If Amandla Stenberg Is The Future Of Hollywood, We’re In Safe Hands

Amandla Stenberg at Chanel's Paris Fashion Week show

by Katie Rosseinsky |
Published on

Articulate, opinionated and incisive on everything from cultural appropriation to gender fluidity, Amandla Stenberg proudly wears both parts of her multi-hyphenate actress-stroke-activist status. One of the first young stars to use her platform (a breakout role in the wildly successful Hunger Games franchise, plus 1.3 million Instagram followers and counting) for social change as opposed to self-promotion, she’s also vocal about the need for better, more diverse representation on screen.

It's this latter consideration that drew her to Everything, Everything, the film adaptation of Nicola Yoon's bestselling YA novel. As Maddy, a young girl whose rare autoimmune condition seals her off from the rest of the world, Amandla is one half of an inter-racial couple: in 2017, of course, this shouldn't be a 'thing,' but teen movies (think recent eforts like Paper Towns and The Fault In Our Stars, or go further back to the likes of Mean Girls and Clueless) and the love stories within them still tend tediously towards the homogenously white. As the actress puts it, 'I thought about my 13-year-old self who would have been so excited to see a teen romance film where a black girl is the lead.'

Ahead of the film's release, we caught up with Amandla to learn more about her first lead part, and how it plays into her campaign to create better, more nuanced roles for women of colour. If she's the future of film, Hollywood is in safe hands...

How did you first come on board with Everything, Everything?

I was actually in Paris when I received the script; I'd just graduated from high school and was doing my post-graduation trip. I was really interested by the prospect of a young adult teen romance film that would feature this interracial couple and have a black girl as the lead - that was immediately what I paid attention to. Then I saw it was based on the book by Nicola Yoon, and was drawn in by how whimsical and sweet it is. So I ended up organising to meet at a casting agency in Paris. We did a long distance Skype with the director, who was in America, and it became clear that I would be a good fit. I didn't get to see much [of the city] at all because I was so focused on the project... I'm going to have to go back to actually see Paris one day.

Maddy [Amandla's character in Everything, Everything]'s illness means her experience is so far removed from that of an average teenager. How did you find a way in when playing that character?

Amandla Stenberg stars in Everything, Everything
Amandla Stenberg stars in Everything, Everything ©Getty Images

I think what's special about the film is that [Maddy's illness] is not an experience that anyone can really relate to, but the actual emotions of the characters, and their relationships, are what feels real and natural. That was something we were specifically trying to cultivate while we were working on it - we were treating it as something that feels like a modern day fairytale. It has circumstances that are so dramatic, but has characters that feel relatable, in the way that fables are constructed. I see this film as a love story, but one that's so much more than that [label.] It's much more about Maddie's experience of adventure, breaking out and finding herself, rather than meeting a boy.

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You've worked on a lot of book-to-film adaptations so far. Is that a concidence, or a conscious choice?

It's been a bit of a coincidence, but at the same time, I love young adult books, so maybe subconsciously that's affected my decisions a little bit. A lot of the most interesting content that's coming out for young adults now has been based on books, because that's where the good stories are - in that way, maybe it's a conscious choice. I think this larger shift happened when The Hunger Games came out: people realised that this 'young adult' book was for everyone, of all ages.

Do you think we're starting to see a more diverse range of teen experiences on screen?

Amandla Stenberg stars in Everything, Everything
Amandla Stenberg stars in Everything, Everything ©Getty Images

That was the main reason why I did this project - because I had never seen a character like this before. I thought about my 13-year-old self who would have been so excited to see a teen romance film where a black girl is the lead: to see her carry the role and not even have race become a conversation in the film. To see a character who's black and has natural hair and gets to be the love interest, that's really special and a big draw for me.

What's your main consideration when choosing your projects?

Something that I'm always thinking about is my responsibility and platform as someone who gets to be a young black actress in America. The roles I choose are indicative of a larger plan and a larger motive: I want to create roles that I feel we haven't been able to see before, ones that are important to younger black women and girls especially. I want to be able to explore interesting dynamics and I want to play roles that are just good and nuanced. Right now is the first time that a black teenager has been able to do that in a specific way.

Is it becoming easier to find those nuanced roles?

Amandla Stenberg stars in Everything, Everything
Amandla Stenberg stars in Everything, Everything ©Getty Images

There's a huge push for diversity in Hollywood. I think part of it is a really genuine push and part of it is these studios and corporations feeling the pressure of the public's desire. Now people are able to create their own platforms and reach as many people just as easily through social media - that's a competing force because we can create our own movie theatres on the Internet. I think they're feeling that pressure and are reacting by doing what they need to do anyway, which is to create more diversity in Hollywood.

Social media is a really positive tool for Maddy in Everything, Everything. Have you always found that to be the case?

It's really complicated, and right now we are experiencing it for the first time so it all feels like a big social experiment. I think it's a fantastic tool and it's really important, and I also feel it can be really detrimental to the psyches of teenagers. These images can be consumed so quickly and easily - that can be dangerous for kinds in terms of the way they see beauty and the way they feel they have to present this cool identity. I have a lot of mixed feelings about technology and social media: I believe in the advancement of technology, it's amazing, but I also see how it's dangerous.

Your next release will be Where Hands Touch, with [British director] Amma Asante. What was it like to work with her?

Amandla Stenberg stars in Everything, Everything
Amandla Stenberg stars in Everything, Everything ©Getty Images

It was a huge learning curve for me, a really, really incredible experience. Amma is one of the most amazing women I've ever met, so fantastic, so brave, just so wicked smart and an amazing friend. I just feel blessed to have her in my life, let alone to have had her direct me in such a life-changing role.

Are you still looking to explore working behind the camera?

Absolutely. That's my eventual goal, and eventual might be sooner than expected... We'll see what happens, but that's what I want to do: I want to be able to use these amazing opportunities that I have.

Everything, Everything is released in cinemas on August 18th

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