Dope‘s Kiersey Clemons Got To Wear Pharrell’s Hat

Kiersey Clemons is a hugger. She starts and ends our interview with the kind of warm, enthusiastic embrace that makes you think, “What the world needs now…is hugs, sweet hugs.” It would solve so many problems. Clemons’ penchant for hugs is notorious: Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa banned her from employing her signature method of greeting people on the set of her new movie, Dope, just so she'd stay in character. “I wasn’t allowed to hug anyone in the mornings until he yelled cut,” she explains. Dope, which hits theaters June 19, was a breakout hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it sparked a bidding among distributors, ultimately selling to Open Road for a reported $7 million. The movie's got mad star-power behind it: Pharrell Williams, Sean Combs, and Forest Whitaker are all producers. Williams wrote four original songs for the soundtrack, which he also curated. The movie's tagline — "It's hard out here for a geek" — is the central conflict of the plot, and it speaks to The Breakfast Club meets Boyz n the Hood vibe. The "here" being referred to is known as the "bottoms of Inglewood," California. A tough neighborhood on the outskirts of L.A. where Clemons' character, Diggy, goes to high school and plays in the punk band Awreeoh (pronounced OH-ree-oh) with her two best friends, Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and Jib (Tony Revolori). The three of them are the geeks: They're good kids who are obsessed with '90s culture and stick out when they ride their bikes through streets where gangs push drugs. When the trio find themselves mixed up in a drug deal gone wrong, their lives get complicated. Though she's been working since her tween years (on the Disney Channel shows Shake It Up! and Austin & Ally), Clemons, 21, is enjoying a breakout moment of her own, thanks to roles in the acclaimed Amazon series Transparent, the upcoming second season of CBS's Halle Berry sci-fi drama Extant (July 1) and, of course, Dope. When she auditioned for Diggy, a bright and confident young lesbian, she impressed Famuyiwa with her clear idea of exactly who the character was. "He had a different idea of Diggy than I did," Clemons says. "Then he thought, ‘Oh, what [Kiersey] does is kind of cool…It’s more of her generation’s take of what a Black lesbian would be." Here's what else the vivacious up-and-comer had to say about those two hugs and beyond.
Did you actually film Dope in Inglewood?
"Yeah, we shot in Inglewood and other areas in L.A. that we tried to fake as Inglewood because there are some areas where we wanted to shoot — certain blocks — where we couldn't really go. In some areas, production had to pay off gangs not to fuck with us, so they got rid of them. But it was nice to see, as we were filming the movie, the people we were portraying, like the kids walking home from school in the neighborhood, and talking to them and finding out what they're interested in. It's exactly what we were doing in the movie, so I was like, Cool, we're doing it right." How did it feel to slap Blake Anderson from Workaholics, whose character Will won't stop using the N word?
"When we read together for chemistry, I was cracking up. I was like, shit, I'm not going to get this because I cannot stop laughing when this guy talks. I knew Workaholics because it's the show that you end up watching when you randomly end up at someone's house, and it's just on. It was really nice to work with him and do these funny scenes together. It kind of validated what I think is humor...I think I'm funny." Did you like wearing those '90s clothes?
“Oh yeah, I loved it. I got to release my inner Aaliyah and Missy Elliott. It was cool.” Did you feel different?
“I felt comfortable. I felt like I could just chill and kick back, and no one expected anything from me. I got to just be lazy and slouchy and shit.” When do you think Diggy realized she was gay?
“I’m sure she realized it early on, around the same time everyone else was realizing they thought someone was cute. She became a little more open about it and really came into her own when she found Malcolm and Bug. They probably just sat around and talked about girls. I think her mom is cool with it. At first, the scene in the script where the family is trying to pray the gay away was written to be with her mom, but I didn’t think her mom would do that. I think it’s more of an old-school thing, so we changed it to her grandma.”
Photographed by Aaron Richter.
What was it like working with Pharrell?
“Pharrell is one of my inspirations — up there, top three. I didn’t know what to expect. ‘Happy’ was still popping when we recorded. Obviously, this man inspired the whole world, so how much energy is he about to bring into the room right now? What is he about to offer us? He came in and set the tone. He was so chill, creative, and collaborative. He wanted to talk about our roles and our musical experiences, and instruments we’ve played. He really got to know us and our ideas — not just our characters, but who we are. We would talk, and he would hear something and get inspired and switch up the beat. It’s like watching a genius.” Did he wear his hat?
“Mmmhmm. He wore it to the studio. I actually have a picture of me wearing it. He sat down, and I thought, ‘Perfect, I’m going to put this on.’ So I recorded and wore the Pharrell hat.” Important follow-up question: Was it THE hat?
"I think he only has two, he told me. This one was custom-made. It's not the tall one; it's a shorter one and it has this trim with a little patch of color on it. It was like an olive / tan color. It's his everyday hat. It's a pretty dope hat." Dope also touches on more serious subjects, like gang violence, and you appeared on an episode of New Girl that dealt with police racial profiling. Is it important to you that your work participate in the cultural conversation?
“I love to be able to do projects where I can be an advocate for something without having to verbally say it, so New Girl was perfect….And clearly I’m proud to be a Black American woman…Because honestly, as a biracial girl, sometimes people try to come after you, especially when you’re an actor, and say, ‘She doesn’t do enough Black roles’— whatever that means. There are always people who try to attack that part of you. When I got into the business, I was like, 'Shit, I really need a good role that shows people that I love who I am.' Because sometimes you can get caught up in stereotypical roles like the girlfriend or the cheerleader, and people feel like you’re not accepting your culture. So, it was cool with Dope that I could do that without fitting into a stereotype of what being Black is.”
Do you feel like Dope gets pigeonholed as a “Black movie?”
“People like to try to call movies that, and I don’t really know what it means. I just want to be in a movie and be Black. I want to be in a movie where Black culture is involved, because that’s the world that we live in. We have Beyoncé, Kanye West, Jay Z; let’s not act like they’re not the trendsetters. It was cool to do Dope and things like Transparent, where [my character, Bianca,] is living with this white family, but we don’t talk about it. They didn’t talk about, ‘Oh, how is Bianca your daughter? She’s Black.’ They didn’t say that, because no one says that in real life.” Will season 2 of Transparent feel like even more of a cultural lightning rod because of Caitlyn Jenner?
“I think the personal effect is more important than the public effect because now lives are being saved. People are seeing the acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner and the popularity of Transparent, so the confused 16-year-old boy or girl, they are probably going to dress up and walk out the door in the morning feeling like, ‘I can do this. This is okay. If Caitlyn Jenner can do it, why can’t I?’…That’s what changes the world, not just a magazine cover. That catches people’s eye and brings awareness, but the actual change is the lives that Caitlyn Jenner has touched.” Can we talk about your amazing Twitter bio: “I’m not as obnoxious as my tweets,” and your unfiltered feed?
“I made that when I read my tweets one day, and I was like, ‘Wow, I hate myself.' Because I tweet things…They’re just high tweets [laughs]; let’s be honest, and they’re obnoxious. I’ll tweet these opinions that no one cares about, or I’ll make a joke I think is funny that no one else does. I'll say things on Twitter that I say in my head, and I don't say in a conversation.” You voiced your opinion on the natural versus permed hair debate on Instagram, and that resonated with followers.
“In the African-American / white community, we divide ourselves, especially the women…It’s like, natural hair must mean that she’s deep and poetic and in touch with herself, but if you perm your hair or get a weave, you must be shallow, you must want to be white, you must want to be this or that. What someone likes on the outside has nothing to do with them on the inside, especially their hair. If homegirl likes straight hair more than she likes curly hair, why are you mad?” How do you move past the disappointment of not getting a role you really wanted?
“There are many roles that I wanted where I thought, ‘This is the one,’ and I didn’t get it. I was like, fuck, my heart is broken. It all makes sense now, though. One thing led to another, and it’s like a piece to a puzzle. I’m getting all these pieces, and we’re building something great and helping everything come together. I’ve been blessed, I think, with the perfect roles for me.” After Dope, you’re appearing in Extant. What was it like working with Halle Berry?
“It was amazing. She paved the way for someone like me. She’s done those roles I’m looking for. I was really disappointed that I wasn’t playing the new Storm [in X-Men: Apocalypse], let’s be honest. Being able to actually work with Halle and be inspired by her is going to do more for me than playing a part that she played, though. But, that doesn’t take away from the fact that I should be the next Catwoman. Seriously, Eartha Kitt, Halle Berry, Anne Hathaway…me." That's your dream role?
"Yes! I’m trying so hard. I’ve been talking about this for seven years. I have the body for the suit. I promise!"

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