‘Short Term 12’ Star Keith Stanfield Teaches Us about Rapping and the Beauty of Life

Short Term 12Cindy Ord/Getty Images

When we meet Marcus in Short Term 12 he is just a week away from his 18th birthday — and with it, leaving the protection of the group foster home facility Short Term 12. To celebrate coming of age, Marcus doesn’t want a party. He doesn’t want pizza and cake. He wants to shave his head. It’s clear from the juxtaposition of this request with his first line — “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” — that Marcus is a complex kid, boiling over with fears, hopes, and hurts. 

Keith Stanfield, the 22-year-old actor responsible for Marcus’ nuance and heart, is new to acting — the short film version of Short Term 12 was his first foray into the biz, and Short Term 12 and the short film Gimme Grace remain his only acting credits to date. But it’s obvious that it won’t stay that way for long. Stanfield’s performance in Short Term 12 is gritty, raw, and completely mesmerizing. When he is in frame it’s impossible to look elsewhere. And in a film filled with amazing performances by the likes of John Gallagher Jr. and Brie Larson, that’s saying something. Hollywood.com spoke with Stanfield about growing up with Marcus and about the joy and release that can come with artistic expression. It came as no surprise to us that Stanfield’s words were just as powerful and uplifting as his character’s story. 

Note: This interview contains plot spoilers for Short Term 12. Go see the movie — immediately — and then come back and read this. 

Hollywood.com: Marcus, your character, is the only one to appear in both the short version of Short Term 12 and the feature. With that in mind, what was the experience for you of making this film? 
Keith Stanfield: My character is going through a transitional period walking into unknown waters. The short film was actually the first thing I’ve ever done. It was completely a new experience, and at that time I was just scared out of mind. The performance that you see is just me completely scared. With this one I was so much more comfortable, I was able to take that same nervous energy that I had and translate it through the character. I made him show kind of what I felt with this new experience. So we were popping a lot of cherries and going into new, uncharted territory. 

Backing up a little bit, how did you first link up with Destin for the original short?
He was a student and making a film — they call them student films. [Laughs] He was trying to cast for something and I came through. To me, I thought I was horrible. I was just out there screaming. But I think he liked that I wanted it so much, so he was like, “All right, come through.” It was just a stroke of luck. I had a manager at the time who was acting as a magent, a manager/agent, and she was sending me out on certain things. And she found the student project and sent me out on it. And I was like, “All right.” Went there, cussed a little bit, he liked it. Then, five years later, I was actually watering one of my plants, and I got on the computer looking through old email, just nostalgia. And I saw the message that they were making a film. It was an old email [I hadn’t read] and I thought it was too late. So I was like, “Oh s**t! Let me come down here man!” And he was like, “Yeah man, come down.” So I came down there and auditioned for it. I was like, “They’re gonna pick the guy from Everyone Hates Chris, or some s**t.” But he called me and was like, “Come through man.” So I was like, “Uh… awesome!” So here we are.

What was it like playing the same character five years apart?
It seemed to me to be a different character. By the time I came to it I erased everything and started to build. I was a lot more mature, had a lot more life experience so I could look at it from a polarized view. It seemed to me to be a completely different person, as was I. They say every five years the atoms in your body become a new set of atoms. So technically, I was a different person. 

Brie [Larson] was saying that on set you really wanted to not form a connection with her, because Marcus is very distrustful of her character Grace. Did you stay in Marcus’ head space the whole time while filming?
I did. I think that can be unhealthy but it actually worked. It created a level of awkwardness between me and everyone else which translated well. I had scenes where I do random, “What the f**k is that supposed to mean?” It translated much better because it was such a surprise. This dude hasn’t said s**t, and all of a sudden he comes out with this. It was good, it worked well for us.

Marcus is much closer with Mason than he is with Grace. Did you and John Gallagher Jr. develop a rapport? Or did you separate yourself from everyone?
Yeah, I pretty much stayed distant from everyone. And some of it was conscious and some of it wasn’t. I would just sit back and watch everything that was going on and soak it in. Pretty much every time I was there, there wasn’t a time I wasn’t on set. Just trying to watch the way everything worked. Me and John sat down and had a couple cigarettes and talked about the mundane and stuff. Right now, me and the rest of the cast are developing a relationship. We’re like best friends now. We’re all really cool. It was just in that time and space we just created this awkward situation. We all did. I didn’t talk to anyone, but no one talked to me. We maintained that, but now it’s all good. Wonderful group.

It looked like it worked well. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when you rap with Mason. I was wondering, what went into filming that scene? Did you help write the rap?
Yes, I did. Destin [Cretton, director/writer] wrote the original rap. It was just basic, kinda dry. I’ve been writing for a long time — if not it would probably be worse [than Destin’s] if I wrote it. I took it, rewrote the whole thing, and we went back and forth and came out with the final product. And that’s what you get. So it was a collaboration between me and Destin. And it was crazy; the first time we did it they were like, “All right, we’re done. The rap scene is done, first take.” But we did a couple more takes. And actually, I found myself getting emotional. So there’d be times I would just get choked up on my own emotions and that’s the one they chose to use. It’s crazy.

The shot they used in the film is an extreme close-up. Did you know it was going to be shot so close?
When I first saw it, it was on an IMAX theater, I was like, “What the f**k?” It was wild. But I think that lends to the actual intimacy of what’s being said. It’s a brilliant song. And Destin and the editors and all those genius people deciding to go with that close up — I think it worked well.

Do you have musical aspirations as well?
Yeah, I actually write music. Me and a guy named — I just call him Richie. He has a hard name to say. Sorry Richie, but you do! — we’re coming out with a band called The Moors. So we’re in the process of creating that right now. He makes electronic, loud crazy sounds and I just get on there and rap. It’s a lot similar to the stuff in the film.

Marcus has one of the most intense story lines and back stories in the movie. How did you find a way to relate to that? And what was it about Marcus that appealed to you as an actor?
All of these characters are just living their lives and suddenly a camera comes and starts filming. He’s in a transitional phase, which we all are every day. So this is what’s so cool about it. Although it’s a character who comes from this and looks like this — he walks like this and he talks like this — all of that shit aside, he’s a human being going through a struggle and trying to overcome it, which we all are to one degree or another. We can all kind of identify with that and that’s what I like. If he was just a f**k-up kid and you didn’t know why he’s a f**k-up kid, I wouldn’t have liked it as much. I like it because there’s actually a human thing going on. He’s actually evolving and moving forward and trying to better himself. At the end of the day he moves past all of the bulls**t and tries to thrive in a way that he didn’t think he could before. And that’s, to me, what’s so important about it. And why anyone can identify with it. You see that and you’re like, “Damn, if this dude did it, I can do it.” That’s what I love about it.

I think everyone can relate to that as well. Reviews of the movie have been very positive — I don’t know if you’ve read it at all or if you’re avoiding it.

Well, I think it’ll make you happy. I don’t think you have to be worried.
Cool, I’m glad. I’m stoked! I’m glad so many people were able to identify with it. I don’t know, I just hate looking at it. Because if I don’t have it in my mind I can just continue to do it. 

Are people knocking on your door to do new projects? How has this changed your life so far?
Aw man, I’m just so stoked. I’m a little baby in a barrel just taking everything in. I’m just so fortunate to do whatever I’m doing. The main treat has been meeting such great people. I’m not around a bunch of crazy people; I’m around normal people, just trying to tell a story. That’s been the gift for me, the thing that I’ve been so grateful for. I’ve been meeting awesome people; just enjoying the ride and trying to have fun. There are some people out there reaching out — I see them out there. But I don’t know, my main focus right now is to have fun and interface with people who are connected with the film. That’s why like doing this [interview]. Well, it’s a big reason why.

Did you have a favorite scene to film?
I really liked the scene when we were all in the lounge area. I don’t know what it’s called, living room? Because it felt so homey and it felt just like a family. It felt awesome to be that way. Because often when we were shooting it was awkward, because the environment’s kind of awkward. So you have to really get in the zone. But it’s a lot easier when it’s comfortable like that. That was probably one of the most comfortable moments. But I liked them all, pretty much. The funnest one was probably a moment that didn’t even make it into the film. Me and Grace have this interaction where she brings some pair of pants in and throws them at me and I’m just looking at her like, “B**ch!” And we go through a little bit of dialogue but it opens up and shows how Marcus is also intelligent and he gets to telling her about the fish and fish bait. There’s a whole bunch of dialogue. But that was really fun, I thought it showed a side of Marcus that no one’s seen. He’s actually a really smart kid. The thing is that he wanted to be smart and that he could be smart.

Marcus, thank God, has a happy ending. How did you feel about that?
I have mixed feelings about it. At first, I [felt that] it doesn’t seem real. When people get into those situations more often than not they don’t walk away from them. But you know what, it is real, because there are people who do transcend and get through it. And also, in the beginning, they mention a guy who actually died. That injected a little bit of realism into it. The reason that I liked the fact that he came out successful is because he’s been through such crazy s**t. And for him to make it through that is a source of inspiration. Crackhead mom, no dad, and he was able to rise above it. Even though all of us have issues, most people’s issues aren’t to that extent. So if you can see that and reflect it to yourself and see what you’re going through then it’s a source of inspiration to know that you can move forward. And that’s the beautiful thing about it.

You just mentioned his family’s backstory. A lot of that isn’t in the movie, I don’t think. A lot comes through in the rap but we don’t really know what brought Marcus, or a number of these kids, to the group home. How much of a backstory did you create for Marcus and for his family?
Not much. The reason for it is because when you interface with people, you don’t know where they’re coming from or who you’re talking to. You just see: Bam! There it is. I wanted more of it to be inferred. But really that’s all irrelevant. What’s really important is that there’s a human going through their transitional period and trying to jump over their hump. Because all of us in the story, although they are different stories within the story, are all going through the same thing. And the journey’s the same; we have high points, we have low points, we have points when we want to cut our heads off, we have points where we actually break through and move forward. And that’s universal, so I think it was important that we didn’t show too much of the embellishment type stuff. 

Marcus really butts heads with Luis in the film. What was your relationship like with Kevin Hernandez, who plays Luis, on set?
Kevin’s cool, man. A fun, young dude. He’s got a lotta tenacity and focus. That’s weird because when we shot the whiffle ball scene the first time I was too into character. And the part where I hit him, I actually hit him in the head with a plastic bat… it wasn’t bad but it was like, bad. I just swung at full speed and hit him the head, and he was like, “What the f**k? We’re f**king acting, man.” But he’s a cool sport, he’s a cool kid. He just got up, dusted it off, and got back back on set and was like, “All right, I’m crazy. Let’s do it again.” They had a stunt coordinator come through and they were like, “Don’t really hit him.” They put this armor around his back, it looked like a f**king turtle shell. I hit him in the back with this armor thing, they had to gear him up to f**k with me. But yeah, it was fun. He’s an awesome kid. Kaitlyn [Dever], she’s beautiful, awesome. I learned a lot from her. Hard worker. To me, she’s crazy, because I viewed her like the Disney kid, but she just transformed into this crazy, crazy character that seemed like it came straight out of hell. Everyone’s been such an inspiration, from the extras to the actors. 

What was your reaction the first time you saw the final product?
I think I wasn’t ready to appreciate it. I was looking at it and I didn’t really know what to think. The thing with this movie is, the more times you watch it the more chambers it seems to open. By around the third time I was able to look at it like an audience member would look at it. Not like, “Okay this is the movie I made.” And that makes a big difference because I was able to follow the story and connect emotionally. It was not until I watched it about the third time I was actually able to view it like a movie.

Viewing it like a movie, as opposed to something you’re a part of, do you have a favorite character? Was it Marcus, or is it someone else?
Actually, I really like Mason. Mason is so cool. He’s funny, he’s what everybody wants to be when they’re working in an environment like that. Makes it such an easy place to be. I like him, and I like Nate, just a random funny guy. He’s just so awesome. I like those two. 

He’s figuring it out though, Nate. This might be a hard question to answer but, moving forward, what would you like to see happen with you career? I feel like you’re going to have a lot of opportunities, what types of movies would you like to pursue from here on out?
Anything that doesn’t look like I should be in it. I want to be in some Willy Wonka-type weird stuff, a role where I’m an alien. Anything that’s new and challenging and real. I like real stuff. I would like to be in a comedy as well. I don’t know, I just want to do different stuff. I want to open up doors to do crazy, different s**t. I don’t even know what that means, but I know how I feel. 

Are you enjoying all the press stuff? Or is it not fun for you?
I’m enjoying it. I’m having a good time. I’m so glad that people are actually interested to ask things. I’m open to discussion about any of these things, because they’re important things. Actually, it’s funny. It’s fun to talk about because every time it seems different, because I find out more stuff. Just listening, and going back and forth and exchanging ideas with people. It’s a beautiful thing. This is whats really important.

This is a movie that will spark a lot of dialogue,
Yeah. I love Q&A. You get to talk directly to the people; that’s great. 

Speaking of exchanging ideas, my coworker noticed a sea creature motif in the movie — with Jayden’s story, Marcus’ fish, etc. What do you make of that?
Oh s**t, I didn’t even pick up on that.

Haha yeah, I didn’t either.
That’s deep, I didn’t even pick up on that. I’m going to ask Destin about that. You know what’s crazy, I’ve got a song called “Asphyxiated” and there’s a line in there, “I don’t believe in reaching peaks of anger at the sea floor.” One thing is being suffocated when you don’t have air, but water is so heavy. When you’re at the bottom of the sea floor you’re just crushed. That’s a different kind of weight on top of you. Maybe that was the subtle message in there. 

It sounds like even if the image wasn’t on purpose you came up with a justification for it. 
We can infer. That’s the thing about art. Anybody can look at it, that’s what it means to me.

Marcus seems to feel that way, too; he often uses art as an outlet. How big of a role does artistic expression play as an outlet for kids?
Huge, huge, huge. You know what’s crazy about these times? That anyone can pick up a camera, record something, and put it on the Internet. We’ve never been more expressive than we are now. So I think it’s important for everyone to embrace their creative side. Especially kids, and people in general who are going through things, it’s a great outlet. It’s so important to have something you can confide in and vent out. Because a lot of people don’t have anyone to talk to, so art is a beautiful and perfect way. There’s someone out there who wants to hear your story. It’s cool that we live in a time that people can embrace that. And the time is now to indulge in your creative indulgence. If you got something in your mind, if it’s ketchup on the table and you want to take a picture, you have to express yourself. You have to let go and get it out.

Short Term 12 is in limited release now and nationwide Aug. 30. 

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