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.