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[Interview] Lakeith Stanfield on Playing Cat and Mouse with ‘Death Note’s’ Serial Killer

We chat with the Lakeith Stanfield about bringing the mysterious master detective, L, to life in Adam Wingard’s ‘Death Note’ adaptation

Death Note is one of those insane properties that seems like it’s impossible to adapt well. Not just in terms of its trippy visuals, but also the complex psychological debates that it brings to the table. Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest, Blair Witch) happens to have the right set of bonkers sensibilities to do this material justice and he’s proven himself to be the right Death God for the job.

Death Note is all about the relationship between the hunter and the hunted, with this being one of the most complex cat-and-mouse narratives that you’ll come across. Thankfully Wingard’s adaptation doesn’t butcher that crucial dynamic. While Light is the one pulling off the murders with the titular Death Note, L is the meticulous detective entrusted with catching him. It’s a fascinating role that’s innocently disarming at some moments and utterly terrifying at others. Lakeith Stanfield does a fantastic job bringing L to life, offering up an enlightening take on the character that blends his original ideas with some of L’s most classic affectations. With Death Note set to hit Netflix this Friday, we got to chat with Lakeith Stanfield about the many layers of L, how he approached the character, and the nuanced messages that Death Note pushes forward.

 

CINEMA RUNNER: What I really love about this story is that it’s such a competent blend of genres. It’s obviously very much a crime procedural, but there’s supernatural and fantasy elements going on, and pieces of a love story, too. Do you think that balancing act helps this material resonate so well?

LAKEITH STANFIELD: Perhaps. I imagine that the more the film’s immersed in different facets of humanity, the wider its receptive audience will be.

CINEMA RUNNER: L is maybe the closest thing to a full-out “comic book character” in the movie. Talk a little on his characterization and how he’s this sort of larger than life personality.

LAKEITH STANFIELD: Well what makes you think he’s the most “comic book-like” character, out of curiosity?

CINEMA RUNNER: Just in the way that L operates! Like how he comes in and out of scenes, his body language. It’s all very over the top and heightened. At least more so than any other characters in the film, plus, he’s operating at this like superhuman-level of efficiency.

LAKEITH STANFIELD: Interesting. Getting into this character was quite the lengthy process. It started as soon as I had gotten information about the story. I started to investigate what Death Note was, where it came from—I hadn’t heard of Death Note prior to this. So I began researching into who L was and how he fits into the larger scope of the story. The research was a lot of fun. I actually came across three live-action Death Note films that were Japanese. I watched those, I watched the anime, I read the manga. So I tried to put together what my vision of L would be. I put that together with Adam’s [Wingard] vision and we fused them together somewhere in the middle.

CINEMA RUNNER: I love that you obviously have a very original take on the character, but you’ve also managed to work in L’s mannerisms, body language, and clothing from the anime into your representation of the character. They’re all really loving touches.

LAKEITH STANFIELD: Oh! Thank you so much.

CINEMA RUNNER: Off of that, did you have any reservations when signing on to play L in the first place, considering how rabid the fan base for Death Note is? Did the character’s reputation and the audience’s expectations get in your head at all?

LAKEITH STANFIELD: Not at all. No, but I definitely did consider them. I did know that there would be discussions around the changes that we were making, but I never became concerned about them. In my mind, they’re pretty much all fallacious. Until one dives into the material, it’s really rather silly to speculate in the way that some people do. That being said, I can understand why one would. So I get the position. But my main focus was always to carry out the mission at hand and not get distracted over perception.

CINEMA RUNNER: Of course. I mean, this film is it’s own thing! No one ever said it’d be 100% the same, nor would you want that!

LAKEITH STANFIELD: Exactly.

CINEMA RUNNER: L is also by far the biggest mystery in the story, with details about him intentionally being kept secret. Do you like getting to play characters that are more of question marks where not everything is told to you about them?

LAKEITH STANFIELD: I do. Yes, I appreciate that a lot because then I get to uncover and unlock a bunch of truths and secrets on my own. I seem to be more a fan of discovering surprises rather than being told them or taught them. Like I would never take a class on how to play characters. I might take on class on what a character has learned, but I would never want to hear a lecture on a character. Let me unearth it on my own. That’s what makes it fun and worth it. When you go through such a process it means all the more in the end, too.

CINEMA RUNNER: Talk a little on the complicated relationship between L and Light. It’s interesting that due to Light being the focus, he’s inherently seen as the hero and the audience is rooting for him rather than L, yet L is the one that’s really trying to enact justice.

LAKEITH STANFIELD: That’s the interesting idea behind that question of, “What is justice?” Is what L’s doing in fact real justice, or is it retribution or something else? The tables turn and the one that in the beginning seems like the good one starts to flip. That’s what I like about this. Questions of morality ARE always blurry, especially contingent upon who you ask or what the specific area is.

Like look at the death penalty in real life. Who is the arbiter there? It brings up all of these interesting questions and in the end I’m not sure if either L or Light is a hero or a villain. I tend to connect more with L though and what he’s going through. 

CINEMA RUNNER: That’s definitely part of the fun of this story as things get progressively grey. On that note, how do you think L ultimately views Light? Does he respect his intelligence? Does he admire how capable he appears to be?

LAKEITH STANFIELD: Totally. That’s the reason why he makes a good adversary. He’s very, very intelligent. He thinks about context, plans far in advance, and does all the thing that someone should do. In L’s line of work he’s never really come across a formidable foe before, so Light comes across as being very interesting to him. It’s very evasive and difficult to understand, but it’s what makes for a good fight.

CINEMA RUNNER: L’s relationship with Watari is another very interesting facet of the film. Talk a little on their dynamic.

LAKEITH STANFIELD: Yes. There’s an interesting backstory between those two. Watari would represent L’s handler of sorts. He helped raise him and I imagine there’s certainly an emotional connection and bond between those two. Just by the virtue of them being close together for so many years, he became his father figure—and his mother figure too, I suppose—because he’s all he had.

CINEMA RUNNER: The message of the film seems to be saying a lot on the idea of giving youth power, and how that can be a beautiful, but also very dangerous thing. What do you think about that?

LAKEITH STANFIELD: Hmm, very interesting. I hadn’t thought about that specifically, but that’s a real interesting take that I think you’re right about. We see that playing out, but I don’t think it’s a matter of if youth are given power it will result in catastrophe—in fact, I think the youth need a little more power. But yes, you can see that battle playing out.

CINEMA RUNNER: One of my favorite parts of the film is that awesome foot chase you have with Light in the final act. How was taking that on?

LAKEITH STANFIELD: It was exhausting.

CINEMA RUNNER: I mean, it’s relentless!

LAKEITH STANFIELD: It was one of the more exhausting things I’ve ever done. But it was very fun. I just love working with Nat [Wolff]! He’s such a fun guy. I tried to stay mad at him between takes, but he’s just too funny.

CINEMA RUNNER: There is so much insanity going on in this movie, but what’s your favorite moment or grisly death from the whole thing? What are you most excited for people to see?

LAKEITH STANFIELD: I think the interesting rivalry between the characters will be fun to watch. There’s also a lot of gore, so those that are fans of that will have a lot of fun. But it’s also beautifully shot so those that have that eye for cinematography will also have something to take away from it. It’s just a good time all around.

 

‘Death Note’ begins streaming on Netflix on August 25th

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