As the setting sun paints the Santa Monica sky hot pink, Kiersey Clemons and Chanel Iman scroll through their Instagram feeds, debating the merits of candid versus posed photographs. “I’m an actress, so I love candids,” says the 21-year-old Clemons, best known as teen troublemaker Bianca on the pioneering Amazon series Transparent, “but [Chanel] is a model, so she’s like, ‘No, no!'” Iman sips her Jamba Juice, affecting a perfectly casual selfie face. “It just has to look like a candid,” says the former Victoria’s Secret Angel, who, signed to Ford Models at age 13, is no slouch when it comes to posing.
This month the supermodel adds actress to her CV as the star alongside Clemons and Zoë Kravitz in the sophisticated Sundance darling Dope, which centers around a group of modern-day high school students in Inglewood, Calif., obsessed with 1990s hip-hop. Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood), produced and narrated by Forest Whitaker, and executive-produced by Pharrell Williams, the comedy goes well beyond the stereotypes of “black film.” The central character, Malcolm, played by newcomer Shameik Moore, prefers Walkmen to smartphones, flattops to buzz cuts, and listens exclusively to pre-Autotune hip-hop and punk. A$AP Rocky, making his acting début as a drug dealer, finds the time to discuss the civil libertarian concerns raised by drones. Diggy, played by Clemons, is a young queer drummer, while Kravitz portrays Nakia, a lost soul with a seductive quietness studying for her GED.
Three thousand miles away and a few days later, Kravitz explains the appeal of Dope over a matcha tea at downtown Manhattan’s the Smile: “I’ve stayed away from doing ‘urban film’ because I just don’t relate to the characters. I’m not going to take a role because I happen to have the same skin color.” Kravitz, the 26-year-old daughter of musician Lenny (whose FaceTime requests she daintily declines during the interview) and actress Lisa Bonet, likens the film to Risky Business meets Friday meets Superbad.
Famuyiwa’s ability to see his characters beyond clichés is matched only by his ability to see his cast beyond their confines. Iman, who once attended the Met Gala on the arm of Tom Ford, plays Lily, an unhinged sexpot who spends most of her time onscreen being either high or naked and sometimes both. “This was the chance to show people my acting ability,” Iman says, “because Lily is the total opposite of who I am.” As for Lily’s other assets, on display in a plunging kimono and teeny-tiny pink terry romper, she notes, “Most people wouldn’t have taken this role because of the nudity, but I’ve done so many shoots topless … I look at it as art.” She shrugs, worldly beyond her 24 years. “Someone’s got to do it.” Even the veteran Kravitz was impressed: “She could have just been the hot girl naked in the pool. But she went for it!”
Clemons, for her part, fell in love with her character and even traded in her personal style—gamine collars and bright floral dresses—for Cross Colours jackets and Doc Martens. “Our costume designer, Patrik, knows that when he puts something on me, he’s never getting it back,” she says, joking.
As for what Kravitz, trying to keep warm in a cashmere Alexander Wang coat over a black sweater and jeans, took from Dope? “Well, it was a passion project,” she says, “and it shows that sometimes following your passions just works out.”