BBG Presents: Keiynan Lonsdale

9 October 2017

Photographer Amber McKee
Grooming Sara Chestnutt-Fry
Words Hedvig Werner

“As a kid, I found the world and other people to be really amazing. I found everything to be amazing, but also very scary. I always felt different - that I didn’t fit into anything.”

Actor, dancer and singer Keiynan Lonsdale has come a long way since his introverted younger self concluded that the world was too much of a fantastically overwhelming place to get involved. He still thinks it’s fantastical, but just this time around, he is limitless. In a self-styled portrait series, photographer Amber McKee captures the ambitious young artist at home in his most comfortable state. He is free to move the way he likes, dress the way he pleases and feel the strongest. With a lush add-on of pink sunglasses, of course.

It’s been a revealing year for Keiynan, seeing as earlier this year he communicated to his large social media following that he likes both boys and girls. Having decided previously that this was something he would never do, he contradicted himself one night by typing up the very personally revealing message and handing over the ownership of that information to the world. He was free. Chains broken, limits conquered - now he could finally realize himself as the artist he has always sought to be. It doesn’t mean that he is giving himself a box to identify with, on the contrary, he is normalizing his preferences and at the same time proving he is a unique being.

Keiynan has a range of exciting projects at hand. Next spring he is set to appear alongside Nick Robinson, Katherine Langford and Miles Heizer in the film ‘Love, Simon’, based on the young adult novel 'Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda'. He also recently released his new single ‘Good Life’, which is a teaser for the full album that is being released in the early months of 2018. An album that is very much a reflection of the limits he has chosen to overcome this past year. Tomorrow, October 10th, Keiynan will resume his role as Wally West in season four of The CW’s ‘The Flash’.

You might think you know who an actor really is, but in the end, you’re playing a character. Who is Keiynan?

I would choose to describe myself as forever changing and limitless. I believe that I’m quite judgement-free or at least when I have judgement of someone or myself, I’m pretty quick to recognize that and I try to destroy that thought, so I can have a clean slate in every moment. I like to view everything like it’s the first time. Always.

I love the word ‘limitless’. Do you ever find yourself to be in a moment where there is a limit?
Yes, I definitely question things. I think everyone is limitless - it’s just that we place all of these barriers in front of us, which stops us from seeing our full potential. I feel that this year, in particular, I was really fortunate to have those barriers lifted - I could sort of see in myself; ‘Oh, I can do anything!’. I just have to let my mind go, because that’s always been the thing that’s blocked me from giving a better performance or choosing this outfit or presenting this idea. I’ve figured out that it’s just a trick - the mind is a trick. Now, I feel limitless.

That’s a good feeling to be experiencing. What age did you realize that performance was your calling?
I’ve known it since I was like two. I was watching Michael Jackson doing a live concert on television, and my mum said I wouldn’t turn away from the TV. As soon as the commercials came on, I would start to cry. I would watch more of his things and then I would dance around. Eventually, I started going to dance class at like three, but I was very shy. I basically said that I wanted to dance on stage and that I wanted to be on stage forever, but that I also didn’t want people to look at me. Well, it became difficult when I would start doing dance competitions. It was okay for them to look at me while I was on stage, but I felt really sick if people would look at me in regular life. I didn’t like any attention. If it had nothing to do with a performance, I never wanted anyone to look at me ever, but eventually I was like; ‘at some point in life, people will be looking at you and you will have to learn to look at them as well,’ because I didn’t like to look people in the eyes. I was very afraid, so my mum gave me an ultimatum; ‘Either you move past this or you won’t be able to dance.’

What was it about looking into someone’s eyes that was uncomfortable?
As a kid, I found the world and other people to be really amazing. I found everything to be amazing, but also very scary. I always felt different - that I didn’t fit into anything. I was scared everyone would be able to tell. I remember feeling this at like four and just feeling as though I was different. I was in this weird world with all these people and I thought that the only person who would be able to keep me safe was my mum, which I think most kids feel. I didn’t want to look at anyone because everything else felt so foreign and frightening. I was also mute for a couple of years - I pretended that I didn’t know how to speak at like pre-school, because I just didn’t know what to say to people and I didn’t have anything to say until I was home with my mum.

Let’s talk a bit about your work. How do you feel about being referred to as a triple threat? Are you able to stay humble in the midst of all this praise?
Well, I guess the term doesn’t really say if I’m good at any of it. It’s kind of like; ‘You do these three things.’ Honestly, as cliché, as it might sound, I can only view myself as a human. For me to be my best or my most creative self, I can’t see myself as a triple threat, because even that is limiting. It basically says; ‘I’m a dancer, singer, actor - that’s what I do.’ Whereas, I would like to be able to do anything, and at no point would I want people to be comfortable with me just being one or three or five things. I can’t control how other people view me, but as long as I view myself as Keiynan, who is just like doing whatever he wants and figuring it out, that helps me be happier and I think it keeps me humble. When I began working in America and I started being treated differently - people catering to my needs on set and what not - I definitely went through a stage where I felt that was the norm, like; ‘Yeah, maybe I’m special.’ Although that didn’t last very long, after a couple of months I was like; ‘what am I doing? This isn’t okay’. It wasn’t extreme - it was more in my head. I was sort of expecting a certain level of treatment, so I felt myself slipping into habits. I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t real and that this wasn’t what I wanted to be. I learnt to not expect anything, so I think that helps me stay grounded.

In regards to the “triple-threat” tag, it seems like people are trying to box you in, which I find quite common in society in general. People love to define everyone and everything, how do you feel about that?
I think as a society or as human beings in general, we want to define everything. We want to give everything a name. I guess it makes us more comfortable and more in control. If you can look at someone and say; “this person is that,” then you feel comfortable in expecting that. I think that’s why people struggle when actors give their political views, they’re like; “But you’re an actor...” When a person defines someone and then when that person breaks out of that definition, they can’t comprehend. For me, I’m just starting out in my career; I’m going to make sure that I never box myself in and I let people know all the time that I’ll be forever changing. I hope in five years that I’ll still be doing this, but maybe I won’t be. Maybe I’ll be painting - although, I’m a terrible painter.

Haha, that’s not quite the route for you then? Let’s talk about ‘The Flash’ – you’ve got the fourth season coming up, premiering in October. In the final episode of season three, there was quite a big reveal at the end, Wally is the one and only Flash left after Barry walks into the Speed Force. What should we be expecting from season four?
With Barry absent, Wally really needs to step up. He is the only Flash at that point, but at the same time, I wouldn’t say he becomes the leader of the team. I think collectively everyone has to work together and use their strengths as best they can. Iris is sort of actually in control of a lot of the team, which is really cool – but at the same time, none of us is Barry, so we do run into problems. We start the new season six months after Barry’s disappearance; people are sort of in a type of rhythm, as much as you can be.

It’s going to be exciting to see what happens. A bit of a cliché question, but it’s fun: Your character Wally West has superhuman speed - if you were a real-life superhero, what superpower would you have?
I always say flying, but maybe, actually, the superpower I now wish I had would be to be able to take away people’s judgment - the judgment of themselves and of other people. If I could just do some magic and then they would be free of judgment - I think that would be really cool.

That would be very helpful. As a dancer, you must have an extremely accurate command over your body compared to that of a regular actor, and I think being in contact with your body, as an actor, is really important. Is the movement of a character something that goes into the process of developing a character for you?
One hundred percent - you really want to embody someone, fictional or not, and I think movement plays a really big part in that. Wally definitely moves differently to me, but at the same time, I take it from a bunch of different people that I’ve seen or know - whether those are friends or foes… I sort of mesh it all together. And then it’s like: How does he feel? What does he sound like? How does he move? Wally is a speedster, so developing into that was pretty cool too. Being a dancer did really help, especially when it came to some of the stunts. It’s much easier to pick up the choreography, which is helpful - sometimes it can be last minute. I think it saves time. Grant and I both have dance backgrounds, so I think the show sort of lucked out since we could both move.

How long do you usually get to work on the choreography of a fight scene?
It depends. Stunt coordinators are awesome, but usually, they will send us footage of them mapping out the whole scene with the dialogue and everything. They will act it out and do the fights, and that’s usually about one week before, or at least a few days before. But then it won’t usually be until the day of that we get to go through the choreography. Recently, I had like 10 minutes to learn something for the first episode coming out because it was just a really long day and everyone was very busy. We had a lot going on and there were lots of stunts happening that day. It ended up with me having to do more than we thought, but it was fine. It worked out really well and I think if you just roll with the punches, it becomes a lot easier. I’ve also started doing boxing lessons, so I feel more of my body in that sense. Trusting, you know, that they will tell you if you look bad and if you look good, then we’ll move on.

You are set to release an album, what are we in for?
I would love to have the album out by early next year - that would be really cool. I’m actually releasing the first single of it ‘Good Life’ at the end of August. I’m very excited – it’s very different from ‘Lay It On Me’ and ‘Higher’, but that’s sort of come from me being in a totally different headspace. During the ‘Higher’ EP I was reflecting on a lot of personal challenges and struggles, so that’s what the EP was. This album is more a celebration of getting through all of that stuff and realizing that we are limitless. It’s a lot more positive.

On that note, earlier this year you came out on Instagram as bisexual, how did you gather up the courage to tell the world who you are?
First of all, I never thought I would come out. Ever. My plan was to sort of suffer for the rest of my life - that was my plan in order to have a career that I wanted. That’s what you convince yourself of - these lies. I did have one friend who told me – he was the first person who I ever came out to - and he was just like; ‘You’re not like anything - you’re just Keiynan.’ That was really great to hear, but that didn’t actually resonate with me until five years later. Again, I don’t define myself as anything, so I didn’t even view it as a coming out. It was just sort of saying; ‘This is me. I am Keiynan. I do this and this. I like this and that.’ It was blurting out a lot of honesty. It happened just off of gut instinct - something just told me that it was what I was doing. I didn’t have time to think like; ‘Is this scary? How do I feel about this?’. I was about to go to sleep and then something just made me start writing it. It took me like five minutes to write it and then I put it up. I didn’t think about what people would think - I just did it for me. I knew that I had this barrier in front of me like I was trying to keep walking through life, but there was something holding me back. Even though some friends and a few family members had already known about me for a couple of years, the fact that I do have a presence online meant that I was still hiding and telling myself subconsciously not to be myself. And I was like; ‘I think that has to stop’.

The response was huge. My friends and co-workers said that the message had meant a lot to them, even if for them it had nothing to do with sexuality struggles. Basically what my message had said was; ‘We’re all in this together. We’re always changing. Whatever your differences are, it makes you normal.’ I think that’s what I realized, I had the opportunity to normalize different sexualities - help people see that all of your differences make you a human being. It’s nothing to do with something being different, special or unique - even though it is all of those things at the same time. Every single person is so unique and special, and therefore they are equal to everyone else. I want people to be excited about embracing themselves.

Let’s take it back to Michael Jackson - your favourite. What was it at age two that made you so fascinated with the King of Pop?
It’s his essence. It took me actually until this year to realize what it was; he has a lot of magic, I really believe in magic - in the sense that each human being produces magic. That’s like energy and it’s contagious - I think he had this contagious energy or magic and I think that’s why so much of the world is so affected by him. He also had such a powerful message of love, which he was teaching us with every lyric. Everything he was doing was pushing towards the world becoming a better place, which I think is just so cool. And just him being so talented. As a kid, it was like the answer, I knew exactly what I was going to do with my life. I don’t really have a memory of me not wanting to be a performing artist. I had to get to a point in my adulthood to realize that I’m just as significant if I make no changes. If I only change the lives of my friends, I’m still just as significant as a human being. Once I let go of that pressure, I was able to have the clarity to do things like what I did on Instagram and actually help a bunch of people.

What is your favourite Michael Jackson song?
I think now it is ‘Heal the World’ or ‘Man in the Mirror’.

Good choices. What is your dream role?
Any role really that extends me from my comfort zones. I would really love to play a villain, whether fantasy-based or reality-based. You would need to have compassion for these characters to play them correctly and so I think it would be interesting to find all the compassion you could possibly have for a villain and really believe that frame of mind; that what you’re doing is right. Also, it’s way more fun to be the bad guy. You get to mess around.

What mark would you like to leave on the world?
If I can leave anything, I guess I would want to be able to inspire people to be more free, loving and in touch with themselves. I would like to be an influence for people, so they can grasp that they too are limitless. What I’ve discovered this year is that we all have so much potential - and it’s been working. I’ve never been this consistently happy in my entire life - I didn’t even know it was possible. I think in Western society we aren’t taught to honour feelings, instincts or ourselves. Everything is about logic and your brain - not so much about the heart. We just have a lot of strength in us, so I want people to understand that. I also want people to know that they don’t have to do anything alone. Having people around you and using inspiration from all of that is what really lifts you into being more of yourself.

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