KiKi Layne is still hungry. Not physically hungry, per se — though, on a busy day of press like this one in early December it wouldn't be completely out of the realm of possibility — but she's metaphorically hungry. It's the kind of hunger that comes from years of drama school, community theater, and a completely irrational, not-at-all thought-out move to Los Angeles for pilot season. It's that hunger that director Barry Jenkins saw in Layne, that made her stand out among the 300 or so other women auditioning for the lead role of Tish Rivers in the Oscar winner's lush adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk. And it's that insatiable desire that landed Layne the opportunity of a lifetime.
"I'm just getting started," the tenacious 26-year-old Cincinnati native told MTV News. And it's hard not to believe her. Where Tish is tender and steadfast; Layne is all fire and grit.
In an interview with MTV News, the actor reflects on her Beale Street journey — from helping a friend submit his audition to landing a breakthrough role for herself — learning from Tish, and how she nearly gave up on her Hollywood dreams before Jenkins literally came calling.
MTV News: Barry Jenkins is such an emotional filmmaker. There's so much empathy in his work. Does that empathy extend to his directorial style?
KiKi Layne: He's just so patient with all of the artists and the people working around him, and so when you have that type of patience and you're allowing people to live in whatever moment, circumstance, feelings, whatever that may be — you feel it onscreen. That's why it allows the audience to sit with it as well and then be able to go deeper into that empathy. It starts with all that patience that he has.
MTV News: What was your audition process like?
Layne: It actually started with me helping one of my friend's audition. He was submitting a tape for Fonny, and he asked me to be his reader. So that's how it started, and that's how I found out the film was being cast. It wasn't until two weeks later that I was able to submit my own tape. And then from there, my next step was the chemistry read in New York with Stephan [James], who had already been cast. Then I was on set shooting a movie.
MTV News: What did your friend say?
Layne: He was excited from the very beginning of me getting the opportunity to submit my own tape. At the time, when I was helping him, I didn't have representation in Los Angeles yet, so he was just excited that I was going to get my chance to actually go for it.
MTV News: Did you always want to be a performer?
Layne: Always. I went to a performing arts elementary and high school back in Cincinnati, so I started studying acting in a school setting when I was seven and I just never stopped.
MTV News: What was it about acting?
Layne: I honestly don't know. I feel like I'm one of those people that I was just born to do it. I don't ever recall wanting to do anything else. I can't really recall a specific moment or movie that made me be like, "This is the thing I want to do." It's always been there.
MTV News: You were doing theater in Chicago when you decided to move to Los Angeles. What inspired the move?
Layne: I had been planning to move to L.A. to take advantage of more TV and film opportunities. Some things shoot in Chicago, but even those things that shoot there still cast their bigger roles in L.A. or New York. I ended up moving because I got an audition for ABC's talent showcase, and I found out on a Saturday that the audition was the upcoming Tuesday. I just knew I didn't have the money to be flying back and forth between Chicago and L.A., so I'm like, "Girl, if you're going out there for that audition, you better find a way to stay." So I packed up my life Saturday and Sunday and flew to L.A. on Monday. So that was my move, which was rough.
MTV News: What was that first week like?
Layne: The first week was sharing a twin-size bed with my very best friend from elementary [school] until I could figure out my own living situation. Then even once I figured that out, there was just so much stuff that was a complete mess. So much so that the week before I submitted my tape for Beale Street I was ready to go back home to Cincinnati. I felt like I moved too fast. Who moves across the country with no planning? I was ready to go, but then something in my spirit just kept me there and then it was literally the next week that I finally met with the manager and got my audition for Beale Street.
MTV News: Did you see yourself in Tish at all?
Layne: Tish and me are actually very, very different. I was interested in exploring a side of myself that I don't naturally tap into, real openness and vulnerability. I carry myself with a lot more independence and this idea that that's where strength comes from, this ability to do so much by myself. I learned from Tish that that is not the only definition of strength. In fact, there is so much power in all of her vulnerability, and in all of the love that she carries and receives and gives.
MTV News: What was the most challenging part? Was it just tapping into that more vulnerable side, or were there other challenges?
Layne: No, that was the biggest challenge for me. I'm definitely a person, even when I need help, I got to be going through it to finally ask for help. Even in those first couple of months in L.A. — I was struggling, but nobody knew. None of my friends knew, [my] family didn't know. So many people would have been willing to help me, but I'm just like, "No, I have to figure it out on my own. I got myself into this situation, I'm going to get myself out."
MTV News: Barry said that what connected him to the story at first was the tender love story between Tish and Fonny. Was it similar for you?
Layne: These are two soulmates. These are two young black people who are... their souls are tied to each other. And I just knew that that was really going to be something special. Then, actually seeing the movie and seeing the images of these two young, chocolate black people loving each other like that — that, to me, made it even more so. I didn't even realize how very few images of that I've seen onscreen.
MTV News: This is your first feature film. Did it feel like a continuation of your drama studies in a way?
Layne: Definitely. I was working with legends and people with so much experience who just know so much about the craft. In the film, you see all these people coming around my character, Tish, but in real life, all of these people were coming around me and supporting me as I was experiencing all of these new things and having to learn a lot of new things very, very fast. To me, that was the most special thing about everyone that I got to work with, is that they actually came around me, KiKi, you know?
MTV News: I'm assuming living in L.A. is a different experience for you now.
Layne: It's quite different for me now. I'm settling in as much as I can, traveling so much and everything. I'm in a much better place, and I'm very thankful that I didn't leave because I really was ready to go. I recently looked at the draft of the email that I was about to send my landlord one night: "I'm out of here. Keep my security deposit, I don't care. I'll find someone else to move in." But now I'm finding my friends and community in L.A., which is a huge part of feeling good about L.A. You've got to find your people.
MTV News: What are you looking for when you're reading scripts these days?
Layne: I'm still looking for stories that speak to me, but I love acting for the opportunity to just play all types of things. I don't want to be stuck into any type of box. It's just what speaks to my spirit. It could be any genre because sometimes maybe I want to make people laugh, maybe I want to jump out of buildings. It's all a possibility for me.
MTV News: What is an unlikely source of inspiration for you?
Layne: An unlikely source of inspiration? My nieces and nephews. I feel encouraged to keep going because I know that if I keep going, then I can tell them to keep going. But if I stop, or get to discouraged, then how can I encourage them to continue to do whatever it is they want to do? One of my nieces goes to the performing arts school that I went to, and it sounds like she's leaning more toward Broadway, and she inspires me. I have to keep going to show her you can really do this.
MTV News: Finally, I know you're obsessed with The Lion King.
Layne: I am. Yes. I saw that trailer.
MTV News: How many times did you watch it?
Layne: Look, I started to tear up. It's just a trailer, but people said that about the Beale Street trailer. I'm like, "I get it." I'm going to be a mess when The Lion King comes out. Don't put anything into my schedule. Seriously! My team is going to get an email like, "This is where I will be. We are not scheduling anything. I will be one of the first people to witness the magic."