'The Book of Clarence' Stars Lakeith Stanfield & RJ Cyler Discuss On-Set Memories & The The Biblical Epic's Deeper Meaning
Elijah (R.J. Cyler) and Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) in THE BOOK OF CLARENCE. Moris Puccio © 2023 Legendary Entertainment. All rights reserved.
From a grandiose opening scene, brawny spectacles, and a quivering love story, The Book of Clarence (out Jan. 12) takes audiences on a journey of biblical reimagining. Religious storytelling is often tackled cautiously. But British director Jeymes Samuel seamlessly reconstructs history through an unapologetically and culturally attuned lens.
This messiah story is a reinvented tale that follows the life and death of Jesus in ways both indifferently blasphemous yet sincerely Christian by removing the divine aspect of the religious savior and depicting him as a relatable man. Through fellowship, improvisation and cinematic unity, The Book of Clarence uses stars (including Lakeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler, Teyana Taylor and Benedict Cumberbatch) to blithely resurrect biblical icons.
Following Samuel’s 2021 culturally acclaimed hip-hop western The Harder They Fall, The Book of Clarence continues the tradition of remixing history with a predominantly Black cast, emotionally regulated narrative of history as we knew it, and an epicly genre-bending soundtrack including standout tracks “Hallelujah Heaven” with Lil Wayne, Buju Banton & Shabba Ranks, and “I Want You Forever” with D’Angelo & JAY-Z (who is also one of the film’s executive producers).
Below, EDITION speaks with Lakeith Stanfield and RJ Cyler about the story's deeper meaning, prepping for the film and on-set memories. NOTE: Light spoilers ahead.
There is a scene in the film's beginning when someone says that you stink, and then you get a whiff of yourself and agree. Did an odor really arise on set with all the horses, the layers of linen you're all wearing, and the heat?
Stanfield: It was a stinky set. There [were] horses [and] they poop. All the camels, they poop. There were actually people designated to take care of that. I was just like, man, I feel for y'all. I know that, at the very least, stinks. It was like a lot of livestock and stuff like that. It was quite a stinky set at times, but indoors it was fine.
Cyler: There was a lot of lingonweed being burned on set. So, that was the main thing I smelled. Lingonweed, camel poo, and Italian pasta houses.
As you prepared for this film, did either of you do any research on religion or history that kind of helped you get into character?
Cyler: I don't think I had to do history checks other than just calling my mom. I was raised in the church, but I didn't really understand what I was being told. I was kind of just being told it. So, as an adult, I [did] my own studying. I just wanted to be correct on certain things, so we [didn’t] make people too upset.
Stanfield: Yeah, I definitely was led down a few rabbit holes. You get interested in what it was like around [that] time and what people were doing. How did they walk and talk? There's not a lot of information available, at least on the surface web to find out all the intricacies. I went down a few rabbit holes of Egypt and all the dynasties and how far they went back. Sometimes you [find] lingering current events that [were] recorded from explorers. When it gets to a time like that, history gets a little murky because it depends on who's telling it. That determines whether or not [something] actually happened.
RJ, I could hear your accent all throughout the film. You did a wonderful job with it. How did you prepare to perfect it and did you study any particular accents or cultures to help you mold it?
Cyler: During that time, I had a vocal coach - Denise. Denise created that [accent]. She had to teach me, because I'm Southern, as you hear. A lot of my [Southern] accent had to be strictly washed. I've never done speech exercises to just talk and I never [thought] I needed to learn how to talk. They just evolved my speech in general. [For example] opening the mouth and calming your voice rather than trying to project.
Lakeith, in this film, I feel like the beard was bearding. Did they give you any special instructions on growing it to a specific length or did you have a beard stylist to maintain it?
Stanfield: Miracle Gro. It's been an ongoing struggle with me and this beard. Actually, I have alopecia. So, it shows up in different ways and in my beard, quite often. But, keeping it moisturized and keeping some gel in it. The makeup and hair team was really good in helping me achieve it.
RJ, there was a specific scene in the film when you were cross-eyed. So, how many takes did you have to do?
Cyler: That happened in rehearsal. That was just me playing because I play a lot, especially when I'm creating because that's the only way to find [something] genius to me. My eyes were closed and were supposed to be open like ‘I can see!’ but I just decided to cross them like this.
Stanfield: I almost broke when I first saw it because I wasn't expecting that. And when he opened his eyes, I was like, ‘This is crazy as hell.’ It was dope.
This is not your first film together. I know you've worked together before on The Harder They Fall. What was it like finding out that you'd be working together again?
Stanfield: It was dope. I felt so relieved that we got to be friends on this. Even when we were filming The Harder They Fall, it was hard for me. I was like, ‘But he's so dope, man. Why I gotta do this?’ So, [in this film] it felt nice to be friends. I also love the imagery of two black men just being friends.
Cyler: We get to like each other on [and] off camera. [The Harder They Fall] was more like, ‘Hey, what's good bro? How you doing?’ When your enemy's on camera, you have that disconnect to their vulnerable space. And, so it's that much more potent when you bring it to camera. [Lakeith] put me on to that, to be honest.
Stanfield: Sometimes the energy and the play off camera influences what [happens] on camera. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes people just try to do stuff to be cute. But, when you find a moment where you feel like it might be useful, you engage. As long as it [isn’t] too crazy.
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 05: (L-R) David Oyelowo, RJ Cyler, director Jeymes Samuel, producer Jay-Z, Nicholas Pinnock, LaKeith Stanfield, Caleb McLaughlin, Babs Olusanmokun, Teyana Taylor, SAINt JHN, Anna Diop and Alfre Woodard at the LA Red Carpet Premiere of THE BOOK OF CLARENCE at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on January 05, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Getty Images for Sony Pictures)
Throughout the film, most of your scenes are actually together. Did you do anything in between takes or outside of filming to help strengthen that on-screen chemistry?
Stanfield: We just hung out. The cast and crew [were] always coming together. We had [gatherings] all the time and I think that's where you really get to know people. When you play a role as long as this one, you just have moments that are easier, moments that are harder, moments that call to have each other's back. Literally, he had to have my back on the chariot race, cause he was holding me up on that thing. When you have a moment like that, you develop the bond, it gets stronger.
Lakeith, I really want to talk about your dance scene. It was amazing. Did you help choreograph it and how many times did you have to rehearse it?
Stanfield: I didn't help choreograph it. There's a beautiful choreographer - Fatima [Robinson]. She was amazing and made that look so seamless and dope. I got the dance sequence a little late. Like, that morning. Once [I got] past the first couple [takes] and started to get into the rhythm of it, it became really fun. The extras were having fun with it. I felt like I was at a party and it just happened to be 29 AD. Then it was nighttime in Matera, [there] was this romantic kind of feeling, candles burning. It was a dream.
There was another scene in the film when, Lakeith, you went over to RJ, who was playing dead, and for a second, you actually believed him. That was definitely an unexpected moment, but are there any other scenes in the film that the audience may not realize were improvised?
Lakeith Stanfield: When we were doing that sequence where he was lying down, I didn't know when he was going to get up. And, [with] different takes, he wouldn't get up at the exact same time. So, I genuinely was surprised when he got up, that wasn't a fake reaction. Jeymes gave us freedom to play a lot. The line where I say, ‘I got the cobblestones on lock.’ I just made that up. A lot of the insults between me and Teyana Taylor were made up. I tried to keep it within the time or keep it appropriate. That was the fun of working with Jeymes. We were always just able to rip. And, the cool thing about RJ, is he's so good at that.
Cyler: The slap scene is improvised at the baptism. David [was] just boxing and landing punches each time. You’re just watching giants go at it in the water. Then when David brings me into it, I [say], ‘Okay, let him up.’ I didn't think that he heard me. That's how that scene ended up being funny.
Stanfield: It's so fun because that wasn't even like actually technically supposed to be in the film, but that was such a great moment between.
Throughout the film, you get hit multiple times. What was it like rehearsing those scenes and did some of them actually hit you?
Stanfield: I think I did get hit once. You just reminded me of that. Yeah, I think it was the gladiator scene. It was cool because we had really good trainers that teach you how to roll with it. Sometimes you get clipped a little bit, but it's part of the game. I hadn't done much fighting on screen, so it was nice to get into that bag.
I also want to talk about the changing eye color in the film. From your perspective, what did that symbolize within the story?
Cyler: I thought it was a different spirit. When you and Veronica's eyes change, I felt that's when your spirit and her spirit met each other. Like, ‘I'm in here, even though there are egos and stuff in front, just know I'm reaching for you.’
Stanfield: I love that. I never thought about that. I think he's absolutely right.
Poster photo courtesy of Sony Pictures
The director, Jeymes Samuel, is a very creative person, and he's said that his secret to creativity is obeying your craziness. Can you please describe the unique way that Jeymes gave direction on set?
Stanfield: You could tell he developed his own style over time. It wasn't something that was methodically taught. And, I think that's what lends to the genius of it, because it comes from an organic place. It's just from him. The fact that he wrote the story, he's so intimately intertwined with it, [and] the language is clear in his voice. Sometimes he [didn’t] even say anything. He just gave you a look.
The soundtrack to the film is so unique because it really incorporates hip-hop. With us recently celebrating the genre’s 50th anniversary of hip-hop, your favorite hip-hop albums?
Cyler: Spilligion by Spillage Village, featuring J.I.D and Earthgang. That's a good number that carried me through The Harder They Fall. I've been on that album for a bit and still listen to it daily.
Stanfield: I got two that come to mind. In the concurrent era, I think To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick. Going back a little bit, All Eyez on Me by Tupac.
One of the filming locations, Matera is known as the City of Caves. During filming, did either of you explore the city or do any touristy things like exploring caves?
Cyler: Yeah, [Lakeith] posted some really cool cave pictures that made me want to go camping. He's also really photogenic, so all of them turned out looking like photo shoots, but it was just on his iPhone.
Stanfield: It was cool. All the caves there, like the history of it was really interesting. I'm the type of person who's like, ‘I wonder what it was like to live in these caves.’ I'd go inside the cave, pretending like I'm living in there for a second. I feel like the history is so prevalent there because it's so old. You touch the stones and feel like you are getting downloaded with energy from thousands of years. I actually came across this shop that made pottery. And, a woman who had been there for a long time was telling me the history of her parents and her parents' parents.
This film comes at a crucial time in the world when many unfortunate events are happening overseas. After watching this, what do you hope audiences take away?
Stanfield: I hope that people get a sense of inspiration and togetherness. And, to see how we're all much more similar than we are different, especially separated by things like ethnicity and all that. If you had some idea about how people existed back in the day, and it didn't include people of color, perhaps it could open up your mind a little bit to understand that, we've always been here, always gonna be here.
It's a multiplicity of people that share this globe. We gotta do it together, so we might as well get it together. Hopefully, people leave with some inspiration and something to believe in. And, feeling like they have knowledge about the things that they hold close [while] open to engaging in conversation. A lot of the tragedies that happen in the world could be subverted just through conversation and understanding. Oftentimes, if you're able to just get into the mind of the person, put yourself in their shoes, and vice versa, we ain't even gotta go to all the secondary and third steps.
We could dead the issue right here, just by understanding that we want it the same. So, hopefully people feel inspired to just be convicted in togetherness.
Cyler: Everything that he said in Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Alien.
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