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Changing of the Old Guard

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Rising star: KiKi Layne

Rising star: KiKi Layne

Rising star: KiKi Layne

Acclaimed actors KiKi Layne and Marwan Kanzari, both known for sensitive portrayals of emotional roles, spent months learning to thump and kick people for Netflix's new action blockbuster, The Old Guard. It was an experience they both enjoyed very much, though Layne says she did have moments when her body ached from training or she was afraid of accidentally punching Charlize Theron in the face.

Layne is talking to me from her family home in Ohio. Since her highly praised debut in Barry Jenkins's If Beale Street Could Talk in 2018, she has not had much time to herself but still, lockdown alone in LA lost its charm for the 28-year-old, so she went home to her family.

Born Kiandra, she was sure she wanted to be an actor from the days when she replayed The Lion King over and over and drove her brother mad. She started acting classes at seven, and learned to play several instruments before studying a theatre degree in Chicago. She moved to LA largely because she couldn't afford to fly back and forth for auditions, but after a few unsuccessful months there, she was giving serious thought to giving up. Then a friend asked her to read opposite him in his audition for the role of Fonny in Beale Street; she thought the role she was reading, Tish, was something she should audition for; the rest is history.

She says it's all exciting and she has embraced the opportunities, events and glamour - she is much in demand with fashion houses. However, the America in which her star is rising is bubbling over with racial tension and Layne feels that as a young black woman, she has a responsibility. She also believes that the entertainment business plays an important role in how people are portrayed.

At the time of Beale Street, she told the London Independent: "There's just such a lack of opportunities in terms of great roles for black women, especially when you look at women around my age: Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, Saoirse Ronan - [they] have multiple Academy Awards and nominations. Then you look at these amazing actors like Viola Davis, Angela Bassett - and they have one, maybe two nominations?"

The lack of awards is testimony to the lack of roles. The Old Guard director Gina Prince-Bythewood has said that "films which focus on black women are absolutely the hardest films to get made", but since her first film in 2000, she has made sure to hire equally, in front of and behind the camera, according to gender and race. Her latest project, an action film with a (black) female director, female lead and a black female second lead, is all too unusual.

Layne is pleased to be part of that. "I do believe that has an effect on the assumptions that people make," she says. "If you see black people being portrayed in this one way well then, when you see a black person in real life, you're going to carry some of that way of thinking with you.

"With all that's going on in terms of asking for more accountability in these situations of police brutality, now there's a demand for accountability across different organisations and industries. There definitely has been a call to action in Hollywood - it seems a lot of artists are trying to use their platform, even if it has just been to amplify other voices."

The Old Guard is centred around a diverse selection of five immortal warriors led by Theron's character. The youngest/newest is played by Layne, and she has only just discovered her immortality and all that means. Marwan Kenzari plays Joe, an immortal who has been fighting since the Crusades, when one of his sworn enemies was an Italian soldier called Nicky with whom he has been in a love story for the intervening centuries - thus adding characters who are Muslim and Christian, but also gay. Which again is all too unusual.

Kenzari, who has said "diversity is not about rewarding people for being different, but allowing people the same opportunities", knows how compatible different cultures can be. Born in The Hague to Tunisian parents, he grew up experiencing the intermeshing of different ways of life. He got into acting by accident when trying to impress a girlfriend in school but loved it and went on to stage work, TV and film before his very nearly show-stealing performance as the baddie Jafar (Hot Jafar according to the internet) in last year's live-action Aladdin.

First off he wants to talk about Ireland. "I have a huge love for Ireland and the language and the accent and the landscapes. I did a great, great road trip from Cork to Galway and it was beautiful, mesmerising, I would love to go back." I say he will have to do the top part of the Wild Atlantic Way, from Galway… "to Donegal," he cuts in, "I would love to go to Donegal."

He was attracted to the role of Joe on several levels, but one monologue in particular, delivered when a group of guards mock Joe and Nicky for their sexuality, is the kind of declaration of love everyone would like to hear once in a lifetime (then they thump the guards). "In most of the movie, Joe is actually quite laid-back. He seems happy and comfortable in this eternal life that he has. But I think that specific moment… was touching and I loved it."

But he finds the idea of great love "complicated". How so? "If you look at what you get from being able to be with someone, or having a fantastic friendship or a great relationship with your father… someone wants to spend their lives with you, it's a huge and special feeling to have, to never be alone, to be hugged, to be loved. But then again, you know, I have certain people in my life, friends who have lost their loved ones after being together for 45 years."

The greater the love, the greater the loss? "Yes, I find that quite intimidating about life."

Is it not a contradiction then that he wouldn't mind a chance at immortality? It would just mean losing more loved ones. "It is a bit of a paradox. But maybe 300 years, I would sign up for that. You can read all your books and learn different languages and go to the Cliffs of Moher and paint the sunset 500 times."

The Old Guard is now on Netflix

Sunday Independent