Amandla Stenberg: “Some people are not going to understand me, and that’s OK”

The 'Dear Evan Hansen' star used to crave external validation, but with success has come quiet confidence. "People are going to think what they think," she says, so why worry?

In her new film Dear Evan Hansen, a slick adaptation of the hit stage musical, Amandla Stenberg plays a high-achieving teenager whose apparent poise and accomplishment is just a mask. Stenberg’s Alana Beck initially seems confident and in control, but she later confides to Ben Platt‘s tortured title character that deep down, she feels just as lonely and invisible as he does. Stenberg, who broke through as a 13-year-old when she played compassionate Rue in 2012’s The Hunger Games, then made it onto Time‘s Most Influential Teens list in 2015 and 2016, says she “related a lot to Alana” as soon as she read the script.

“I saw this girl who, externally, seems to have it together and seems to be handling everything with perfection,” says 22-year-old Stenberg, who was born and raised in LA, and booked her first job as a Disney catalogue model when she was four. “But then, of course, she’s also contending with her own mental health [issues] and she’s in need of connection, love and validation.” Stenberg says that like Alana, she was a “really intense student” at high school. “At that age, it’s such an insecure and unsure time [for anyone],” she continues. “But for me personally, I needed external validation through all of my different extracurricular activities and my grades in order to prove to myself that I was a whole person and I wasn’t missing anything inside of me.”

“I needed external validation to prove that I was a whole person”

Happily, Stenberg says she’s since “grown out of” this insecurity – growth reflected in the relaxed confidence she radiates throughout our Zoom interview. She’s also warm, thoughtful and articulate – all qualities that, combined with her keen sense of social justice, have earned the actor a reputation for activism.

In her 2015 YouTube video “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows”, Stenberg outlines how white artists including Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift have borrowed and benefited from Black culture, then explains that cultural appropriation “occurs when a style leads to racist generalisations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.” Even six years later, when conversations about cultural appropriation have become more commonplace, it makes for insightful viewing.

Stenberg, who is non-binary and uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, has also attracted praise for the proud and authentic way she represents the queer community. Attending last month’s Met Gala, she wore a resplendent suit and cape combo inspired by ballroom culture, the late ‘80s and early ‘90s club scene led by Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ people that is celebrated in the hit TV show Pose. “When I heard the theme was American fashion, it felt important to me to encapsulate the people I think are responsible for that – basically, queer people and Black people,” she told Dazed at the time. Today, however, Stenberg says that the word “activist” feels like “an unrealistic label” for her.

Amandla Stenberg
CREDIT: Pooneh Ghana for Universal Pictures

“I’m not an organiser, I’m not on the ground,” she explains. “I attend protests, but I’m not doing organisational work. I mean, occasionally I’m working with organisations and with abolitionists, but I am not an abolitionist by any means. And that’s not where the majority of my energy goes. I work in entertainment, I work in Hollywood.” Stenberg says she was aware of having the activist label “placed on me” when she was “kind of still a kid.”

“I was really young and passionate and outspoken – like so many other people in my generation,” she continues. “But I was still formulating my identity; it’s a young age to have that label placed on you. So I don’t know… at this point, I wouldn’t necessarily self-identify that way.”

At a young age, Stenberg also saw first-hand how an online news story can take on a life of its own. During a 2018 interview with Variety, she revealed that she had auditioned to play Shuri in Black Panther – the part that eventually went to Letitia Wright – before removing herself from the process. As the biracial daughter of a white Danish man and a Black American woman – Karen Brailsford, a spiritual guide and author who previously worked for US celebrity magazine People – she said it didn’t feel “right” to pursue the role. “These are all dark skin actors playing Africans and I feel like it would have just been off to see me as a biracial American with a Nigerian accent just pretending that I’m the same colour as everyone else in the movie,” she said at the time.

“Being in the public eye is just part of the game”

Stenberg was praised for speaking so candidly about her decision, but points out today that it had an unhelpful negative side effect as well. “I said that in an interview that was, I don’t know, maybe an hour long or something. And it was something that I said in passing. But then the media got really obsessed with that one thing that I said and really blew it up, which was kind of unfortunate, because I wish that everyone was just paying attention to the Black Panther moment, instead of focusing on me talking about not wanting to take up space in Black Panther. Because then, ironically, the opposite happened.”

Later in the interview, Stenberg acknowledges that having a mother who really understands the entertainment news cycle has helped to give her a healthy sense of perspective. “It’s just an inevitable part of being in the public eye: you’re going to have moments in which you’re ripped apart or puffed up, but it’s just a part of the game of it,” she says pragmatically. “It’s kind of one of the drawbacks of having this incredible privilege of being able to make money out of making art successfully.”

Five years after Black Panther, Stenberg says it remains a “prerequisite” for her to care about which experiences are represented in film and TV. “Representation is still in such a horrible place when it comes to actually not being afraid of putting people on screen that don’t continue to placate a kind of white supremacist, European-centric agenda,” she says. “And you know, my success in Hollywood is also just unfortunately an extension of that – or at least the perception that I can represent Blackness in some sort of monolithic way. You know, it’s another extension of racism. And so I think that it’s just my inherent responsibility, as a biracial person, to think of that when I’m thinking about which Black characters that I play.”

The Hate U Give
Amandla Stenberg in ‘The Hate U Give’. CREDIT: Alamy

In the same year as the Black Panther story, Stenberg’s career started to take off. She appeared in three films including Where Hands Touch, in which she plays a biracial girl grappling with her place in Nazi Germany, and the young adult superhero movie The Darkest Minds. Best of all was The Hate U Give, in which Stenberg is riveting as Starr Carter, a teenage girl from a predominantly Black neighbourhood who has learned to present a version of herself that chimes with her predominantly white private school classmates. After witnessing a fatal police shooting, Starr works through self-doubt and her own complex identity to become the public face of a community’s anti-police brutality protests. Stenberg deservedly won awards for her layered and powerful performance.

Surprisingly, Dear Evan Hansen is her first film role since that 2018 hot streak, though she did appear in last year’s jazz-themed Netflix series The Eddy, which was created by Jack Thorne (His Dark Materials, Enola Holmes). “You know, it only really feels meaningful and fulfilling to me as an actor if the film is exploring something that makes people feel less alone or represents an experience that hopefully creates more empathy between people,” she says. “I feel kind of empty [otherwise]. And [Dear Evan Hansen] was one of those projects where I immediately had chills as soon as I read it.”

Stenberg says she leapt at the chance to work with director Stephen Chbosky because she loved his 2012 coming-of-age film The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Adapted from the Tony-winning Broadway musical, which also starred Platt, Dear Evan Hansen is a rather more sombre film rooted in moral murkiness. After a classmate takes his own life, Platt’s socially awkward and profoundly lonely title character is presumed to be his best friend, a misconception he perpetuates first out of embarrassment and then, perhaps, because it has raised his high school status. Devastated by her classmate’s death, Stenberg’s Alana spearheads an initiative to improve mental health awareness at their school, becoming a sympathetic friend of Evan’s in the process.

Amandla Stenberg
Ben Platt and Amandla Stenberg in ‘Dear Evan Hansen’. CREDIT: Universal

In the film, Stenberg also gets to sing ‘The Anonymous Ones’, an emotive ballad that she co-wrote – and which SZA has also recorded for the soundtrack album. Lyrics like “She’s built a wall of her achievements/To keep out the question/Without it, is she worth anything at all?” cut to the core of Alana’s contradictions as a character. Stenberg has recorded other songs for film and TV projects, including a sultry cover of Mac DeMarco‘s ‘Let My Baby Stay‘ that featured in her 2017 romance Everything, Everything.

“I love music – I really love music,” she says, before reeling off the artists she’s currently spinning in what she calls a “classic ’70s funk and rock phase”: Shuggie Otis, Spirit, Sly and the Family Stone, Pharoah Sanders. By now, Stenberg’s eyes are lighting up. “It’s a huge part of my identity, and so I always want the opportunity to sing as part of a production,” she continues. “But I’m not a trained singer by any means and I’m not a Broadway person. But because the tone of this film is pretty grounded, it has room for more natural singers [like me]. And so I felt terrified but honoured to be brought into this process.”

Stenberg also appeared in Beyoncé‘s ‘Lemonade‘ visual album and dated a musician, King Princess, whose breakup bops on 2019’s ‘Cheap Queen’ are presumed to be about her. Today, the actor says that making an album of her own is “top of the wish list”, but only when the time is right. “I’ve been recording a ton of demos over the last few years, and I’m excited about a lot of the stuff that I’ve made, but I haven’t wanted there to be any external pressure on me whatsoever,” she says. “I only started songwriting about four years ago, and then I only started truly producing my own music a couple of years ago. I’ve wanted to give myself time and space to develop my authentic voice – and to learn the craft of music – before I release anything. But I do want to release [more] music soon.”

“I’d go crazy if I was interested in what other people think”

Clearly, Stenberg’s approach to dropping music will be as conscious and considered as her attitude to taking on acting roles. It would be a mistake, however, to overlook her playful side. Stenberg says she’s fond of using the word “gay” in her Instagram posts partly because it connects her to “the lineage of queer history”, but also because it gives off a sense of fun. “I feel like sometimes we use the word ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’, even if it might not be the most accurate term, as a reference back to that history. In reality, I am a queer person,” she says. “But also, I think that ‘gay’ can mean so many different things and me and my queer friends can use it humorously sometimes. Just like, ‘that’s gay’, you know? I think it’s a word that transmutes different meanings depending on the context.”

Stenberg’s fundamental grasp of the bigger picture also shines through when it comes to the final question of our interview: what does she want people to think when they hear her name? “I’m not really interested in what other people think – I’d go crazy if I was,” she says with a laugh. “You know, people are going to think what they think. Some people are going to feel very connected to me and some people are not going to understand me, and that’s OK.” Still, it’s hard to leave Stenberg’s company without hoping this connection continues to spread through whatever project – be it music or movie – she puts her name to next.

‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is in cinemas from October 22

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