The actress is carving out a lane for herself, her sisters and her skinfolk, film by film.
If one were to use the word “vulnerable” to ever describe Kiersey Clemons, she’d be well within her right to issue a severe side-eye. It’s 11 a.m., and in the midst of New York’s unforgiving summer heat, the 25-year-old actress is kicking off a stacked press day. Brooklyn’s lush Café Erzulie offers mild relief from the 87-degree day—Clemons had to shed the matching blazer to her tweed mini-skirt—but instead of cooling off with an iced coffee, the blossoming actress commits to nearly an hour of spilling proverbial tea across a shared tabletop. Especially as it pertains to irksome misconceptions about being a woman.
“People read sh*t like this [profile] and they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, she’s so vulnerable. She’s so real,” she teases, tossing her head back in full-belly laughter. “I’m thinking, what the f**k are you talking about? I’m not really vulnerable. I didn’t tell you about my traumas. These are just observations and sh*t that we should all be talking about, you psychopath!” For Clemons, both a charmer and a firecracker if you spend some time with her, there’s no room for the perceived frailty of possessing estrogen on the agenda. “We are in the position where we know that black women are strong and smart; it’s 2018,” she says. “We know that. We have Beyoncé and Michelle Obama and f**king Oprah Winfrey.”
Clemons first endeared the masses with her candor in Dope (2015) as Diggy, Malcolm’s spunky best friend and bandmate who happens to be gay. Now, in her third role as a musician, she steps into the shoes of Sam, a New York native torn between pre-med college life in California and starting a DIY band with her dad (Nick Offerman), for the indie flick, Hearts Beat Loud, in theaters since June 8. As Sam’s quirky relationship with her father unfolds on-camera, Clemons’ real-life singing talents get to truly shine— Clemons recorded and performed original songs for the film. (She hasn’t counted out a singing career just yet.)
Clemons’ role in Hearts Beat Loud—admittedly a tear-jerker if you’ve got a soft spot for your papa—may be a simple one, but it’s “ordinary” roles like these that she wants to champion alongside her fellow “othered” peers. “I don’t consider myself to be an extraordinary person,” she says. “[There are] people that are on the outside and that are normal and not necessarily extraordinary.” Her frank words skew more towards realism than self-deprecation. “Asian women get no opportunities. Latina women, where are they? We can f**k around, too. We also freely have sex and it’s not because it’s a political statement. We also go to parties and drink at the bar and chase guys and girls and do stupid f**king sh*t and regret it the next day. How come we don’t get the opportunity to tell those stories? Why do I have to live up to some expectation?”
Speaking over the dull roar of J trains passing overhead on Broadway, Clemons talks shop about the frustration and magic of womanhood, being (annoyingly) mistaken as an activist and how indie films have helped her make her mark on her own terms.
VIBE: What made you say yes to Hearts Beat Loud? What connected the dots for you?
Kiersey Clemons: Well, I’m so big on cast and who I’m working with because that changes everything for me all of the time. I’ll read a script and I’m like this can either work with the right people or it will totally fail with the wrong people. We have Ted Danson playing a bartender, Sasha Lane playing my girlfriend and Nick Offerman as my dad. Everyone was so great. This is my third time playing a character that’s in a band, but I was excited to take it to another level and do live vocals in it, which is something I’ve never done before.
Is that something you want to do in the real world? Do your own music too?
I just have such respect for people that do what they do. I’m not a professional. I sing and I write but I get to do that in movies, so… I mean maybe? I’d consider it. I can’t say I don’t. I just don’t know what will happen.
Can we talk about the chemistry between you and Nick Offerman? What was that like getting into character with him, and how was he playing your dad?
I love him. That’s a weird bond to have to form with an older man you don’t know, hoping that it’s not creepy. And he’s the farthest thing from that, and so cozy and made me so comfortable. We really had to lean on each other with the music thing. We’re not Prince, we don’t know. We were equally on the same page in terms of how much we’d done musically. He can play instruments and I can sing, and I’m okay at instruments and he’s okay at singing, so it wasn’t like either of us was outdoing the other, so that was really cozy. That helps a lot.
Aside from what was scripted, how did you bring your own experiences into the mix?
I relate to her in so many ways—culturally, her sexuality, and being in that rock and a hard place of going to school and pursuing music. I’ve definitely been in that position. I didn’t necessarily have a backup plan and so when I got an agent when I was like 16, I did that because we were talking about going to school. In high school, they were prepping us for college and I was like, I really want to do this thing. That would be ideal. I know most times it doesn’t work out, but I have to at least try. So I really related to that point in her life because—I’m not saying it’s easy to know what to do when you go to school and you get a job because it doesn’t always work like that. But there is something at least that feels a lot more promising in taking what you enjoy doing and trying to make a career out of it. That’s a privilege to be able to f**king do that. Because I even think what [Sam] wants is very idealistic. It’s hard when you love music and you love something that is artistic and then the amount of people that end up thinking, No, I’m going to go to school and I’m going to try to push that to the side, a lot of times doesn’t happen. They end up dropping out and then try that thing, you know?
How do you differ entirely from Sam?
I recognize that she’s a lot younger than I am. I’m not a lot younger, but that five or six-year difference can change so much. You have that first love that you think you’re going to—well, normally it’s like that second love, right? You have your first love in high school and you think you’re going to get married and then you realize, okay, that’s not what life is. Then you get the second time and you’re like, I’m probably not going to marry this person but I hope so… no. Next. And then it’s the people between. I recognize that she’s younger than me, but it gave me this really cool insight because it’s not too young that I’m completely out of touch. We’re in the same generation and influenced by the same people and things and music and TV and social media, so I’m on the same page as her. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to do that.
To play a young role?
I’m aware of the fact that I look much younger, but the weird thing about being a woman in this industry is, I think, us owning our sexuality in any way, or it seems as if you stand up to a man that all of a sudden you must be older and this and that. People get you in the room and all of a sudden they’re confused as to what age I am. People have really strong opinions that I’m too old to play something and then other people have really strong opinions that I’m too young to play my own age. It’s the weirdest thing. I’ve been told that I can’t play college, that I’m too strong-willed?
That’s the thing about women being exceptional. Love is not exceptional. Care, intuition is not exceptional. People hold all of these great things and what’s exceptional is when we get to be together.
…As opposed to submissive?
Yeah, apparently young college girls are not strong-willed. I don’t know. I’ve been told that I’m too young, that I’m seemingly too young and innocent to play 25. But it’s like, I am 25. The other day, [someone] said, “You’re so innocent, don’t let anybody steal your innocence,” and I was like, if they haven’t already, it’s not going anywhere. It makes me mad that people try to put that on an age. It has nothing to do with your age, especially when a man says that to a woman. I’m like, do you know what women go through? Are you out of your f**king mind? Ever since a girl starts puberty, her innocence is already at risk. You start getting cat-called as soon as you have hips. You think that doesn’t put someone’s innocence at risk and it doesn’t make someone put up a barrier? I wake up every day trying to hold on to my innocence. That is not a thing that has to do with age. That has to do with the life that you want to have and the perspective that you want to have on life. I do not want to become jaded or cynical.
It’s a hard time to maintain it because we can’t pretend like it’s not happening.
We’re sitting in a nice cafe and we can go buy our Levi’s and have drinks with our friends, and meanwhile, there’s human trafficking happening within the U.S., but that doesn’t mean that I have to become cynical and jaded. It just means that I need to try and find a pocket in life in which I’m going to live in and invest something useful into because that’s all you can do. Letting someone take your innocence and becoming hard and jaded doesn’t DO anything. That still doesn’t make anything move. You have a strong opinion and that’s it. But what does a strong opinion do? What are you going to do with that strong opinion? Our generation is the generation of strong opinions and then it stops at that.
What is it going to take to change that, especially because people are often applauded for these strong opinions?
That used to be me. Like, if I’m not doing anything to follow that up—not to say I don’t do anything. I try to pick projects that back up my opinions and be hands-on in people’s lives that are close to me and that mean [something], but aside from that, when we’re all up in arms about sh*t but we don’t actually do anything. Or a lot of the things that we do don’t have enough effect. It’s very rare that I get a group text saying, “Hey guys, you want to all meet up and maybe go down to City Hall and see if…” That doesn’t happen. And I’m not saying that like I’m out here doing anything any different than anybody else is, but it’s just getting to that place of, Okay, what do I do with this newfound perspective? Because I still don’t know.
Right now we are identifying the issues, but it’s okay to be frustrated and not know what to do. But I guess it’s time to figure it out.
It’s time to single in on something because we all want to take care of every issue, but we’re not all great at that. You want to touch on every single issue because everything makes your heart feel heavy, but you gotta put your strengths somewhere. People in villages don’t all do everything. And that’s the thing about social media and social media entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurial culture is so big and it’s important, especially for women and people of color, but it’s a scary thing too because now everyone’s just doing everything. We don’t have masters of things.
I realize that after Dope, I’ve just been put into a position of, “She’s strong and pretty and she’s young, she’s biracial and she’s a woman and she’s queer, she must be an activist.” I realized that I was being called this thing that I don’t want to live up to what we think an activist is because I’m an artist. Activism and art do go hand in hand, but I am an artist and an “artivist” within that. I will never be a Yara Shahidi. She is so special and eloquent and forms sentences in a way that I will never be able to and we have separate strengths. I’m not saying she’s not an artist, but she is doing something that we all desire that we could be that way and we’re just not. Not because we’re less intelligent, but because we just have a different upbringing and people around us.
That’s why you’re not affecting anybody because it’s not the way that you affect people, you know? Donald Glover is an artist and the way in which he affects people would be different than the way that James Baldwin affected people, but are they both effective? Yes. I’m just a person who recognizes what’s happening and I have an opinion. But I do not organize political gatherings. I do not speak at panels, because I’m a real shy actress. And to put me in that position, I’m going to fail you because that’s not where my strengths lie.
In talking about strengths and specific qualities, what things did you take from your parents? Where did some of your traits and passions come from?
I think because I grew up always moving around, that had to have some kind of effect on how I am and how I do what I do in the way I do it. My step-dad was in the Navy, and so I lived in Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, all the weird places. And my dad is black and my mom is white, and their generation and the time when that happened in Florida, in the Panhandle, that was still a little weird to do. So growing up, I immediately recognized that the world was weird and separated, so then I immediately was like, I don’t even want to try to be included because it’s too many rooms to try to opt-in or put myself in.
When I was a kid it was overwhelming. Moving around, trying to make friends, not knowing which group of friends I should try to join, not limited to race at all, I mean that’s obviously a factor of it. I think I just ended up keeping to myself, talking to myself a lot and being invested in myself. I really relied on me. And I don’t say that in a sad way [Laughs]. I’m sure it was sad a little bit, but for the most part, it was my coping mechanism. I think a lot of times your coping mechanism and what you like to do go hand in hand. It’s how we survive. We’re always looking for your high.
I just want to see Asian women, Latino women, brown girls and women, any women other than a white girl, getting to make the movies that white girls make.
Were you very supported by your family in your pursuit of the arts?
It’s funny because I had such an interesting family dynamic. I was never told that I was not capable, but it was made very clear in my house that education is important and be realistic, but also hard work and determination are valued. Work ethic was very valued. So all the shows, the arts, I was still rational about it and I chased it the same way that everyone was setting up and getting ready for college. We went and we looked at schools. I did all the tours. I thought I was going to get into visual merchandising. I was like, I can still be hands-on and creative, and I think that I would be very satisfied if I still worked in the world of sales and fashion. But I found a boutique agency online. Since I could use the internet, I had been googling, “How do you become an actor?” I would watch interviews and figure out how people ended up on TV and movies.
Luckily my step-dad ended up being stationed in California and then we moved closer and closer to L.A. and then we were in Redondo Beach. I figured I can find an agency, get my license, save up for a car and then I can drive myself to auditions and I can see if this will work. Because I have two years to see if this will happen by the time that I’m 18. So that’s what I started doing. I saved up, got a car. My mom did drive me to a few auditions. Best believe I had to give her gas money, though. Saved up for those headshots, printed them at Walgreens. I made the sh*t happen and auditioned for like a year until I finally booked my first job. It was a guest star [on] Disney Channel. By the time I was 18, I guest starred on a bunch of stuff, I had reoccurring roles and then I did a Disney Channel movie.
It was called Cloud 9. It was about snowboarding, in 2013 or something? I went to homeschooling, kept my grades up, did my thing, and then after that, I moved out and kept auditioning. I started realizing that Disney Channel was sending me out on lead role stuff, like pilots. I was like, I don’t want that life. I don’t want to do that, but it was a rock in a hard place because I was like, but what if I don’t book the other stuff? What if I’m actually not good at the other stuff? So I asked my agent to start sending me out on indie movie things, which they weren’t sending me out on because that wasn’t “the thing,” that didn’t really go with who I was or whatever. And then I booked Dope.
See how that worked out? The indie scene is a strong pocket right now.
Especially for women. I mean, it’s just a different time and we have so many different stories and opportunities and now we have the space to f**k around. If I get offered to just be ah, what do I want to do this summer? Where do I want to be? That used to not be a choice of an option, so I fully take advantage of that privilege. I mean, if the doors are open, I’m walking in and I’m checking the room out.
Take the opportunities where they are. What are some of the stories now that you want to use your artistry to tell?
This whole sentence will sound crazy until I get through it, but I just want to see Asian women, Latino women, brown girls and women, any women other than a white girl, getting to make the movies that white girls make. I remember when Dope came out, and I was like, oh I know what happens when you go to Sundance. You end up with this or that. That’s because I’m looking at [what] all the white girls were getting, and even worse the white boys. And then I wasn’t getting that. I was like, why don’t I get those opportunities? Why did she get that movie? It just felt immediately like, okay let’s make her into the next Halle Berry. Putting me in this box of polished black girl, so I became very rebellious about that.
I don’t want to have to be polished, because I feel like for black girls, you’re only allowed to be earth-loving hippie or rebellious, stick it to the man or polished. Like I will politely tell you how I f**king feel, like America’s sweetheart. But how come I can’t be all of those things? And then if you’re the hood girl, everything that you do is extraordinary because we have low expectations. It’s the shadiest sh*t. Asian women get no opportunities. Latina women, where are they? I just want to be like, we can f**k around, too. We also freely have sex and it’s not because it’s a political statement. We also go to parties and drink at the bar and chase guys and girls and do stupid f**king sh*t and regret it the next day. How come we don’t get the opportunity to tell those stories? Why do I have to live up to some expectation?
We are in the position where we know that black women are strong and smart; it’s 2018. We know that. We have Beyonce and Michelle Obama and f**king Oprah Winfrey. There’s more of us. The people that are on the outside and that are normal and not necessarily extraordinary. I don’t consider myself to be an extraordinary person. I’m not saying that I think these women are above me because I don’t think anyone is above anybody, but why do I have to… Like I said, if the doors are open… I bow down to the women that knocked down those doors down, but let’s go in! Let’s have a party! We’re all trying to knock down our own doors. I’m going in that room! That door’s already open. I don’t know about you guys but I’m taking advantage of that motherf**kin’ opportunity. From there, then we can go our own way. But for now, she did all that hard work… the fruits of her labor b***h! Let me get in there!
This pathway is already forged.
Let me just check it out! It’s that expectation for women in general, though. To be extraordinary. That reminds me of a time when I had a photo shoot recently and I was saying how I had this cough for two weeks. This cough will not go away. What is it? Do I have f**king walking pneumonia? What’s going on? The shoot was all women—photographer, everybody. We’re sitting down eating lunch and I’m telling them about this cough and I’m like, I feel like I need to go to the doctor. I’m freaked out. They were like, no! Gave me a contact for an acupuncturist and all, gave me all these tips. I was like, oh sh*t, now I feel better. I was really having anxiety because I really thought something was wrong. One of the women there was just like, “No girl, you’re fine. You don’t need a doctor, you just need a group of women to calm you down.”
Mic drop. All you need is the magic of some women, and voila.
That’s the thing about women being exceptional. Love is not exceptional. Care, intuition is not exceptional. People hold all of these great things and what’s exceptional is when we get to be together.