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mid a slew of young ac­tors ris­ing through the Hol­ly­wood ranks, Amandla Sten­berg might not ring a bell, but the 19-yearold stands out, and not just for the coun­ter­in­tu­itive spell­ing of her first name. Af­ter her high school video project went vi­ral, she was hand-picked by Oprah to ap­pear on her Su­per­soul Ses­sions. She was just 17. She also worked with Bey­oncé on her Lemon­ade al­bum, and the su­per­star told Sten­berg that she hopes her daugh­ter grows up to be like her. She’s been named one of TIME mag­a­zine’s Most In­flu­en­tial Teens two years run­ning. Oh, and she had al­ready made her mark on Hol­ly­wood by age 12.

That un­usual first name, Amandla, means power in Zulu, fit­ting for a young woman who is fast be­com­ing an icon for a “woke” gen­er­a­tion. Not just con­tent with the old model-slashac­tor-slash-wait­ress trope that tends to de­fine ris­ing stars, she says she is a slashie of a dif­fer­ent va­ri­ety; not an ac­tor or an ac­tivist, but both. “I don’t think they are nec­es­sar­ily ex­clu­sive to each other,” ex­plains Sten­berg, best known un­til now for her heartaching por­trayal of tiny trib­ute Rue in 2012’s The Hunger Games. “I wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily la­bel my­self an ac­tivist in the tra­di­tional sense be­cause, when it comes down to it, I’m an en­ter­tainer. But of course, ac­tivism per­vades ev­ery­thing I work on,” she tells Stel­lar.

Born in Los Angeles to an African-amer­i­can mother and Dan­ish fa­ther, Sten­berg was raised to live up to her name’s mean­ing. She started act­ing as a child, and it’s per­haps no ac­ci­dent she came to at­ten­tion in The Hunger Games: the film has been cred­ited as in­spi­ra­tion be­hind the cur­rent level of teenage re­sis­tance to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and the de­mo­graphic’s push for US gun re­form.

Sten­berg’s lat­est role (her big­gest to date), as a nascent war­rior in the up­com­ing sci-fi ac­tion drama The Dark­est Minds, ap­pears to be a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion. Par­ents are ter­ri­fied of their off­spring in the dystopian fan­tasy, based on Alexan­dra Bracken’s young adult novel, in which a strange virus has wiped out more than half the world’s chil­dren. Sur­vivors, like Sten­berg’s char­ac­ter Ruby, ac­quire spe­cial gifts. The au­thor­i­ties are so threat­ened by this new gen­er­a­tion of su­perkids that they ban­ish them to bru­tal in­tern­ment camps un­til a “cure” can be found.

Sten­berg’s provoca­tive choice of ma­te­rial is en­tirely con­scious. “There are a lot of themes in the story that are akin to what’s go­ing on in the world, and that’s what drew me to it,” says Sten­berg, who iden­ti­fies the in­ter­net and so­cial me­dia as her gen­er­a­tion’s se­cret weapon. “We have the abil­ity to dis­cuss and or­gan­ise at a much more rapid pace than in the past. There’s a par­al­lel there in terms of that re­source and the su­per­pow­ers that the kids have in The Dark­est Minds, just the abil­ity to use this weapon against a sys­tem of gov­ern­ment that we don’t be­lieve in, and to have those adults that are in power be afraid of that power. So­cial me­dia has al­lowed us the space to com­mu­ni­cate. It has cre­ated a cul­ture of ac­count­abil­ity and a cul­ture of dis­cus­sion.” One area where that cul­ture has had tan­gi­ble re­sults, on the back of the 2016 #Os­carssowhite cam­paign, is cast­ing di­ver­sity. Sten­berg, how­ever, fa­mously walked away from a part in Black Pan­ther, Mar­vel’s first black su­per­hero movie and a bona fide cul­tural phe­nom­e­non. “These [ were] all dark­skin ac­tors play­ing Africans and I feel like it would have just been off to see me as

a bi-racial Amer­i­can with a Nige­rian ac­cent just pre­tend­ing that I’m the same colour as ev­ery­one else in the movie,” she told CBC Arts at the TIFF Next Wave Fes­ti­val ear­lier this year.

Sten­berg had no such quan­daries about her char­ac­ter in The Dark­est Minds, which ad­dresses the is­sue of di­ver­sity in­di­rectly sim­ply by cast­ing her in the lead role (in the book, Ruby is de­scribed as hav­ing long brown hair and green eyes). “It’s just re­ally pow­er­ful and awe­some to see a black girl fi­nally as the lead in one of these types of fran­chises,” she says. “It’s a re­ally timely point for me to be com­ing of age. Peo­ple are want­ing di­ver­sity and stu­dios are re­al­is­ing that they won’t be suc­cess­ful if they don’t sat­isfy that need.”

The ac­tor is keen to test pre­con­ceived no­tions of gen­der and sex­u­al­ity, too, and re­cently came out as gay. “I iden­tify as non-bi­nary,” she says. “When it comes to my gen­der, I don’t al­ways feel en­tirely fem­i­nine; I don’t feel en­tirely mas­cu­line ei­ther. Of­ten­times, I os­cil­late be­tween the two… I’m al­ways aware of how my gen­der fluc­tu­ates.”

She’s also aware that her gen­er­a­tion’s “su­per weapon” of so­cial me­dia has the power to do great harm. “With great power comes great re­spon­si­bil­ity,” she ob­serves. “I’m pro so­cial me­dia and how it has af­forded us this abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate, but I’m also very wary of the men­tal-health ef­fects. There are mo­ments when I think I need to un­plug in or­der to keep my san­ity.”

Not too long ago, Sten­berg elected to func­tion with­out a smart­phone for a full six months. “Then I re­alised it was lit­er­ally im­pos­si­ble… be­cause things are mov­ing too rapidly, I was fall­ing be­hind on some crit­i­cal news. So I had to get one even­tu­ally, but it was a good pe­riod of time that al­lowed me to ground my­self – es­pe­cially while I was work­ing.”

Sten­berg gives ev­ery im­pres­sion that she wants to take more con­trol of her projects in the near fu­ture. “I def­i­nitely want to make my own films,” she says. “I want to di­rect. That’s kind of my main pas­sion. But I want to give my­self the time and space to for­mu­late what I have to say.” The Dark­est Minds is in cin­e­mas na­tion­ally on August 16.

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