“Being a teenager is terrible,” says Amandla Stenberg, who turns 20 on October. “I don’t know if it’s more challenging now than before, but I do see people like my niece or my friends who are younger, their experience of being a teenager in today’s day and age seems so challenging. Even more so than my experience just because of social media and how much that affects your perception of yourself and your words.”
Though having somewhat of an abnormal teenager trajectory, Stenberg managed to complete her schooling while filming roles. “I had the proper prep to 12 experience, but my school was willing to be lenient with me when I wanted to go and work which was really cool. I would go away for a few months and work and maintain contact with my teachers throughout that time.”
Amandla’s big break came when she was cast as Rue in The Hunger Games. Then last year she starred in the sleeper hit Everything, Everything.
And this year, she leads the cast of The Darkest Minds, another YA novel adaptation, a trilogy of books by Alexandra Bracken.
“It was a surprise to me that they were casting diverse,” says Amandla. “Ruby is written in the book as having straight hair and green eyes, not that a black person can’t have straight hair and green eyes, but there’s an assumption with most media that the go-to is, white. It was surprising to me in a really great way that they were interested in casting me. I thought a lot about the power of having a black girl in that role, of course, because we’ve seen franchises like this before, but not necessarily franchises like this before with a black lead.”
Actively vocal in the conversations around race, gender and sexuality, Amandla was also attracted to the project due to its underlying themes.
“There are definitely similar themes in the film to the current social political climate, in terms of young people finding their voices, wielding what weapons they have at their disposal, and standing up to systems of government that they don’t believe in. We have these tools and are able to organise and spread information so quickly. I think oftentimes it scares those in power who have different views.”
Another attraction for the actress was the film’s female director, Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2 and 3)
“She was able to command the entire set in such a relaxed, serene way that I think made people feel more comfortable to do their best work.”
Which brings up the topic du jour. “It’s fantastic that there has been such an emphasis placed on making women feel safer in their work environments, but it’s still present beyond just how men and women interact in a professional environment,” Amandla says. “On a surface level, I think the entire culture itself needs to shift. It’s a culture that requires women to fit within so many gender boxes. Even though I haven’t been made to feel uncomfortable on set, there have been times that I noticed that an inherent part of my job is just how my body is going to be consumed by the male gaze. I would love to see that entire system shift so that we can have women on screen that we don’t just want to have sex with. You have them on screen and see them for their work outside of that.
“Pay equality and having more female directors has a long way to go especially in terms of how men and the industry perceive that,” she continues. “So many have this notion that there are no female directors, and there are so many. I always have this debate with male producers where, you need to work with more female directors, you need more female directors, and they’re like, ‘where are they, I don’t see them…’ Like here’s a list… I think it’s also just the environment of how women going into an industry that prohibits them from having the same access. It’s very much a boys’ club and schmoozing plays into how people get hired. So, if a producer is buddies with the director and they’re buddies with another producer, and he’s buddies with an actor, it’s so easy for men to come together in that way.
“I think what’s really amazing about this time is that women are actively making the choice to cultivate those types of relationships. Several female creative directors and content makers are hiring the women from Roseanne who are out of a job. Connections are really important, and I think they’re really being formed right now.”
Like on The Darkest Minds.
The Darkest Minds is previewing this weekend, and will be in general release from August 16, 2018