When KiKi Layne was cast as Tish Rivers, a lead character in Barry Jenkins’s quietly profound indie drama If Beale Street Could Talk, the choice may have been a mystery to some. Then a relatively little-known, 26-year-old actress who had spent her post-graduate years working the Chicago theater circuit, she beat out over 300 other hopeful performers for a part that, as the followup to Jenkins’s best picture-winning Moonlight, couldn’t have been more desirable. Yet there she was, with the opportunity of a lifetime, wowing audiences with her tender film debut in the lush adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel about race, family, and dreams, which went on to receive its own roster of accolades. But Layne is eager to surprise, and she has dedicated her rising career to, as she puts it, “breaking out of the boxes.”
In her latest role, she’s taking that mission a step further. At 28, Layne makes her action debut in Netflix’s The Old Guard, a new film based on the comic book series by Greg Rucka, who also wrote the screenplay. In stark contrast to her soft, steadfast performance as Rivers, she plays Nile Freeman, a brazen Marine from a military family, who is stationed in Afghanistan when she is, rather forcefully, awoken to the fact that she is all but immortal. She joins a roving troupe of undying mercenaries — they retain their youth and typically heal spontaneously from otherwise fatal wounds, though technically, they can die eventually. Led by Charlize Theron’s Andy, or Andromache of Scythia, whose ass-kicking adventures apparently date back to Homeric times, the group utilizes their supernatural gifts to turn the tides of history’s biggest battles and movements. Be they good or evil? Well, according to one member of the cohort, Joe (Marwan Kenzari), that “depends on the century.”
In many ways, the film is dictated by the constraints of its genre; in others, it breaks free. There’s no shortage of dizzying battle scenes, gunfire, and extravagant choreography featuring a seemingly endless treasury of weapons, as the warriors leave trails of bodies wherever they go (a point of contention for newcomer Nile). But helmed by director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees), a longtime champion of diversity in cinema, those scenes are balanced with moments of real humanization. Joe plainly and openly discusses his relationship with Nicky (Luca Marinelli), whom he met while fighting on opposite sides in the Crusades; and for her part, Layne plays up the painful sense of existential dread felt by Nile, as she realizes her eternal future means she must leave behind those she cherishes most.
This depth of characterization is rarely, if ever, seen in blockbusters, making the project particularly interesting to Layne; it’s yet another breaking out of the box, one that would compartmentalize her work to moody dramas. She’ll further dismiss that notion in her inaugural comedy turn in the forthcoming Coming to America sequel. As for a Black actress leading such a film? That is in itself a challenge to the old guard of Hollywood, which regularly places white men at the forefront of major action movies. But for Layne, it is a necessary effort in placing Black women into the mainstream cinematic canon: “These types of kick-ass, strong, heroic, Black women exist,” she says. “It's about time that Hollywood shows that in film.” What boxes will she break free from next? She tells MTV News, below.
MTV News: You had such an amazing starring role in If Beale Street Could Talk. But your role in The Old Guard is quite different and new for you. What about the project appealed to you?
KiKi Layne: The very first thing that got me interested in the project was the opportunity to work with Gina [Prince-Bythewood]. But I've always wanted to do action films, so I was excited to jump into action and accomplish that goal and dream. What's special about this world is that, although we see these people with this really extraordinary gift, we also see them struggling with very human things that we all can relate to, grief and loss and loneliness. There was an opportunity to bring a sense of vulnerability and depth that we don't always see in action films.
MTV News: Are there any kinds of roles or scripts that you gravitate towards?
Layne: I love to play in all different types of worlds and roles, but the ultimate goal that I have for myself and my career is to be able to step into roles and worlds where, historically, Hollywood has left Black actresses out of the conversation. For me, that's about really breaking through walls and barriers that Black actresses have come up against, and breaking out of the boxes that we've been put into. I'm hopeful that, at the end of my career, wherever it takes me, there's a lot of variety.
MTV News: Are there any ways that you relate to the character of Nile? She's this badass ex-marine, who is now central to this new group of immortals.
Layne: I always have to find things that I relate to and understand in the characters that I play; otherwise, it won't feel that authentic. With Nile, one thing that I tapped into immediately was her sense of faith. And also, her love of her family, which becomes one of the things that makes what's happening to her even more difficult. She’s put in this position where she has to, essentially, turn her back on all of her loved ones.
MTV News: Your team had to do a ton of stunt training to prepare for the role. Could you tell me a little bit about that? Were there any especially difficult moments for you in making this movie?
Layne: It definitely was the most physically demanding thing that I've ever done. Just being in the gym that much, building strength and muscle, just to even be able to handle all of the stunts and choreography. And then working with weapons for the very first time, and boxing, which is actually a lot of fun. There were definitely some days where it kicked my ass, but it's cool because you actually are picking up these skills. If you're learning it for a character it's like, I, KiKi Layne, am actually learning how to load and reload this gun.
MTV News: You were also working alongside a pretty seasoned action star in Charlize Theron. Was the rest of the cast able to help you out along the way?
Layne: Oh, definitely. Just working alongside Charlize, who has such a command and knowledge of the genre, was so dope. Charlize has been such a huge part of showing what women are capable of in this genre, so just being able to be on set with her and learn from watching her commitment to doing as much of the choreography and stunts as she could.
MTV News: You mentioned that you were excited to work with Gina Prince-Bythewood, and this was a big moment for her, as well, because this was the first major comic-book movie helmed by a Black woman. What was it like working together?
Layne: What I really enjoyed the most about working with Gina on this project, and it was something that she made clear to me from the first time we talked, was her commitment to really digging into the heart of these characters — how and why they got to wherever they are when we first meet them in the film. She made space for that type of vulnerability and depth in an action film, and sometimes that gets lost in these films. It becomes about all the blowing things up and shooting up people and kicking ass. So, it was really dope to have Gina encouraging us to lean into those deeper emotions. Like, these characters are immortal, but they still are struggling with loss and grief and loneliness.
MTV News: Have you been a fan of science fiction and action movies your whole life?
Layne: Absolutely! I love the Avengers movies. Those are definitely some of my favorites. I watched the Bourne trilogy a lot. I have two brothers, so I was always watching all of that stuff. I enjoy it just as much, too.
MTV News: Do you ever see yourself playing a Marvel superhero?
Layne: I would love to. As a Black woman, leading one of those films would be amazing, just because it hasn't happened yet. Hollywood is slow on a lot of things when it comes to representation. These types of kick-ass, strong, heroic, Black women exist. It's about time that Hollywood shows that in film. I'm glad that I could be a part of a step in the right direction of doing that. I'm hoping that it gets to a point where it's not such a big conversation point, the fact that this is a female-led action film directed by a Black woman. We are just as capable. That's the thing: We are just as capable of leading on-screen and behind the camera. It needs to happen more.
MTV News: Even though this is a sci-fi movie, it tackles some real topics, as you’ve said. The big villain isn’t some superpowered alien but this smarmy, billionaire, pharmaceutical executive. Why do you think sci-fi is an appropriate medium for telling real-life, even political, narratives?
Layne: Sometimes, it's easier for us to digest that type of realness when it's wrapped up in a bit of fantasy. You're absorbing the real circumstances that are being touched on, but you're not necessarily being beaten over the head with it.
MTV News: Is there a key message that you hope viewers will take away from seeing The Old Guard?
Layne: How the film is speaking to me now, under the circumstances of everything going on in the world, is with this question: What are we doing with the time that we have been given? Seeing these characters who have been alive for so long, even they're still asking themselves that question. How am I using this time? Is it of any greater value or help? With everything going on right now, I think we are all feeling called to think more on what it is we're doing with this time.
MTV News: Have there been any moments where you really felt represented on-screen?
Layne: What's wonderful about what's happening right now in Hollywood is, I feel, a lot more Black artists and underrepresented artists are taking matters more into our own hands and creating the type of work that really speaks to us. I'm very grateful for things like Black Panther, Get Out, Insecure, and Atlanta. There’s definitely a lot more than when I was growing up in terms of seeing more authentic and varied representations of Black people and Black life.
MTV News: Would you want to live forever?
Layne: Oh my goodness, no. The film really shows the two sides of immortality. On one hand, it's a blessing, in terms of what you're able to do if you are committed to serving the greater good and taking these risks that mortal people could not in order to create positive change in the world. But on the other side of that, it comes at a very personal cost. For me, I'm so close to my family, I couldn't imagine being here with none of them. I feel like I could do it for maybe a couple hundred years, do some really cool stuff that really lays the groundwork for some positive change.