LaKeith Stanfield Relates Acting to Music Ahead of the Third Season of ‘Atlanta’

When it comes to actors who seem to truly embody their characters, few come to mind like LaKeith Stanfield. The California native has blurred reality in his many roles over the past decade in movies like Crown Heights, Sorry to Bother You, Judas and the Black Messiah, and The Harder They Fall. But LaKeith is arguably best known for his role of Darius in Atlanta, a dark comedy created by and starring Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) that follows a group of friends, lovers, and associates navigating the city’s hip-hop scene. In Season 3, the foursome—Earn, Paper Boi, Darius, and Van—take on Europe as Paper Boi’s fame goes transatlantic.

Much like the characters in the show, LaKeith has also explored his musical side over the last few years, releasing synth-heavy rap and hip-hop tracks under the name Htiekal. But as LaKeith told For the Record, these two sides of him are really part of the same coin: “I think acting is music. It’s rhythm in action and reaction and feeling that goes from one place to another.”

LaKeith’s character, Darius, is a soulful, playful eccentric with a vision, and when LaKeith waxes poetic on the influence of music, the mentality that the two share becomes clear. 

“Music is easily the most powerful form of art,” he said. “Music is a portal and it takes you to where the artist is in their headspace. From the start of the album to the end of the album, you’re being zapped into a portal of experience and an aspect of me you haven’t seen. And that’s why my artist persona, ‘Htiekal,’ is my name backwards. I create because it’s the identity that others have yet to know and understand about me. With music, I can just scream in a way that I can’t express as an actor.” 

In the Spotify playlist LaKeith made ahead of the Season 3 premiere, he continues to blend music, television, acting, and reality—just as he did in our conversation. 

There’s been about a three-year hiatus between seasons. Anything in particular fans should brush up on going into the new season?

I don’t think brushing up, technically, is the thing to do. I think coming to it with a fresh perspective is nice because as much as things in the past seasons influence what you’ll see here, it’s really just a whole new approach. Everything we do is brand new. We’re always just on the cusp of reality. Whatever’s happening is always constantly being written. We have a text chain where we’re always sharing things that we find interesting with each other. And they always end up weaving their way into the show. So life imitating art, and vice versa.

The writers of Atlanta, including Donald Glover, are sneaky geniuses, and they are always having their antennas up, getting information about us and then incorporating it into the show. So they stalk us like mad and take things from our lives and weave them into the story, which I think is weird, but I also appreciate it because I understand how important it is to have real things to work off of. We don’t work out of an imaginary world—we’re working off of this world and then processing this world through an imaginary world. I do think it’s quite psychedelic—this show lets you explore things from a different angle. 

So that’s why some people tend to think that these characters—especially mine—are similar to us. In reality, it’s because a lot of the things that we bring to it are then fashioned into the story. It’s a very organic process. 

Atlanta serves as commentary on the hip-hop scene and industry in the city. What are some other commentaries that came into the season, especially with the world that you were facing at the time of shooting?

A big staple in Atlanta is identity and who you are, and who you are in relation to your environment. What we find is that identity has less to do with what you think of someone based on their exterior. You typically find parallels between people when you look deeper than what lies on the surface. I think that’s important to demonstrate when you’re talking about Black people in particular because that’s something that we’ve always dealt with and had to basically scream out at the top of our lungs that we’re just human beings. 

Now, Atlanta does this in a really cool, unique, fun, and interesting way where you don’t even know what’s happening. You don’t know that we’re explaining to you bits and pieces of the Black experience; it’s just entertainment to you and I think that is, that’s great. And so we hope that, you know, by showing you the absurdity, maybe it has you take a look at something a little more closely?

Like you said, Atlanta takes on racism in absurd and satirical ways. There’s a moment in the trailer that shows this season will be no exception—why was it important for the show to have this conversation on “both sides of the pond”?

All we’re doing is reflecting the reality that’s around us, and unfortunately race is a big part of that, not only in the U.S., but in Europe too. Don’t get it twisted—Europe is where all this sh*t came from. America took racism and amped it up to the heights unseen before but believe me, it started in places and pockets in Europe. It’s just very clear to me that there’s a hierarchy that’s been in place there for a long time. But it’s been more finessed over there and the air of racism that’s tangible to you doesn’t feel as strong as it feels here in America. 

I think you’ll find that most Black creators are quite exhausted with this topic. But we can’t ignore it because white people have made it an issue. So until our work changes the way that we’re perceived and seen, race is always going to be a conversation. But believe me, we would prefer to talk about other sh*t. But either way, we will continue to do what we’ve always been doing, finessing and telling our stories in the most honest light that we can. 

Music plays a huge role in the show. How does music play into time on set? 

On set we play all kinds of things. I play things that appeal to my emotional states. Some things like Frank Sinatra put you in a sense of pride—I feel strong when I listen to that, I lean into my masculinity there as well. Things like Nirvana really put me in a more emotional space and I’m able to be reflective about my childhood and how experiences I had there led to who I am. Slipknot backs the feelings of an internal struggle, of war. Of people who are going against those who tell you what you need to be. And some music calms the storm of all that frustration, some things like Yo-Yo Ma—instrumental music, classical music by Black composers, Nigerian music, things from the motherland. Sometimes I’ll just play random music from Africa; I don’t really know what they’re saying, but I don’t have to because music communicates whether it’s through words or not. 

Tell us about the Spotify playlist you’ve created, In Between Takes. What are some notable tracks you’d like to point out? What story are you trying to tell or soundtrack?

The music is awesome and I really want people to have the relationship with the music that they want. I don’t want to influence it any more than I already have by curating something. I want you to go on that journey or not. I think it’s really personal and I love it that way. So I want to keep it that way and I want you to love what you love and dislike what you dislike like, because that allows me to live and be free through you. Love yourself.


Stream LaKeith’s “In Between Takes” playlist below to get ready for the third season of Atlanta, premiering Thursday, March 24.