by Eliza Berman

Ask performers what they were like as children, and you’ll often get one of two answers: “I was the center of attention” or “I was a quiet observer.” Lakeith Stanfield claims to have been both, in a manner of speaking. “Oh, please,” says the 26-year-old actor. “I was observing that mirror–to see how I was looking. I had to be the center of attention. There was no other center.”

Stanfield may not be at the center of Hollywood quite yet, but he’s racing toward it. If you didn’t catch him as the victim of a racially motivated twist on body-snatching in Get Out, perhaps you saw his uncanny young Snoop Dogg in Straight Outta Compton or his martyred civil rights activist in Selma. In the span of three months he’s starred in as many Netflix movies: opposite Brad Pitt in War Machine, as an ex who can’t be shaken in the rom-com The Incredible Jessica James, and as an eccentric detective in the manga adaptation Death Note(Aug. 25). If that’s not enough, he recently played a parallel-universe Chandler from Friends in a Jay-Z music video that recast the ’90s sitcom with all black actors.

Stanfield’s first role as leading man comes in the drawn-from-real-life drama Crown Heights, which won the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance and will hit theaters on Aug. 18. Stanfield plays Colin Warner, a Trinidadian immigrant who spent 20 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. As Warner, Stanfield is a vessel that refuses to capsize in even the angriest storm. “After a while he became institutionalized,” Stanfield says. “But there was still this sense of I don’t belong here that would maintain throughout the duration.” In preparation for the role, Stanfield spent several days with the real Warner, who was finally exonerated in 2001.

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