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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Inside the not so dark mind of Amandla Stenberg

We talk to ‘The Hunger Games’ actress Amandla Stenberg about how her stance on race got her a new starring role

L-R: Chubs (Skylan Brooks), Zu (Miya Cech), Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) and Liam (Harris Dickinson) in 'The Darkest Minds'. Daniel McFadden.  
L-R: Chubs (Skylan Brooks), Zu (Miya Cech), Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) and Liam (Harris Dickinson) in 'The Darkest Minds'. Daniel McFadden.  

Although just 19 years of age, Amandla Stenberg is already shaping up to be the spokesperson for a generation. She came to prominence as Rue in The Hunger Games franchise back in 2012.

Since then, she appeared in Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade, has recorded her own music, including a song for last year’s soundtrack to Stella Meghie’s romance Everything, Everything, was declared Feminist of the Year in 2015 by Ms Foundation for Women, and has twice been voted one of Time Magazine’s most influential teenagers.

That influence comes in large part thanks to her two million, and rising, followers on social media, and the fact the young actress has become a vocal proponent of human rights and racial equality on her accounts, particularly on Instagram where she has 1.7m followers. “I will always advocate for black women,” the actress says. “That is something I will do forever. It’s my number one priority.

“What I want to speak about shifts depending on what is happening in the world. The most valuable thing right now that I think I can do is to help create more representation with the projects that I’m working on. I hope to be a positive role model. My main concern is to help young people, especially young black girls, to feel less alone and to feel validated.”

Stenberg’s next movie is Darkest Minds, a Young Adult thriller set in a dystopian future where 98 per cent of the world’s children have been killed by a mysterious disease. The two per cent that survived have developed inexplicable psychic powers, and are consequently viewed as an enemy of society. Stenberg’s character, Ruby, has escaped a child detention camp and joins a band of fellow escapees searching for freedom.

Cate (Mandy Moore) meets Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) for the first time at Camp Thurmond Infirmary Daniel McFadden.
Cate (Mandy Moore) meets Ruby (Amandla Stenberg) for the first time at Camp Thurmond Infirmary Daniel McFadden.

The actress believes that her firm stance on race and social issues was a key factor in landing the role: “The role was actually offered to me. I think there was interest in me partly because I have spoken out on issues like cultural appropriation and Black Lives Matter,” she says. “Since the character is a leader, or at least reaches the point of being a leader during the movie, I think they felt I had some of Ruby’s qualities.”

Indeed, it’s not only Ruby’s leadership qualities that Stenberg can relate to – like a lot of teenagers, Stenberg says Ruby has a lot of “issues. And, as a teenager herself, the actress says she feels Ruby’s pain.

“She has insecurity, doubt and self-hatred due to things that have happened in the past,” the actress says. “I definitely relate to her. I was able to put a lot of myself into the role in terms of my own journey – how I have found my own power and strength, when I might have been doubting myself. To understand Ruby, I also relied on some of my own personal feelings about our government here in America and how it feels to exist under the government.”

There is one element of Ruby’s character that isn’t so immediately identifiable in real life, however – the small matter of coming to terms with her powerful psychic abilities. “She begins the story scared, terrified and beaten down, mainly because she has grown up in an abusive environment in the camp,” Stenberg says.

“Then she has a great, expansive journey and, along the way, together with her new friends, she starts to understand her power. By the end of the film, she wields it well.

“It was challenging trying to conceive of what it would be like to be in Ruby’s position and experience what she is going through. The challenge was also making everything feel accessible and real and striking a balance with the drama.”

Of course, this being Young Adult fiction, a spot of romance is essential, too, and Ruby’s love interest comes in the form of Harris Dickinson’s Liam. The pair seem to have clicked off-screen as well as on it. “I love Harris so much,” says Stenberg.

“He is a great guy; he’s hilarious, talented and wicked smart. We have the exact same sense of humour, so we became really close friends, very quickly. As soon as he came in for the first ‘chemistry read’ with me, I knew in three seconds that he was going to get the part. It was great working together.”

Of course, this being Young Adult fiction, a spot of romance is essential, too, and Ruby’s love interest comes in the form of Harris Dickinson’s Liam. Daniel McFadden
Of course, this being Young Adult fiction, a spot of romance is essential, too, and Ruby’s love interest comes in the form of Harris Dickinson’s Liam. Daniel McFadden

Looking beyond the movie’s youthful stars, there was plenty of experience to turn to on the set in the form of the film’s adult cast, too, and Stenberg reveals that she developed a particularly close bond with pop singer-turned-actress Mandy Moore and Game of Thrones and Star Wars star Gwendoline Christie.

“They are so cool. I learned so much just by being around them,” she says. “Mandy is sweet to everyone she’s around and that is really impressive because I can be a little reclusive when I’ve been working for hours and hours, but Mandy is always lovely and kind. She is so good at being able to work hard, while still being friendly towards everyone on set. She makes everyone feel comfortable and accepted and that was something I learned from her. And she calls Gwendoline “a powerhouse”. She says: “I love how commanding she is on set, just knowing what she wants to do and how she wants to do it.”

Stenberg’s career certainly seems to be heading in the right direction – she has another two movies currently in post-production due for release this year and the roles just keep on coming.

It’s ironic, then, that thanks to her current spell of success, she has had to give up a place New York University, where she planned to study film. Stenberg doesn’t dismiss the possibility of going to college later, but while the work keeps coming, she seems happy where she is for the time being: “It’s up in the air right now. Eventually, I would like to go to college if it feels right. Now, I really enjoy working and learning about the process of filmmaking through being on set. I feel like I’m being an apprentice to all the directors that I’ve worked with.”

Darkest Minds is out now, in cinemas across the UAE

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