‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Director Barry Jenkins on Why Showing Vulnerability Is ‘a Sign of Strength’

OscarWrap magazine: “I had to get past some of my own hang-ups about what it means to be vulnerable,” star KiKi Layne says

Kiki Layne and Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk
Photographed by Matt Sayles for TheWrap

This story about Barry Jenkins and “If Beale Street Could Talk” star KiKi Layne first appeared in Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Barry Jenkins wrote and directed one of the most beautiful films of 2016 in “Moonlight,” which won him the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and won breakout star Mahershala Ali an Oscar as well.

Two years later, with another virtually unknown actor ready for her star turn, he is back with “If Beale Street Could Talk,” an adaptation of James Baldwin’s critically acclaimed novel of the same name. He wrote the screenplay before he even had the rights to the film, and cast Chicago theater veteran KiKi Layne as a young woman whose soulmate and fiancé Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit.

Why this project, and why now?

BARRY JENKINS: The now part of it is tricky because it originated five years ago when I started the script for “Moonlight” and the script for this at the same time. So it doesn’t feel so much like now as just like finally closing the door on this period that was started so long ago. I’ve always loved James Baldwin’s work and when I read “Beale Street,” the best aspects of Baldwin are all kind of bound up in this really organic way in the story of Tish and Fonny, which is also the story — I’m gonna get like really highfalutin — of America.

You saw upwards of 300 actors for this film. Why KiKi?

JENKINS: I was tired, man. She was the last person I saw. [Laughs] Nah. When I write a script I don’t have an idea in my head of what the actor looks like, and because of that I’m always open to somebody coming through the door and showing me who this character is. I had seen a lot of women before KiKi’s tape came in, and I didn’t know physically what I was looking for, but I knew emotionally that I was looking for a duality of experience, somebody who’s both a girl and a woman at the same time. That was what I saw KiKi bring to Tish.

KiKi, was it intimidating to work with Barry post-“Moonlight”?

JENKINS: I’m curious to hear the answer.

KIKI LAYNE: There definitely was some added worry, stress, anxiety, all of that. I just had to ride the waves of feeling really confident and feeling, “I’m here, I earned this” and those moments of questioning myself, like, “What is gonna happen in this scene with Regina King, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue [Ellis], Mike [Michael Beach]?” I didn’t want to be the weak link, you know? And that definitely was a concern sometimes.

JENKINS: My one concern with you was always about the unfair scrutiny that you were going to receive being the next newcomer in the wake of the previous film. I felt like that was unfair. I think you handled it very damn well, because it’s a lot to deal with. The work is one thing and it’s enough to deal with, and then you’ve got to deal with all this other shit, the noise that has nothing to do with the work.

Barry, I wonder if you felt pressure because, man, you adapted James Baldwin — that text is dense and provocative and fierce and so interior.

JENKINS: Yeah, for me to be doing anything involving James Baldwin was just a crazy concept. It took a while to get used to it. But you can’t be working out of fear. And so the original draft was, “Oh, s—, this is James Baldwin.” Once we got on set, it wasn’t James Baldwin, you know? It was KiKi Layne and Stephan James. It was James Laxton, Mark Friedberg, Annapurna, Plan B. I think Jimmy [Baldwin] would have given his blessing. He’d be like, “Oh, this is y’alls. I’m gonna go sit over here, smoke a cigarette and have a drink. Y’all come hit me up when it’s done.”

So much of your films are about the tone and the actors being able to ooze that tone. How’d you manage to dial in on that with limited time?

JENKINS Everybody working on this film probably saw “Moonlight,” so they understood the tone, the feeling, the silences, the way the camera’s gonna linger. They were prepared for all those things. I’m just trying to create the space for these folks to be as comfortable as they need to be and to feel like they have the freedom to deviate from what I’ve written or from what we’ve decided.

KiKi, what did you learn from Tish? Is there anything that surprised you?

LAYNE: I had to learn that Tish is very much a strong black woman. I just had never seen a strong black woman portrayed in that way. I had to get past some of my own hang-ups about what it means to be vulnerable, what it means to let people hold you and be there for you.

JENKINS: Because vulnerability is not a sign of weakness. If anything, it’s a sign of strength. It’s like, “I’m OK with you helping me. I’m admitting I need help right now.”

LAYNE: That’s the thing — I don’t think that’s the common way of thinking about vulnerability.

JENKINS: The thing I’ll say about making this film after “Moonlight” that was very heartening for me was people pointed out in “Moonlight” that they hadn’t seen a depiction of black male masculinity and vulnerability in quite this way. I feel like the women in that film were also going to certain places. But I think it’s so clear in this film that it feels like something that was left on the table has now been completed. So it’s lovely to hear you say that.

To read more of TheWrap’s Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue, click here.

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