KiKi Layne, 28, made her film debut as the female lead, Tish, in Barry Jenkins’s acclaimed 2018 drama If Beale Street Could Talk, a story of young love and institutional racism in 1970s New York. The actor’s new film, The Old Guard, is adapted from a comic-book series, and sees her star alongside Charlize Theron as part of an elite squad of mercenaries. Layne lives in Los Angeles.
The Old Guard is a very different film from If Beale Street Could Talk. Was that part of the appeal?
Oh, absolutely. I’ve always wanted to do a big, kick-ass action film, and I was excited for the opportunity to do something obviously so different from Beale Street. A sense of: “Whoa, I didn’t know Tish could do all that!” And I definitely never trained like this before. We seriously would spend hours a day training, learning all types of new stuff. Getting my ass whupped! But I’m like: “I’ll come back for more!”
Did you enjoy the training or was it a slog?
OK, so the weapons training and stunts and choreography, that all was dope. The gym training, not so much. I’m like: “Uhhhh, my goodness…”
On social media, you’ve used the hashtag strongblacklead to describe your character, Nile. She’s been developed from the original comics, built up for the film version – was that important for you?
Definitely. For me, when trying to pick projects, my biggest goal is to be a part of stories and roles where historically Hollywood has left actresses that look like me out of the conversation, whether it’s just black actresses, period, or dark-skinned black actresses. Finding roles that satisfy the little black girl in me, things that I just didn’t see myself being represented as, growing up. So my aim is just to break that wide open.
A lot of The Old Guard was shot in the UK. Were there any high or low points from the shoot?
The strangest thing for me was people driving on the other side of the road. Because even if I told my brain, “Girl, look both ways”, my brain just could not calculate that thought. And I did not drink that much tea before I got to London and now I will fill up a cabinet in my kitchen with, like, so many teas. So yeah, I have a tea problem.
The Old Guard has a female director, two female stars and a lot of female department heads, behind the scenes. Do you think this has an impact on the finished product?
If you’re good at your job, you’re good at your job regardless of being male, female, whatever. Either you’re a good director or you’re not, and there are plenty of bad male directors. But it was really beautiful that on both sides of the film, we’re showing we can do things. It’s marketable when we do it. It’s successful when we do it. So what is your excuse for not giving us the job?
Many of the themes of If Beale Street Could Talk resonate with George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests. What have you felt watching that situation unfold?
All the emotions. Just everything. Especially after it first happened, it just seemed like every day there was something new. Every day, there’s a new name, a new video. It’s just hard because we are experiencing some form of grief and then it just keeps being added to. But some of the light that I’ve seen in all of this darkness is that this movement is expanding beyond just calling out police brutality. Now we’re calling out instances of racism, prejudice, discrimination in all these different areas of life and all these different organisations and industries. So that’s been a source of light for me.
You’ve talked about holding the door open for others to follow you. How can you do that?
I definitely want to get into producing. I want to be on the side of the table where I can give people jobs. Because the thing with being an actor [laughs] is there’s really not that much power. You’re just waiting around, staring at your phone, like, “Er, will somebody think I’m good at my job today?” And I can’t live the rest of my life like that.
Later this year, you’re in Coming 2 America, the sequel to the 1988 Eddie Murphy comedy. What can you say about your character Meeka?
Oh my goodness, Meeka, she is a powerful woman! So, I’m Prince Akeem’s and Lisa’s eldest daughter and let’s just say I am therefore the rightful heir to the throne of Zamunda. Honestly, it still hasn’t hit me yet. I’m gonna have to actually see the film and then I think it’s going to hit me like: “Girl, you are Eddie Murphy’s daughter!”
What films, TV or books have you enjoyed in lockdown?
This docuseries on Netflix called Rotten about the food industry, it’s super-interesting. And then I rewatched [Nickelodeon animated series] Avatar: The Last Airbender. I binged it all over again. And I’ve just started watching [Japanese anime series] Naruto. So I’m all over the place: deep docuseries, cartoons… that’s where I’m at. But honestly, I haven’t sat still this long since 2018, since before Beale Street came out. It seriously took this pandemic just to sit my butt down.
The Old Guard is on Netflix now