When you see KiKi Layne and Charlize Theron absolutely kicking each other’s asses on an army plane in a scene from the new Netflix action film The Old Guard, you should know it signals a major shift in comic book films. This isn’t your typical adaptation. For one, it’s directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, who you probably know for her 2000 hit Love & Basketball and for building up Black stars her entire career. Second, this action-packed story puts the women center stage in the combat sequences, with men as the supporting roles (none of which are romantic interests, BTW). Watching it feels pretty game-changing.
KiKi is part of the rise of Black women in comic-book-inspired action films, alongside Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, and Letitia Wright in Black Panther and, soon, Javica Leslie in the second season of Batwoman (replacing Ruby Rose). In The Old Guard, KiKi plays a military mercenary with immortal powers, joining Charlize and her team as they run from evil to try to save the world (without a single pair of high heels in sight, thank god).
KiKi’s career has skyrocketed over the past few years. Since her 2018 breakthrough role in If Beale Street Could Talk, she stole the screen in Native Son, the adaptation of a Richard Wright novel. Now, she has her biggest role yet in The Old Guard.
Next up, KiKi will star in Coming 2 America, the sequel to the 1989 hit Coming to America with Eddie Murphy. So, yeah, there’s a lot of KiKi to look forward to. She spoke to Cosmopolitan from her hometown of Cincinnati, where she is quarantining with her family, about working with female directors, the state of Hollywood during a pandemic, and the fuel that drives her own ambition.
Why was working with director Gina Prince-Bythewood so important to you?
She is committed to showing Black lives onscreen, period, and I think that it shows in this film too. It’s not just getting lost in the action film genre hype, that’s what she’s good at, making films that stick with you. Love & Basketball has stuck with me since I first saw it. I’m so grateful I got a chance to work with her, especially during her first entry into the action genre.
A post shared by KiKi Layne (@kikilayne) on May 7, 2020 at 12:42pm PDT
How do you feel working with female directors, and female directors of color, changes your on-set experience?
It was so great having another Black woman on-set who comes from a background of working on smaller, more intimate film projects. Just being able to lean on each other, both of us coming from these indie dramas and now we’re on this big set, being able to turn to each other was important.
How have the recent Black Lives Matter protests changed the way you think about the industry and your place within it?
I’m thankful for this feeling, to be able to speak up and speak out, and ask things in a way that previously I maybe didn’t feel I could. I’m saying things and asking for things that I didn’t feel like I could, unless I was a bigger name. I was waiting until I was a huge superstar or whatever.
But how could you not, if I said, “Let’s include Christopher John Rogers, an amazing Black fashion designer, in this photo shoot?” How could you not honor that? That’s why I’m grateful for what’s going on at this time. I feel encouraged to ask now. What could it hurt if I simply asked a publication that is featuring me, “Hey, do we have options?”
What was it like working with Charlize Theron?
One of the best things about working with Charlize, and the fact that we worked together on an action film, is that she has really shown what women have been capable of in this genre of action films. Showing we are just as kick-ass, just as tough, and just as able to pick up and take the lead in the film. We’re not just some guy’s love interest or side story or whatever. No, we are capable of taking it on.
It was great to be on-set with her and just soak up the knowledge she has of making films, her confidence and her discipline, her work ethic. I feel we both have a similar work ethic, in that we came in super prepared, researched, and thought out all the possibilities, all that. It was wonderful to be working next to someone like her, because I am still figuring out a way to be confident in that. I think it just comes from experience of working in film. I’m inspired by her in a way where I don’t question myself as much, which is great.
A post shared by KiKi Layne (@kikilayne) on May 19, 2020 at 10:28am PDT
What was it like training for this physically demanding role?
There was military and technical training, for sure. My character actually had to learn it, as well, as part of my role. It was fun though. It was definitely a challenge. These are real skills I’m acquiring. I have a knowledge of weapons, fighting, and boxing I didn’t have before preparing to do this film, which was pretty cool, actually.
How has the current pandemic affected your work?
It’s crazy to just think, When can we get back to work? Making films is such a large, collaborative effort and there’s so many people who are a part of it. The question is really, When will it be safe for all of us? Because this industry is creative-based, there’s so many rules and regulations. That’s going to affect creativity, free movement, and artistry in a way that we’re all concerned about. If my costar and I are supposed to work together, we can’t just stand 6 feet apart. My goodness, I cannot wait to get back to work. I’ve gone through working on myself, doing all this cool stuff, now it’s getting to this point where it’s like, Ugh…let’s go back to work. Let me do what I love to do again.
You’ve had some really incredible roles in the past few years. Where does your ambition come from?
I'm trying to be what I want to see more of: Black women on screen. For young girls to see someone who looks more like her, doing and being her. That’s where my ambition and drive comes from, it's being so insanely committed to that. To achieve that, I’m doing everything I can.
Tell us what's next for you!
Coming 2 America, where I worked with Eddie Murphy and a comedy cast that was full of pure geniuses. It’s out in December. I would sit back and think, "These are people who built comedy." It blew my mind every day. The director, Craig Brewer, I would say to him, "You come to work and work with these people? How do you even?" He said, "Man I try to not be too caught up in that, I just got my job to do." And I was like "Seriously."
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