Amandla Stenberg And The Roles That Make Her Heart Sing

The activist and star of ‘Everything, Everything’ on finding herself in film

Growing up, Amandla Stenberg didn’t see girls that looked like her on TV or in film. Today, the 18-year-old actress is hoping to change that for future generations, and her latest role, in the film adaptation of the best-selling YA novel Everything, Everything, is a promising start.

In many ways, Everything, Everything is your typical teenage “forbidden love” romance (Stenberg stars as Maddy Whittier, a teen whose severe combined immunodeficiency prevents her from making contact with the outside world), but unlike most films that fall under this umbrella, the leading character is played by a woman of color. As a young biracial woman working in Hollywood whose career breakout as Rue in The Hunger Games sparked controversy because of her race, the significance of viewers seeing her face on the big screen is not lost on the Los Angeles native. Stenberg, with her 1.2 million Instagram followers and a video, “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows,” that went viral in 2015, is well aware of the platform she has — and she’s determined to use it as a megaphone for change.

Over the phone, MTV News caught up with Stenberg to talk about representation in the industry, how she practices self-care (she’s ditched her iPhone), and what she considers the biggest “fuck you” to Donald Trump.

[This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.]

Everything, Everything is going to be that first movie that represents many teenagers’ lives — whether in terms of seeing a young black woman in the leading role or an interracial relationship that looks like their own. As a child, did you see yourself reflected in TV and film?

Amandla Stenberg: No, I didn’t. Growing up, I didn’t receive the representation that I wanted so badly. I was always looking out for black characters — black women — that were specifically just about existing and weren’t necessarily racialized or based on plotlines that were centered around race.

When you’re 12 years old, you just want to see yourself as a teenage girl, or you want to see characters who you can look up to that are just existing. I felt like I never really got to receive that, which is why it was so exhilarating for me to receive the [Everything, Everything] script and have the initial reading with [director] Stella [Meghie]. As someone who’s always loved indie romance films, it definitely had a soft spot in my heart. She said she wanted to make something fresher, something newer, something blacker for teenagers. And she wanted it to be somewhat like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in terms of tone.

That’s one of my favorite movies.

Stenberg: Yeah, that’s exactly what I wanted to see — something that was for me, featuring someone who looks like me, but still totally made my heart sing. It’s hard to find black roles that are just whimsical and fun and colorful. And I think, in many ways, that can be just as powerful in making commentary about race through movies.

By introducing different characters and story lines, what do you think the effect of creating this representation will be?

Stenberg: I think there’s going to be a lot of different effects. My hope as an actress is knowing that I’m someone who is more privileged — I’m biracial and lighter-skinned — [and] I hope me being a part of a project like this can open up the door for more women of color to be in projects like this, especially darker-skinned black women. I hope when projects like this get created, everyone hops on the bandwagon and decides to start putting women [of color] in movies that aren’t just about race.

In what ways are you similar to your character, Maddy, and in what ways are you different?

Stenberg: There’s a lot of me in Maddy for sure. Maddy is sweeter, but there are naïve aspects of myself [in her character]. We’re very different in that I have much more experience in the real world, which influenced me as person. But she approaches life with a naïvety and eccentricity that is really special.

What was it like to play a character who never leaves the house? What did the preparation teach you about yourself?

Stenberg: Of course, it made me think a lot about what I get to experience in life and I think that’s [what's] special about getting to see Maddy actually experience life. It’s so expansive and incredible, and it made me think about the things that I might take for granted, like air [laughs], a breeze, sunshine.

In terms of preparing for the role, I feel like the film is much more based in fantasy and is more a fable than anything else. We weren’t trying to make the actor a representation of a person with this disease. It was just a part of her framework. In reality, Maddy would be a very different person. I think she’d be depressed and would have to deal with all kinds of psychological trauma, and that exists in the film in certain ways. We also wanted to create the lead character of a fairy tale. [Maddy] is almost more like Rapunzel than anything else. She’s a character who was very sweet and very shy — kind of awkward and naïve because she’s been so fiercely loved and protected by her mother.

What kinds of struggles do you think teenagers face that are underrepresented in film, and how can Hollywood improve their depictions of them?

Stenberg: For the most part, most experiences of teenagers who are underrepresented need to have more stories — kids of color, gay kids. There are so many stories that need to be made about [different] identities.

You’ve been outspoken about your identity and thoughts on black culture on social media. What are the greatest challenges in having a platform to speak out? On the flip side, what are the greatest rewards?

Stenberg: The greatest challenge has been that people assume that because I’m a celebrity and have this platform that I always know what I’m talking about. I guess I don’t always know what I’m talking about [laughs] because I’m an 18-year-old kid who’s trying to figure it out amid all the chaos of the world at large, and also the chaos of having this voice and responsibility. At the same time, this voice and responsibility has been the biggest blessing because I’m able to create change just by posting something on Instagram. That’s really amazing. I can’t believe that I get to have that megaphone and I get to decide how to use it.

How has the election affected your activism?

Stenberg: The state of the world terrifies me. It feels more powerful personally to fight it through these larger actions as opposed to trying to fight the Trump administration itself. It’s sort of self-preservation for my mental health. If I spend too much of my energy and my brain on Trump, I’d lose my mind. So for me, being part of projects like Everything, Everything is kind of the largest “fuck you” that I can give to the Trump administration, because it’s based upon utilizing these studios that traditionally put out white media and creating media featuring people of color. People are being hurt by Trump, and I feel like it can be very powerful to use media, which is something that impacts people’s minds and their psyches. It packs a huge punch in terms of the way people see each other. Something that I can do is just be someone who is representing people of color and humanizing people of color and normalizing people of color.

Self-care is something we talk about a lot with our young audience, especially in this political climate. How are you practicing self-care?

Stenberg: I actually try not to go on my phone too much. That’s something that’s been a huge self-care move for me. I got rid of my iPhone, and so I’m actively working toward trying to be more present and not feeling uncomfortable when I don’t have it as a coping mechanism.

What would you say to young women of color who aspire to be actresses but feel like they don’t fit into existing roles?

Stenberg: That’s tough, because there’s still such a lack of roles in Hollywood for black women that aren’t fixated on race. So I don’t know if I can necessarily be responsible for that advice, but my largest hope is that projects like Everything, Everything can open up the door for there to be many more roles for women of color.