George Tillman Jr. on Amandla Stenberg: ‘Her Wholehearted Focus and Surrender to the Character’ Inspires — IndieWire Honors

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Like many moviegoers, “Soul Food” director George Tillman Jr. took note of Amandla Stenberg after her turn in “The Hunger Games,” but their recent collaboration on “The Hate U Give” solidified his appreciation of her talentTillman shared the following thoughts on Stenberg’s abilities with IndieWire’s Kate Erbland.

When I first read the unpublished manuscript of Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give” in January 2016, I was speechless. It was deeply personal and I hadn’t felt moved like that in a long time. It was as if someone had written the story of my own life as a black man growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I knew from that moment that this was a movie I had to direct. I was determined to bring this story to life and I immediately got on the phone with Angie and her team, then later with Elizabeth Gabler at Fox 2000. We were making this movie.

Little did I know that a young actress named Amandla Stenberg was reading this unpublished manuscript at the same time. I remember seeing her in the “Hunger Games” and always thought she was a young and talented artist. The stars were aligned for us to work together on “The Hate U Give.”

I still remember the day she came by office to meet for the first time. I was taken by surprise by her immense drive to play Starr Carter. She was only 17 at the time and I was so impressed that an actress at her age was looking for her own material. It was then I knew how committed Amandla really was to being in this film and bringing this character to life. It was also incredible to see her ability to be in the moment and listen attentively. There was an extremely clear maturity in her focus and presence, and from that meeting on, I didn’t look for another Starr Carter. She was the one.

Just like Starr Carter, Amandla grew up in an inner-city neighborhood and went to a white private school. She was afraid to tell her friends where she lived and she didn’t invite them to her house because she carried a similar confusion for her identity. Starr and Amandla’s lives ran completely parallel to one another, which made her connection to the material incredibly special and powerful.

As I set up a pre-production schedule to prepare her for the role of Starr, I watched her dive into the work with every fiber of her being. Five months before production, we worked hard to uncover the endless specifics to the character of Starr with basketball lessons, character intent, discussions on the material, and behavior charts. Amandla absorbed every bit of information and I was proud to see her fully embody Starr Carter.

Amandla is in almost every frame of this movie, which required countless hours of rehearsal and numerous exercises in building chemistry so she had to engage authentically with each cast member. I watched her soak everything in and gracefully disappear into this role. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many young performers before, and it felt like those earlier films and projects were preparing me for this. I felt it was my responsibility to guide but allow her room to add, adjust, and to fuel her own passion for this role.

Amandla brought a nuanced freshness and youthful spirit to Starr. After 40 days of shooting, it was clear that her commitment never wavered from that first meeting. As many takes I wanted or how many times I wanted to change a reflection for a specific line in the scene, it was incredible to see how much soul she put into this role, and her wholehearted focus and surrender to the character was outstanding. Her performance is the result of hard work, dedication, and passion.

We can look to a bright future. There is more to come. I know this is only the beginning.

For me, Amandla’s work truly starts here, with Starr and “The Hate U Give.” I’m excited to see what else she’ll give the world because just like Starr, she’s lighting up the darkness.

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