Movies + TV

It’s a New Wave: An Interview With Amandla Stenberg

The Hunger Games actor talks to us about role models, beauty standards, and her “psychedelic rebellious teenage years.”

Was it weird to have your Hunger Games character made into an action figure?

[Laughs] It was pretty bizarre. The Hunger Games was one of the very few films I’ve made, and I got an action figure! It’s really cool. I love to play with it with my niece. I like the fact that it is an image of young girl, not a weird sexualized action figure like you often see.

There’s so much pressure for women and girls in Hollywood to fit a specific body and beauty ideal. How does it feel to be a young woman coming of age in an industry that is so focused on looks?

My opinion on how I should look would be completely different if it weren’t for Rookie. Rookie completely changed my thoughts about what it means to be an individual and how I can show my individuality through my wardrobe. It doesn’t have to be so perfect and Barbie-like, you know? I’ve found that one of my favorite ways to express myself is through my clothes, because I’m not conforming to some ideal. I do know some other young girls in the industry who are affected by those ideals. It is very sad to see. So, I feel very lucky to have come across Rookie!

Oh my goodness! Thank you so much. I can’t wait to tell the rest of the staff! What else are you into right now? Books, music…

I’m into ’60s and ’70s music right now. I’ve been listening to the Turtles, Fleetwood Mac, Jimi Hendrix, those kinds of people. I’m watching Dazed and Confused. I’m in my teens and feeling all psychedelic and cool and feeling rebellious!

As for books, I’ve always loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I am rereading it now. The last time I read it was when I was 11. It is interesting to see how my opinions about what goes down in the book have changed. I’m also reading The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley—another part of my psychedelic rebellious teenage years!—and Buddha in Your Backpack, which I’m finding it really fun and interesting. I’m exploring religion right now. And I just started reading The Crying of Lot 49.

Oprah recently interviewed Alfre Woodard, Viola Davis, Phylicia Rashad, and Gabrielle Union about the challenges black actresses face in Hollywood. They discussed the lack of quality roles for black women as well as the criticism women of color sometimes receive in a hostile and competitive media landscape. At this point in your acting career, have you experienced anything like this? If so, what is your hope for the future?

With The Hunger Games, there was some drama over the fact that a lot of people didn’t expect my character, Rue, to be African-American. So I received some negative feedback. I kind of distanced myself from it, because it seemed very silly to me. I didn’t really think I needed to focus my energy on it.

I don’t really check my personal mentions that much on Twitter. I think it is best to abstain from looking at them rather than come across one negative comment and have it stick in my mind. This happens to a lot of young people in the industry, and it kind of breaks them down. When [those tweets] happened, I really tried not to look at what was going on. It was pretty shocking to see some of the articles that compiled the tweets I received. I remember calling my friend Jackie Emerson and telling her I wouldn’t understand all of the drama even if Rue wasn’t supposed to be black, and she comforted me. She told me I had to realize it was nothing personal, but it was unfortunately how society was reacting to the “shocking” presence of an African-American actress. [Laughs] I tried not to let it get to me.

I’ve also been told “We’re going in another direction” when I’ve auditioned for roles, and the “other direction” turns out to be a girl with blue eyes and blond hair. I agree that it may be more competitive when you’re an African-American actress, but at the same time, I can almost use [my race] to demonstrate my ability: Since there are fewer roles for African-American women, perhaps I can make a deeper impression. I can feel more special about my roles because I know I’ve worked hard to get where I am and I know that I’m one of the people who have made it.

In the future, I think there will be a lot more roles in this kind of new wave of African-American actresses, like Kerry Washington. Kerry Washington is really revolutionizing the industry. She’s a great role model for me.

This is kind of a personal question, so feel free not to answer it if you don’t feel comfortable. I read that your mom is African-American and your dad is Danish. I’m about to marry my fiancé, who has an Irish and French background, and I really want to make sure that I’m raising our future kids to feel proud of every part of who they are. I’m so glad they will have people like you and President Obama to look up to. Do you have any advice for me about how to teach my kids to celebrate being in a multiracial family?

When I was younger I remember people not believing that my dad was my dad because I was black and he was white. When they saw us together some people thought he was my neighbor or someone like that. My half-sister is Asian, and people wouldn’t believe she was my sister when she picked me up at school. I’d get very upset and tell them, “You have to believe me! She’s my sister!” There are a lot of people who don’t understand, because that is how they have been raised to think. Also, because we don’t see multiracial families very often in the media, it has become something some people think is radical or strange.

But there are a lot more multiracial families out there than there were when I was younger. In the past few years, I’ve met a lot more mixed kids and people like me, so I think the best way to raise a kid is to teach your child that there’s nothing wrong with being multiracial, and even though it is so rare in the media, it is something that is growing. It is much bigger under the surface of what we see every day. Teach your kids that it is a new wave. ♦

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23 Comments

  • rainingmay July 24th, 2013 3:49 PM

    she is incredible!!! good for her. it has to be so hard to be criticized by so many stupid people but I’m so happy that she rose above it all and kept her wonderfulness.

    http://catwitches.blogspot.com/

  • queserasera July 24th, 2013 4:12 PM

    amandla not only has a cool name but also is extremely humble and inspiring. she makes a good point, i wish there were more teen girl actresses of color for us to look up to. i mean i love elle fanning, hailee steinfeld, and chloe moretz, but as an asian girl i want asian role models on screen as well!

    http://televiseddinner.blogspot.com/

  • monkshood July 24th, 2013 4:27 PM

    Thank you so much for this article. Amandla, you are so inspiring and I hope your career as an actress will continue to bloom as you seem like such a thoughtful, articulate, strong-willed, and intelligent person. The topic of what it’s like being a young girl of mixed race is something I relate very strongly to, and this definitely makes for a favorite Rookie interview of mine. And Jamia, awesome questions!

  • retrogirl23 July 24th, 2013 4:30 PM

    OHMYGOODNESS I LOVE AMANDLA.
    We have the same EXACT birthday.
    Please tell me this interview will be in the Rookie Yearbook 2!!!

  • Danielle July 24th, 2013 4:34 PM

    I looooove her so much!

  • jenaimarley July 24th, 2013 4:38 PM

    Rue’s my favorite character! And Amanda played her so well!
    Also Aldous Huxley is one of my favorite authors and the Crying of Lot 49 is an amazing book! :)

  • Jamia July 24th, 2013 4:43 PM

    Me too. Seeing actors like her and her pal Kiernan Shipka gives me hope for the future and our culture. She’s a bright beacon of light and one smart cookie! :)

  • FlowerandtheVine July 24th, 2013 4:44 PM

    She was absolute perfection as Rue. Even more heartwrenching than in the book!

    http://flowerandthevine.wordpress.com

  • kathryn-s July 24th, 2013 5:32 PM

    Woah, such a good interview. She seems so smart and down to earth. Also, she played the role of Rue so perfectly!

  • TessAnnesley July 24th, 2013 5:51 PM

    Aaaahhh she loves Rookie too MY HEART IS EXPLODING WITH LOVE

  • KatGirl July 24th, 2013 5:53 PM

    Ruuuuuue T_T

  • abby111039 July 24th, 2013 5:54 PM

    Amandla sounds so wonderful. I was a big fan of her performance as Rue in The Hunger Games, but unfortunately I haven’t seen her in anything else. I’ll have to keep an eye out for more of her work in the future. She is so well-spoken, intelligent, and down-to-earth in this interview, and I really look forward to seeing more of her.

    I found the bit about Hollywood beauty standards to be very inspiring. Like Amandla, Rookie helped me to see that fashion, style, and expressing yourself doesn’t have to be Barbie. That’s just what society wants us girls and women to think. Thanks to Rookie, and people like Amandla and others in the industry, I think that us females can all be exposed to something better than Barbie. That something is simply ourselves. Not conforming to beauty ideals. It can be simply put as this: do what you want. Follow no rules, and accept no criticism. Your style is all you.

    I apologize for writing a novel here. Overall, fantastic interview. A big thanks to both Jamia and Amandla. (:

  • ohclemence July 24th, 2013 6:49 PM

    How sweet is she?! Also I wish I knew about the amazingness of Aldous Huxley when I was her age! Amazing.

  • Sophie ❤ July 24th, 2013 6:49 PM

    Oh. My. Gosh. I love her, I love this, and I love Rookie. What could be better?

    New blog in town:
    http://theneonpapaya.wordpress.com

  • Christi July 24th, 2013 9:24 PM

    Wow!!! She is so insightful, intelligent, and amazing! Emphasis on intelligent…I mean, I thought I was pretty smart until I found myself looking up “effervescent”… :)

  • Katzemuse July 24th, 2013 10:56 PM

    awww Amandla babygirl. This is the sweetest. She’s so articulate and intelligent and present in the interview. And adorable, of course. Always adorable.

  • Montgomery July 24th, 2013 11:24 PM

    I love that she loves rookie as much as us! People never thought my mom was my mom, so I totally understand her. Between this interview and her vines, I want Amandla to be my friend lol. We can read rookie, watch Freaks and Geeks, and eat pizza!

  • cj575 July 25th, 2013 12:36 AM

    wow she is really wise beyond her years!

  • pohtaytoe July 25th, 2013 2:56 AM

    i’m almost 10 years older and not half as articulate or insightful. she has a bright future for sure!

    • maxrey July 25th, 2013 11:38 AM

      Yes. This.

      What an awesome girl! I can’t wait to see what her future holds. :)

  • elliecp July 25th, 2013 3:43 AM

    She seems like the nicest person! I thought she was probably one of the best things about the hunger games, and I can’t wait to see her in more films or tv shows.

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • Miarele July 25th, 2013 8:45 AM

    I remember feeling so bad whenever I read about her or Quvenzhané Wallis. It’s interesting to see how she is handling things. She’s surprisingly strong (just like Rue!) and seems like an overall delightful person as well. I hope to see her in more roles in the future.

  • Wen Yi July 29th, 2013 3:28 AM

    I adore Amandla, she’s so intelligent and thoughtful! Her thoughts are wonderfully mature; I wish a lot of people (who are waay older!) would take a leaf out of her book :-(