From writer/director Matt Ruskin, the drama Crown Heights tells the incredible true story of Colin Warner (exquisitely played by Lakeith Stanfield), an 18-year-old who, in the spring of 1980, was falsely identified as the one responsible for the murder of a teenager in Brooklyn and, as a result, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. While Colin was locked up, his childhood friend Carl “KC” King (Nnamdi Asomugha) devoted his life to fighting for his freedom, and was willing to do so until the day he walked out a free man.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Lakeith Stanfield talked about why the story of Crown Heights appealed to him, what most impressed him about the real Colin Warner, wanting to be as true to the story as possible, and what he hopes will happen in situations like this, in the future. He also talked about how much he’s looking forward to returning for Season 2 of the FX series Atlanta, why Death Note appealed to him, and what he looks for in a project.
Collider: How did this script come your way, and what was it that stuck with you and made you want to be a part of telling this story?
LAKEITH STANFIELD: (Writer/director) Matt Ruskin brought the story and the script into my awareness. Prior to that, I hadn’t heard about it. I think it was just the idea that this guy had persevered for so long and maintained his innocence. When he could have said, many times, “I’m guilty and I did this,” he still said, “I’m innocent.” I thought that was a very admirable trait, for him to push through in that way. I admired the man and his story, so I wanted to be a part of it.
What was it like to actually get to meet him and learn about the man behind the story? What most surprised or impressed you about who he is?
STANFIELD: His disposition towards life. He was a very centered, very calm and very pleasant human being. For some reason, in my mind, I thought he’d be more unhinged and more mad at the world, and he wasn’t either of those things. That was very surprising and awesome.
What were you most nervous about, as far as knowing that Colin Warner would eventually see your performance, and what did he think of the film, when he saw the finished product?
STANFIELD: I just wanted to be true to his story and do the best I could. I was far too focused on the task at hand to allow myself to give way to what I thought anyone’s perception would be. But I did want to make sure that I made him and his family proud of what had transpired. When we were at Sundance for the screening, and his family was brought down and they all cried at the achievement, I cried with them because I felt we had done what we set out to do. From that point forward, I was happy, and I still am because I know it was something special.
No matter how deeply you get into the mind of this guy, you’re still an actor who can go home to your own life, at the end of the day, which you can’t do when you’re really in prison. So, what did spending some time in a real jail cell teach you, and how did that help you with your performance?
STANFIELD: It helped a lot. It just made me feel a sense of restrained isolation. You just can’t move. That feeling of being paralyzed is something that I’ve experienced in my own life, but I had to blow it up into different proportions and really get into the depth of what that meant and felt like, in order to get into the thought process that I thought was necessary to achieve getting across the feeling that we wanted to get across. It was damn hard, but I just had to try to focus on that. I didn’t even attempt to fabricate, in my mind, that I’d spent that much time in prison. I just drew from other experiences that I knew intimately, in order to come to an understanding.
You shot this film out of order and on a quick schedule, but you had to go on a journey that explores about 20 years of this man’s life. What did you do to help yourself keep track of where he would be mentally, at each stage?
STANFIELD: I just spent a lot of time with the script, and really thought about every scene and about how one might develop, having been bombarded with the same thing, time and time again. We, as humans, have a tendency to adapt to environments after awhile. He just wanted to be free, so I just tried to keep that in mind.
Do you think he truly believed that he would eventually get out, or did he give up on the hope of that?
STANFIELD: I think he believed, at some point, that he would get out. I don’t think he ever really lost that hope that one day he would get out because he didn’t do what they claimed he had done. In his mind, I think it was just about them coming to that understanding. That’s part of what allowed him to maintain his solidarity throughout it all. He was like, “I know who I am and what I’ve done. None of these circumstances can change that.”
Were there scenes or moments that you found particularly difficult, or was it all challenging?
STANFIELD: I’m sure there were some that were more difficult than others, but definitely, it was all very hard. Thinking about it now, it just all seems like one big blob of hardness.
Colin has two very important relationships in his life, with Carl and Antoinette, who are both fighting for him and they never give up on him. How much did you learn about him through their eyes, and what was it like to get to work with those actors?
STANFIELD: That was hugely important. I’m just glad we had such a good cast that understood their place in the story and were diligent enough to play it with their all. They definitely helped guide me through, in the way that they helped Colin, in real life. All of the other actors were tremendous.
Obviously, this is not the first innocent man in prison and he certainly won’t be the last. After an experience like this, what do you hope or wish could happen in situations like this?
STANFIELD: That law enforcement would be me thorough in what they do, that they be honest, and that it doesn’t become a numbers game, but that it be based in actual justice. What we all agree, collectively, as a society, is justice and they have to try to carry that out in an honest way, and people should hold them accountable when they don’t. People have to speak out on these kinds of things and do what they can to make stories like this heard. We just have to continue to fight.
When you signed on to do Atlanta, what were your expectations? Could you ever have imagined it would go on to make so many Best of TV lists and get all of the awards recognition?
STANFIELD: Of course not, no! I had very little expectations, in the sense that I just didn’t know where it might go and where it might fit. It was something unlike anything I had seen before or been a part of before, so I just had no idea. But, I’m happy with what it did.