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.
Stanfield was never particularly concerned with belonging. He started acting in high school in the sleepy city of Victorville, Calif., where he describes himself as alternately a weirdo (“when I went to drama class”), a cool kid (“when I had new shoes”) and a dweeb (“when those wore out”). He relished reinvention. “I could be anybody walking through the door–you don’t know what you’re going to get,” he recalls. “But you’re getting something.”
His role in the 2008 short film Short Term 12 led to his casting in its 2013 feature-length adaptation, for which he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. As a young man about to age out of a home for troubled teens, he rattled with repression, catching the eye of Donald Glover, who would later cast him in the Golden Globe–winning comedy Atlanta. As Darius on that show, Stanfield has attracted a devoted following for his poetic, left-field observations, lubricated by weed and delivered with unflinching sincerity. In one episode, he asks, apropos of nothing, if he can measure someone’s tree. In another, he considers the benefits of using a rat as a cell phone (“messy, but worth it”).
In real life, traces of Darius creep into the actor’s speech. He occasionally answers in rhyme–which may also reflect his other creative outlet, rapping. His response to a question about his hopes for Darius next season–“I hope Darius gets a doggy”–sounds like something his character would say. As does his reaction to a question about whether all this success makes him want to take a moment to relax. “Oh, no, no, no, no, no!” he exclaims. “Ain’t no slack in my act, Jack. It just gets more and more”–here he pants and channels Jim Carrey in The Mask–“cah-Ray-zy!” As do the demands of his other new role: parenthood, with partner and The Mindy Project actor Xosha Roquemore. “I feel like everything’s brand new. I feel like a little baby again,” he says. Then he breaks into baby talk, giggles and hangs up the phone.
This appears in the August 28, 2017 issue of TIME.
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