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KiKi Layne’s life journey advances from Chicago to ‘Beale Street’

In this Nov. 30, 2018 photo, actor KiKi Layne poses for a portrait in New York to promote her film "If Beale street Could Talk." | Amy Sussman/Invision/AP

In this Nov. 30, 2018 photo, actor KiKi Layne poses for a portrait in New York to promote her film "If Beale street Could Talk." | Amy Sussman/Invision/AP

The trek to Los Angeles hoping to break into film is a ritual experienced by many Chicago theater actors. It was no different for KiKi Layne, an ensemble member at Definition Theatre Company, who headed west in mid-2017. She had no thoughts of instant success, but it found her anyway.

Three months after arriving, Layne was cast in a leading role in an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel “If Beale Street Could Talk,” directed by Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) and opening Tuesday in Chicago. She beat out 300 actresses for the role of 19-year-old Tish, whose romance with her childhood friend Fonny (Stephan James) hits a snag when he is falsely accused of rape by a vindictive cop.

You can hear the glee in Layne’s voice when she recounts the timeline that took her to Tish. She explains how a friend was auditioning for the role of Fonny and asked her to read with him for his audition tape.

“Something just told me that this was the role I was waiting for,” Layne recalls, in a phone conversation from London. “I just had to get in the room.”

After a test of her screen chemistry with James, Layne got the call from Jenkins offering her the role. It was early morning. She says she just sat there and let it all sink in. Looking back on the experience of working with Jenkins, she says she has much for which to be grateful.

“I’m so thankful that this was my first experience on a film set and carrying this type of role,” she says. “Barry was so patient. He created a very supportive environment where I felt OK to try new things and also OK to make some mistakes.”

For a novice film actor, the role of Tish is a lot to take on. Baldwin’s novel is written from Tish’s perspective, and Layne is in nearly every scene. Her narration drives the film; the actress’ steady companion on set was a copy of Baldwin’s book.

“There was just so much information in the book that of course can’t make it into the screenplay, but Barry said it had to make it into our performance. All of us were very connected to the novel as we were preparing for the film.”

KiKi Layne and Colman Domingo star in"If Beale Street Could Talk." | Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures via AP

KiKi Layne and Colman Domingo star in”If Beale Street Could Talk.” | Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures

Layne adds: “I love how sweet Tish is. It’s wonderful to see a character that isn’t hardened by the circumstances she is facing. She’s very vulnerable and open.”

Definition Theatre artistic director Tyrone Phillips, who directed Layne in the critically acclaimed “Byhalia, Mississippi,” isn’t surprised by his friend’s overnight success.

“KiKi’s a very smart actress, very open, very kind but very serious about her craft,” Phillips says. “She works with a passion and clarity and a pure commitment. You can tell she loves what she does.”

Layne, 26, grew up in Cincinnati the youngest of three children. She claims to not know when she became interested in acting: “It was just always there.”

She attended a performing arts elementary and high school and moved to Chicago to attend The Theater School at DePaul University, graduating in 2014.

Layne gives props to her training in Chicago: “I feel there’s a really raw quality in the Chicago theater community that’s really special. We are not afraid to go there as artists.”

(left to right) Evan Linder, Kiki Layne and Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr. in The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company’s world premiere of BYHALIA, MISSISSIPPI by Evan Linder, directed by Tyrone Phillips. Photo by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux.

Evan Linder ((from left), Kiki Layne and Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr. star in The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company’s 2016 world premiere of “Byhalia, Mississippi,” written by Evan Linder and directed by Tyrone Phillips. | Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

After “Beale Street” screened at the Toronto Film Festival, Layne’s life took a drastic, yet welcome, change. Suddenly she was the belle of the ball, wearing designer gowns, receiving film festival awards and doing endless interviews. And then there’s the looming awards season in which “Beale Street” looks to be a player. Her plan to stay grounded is simple.

“I just take it one day at a time,” she says, laughing. “I don’t concern myself with what’s happening in the coming months. We are on this day in December and that’s what I’m dealing with.”

Layne has a small role in “Captive State,” director Rupert Wyatt’s sci-fi saga in which aliens take over Chicago. And in Rashid Johnson’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” she plays Bigger Thomas’ ill-fated girlfriend Bessie.

In January, Layne heads to the Sundance Film Festival, where “Native Son” will have its world premiere. She does admit she’s looking forward to the event, for a very specific reason.

“This is another adaptation of a really important piece of black literature,” she says. “I’m super excited for it and thankful to be working in the industry at a time when these adaptations are happening.”

While the film world is opening up to her, Layne says she intends to return to Chicago stages at some point as there are many theater companies she would still like to work with, including the Goodman, Steppenwolf and TimeLine.

“I left before I had the opportunity to pursue work more widely in Chicago. I want a career filled with a lot of variety. It’s important for me to not be put into any type of box because that steals the fun of acting. I want to do everything.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.