At 18, outspoken actor and activist Amandla Stenberg has already been called “one of the new guards of feminism.” Here, the Hunger Games star opens up about her girlhood, her gender, and her goals as a woman on the verge of some very big things.
Note: Amandla uses both she/her and they/them pronouns.
When I call Amandla Stenberg on a Saturday morning I’m still in my pajamas, which turns out to be the perfect attire: she tells me that she’s lying in bed in her hotel room in Atlanta, where she’s on location filming her latest movie, the YA thriller The Darkest Minds. Maybe it’s this dynamic that sets the casual tone of our interview, or maybe the 18-year-old actor is just always super chill and chatty. But as we talk about everything from her love for Chance the Rapper and Orange Is the New Black, which she just started watching (“I’m mad late on this,” she says), to feminism, activism, and gender constructs, I can’t help picturing us in a ’50s-style rom-com split screen, each twirling a phone cord around her finger — our own pseudo – slumber party.
Obviously a rotary phone is not actually part of this experience, but when our connection gets a little fuzzy, Stenberg admits she’s working with some antiquated technology. “You’re not on a flip phone, are you?” I ask.
“I am!” she says with a laugh. “Well, technically, it’s a Samsung Slide. I got rid of my smartphone, I couldn’t do it anymore.” She tells me about going to the AT&T store and asking a flummoxed employee if they had any “dumb phones” for sale. They didn’t, but he happened to have some old stock, including the 2011 relic she’s talking on, in the trunk of his car. “So he gave it to me for free and just hooked me up. I actually love it. I bedazzled it and stuff,” she says. “And it’s been such a relief just not having a smartphone. I’m legitimately concerned about my generation and how phones are going to affect us psychologically. I’m not like a super anti-phone, anti-social media person, obviously — I think it’s a very important tool. But at the same time, I think it can create some serious effects on our mental health.”
The swearing off of her smartphone, and the awareness behind it, might seem surprising for a Gen Z Instagram phenom with more than a million followers who’s known for broadcasting the importance of social causes, such as feeding the nation’s poorest children. But Stenberg has conveyed a sense of preternatural maturity ever since she came into the spotlight. The actress got her first big break playing a younger version of Zoe Saldana’s character in the 2011 action film Colombiana, and then secured her spot in the pop culture canon as Rue in The Hunger Games, for which she faced a mindboggling backlash (more on that later). With The Darkest Minds in production now, having recently wrapped the Holocaust-era drama Where Hands Touch directed by Amma Asante, and with her starring role in the teen romance Everything, Everything (based on the hit YA novel) making waves since it premiered May 19, she’s quickly risen from Hollywood “Ones to Watch” lists to in-demand leading lady. She’s also made a name for herself as a crucial voice of wokeness, speaking out thoughtfully in interviews and online about feminism, gender, sexuality, and race. In 2015, a YouTube video she made, “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows,” perfectly explaining cultural appropriation, went viral. She’s mentioned that she considers herself gender non-binary in past interviews, was dubbed “one of the new guards of feminism” by Teen Vogue, and even interviewed Gloria Steinem for the magazine. Today, she tells me she just started reading Angela Davis’ Women, Race & Class, “because you can never get enough of black feminism.”
Stenberg has no qualms about using her platform to speak her mind and stand up for marginalized communities, which is why she laughs a little when talking about her entree into acting. She was only five when she told her parents she wanted to audition for commercials, a by-product of growing up in Los Angeles, where her exposure to child actors was plentiful. “I started doing commercials for McDonald’s and Kmart and Walmart and all these different very corporate brands. It feels oxymoronic that that’s where my acting roots are,” she says. She was 10 when she decided to take acting more seriously than her other extracurricular activities (which included ballet, tap, gymnastics, photography, and art classes) and landed the role in Colombiana, a life-changing experience. “As soon as I got onto a movie set I felt very much in the right environment. Not necessarily as an actor but as someone who was a part of this larger cause,” she says. “The most exciting thing for me is being able to see how movies are created and to be a part of this really beautiful collaborative thing.”
When The Hunger Games began casting shortly after, she went out for the part of Rue, the District 11 tribute who forms an early alliance with Jennifer Lawrence’s character Katniss Everdeen, and whose death is one of the most moving moments in the whole franchise. It was a coveted role and Stenberg pulled out all the stops to get it. “I went pretty method for that audition. I wanted to do anything possible to get that role and so I rolled around in the dirt and showed up muddy at [director Gary Ross’] house,” she says. “ I have a really funny memory of waiting inside this diner with my parents before I went to the audition because I had some time to kill, and being in the bathroom washing my hands while I was covered in dirt. This woman coming out of the stall next to me approached me and said, ‘Are you OK sweetheart? Do you need help?’ I was this dirty child, just roaming around this diner.” Obviously, she got the part, but the experience wasn’t without its challenges. Her casting unearthed a disheartening racism among some vocal Hunger Games fans who’d seemingly overlooked the fact that Rue was written by the book’s author, Suzanne Collins, as a character of color. People took to the Internet to say all kinds of garbage things, “outraged” that one of their favorite characters was going to be played by a black girl. Stenberg was only 12 at the time. “That was definitely my first experience with racism that was that direct. And I didn’t understand it at first. It was very disconcerting, and I think it was one of the first times in my life that I experienced kind of watching things from outside of my body,” she says. “After awhile, I understood that it had nothing to do with me in many ways, but rather was a product of larger systemic racism. I think the most frustrating thing about that whole debacle was that the character is written as black and it’s just even more telling that when people read these books they tend to skip over any indicators that these characters are people of color, and instead automatically assume that they’re white.”
It was one of the life experiences that set Stenberg on her outspoken path toward activism. But it was the video she made for her high school history class just a few years later, about black hair and the ignorance of cultural appropriation, that thrust her into the social media limelight (“Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows” currently has more than 2.1 million views on YouTube). She was labeled a “revolutionary,” something she has a very nuanced opinion about now. “It’s something that I definitely want to live up to, but I’m wary of filling that role in the kind of digestible way that we see a lot nowadays. What’s so amazing about this point in time is that people are having conversations about race and diversity and about so many other components of identity. We’re talking about equality, and that’s really fantastic. But we’re also starting to see corporations taking advantage of that opportunity to exploit diversity and exploit the pursuit of equity itself,” she says. She brings up the now-infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, laughing at its absurdity, but then takes a verbal step back. “I’m very aware of being placed in the ‘character’ or the ‘role’ of the activist. So I want to be careful about how I use my voice and the actions that I take in order to utilize it, and for me, part of that is no longer necessarily speaking very directly on topics unless I feel like it’s really necessary,” she says. “I would rather play with the big dogs and use my opportunities very wisely in order to make larger impacts that maybe people don’t really see coming.”
Strategically choosing roles is one way Stenberg is doing that. In Everything, Everything, she plays Maddy, the quirky love story’s lead, which shouldn’t be groundbreaking. But thanks to the dearth of diversity in teen films, especially romantic ones, it definitely is. “If I’m gonna be 100 percent honest, teen romance films aren’t really my thing, they’re not what get me the most excited. But what does get me really excited is that these types of films, which traditionally have been made by white people starring white people, can be made with me, and directed by a black woman,” she says, referring to Everything, Everything director Stella Meghie. “One of the most powerful things you can do sometimes is utilize a format that’s tried and true to introduce new concepts to people that they might not be that open to otherwise.” Growing up, Stenberg says she looked to shows like Disney’s That’s So Raven and actresses including Lisa Bonet to find herself on screen, but her options were limited. “I feel like, as a child I was always searching for that one black girl movie,” she says. “And I think those women and those characters really inspired me and helped me. But I also feel like I never really quite got what I wanted. I think that’s probably impacted me and has shaped my path now as I try to create that.”
One role model Stenberg is looking up to these days is actor/writer/director Issa Rae, especially since she hopes to move into directing as well. (She just put her NYU film school acceptance on hold, but hasn’t ruled out going in the future.) “There are certain tropes that black women are placed into in media. You have the black friend who’s funny and sassy and you have the light-skinned girl who is very accessible. I think sometimes I can fall into that second trope, which is something that I have to be very conscious and careful of,” she says. “But you don’t really find many projects like Issa Rae’s HBO show Insecure, where she plays a black girl who is multi-dimensional and so real and textured and is pretty and cool and awkward and sweet and nice and mean and sassy and everything all at once.”
Stenberg’s feminism permeates much of our conversation, but, like the shallow “popularity” of activism, she’s wary of the commodification of this movement, too, and the way companies have co-opted “empowerment” in the name of marketing. What feminism means to her, though, goes far beyond pink-washed girl power. “I definitely consider myself a feminist. I don’t really consider myself a ‘pop culture feminist,’ that certain brand of feminism that I think we’re seeing a lot nowadays. But of course, I love women, I am a woman, and I believe in the equality of the sexes. It’s one of my most foundational morals,” she says. “And if feminism isn’t intersectional it isn’t feminism. Feminism should include every single type of woman. It should include trans women, it should include all women of color, poor women, fat women. ... If it’s not inclusive, then it’s not fighting for women, it’s fighting for specific groups, for privileged groups, and that isn’t very revolutionary at all.”
Her ideas about feminism are intertwined with gender, something else she’s been thinking a lot about lately. “I think sex and gender are so fluid, it’s something that I’m always figuring out. It can change every single day. So I think it’s funny or ironic sometimes that my words can be put into concrete interviews that last on the Internet forever,” she says with a laugh. “Because the thing is, identity is ever-shifting. The term ‘non-binary’ is something that I identify with, in the sense that I do feel like I am a woman, I love my body, and I love that it looks like a woman’s body. But when it comes to my gender, I feel like it shifts all the time. I don’t necessarily want to use the words boy or girl, but those are the words that we have in our toolbox, so sometimes I feel like a boy when I wake up. Sometimes I want to wear clothes that make me look more ‘girly.’ In many ways, I think that has nothing to do with my body and everything to do with it at the same time. I know, it’s kind of confusing. But I think it’s confusing because the constructs don’t make any sense.”
Today, she’s leaning away from “girl”: after our chat, she’s heading to the barbershop for a fade. “I need a barber to hook me up because I’m not feeling my look right now,” she says. “[My hair’s] growing out to a really awkward length, I just want to look really clean and kind of like a tough little boy.” Stenberg’s relationship with her hair is something else that’s continually shifting. “It was definitely a conscious decision when I went natural. For me, it felt like by straightening my hair every day, I was rejecting part of myself. And it was really powerful to see other girls’ responses to me going natural. I actually had a girl come up to me the other day at a thrift shop. She had this really beautiful, big, curly hair, and she’s like, ‘Oh my God, it’s so nice to meet you! You’re the reason that I went natural,’” she says. “And cutting off my hair felt like another step in that direction where I felt like, Ok, so I’ve done the whole natural thing and I feel comfortable with my hair now. What would it be like if I didn’t even need to have hair? I felt even more like myself.”
Helping young women feel even more like themselves is probably one of Stenberg’s most effective forms of activism. But, as our pillow talk comes to an end, what strikes me most about Stenberg is her optimism, which never seems to waver, even as she wades through the discouraging muck of some really heavy topics. She turned 18 shortly before November’s presidential election, and when I mention that it must’ve been a frustrating first voting experience, she gives a sad laugh and a sigh before reminding me why the youth will save us. “I was filled with rage and hurt and pain and at the same time I do believe that things happen for a reason. I think that this entire election has been one of the most illuminating points in history for us. Something that was really very eye opening for me was after Trump got elected, I went to my boyfriend’s Southern town to meet his family, and they all voted for Trump. After that, I had more of an understanding of people and perceptions and politics than I’d ever had before,” she says. “I mean, I like to think of myself as very progressive and open-minded, and yet, I had reservations about a large percentage of people in America. And who I am as an activist if I am not willing to try and understand every perspective? That doesn’t mean that I have to agree with it. But I was hit with the realization that – and this is such an old concept but it was the first time I’d understood it firsthand – we have a tendency in groups to vilify each other without understanding each other. When the most powerful thing we can do is to humanize each other.”
Top photo: ULLA JOHNSON DRESS; LEIGH MILLER EARRINGS; SYDNEY EVAN RING
By Lisa Butterworth
Photos by Kat Borchart
Styling by Jardine Hammond
Hair and Makeup by Danielle Mitchell
Photo Assistant: Paul D. McPherson Jr.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2017 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
More from BUST