'I Hope It Feels Empowering': Amandla Stenberg On Defining The New Kind Of Teen Hero

If there’s someone who encapsulates Mobb Deep lyric “only 19 but my mind is old” better than Amandla Stenberg right now, you’d be hard pressed to find them.

The teenager is leading the way when it comes to a new generation of celebrity, with her activism sitting prominently alongside her work as an actress in films like sci-fi blockbuster The Darkest Minds.

Time Magazine named her one of its Most Influential Teens two years in a row and the openly gay 19-year-old has become a beacon of fearlessness for her generation by speaking out on everything from race and feminism to LBGTQI+ rights.

“Man, if it’s coming across as fearlessness that’s news to me and I’m really happy that’s the case,” Stenberg says, smiling shyly as she sits in a hotel room overlooking Sydney Harbour. “I definitely struggle all the time with speaking publicly about my identity and who I am, and maintaining my strength and self-confidence in it cos, you know, it’s kind of a scary world.

“I go through all sorts of trial and error, and I think that’s why I really relate to these characters and why I feel like I can bring something to them.”

Those characters have gained her a fanbase of millions, among them Beyonce herself who put Stenberg in her groundbreaking Lemonade along with peers Zendaya, Quvenzhané Wallis and Chloe x Halle as the embodiment of ‘Black Girl Magic’.

The Los Angeles local burst on to the international stage at just 12 when she was cast as ill-fated fan favourite Rue in The Hunger Games, which was not only a breakout for her but another actress by the name of Jennifer Lawrence.

“It was the first time I experienced that kind of exposure,” says Stenberg, adding that The Hunger Games was her favourite book at the time.

“I was a super fan, so when I was on set I was obsessing over every detail, like ‘no, on page 78 it says … you can’t have that!’”

Before the dystopian blockbuster, she’d played the child version of Zoe Saldana’s female assassin in Colombiana: the movie acting as a signpost for the type of tough, nuanced and complex roles she’d spend the next decade portraying.

While going to high school in LA and booking jobs on Sleepy Hollow and movies like Rio 2 and As You Are, she remained a vivacious reader with a “love for Young Adult fiction”.

“I grew up reading every single series underneath the sun,” says Stenberg. “That influenced what excited me.”

“It has been kinda coincidental that the work I’ve done has been based on Young Adult fiction so often.

“I’m just like ‘you wanna cast me, great! I’m excited, let's get to work … ‘

“It’s also probably because there’s this natural tendency to put me in those types of films because of what I’ve come from and what I relate to.”

It was this passion that scored her the lead in Everything, Everything – based on the best-selling book of the same name – and saw her land a meeting with the producers of another YA hit, The Darkest Minds.

Stenberg was still in high school when she read the novel and requested a sit down with the people making the film adaptation. It’s not hard to see why she’s perfect for the role of Ruby Daly, a teen girl who survives a disease that wipes out 90 per cent of the world’s children only for the remaining kids to develop otherworldly abilities like telekinesis and mind control.

The adults, naturally, are shit scared and begin a combination of locking up the kids in internment camps or exterminating them completely.

“I think Ruby’s a compelling character because she has the large responsibility of these powers that she doesn’t know how to control at first: she almost hates herself for it,” says Stenberg, who’s in Australia promoting The Darkest Minds’ release and hopes the movie “feels empowering” to its young audience.

“She has to learn how to utilise them and how to leverage them to stand up against this regime of government that she doesn’t believe in, which in the States at the moment … that’s very relatable, that experience.”

The live-action debut of Jennifer Yuh Nelson - who once held the record for highest-grossing movie directed by a woman with Kung Fu Panda 2 - it’s the fourth project in a row that Stenberg has been “blessed” to work on where a woman of colour has been either the writer, director, producer, or all three.

“I would love to work with female directors for the rest of my life,” she says. “It’s so different working with a female director versus a male director: sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s not."

“I feel like male directors have this tendency to think that commanding a set requires them to dictate from a place of almost dominion. That’s kind of a strong word, but having to make people do what they want them to do out of a place of fear or control.

“Whereas women create this space where they allow there to be freedom for people to do their best work and they give them their trust so they can be their best selves. It’s really dope.

“You’re also like ‘oh, thank God’ that not every single time I see a woman on screen, she’s sexualised to the point that it’s taking over every other aspect of her characterisation.”

The Darkest Minds, authored by Alexandra Bracken, is just one of three movies Stenberg stars as the lead in that are set to drop this year including The Hate U Give, written by Angie Thomas.

“I’m so exhilarated to be sharing it,” says Stenberg of the film, which is another adaptation of a best-selling YA book.

Co-starring Insecure’s Issa Rae and Riverdale’s KJ Apa, the story is set within the Black Lives Matter movement and follows a young girl who witnesses the murder of a friend at the hands of a police officer.

The “really fantastic source material” is the epitome of the type of projects Stenberg is chasing now – and the ones that people are chasing her to pick up.

“Because I’ve been working a lot more recently I now have the ability to be really selective about what I put my energy into,” she says. “I’m always contemplating what I want that next thing to be, but hopefully I want it to be really nuanced in its exploration of race and gender."

“I would love to play a gay character, that would be amazing. I’m looking for that.”

Her third and final film for 2018 is Where Hands Touch, which is being positioned as an awards season contender and sees her play a biracial teen struggling to survive in Nazi Germany.

It’s directed by Amma Asante, who was better known in the UK as an actress before transitioning into the award-winning filmmaker of movies like Belle and A United Kingdom.

“Hopefully in the near future that’s something I’ll be putting my efforts into and focusing on,” says Stenberg, of Asante’s career path.

After graduating high school, she originally intended to head straight to college before Stenberg decided to seize the opportunities coming her way.

“I was going to go to NYU to study film, but then I started booking jobs. I was, like, I’d rather make money and learn on set than give a university all of my money and be broke for the rest of my life …”

“I’m working on writing a project right now that I would love to direct: that’s definitely the plan.”

The Darkest Minds opens in cinemas today.

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