Exclusive: “Uncut Gems” Star Lakeith Stanfield Talks NBA Legends, Authenticity, and What’s Ahead for 2020

If you haven’t seen the gritty quintessential New York film Uncut Gems, then it’s pretty obvious your gems are cut. Simple as that.

The latest Safdie Brothers’ quasi-autobiographical movie tells the story of Howard (Adam Sandler), a hustling jewelry salesman in Manhattan’s Diamond District, as he struggles to pay off his debts while balancing a large black opal sale to then-Celtics player Kevin Garnett. Set in 2012, Uncut Gems delivers a high-intensity momentum that glistens with an ensemble cast featuring Lakeith Stanfield as top sales associate Demany, Idina Menzel as Howard’s estranged wife Dinah, The Weeknd playing himself, and newcomer Julia Fox as Howard’s mistress and employee Julia.

From Passover plagues to mystical stones, Uncut Gems teeters on anxiety-filled sequences that succeed due to the actors’ shining infusion of natural dialogue and an overwhelming sense of authentic lived in-ness.

Star Lakeith Stanfield sits down with The Knockturnal to discuss how he got into character, working with the acclaimed Safdie Brothers directing duo, and what’s ahead for 2020 after capping off his amazing 2019 with Knives Out and Someone Great. 

The Knockturnal: What originally drew you to Uncut Gems

Lakeith Stanfield: The Safdie Brothers. When I met them, I was like “I just want to work with y’all.” And then I dove into the script and it was cool. Obviously Adam [Sandler] is a legend too.

The Knockturnal: You’ve worked with some fantastic auteurs in the last couple of years. How did working with the Safdie Brothers differ from working with some of the other directors? 

Lakeith Stanfield: It was raw. They were concerned with being real and pursuing real, raw stories onscreen which was great. It’s not very polished which is unique or concerned with being fake type of filmmaking. We shot right in the middle of New York, right in Manhattan in the middle of the street with people walking. We had Adam Sandler running down the street. It was cool because we were here. The city helped us make the movie.

The Knockturnal: That really comes through, even from just the costumes and accessories. You feel like you’re really there. How much research did you have to do for your role, or did you kind of just live it and have that authenticity coming straight from you too? 

Lakeith Stanfield: I slept on the streets of New York for like two weeks straight.

The Knockturnal: Are you serious? 

Lakeith Stanfield: No, haha, I’m just kidding. No, I just ran around the Diamond District for a little bit and then I just put my heart into it.

The Knockturnal: For sure. Would you say Demany is a good or bad influence for the self-destructive Howard? 

Lakeith Stanfield: They’re both in the fast lane with street life. They’re not working the typical 9 to 5, they’re working a street type of vibe so when you’re in that kind of lifestyle and environment, there’s bad and good. There are dangers that come with it but that’s how you feed your family. So at the end of the day, that’s what everybody’s trying to do is survive in this crazy environment, so I think they are both products of their environment more than anything. But after a while you start to influence your environment in the same way it influences you.

Kevin Garnett (right), Lakeith Stanfield, and Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems.”

The Knockturnal: How was working with Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd, who are both playing themselves in their onscreen debuts? You especially work closely with Kevin Garnett. How was that leap from athlete to actor? 

Lakeith Stanfield: It was quite pleasant. I was honored that he was looking to me on how to act. He’s this big old brilliant basketball player. It was dope to see him be humble enough to be like “show me the ropes” and he saw me doing things on set that were really inspiring to him and that was inspiring to me, because I know if I step on that basketball court, I don’t know what to do. In fact a couple times we did all go to the basketball court and I just had to sit on the sidelines!

The Knockturnal: That’s super intimidating. 

Lakeith Stanfield: Well I ran out there a couple of times and I was definitely garbage. So yeah it was cool to exchange energy in that way with somebody who is respected by so many and is so good at what he does. And he’s a dope actor.

The Knockturnal: Kevin Garnett did a great job! 

Lakeith Stanfield: He was like “I’m nervous” and I’m like “don’t be nervous, you’re killing it bro!” That nervousness is what compelled him to excellence.

The Knockturnal: And how was working with The Weeknd? 

Lakeith Stanfield: We don’t call him The Weeknd because we know him. He’s in the phone with us! It was cool working with him. I’m always listening to his music, he’s another big figure and he’s cool. It was dope.

The Knockturnal: Obviously the black opal has this mystical element especially for Kevin Garnett. Do you have any item personally that you look to for that level of inspiration? 

Lakeith Stanfield: Not really. I’m not quite into objects so much, but I feel it. I’m superstitious like that. I lose everything, I can’t keep up with anything long enough to have long-lasting sentimental value.

The Knockturnal: Looking back, what did 2019 mean for you? 

Lakeith Stanfield: It was new horizons, a lot of firsts. I couldn’t be happier with being able to work the way I’m working, and I’m interested in continuing to open up opportunities and move to the next stage. I’m very grateful for everything and everyone that’s been a part of this year with me and all the people that have supported me. I just want to keep growing and continue to grow and continue to just find my place and elevate it to a new level.

The Knockturnal: And for 2020, you have three upcoming films ranging from romantic comedy to historical pieces to fantasy. What is it that you look for in a project? 

Lakeith Stanfield: I like to try new things. More and more it’s becoming about the story. That’s what I really care about. I feel like if you really care about the story, the rest is going to happen. Like if it suddenly makes you really passionate about it and the whole team comes together to really get it done– that’s how Uncut Gems was– then the universe has a way of moving out of your way so I want to focus on that. Sometimes you do movies for stupid decisions or you do them because you’re desperate and stuff and when you’re in a position where you can sit back and really listen to your heart, there’s a real beauty in doing so.

“Uncut Gems” is now in theaters. 

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