I was excited to play this version of Bessie and to explore these characters in this modern way. Although it’s modernized, there are those same issues that Richard Wright brought up when he first wrote the novel, and we’re still dealing with those same issues. I thought that it would be a powerful opportunity to explore that as well, especially following it up after Beale Street, which was that same thing of like, “Here we have this book that was written decades ago, and yet, it’s still very relevant.”
A lot of people’s first experience with Native Son came in high school as part of an assigned reading. Is that how it happened for you?
Yeah, I read it in high school as well.
Has your understanding of the novel — especially Bessie, because her arc in the movie is so different — changed? [Note: Light spoilers ahead.]
Yes, it’s very different. When I first read it, honestly, a lot of it went over my head. I was just not really understanding what it was that Richard Wright was really talking about. Reading it again while preparing to do the film, it just hit me in a very different way. Now that I’m older and having all these experiences and all of this awareness of what’s going on in the world — awareness of what the black community is experiencing, specifically — I feel differently. I was thankful that Bessie doesn’t die in the screenplay. I understood why so many people loved the book, and why so many people were like, Oh my goodness, are you serious? when he kills her [in the book].
What was your read on that, in the novel?
I just thought that was a moment where I felt like, “I can’t feel for Big anymore.” I think, leaving that out and really leaving space in the film to see the love between Big and Bessie, you can really feel for these characters and feel for what they’re going through under these circumstances.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the scene where Ashton is convincing you to run away with him, and you just start crying, saying, “Please don’t make me do this.”
Well, I think what’s really powerful about that scene is you see this moment of the struggle, the conflict between how much you love yourself and how much you love your partner or your family member, or whoever it is. Sometimes those things just aren’t in alignment. I think especially when depicting young love, so often we see young love where you’re just all about this other person, where you’re willing to do everything, anything, wherever they need you to be. In that moment you see that struggle of her not really wanting to [run away with him], but her loving him so much that she doesn’t want to leave him alone.
Then, when it finally gets to the point where she does, I feel that she chooses herself. It’s a really powerful moment, especially to see a young character make that decision: “I can’t go any further with you.” She even says that, like, “I came this far. I came this far and this is as far as I can go with you.” I think that’s really, really powerful.
It struck me as a moment where we really saw how selfish Bigger could be. Bessie was so supportive and loved him so much, but he always wanted a little bit more.
Yeah, I mean, but really? He’s really just asking her to be there for him, because she’s been there for him. Their relationship is so special because I don’t think either one of them really fit into the assumptions or stereotypes of a young black person growing up in Chicago, how they should behave, how they should look, how they should act, what things they should want. They, in each other, have this safe space to really dream and to be all the things that the world around them is telling them that they can’t be.
He’s really asking her, “Just be here with me.” To me, it’s not really asking for so much. I mean, under the circumstances, yes. But when you just look at the core of it, it’s really just, “I want this person that I love so much, who I feel the safest with, to be with me.”
Would you have run off with Bigger?
Honestly … I don’t know. A part of me almost feels like it would have been the same thing where I would have gone and then realized that no, I can’t go. “I can’t go any further with you.”
At that point in the story, too, she still has her speculations. Bessie knows something is wrong but he hasn’t straight up told her that he did it. There’s still that part of you that could think like, “Well, maybe he didn’t. Maybe that’s actually not the case.” There’s still having that bit of hope there of, like, “No, no, no, not my Big. My Big wouldn’t have done that.”
I have to say that I’m very jealous of you: You’ve been part of the two most elegant, beautiful screen couples in the last year. You and Stephan [James, in If Beale Street Could Talk] and now Ashton!
No, no, I’m very thankful. They’re both just such great artists and just took such great care of me. It was awesome working with Steph. That was my first experience working on a motion picture of that size and with that size of a role. Working with Ashton, I mean, I’ve known Ashton since 2012. I got to come onto a set and know that I would be working with a friend. And I think that just created such an ease between us, as we were exploring these characters and this relationship.
After these literary adaptations, what’s next for you? What kind of roles do you want to take on next?
Up next, I’m starring in a movie with Charlize Theron for Netflix. That one’s an action film, based off of a comic book. That’s gonna be very different from Beale Street and Native Son. But, ultimately, I just wanna do it all. I don’t want to be put into any type of box. I definitely want to explore playing characters and roles that have historically not gone to actresses that look like me.
One more thing because I guess I’m in your business today: Your skin is so beautiful. What do you do to it?
Honestly, I think the secret is the acne medications that I use. I used to have really bad acne and so there’s a cream and a gel that I use. That’s what is helping me out there. I’m not sure what it would look like if I wasn’t using those medications.