MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
You may recognize our next guest from her role as Rue in the movie "The Hunger Games." Amandla Stenberg made her mark as the smart sidekick to Katniss Everdeen played by Jennifer Lawrence. Stenberg is also making her mark outside Hollywood in the arena of social media. Her commentary on race and cultural appropriation has earned her zillions of new fans and also a lot of controversy. Here's her most famous YouTube video from 2015 called "Don't Cash Crop My Cornrows."
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "DON'T CASH CROP MY CORNROWS")
AMANDLA STENBERG: Braids and cornrows are not merely stylistic. They're necessary in order to keep black hair neat. So I've been seeing this question a lot on social media, and I think it's really relevant. What would America be like if we loved black people as much as we love black culture?
KELLY: Amandla Stenberg is now 18, and she is starring in three films this year, including "Everything, Everything" which comes out this Friday. We wanted to talk to her more about it, along with everything, everything going on in her life. Amandla Stenberg, thank you for joining us.
STENBERG: Of course. I'm so happy to be talking to you.
KELLY: We're glad to have you. So in this movie, you play a girl with a rare disease. Her name is Maddy. She is 18, like you. And she has never left her house because her immune system is so weak that the outside world would kill her. So I have to start by asking how the heck do you prepare for a role like that? How do you get into that mindset?
STENBERG: (Laughter) Well, something that was really helpful in preparing for the role was the fact that it's based off this book by Nicola Yoon.
KELLY: And has the same title. It's also called "Everything, Everything."
STENBERG: Yes. I think in many regards, the film is less about this girl with this disease and more of a fairy tale. And so in thinking about how to play this character is often thinking about striking a sense of realism with the character and making her feel like a teen that kids who are watching the movie could relate to, but also keeping the movie in the realm of magic and fantasy.
KELLY: Was it hard playing a character who for much of the movie, certainly, at least the first half, never gets to leave the four walls of her house?
STENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah. It definitely got a little bit claustrophobic at times, but it was cool because it allowed us to really explore all of the feelings within that space. I think Maddy's relationship with her mother is something that we never really get to see. There's a lot of relentless love, and in many ways a lot of things that are somewhat abusive, as you learn. I won't reveal anything because there's the large twist that you have to learn for yourself when you see the movie.
KELLY: Right. I mean, Maddy - because she's stuck inside and there's fear about bringing germs in from the outside world, her mother is one of only three people in her life. So by definition you're going to have an intense relationship there if that's one of the only people you ever get to see.
STENBERG: Yeah, absolutely. While Maddy is experiencing this isolation, and I think this kind of depression, at the same time, she's been so protected and so nurtured by her mother that I think there's a naiveness (ph) to her.
KELLY: She has been very fiercely loved, and that brings us to the early plot twist which is Maddy's life changes when a new family moves in next door, and she spots the son, Olly, who's played by Nick Robinson. He wears all black. His favorite word he tells her is macabre. They're communicating at first just through the window because, as we said, Maddy can't go outside. He is very much a pessimist compared to innocent, sweet Maddy. And you can hear that in this next clip I'll play which is when these two finally meet.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING")
NICK ROBINSON: (As Olly Bright) Where would you go if you could?
STENBERG: (As Maddy Whittier) The ocean.
ROBINSON: (As Olly Bright) The ocean? Why?
STENBERG: (As Maddy Whittier) Well, it cover 72 percent of the planet, and it's approximately three miles from here. And I've never seen it.
ROBINSON: (As Olly Bright) It's a bad choice.
STENBERG: (As Maddy Whittier) Why?
ROBINSON: (As Olly Bright) I'm assuming you can't swim.
STENBERG: (As Maddy Whittier, laughing) Yeah, you're right. But I'd like to try.
KELLY: It's this very sweet relationship that emerges between these two. However, I was sitting there wondering where is this ever going to go given that she can't leave the house?
STENBERG: Yeah. That was a huge concern, I think, in making the movie and the way that the director Stella Meghie reacted to the fact that she had to create a film about two teenagers texting for half of it was by creating these sequences of magical realism within Maddy's imagination.
KELLY: One thing that has gotten a lot of buzz is that the relationship between these two is an interracial relationship. I've seen you talk about that that is one reason you were attracted to the role. Why?
STENBERG: Honestly, I don't know if I ever have seen a movie like this with a black girl in the lead.
KELLY: And Olly's white, we should say.
STENBERG: Yes, of course. And, you know, we're living in a world that is increasingly more diverse and increasingly more nuanced. And it makes sense for our films, specifically the films that have target audiences that are teenage to reflect that in a way that's authentic. And that would be bringing up this conversation, but also never bringing it up. And this movie is not about race. It's never a conversation in the film. What it does is it just shows us existing.
KELLY: It's a total non-issue between Olly and Maddy which is almost a more powerful statement than if it had been an issue in their relationship.
STENBERG: Yes. Absolutely. When I originally received the script, I figured that this would be a character that'd be played by a white actress. And so I kind of initially immediately wrote it off in my head. But when I looked into it further, I saw that Nicola Yoon had created this book that was specifically written for a biracial girl in the lead role. And that was so exciting to me because I never got to see that as a kid. It was something that I always wished I could have seen.
KELLY: Well, I'm curious how then this role fits in with your other work. We played that clip of your video "Don't Cash Crop My Cornrows." You have used social media as a platform for speaking about your identity and your thoughts on race and culture. Is there a moment that you can point to when you decided this is something I want to be out there talking about?
STENBERG: I don't know if there ever was one particular moment. I think that I'm constantly trying to re-evaluate how best to utilize my voice. And during that time period when I put out that YouTube video about cornrows was a moment when social media was the most integral tool to having these sorts of conversations. Social media in general is really saturated with dialogue and saturated with these conversations.
And I think that's important and good and necessary, but I don't know if my contributing to more dialogue when I've already said things I've wanted to say would necessarily be that productive in social activism and creating change. And so I think I can be more productive by doing things like "Everything, Everything," which is something that a couple of years ago maybe I wouldn't have done. But now I can see the power in kind of - I like to use the word infiltration - in infiltrating these larger corporations that would traditionally put out media that would just feature white people.
KELLY: I mean, have you found that being outspoken outside of Hollywood on issues of race and culture, has it hurt, has it helped your film career?
STENBERG: I think it's only helped, and I think there's a reason for that. I think the reason why it's helped is because teenagers nowadays are so wicked smart. I mean, we've grown up with computers in our hands, and we know when we're seeing something that is being sold to us because we're used to filtering ads. We're used to filtering through media constantly.
And so I think that a lot of teenagers are getting really bored of the same stuff coming out. And they're getting bored of seeing the same white people in roles, and they want diversity, especially black teenagers, of course. And I think that studios have had no other option than to respond to that and because I've been someone who has had this direct connection to people my age, this direct connection to these teenagers who care about social activism and who would go see a movie like "Everything, Everything," I'm the person that they're casting. It's really, really an interesting, tricky and beautiful dynamic to navigate at this age. I just graduated from high school about a year ago, and it feels wild to have jumped from, you know, using kind of the safer space of the internet to do this kind of work to now being in a very adult world.
KELLY: Well, congratulations on this new movie. And I want to end by noting that on top of everything else, you've just dropped a new song which you actually sing.
KELLY: It's in the soundtrack for "Everything, Everything." And it's called "Let My Baby Stay." We're going to play a little bit of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET MY BABY STAY")
STENBERG: (Singing) I was made to love her, been working at it, half of my life. I've been an addict. And she's been good to me.
KELLY: That is the singer and activist and actress Amandla Stenberg. Her new movie "Everything, Everything" is out on Friday. Amandla Stenberg, it was a pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much.
STENBERG: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET MY BABY STAY")
STENBERG: (Singing) So please don't take my love away.
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