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​Time to Bloom: KiKi Layne on Dandelion

In “Dandelion,” a struggling Cincinnati singer-songwriter (KiKi Layne, “If Beale Street Could Talk”) is looking for a way to make music for a living when, while performing at a motorcycle rally in South Dakota, she meets Casey (Thomas Doherty), a guitarist who long ago gave up on his dreams. Falling in with a nomadic band of fellow artists, Dandelion strikes up a passionate romance with Casey, through this experience coming to appreciate the highs and lows of the creative process more completely while developing a voice authentically her own. 

Nicole Riegel’s stirring romantic drama, which marks the writer-director’s anticipated follow-up to “Holler,” depicts the personal progress of an artist’s journey with an intimate, grainy realism that vividly sensual sequences of romantic discovery seem only to deepen. Dandelion and Casey’s relationship becomes complicated as both balance their ambitions against the reality of their circumstances. But the songs they play together—contributed by The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner—are undeniable. 

Often unfolding against a stunning South Dakota landscape of prairies and canyons, the film (in theaters July 12, via IFC Films) plays out through lyrical close-ups of hands, arms, and faces. Riegel and cinematographer Lauren Guiteras shoot handheld Super 16mm to convey the pure intoxication of two artists converging as the world opens up around them. 

For Layne, starring in “Dandelion” signified a “homecoming” in more ways than one, the actress told RogerEbert.com earlier this year at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, where the film played as a centerpiece selection. Like the singer-songwriter she portrays, Layne is from Cincinnati and has long harbored dreams of performing original music. Though she earned a BFA in acting from The Theatre School at DePaul University, where she got her start in the local theater scene, Layne never abandoned her songwriting ambitions. 

Since making her feature film debut in Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s acclaimed follow-up to “Moonlight,” and alternating between independent dramas (“Native Son”) and studio commitments (“The Old Guard”), Layne has continued to perform on stage, including through an off-Broadway production of Aleshea Harris’ “On Sugarland.” 

With “Dandelion,” she’s now ready for audiences to discover her as a musician. The day before our interview, Layne played her first live gig at Reckless Records in Wicker Park, where she performed original songs from her upcoming EP and teased some of the music she performs in the film. 

In conversation with RogerEbert.com, Layne reflected on exploring her range as a performer, what lessons she learned from “Beale Street,” and drawing on her memories of Cincinnati to craft one of the film’s standout musical sequences.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

How did you first become involved with this project?

When the script was first sent to me, I really connected with it, and I was also excited about the music and the opportunity to tell a story that would bring me literally back to my hometown. I had initial Zoom meetings with Nicole, and I loved how she talked about her vision. I was also feeling her connection to the material. I was excited to tell a story that resonated with me, and it also allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and show a part of my artistry that I hadn't revealed yet. 

That’s how it came together. Honestly, it was organic. I only had to send Nicole a clip of me singing because actors love to say that we have skills for a role that we don’t actually have. It's like, “Oh, I can ride a horse for your Western or swim in the deep ocean for your deep-sea movie.” And we absolutely cannot do those things. [laughs] She had to double-check that I could, in fact, sing. 

“Dandelion” showcases your talents as a musician and an actress. What has it been like for you as a performer to flex both of these muscles simultaneously?

It’s amazing. Growing up, I had always said that I wanted to be a singer and an actress, and I think I just got more comfortable with acting. I went to a performing arts school in Cincinnati, and we had to audition to get into the different majors. I auditioned for vocal music but didn't get in; I got into drama and instrumental music. 

Music was still a part of my life, but I was a musician, not a singer. The desire to sing never left me. When this film came around, it felt divine because the character is an aspiring singer-songwriter from Cincinnati, Ohio. I knew what that was like. 

Being able to tell a story that was that close to home, in my hometown, about that desire to sing and create music, and being able to reconnect to that, has been profound. Bringing it into my actual life, now performing and sharing my music in a way I had never done, feels amazing. And it feels like it’s all a part of a bigger plan for my life, that acting has brought me back to my music.

You’ve also alternated between acting in movies and theater work. How has your theater background informed your presence as an actor and a musician? 

It’s the root of everything that I do. The Chicago theater scene taught me so much about who I am as an artist, and so I’ll always love the art scene here. It just gave me certain gifts—an understanding of craft and a work ethic—that I carry with me wherever I go. That theater background, it's always with me. 

Now I’m trying to apply it to being a singer and giving myself permission not to be perfect. With theater, there’s always something that’s different. Maybe a line came out weird. Maybe you and your scene partner skipped half a page. That might happen, too, with music. Even yesterday, the drummer and bass player couldn’t quite hear the backing track on one song, so the track got ahead of where we were; at some point, I was singing along to the live band, and then I heard my background vocals, and I was like, “Wait, those are ahead! Oh, shit, oh, shit!” [laughs] But that’s part of what’s fun about live performance. 

There’s an ephemerality to it, a sense of being in the moment, which is part of the energy that makes a concert so special. In making “Dandelion,” a film that explores the artistic process and a songwriter finding her voice through all these finite moments of tension and connection, I’m curious how your perspective on the concept of the artist's journey has evolved. 

That’s part of what drew me to the film: the exploration of an artist’s process, particularly a songwriter's process. I’ve been writing songs since I was a kid, so I was digging deeper into that and also into some of the ideas we as artists wrestle with, the questions that we have to ask ourselves, the things that keep us up at night. 

This film digs into that in a way that feels more grounded and authentic in comparison to other films about music, where someone goes from being a struggling musician to being the biggest star in the world. That’s not the story for most of us. I feel like people are connecting with that, which I connected to. Even with my success, I still wrestle with many of those same thoughts that Dandelion wrestles with: “Who are you as an artist? How do you want to be seen in the world? Is there space for you? Does anyone actually care? Is this as far as you can take this?”

These are very, very real things, and I think the film does a very beautiful job of exploring them in a way that feels real. You can feel Nicole put so much of herself into it, and then she created space for Thomas and I to do the same. We know what those questions are. We know what that feeling is, and what that journey is.

Exploring this subject matter through an independent film, which requires sacrifice and commitment to make, contributes to a realistic depiction of how one can keep creating art despite financial constraints.  

Not having that much money created its own hiccups, but it also created an energy among the cast and crew, a sense that we’re all in this together. We all had to show up with everything we had and be that much more deeply committed because it is so hard to finish films of this size, especially because we were shooting on film. 

It’s amazing we did that and, as an actor, terrifying! Because I can’t see what I just did: “Was my face weird? Was my mouth doing that weird thing that it does? Is that actually how I walk and talk? I need to see this!” That was, honestly, a challenge for me. But it created an energy of just really having to trust Nicole; she said, “I got the shot. I got what I needed.” And I just had to trust that. It created that type of community among us; we have to show up and be so committed and maybe do a few extra jobs. 

If we had a big Netflix budget, somebody would do that job. But on this project, I have to do this and that, and that’s okay because I care about this story, and it means something to me. I connected with what “Dandelion” is wrestling with.

Not to say there aren’t drawbacks to that Netflix model, to working within the larger scale of a studio sequel like, say, “The Old Guard 2.” It’s such a different experience.

Of course! It’s a much bigger machine. Everything has its pros and cons. I went to shoot “Dandelion” right after shooting “The Old Guard 2,” which was quite a transition. [laughs] I went from shooting in Italy on a $100 million action film to filming a tiny, $1.5 million indie movie in Covington, Kentucky. It was insane. That was a funny transition in my life. 

Do you remember the first scenes you shot?

First, we went to South Dakota, which is lovely. Who knew South Dakota had it in her? [laughs] It was very cool to be in that state. It was so beautiful. There’s a scene where Dandelion is just standing there, looking out at the Badlands, and when they called “action,” everyone stopped moving. I realized, “Oh, I’ve never experienced silence.” I couldn’t hear anything. It was such a strange experience to be in such a vast space and experience for the first time absolute silence. Not a hum of anything, not a whisper of any sound. 

I’m sad that I did not get to be a part of the motorcycle rally, because it looks like that was quite an experience for the crew that was there. [laughs] That would have been a fun, random event to experience here in our United States of America. Maybe I’ll go this year and see what Sturgis, South Dakota, has to offer.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” was your first role in a feature film, and I can’t imagine what it was like to be catapulted into awards season, into the cultural conversation, into all the attention that comes with starring in Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to “Moonlight.” I’m curious what perspective that experience gave you, if any, that you could bring into “Dandelion,” about a rising songwriter finding their voice and navigating a professional trajectory.

One of the main lessons I took away from “Beale Street” was to learn to be comfortable with where I’m at and, instead of fighting it, to let it help me in the role. With “Beale Street,” I didn’t know anything about film. Barry would say something, talking about a shot, and I wouldn’t know what he was talking about. Instead of running from that, I had to embrace it, because it made sense for the character. There’s a lot happening that’s above her understanding of how the world is supposed to work. 

If I leaned into that, and leaned on the people around me who did know more, just as Tish had to lean on her family to help her through, if I leaned on Regina [King,] Stephan [James,] and Colman [Domingo,] they were going to help me get there.

That applied very much to “Dandelion,” given the truth of my fear and insecurities around my singing voice. There’s a reason I’m 32, and I’ve been acting for a very long time, but people have no clue that I sing; they certainly don’t know I write songs. I could use that; the moment where I’m up on that stage, in front of the crowd, where she’s like, “Oh, f—, I have to sing this song they gave me, and my guitar strings are already broken, and I already barely know how to play this song on guitar, and here we go,” I actually feel like that! [laughs]

I just had to use the truth of where I am and the truth of my fears around my voice. I’ve locked up this gift of mine, wondering, “Is it good enough? Does anyone want to hear these songs that I write? Does anyone care? Can I rack up millions of views on a clip of me singing?” I asked myself those questions, and so I could use the truth of that. I think that’s why people are responding so much.

“Dandelion” complements the intimate, grainy naturalism of its shooting style with these glimpses into the online realm, where you see how the artist’s experience can be commodified and uploaded. How did you approach that dimension of the character, of someone who’s not only finding their own voice in this natural landscape but also positioning themselves as an artist in digital culture? 

Again, I was leaning into the truth; I wrestled with it. I’m not very active on social media. I’ve been doing my best recently, but it’s not really for me because it’s not the thing that I actually want to be doing. I don’t want to be making Instagram reels. I want to be on set, I want to be telling stories, I want to be in a theater, and I want to be doing this art that I love to do so much. I wrestle with that. And I know what that is: the frustration of sometimes feeling like, in the business, the amount of followers you have is more valuable than what you bring to the table as an artist. 

That’s really frustrating, and I connected with that on “Dandelion,” especially the montage sequence where she's scrolling online. The song that’s playing, “Over-the-Rhine,” is about the gentrification of the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in Cincinnati; here’s this song that really speaks to something important and meaningful that’s happening in cities all over our country, and yet these silly TikTok samples are what people want to hear and what’s selling. I connect with that. It’s a frustrating time to be an artist who actually cares about and respects the art and the craft that it is to be an actor—or, in Dandelion’s case, to be a songwriter who can write meaningful songs.

“Dandelion” illuminates the frustration and catharsis of artists working, and that song, “Over-the-Rhine” is the product of painstaking process, focus, and dedication. What was your approach to depicting the way Dandelion would perform it in the film, to capturing the complexities of her emotions toward the song and the emotional impact it achieves as a result?

When I first signed on, Nicole and I had a big conversation. I made it clear to her that there had to be space for me to have input into the music. While Aaron and Bryce Dessner are amazing—look at all they’ve done with The National and Taylor Swift—we had to acknowledge that they were 45-year-old white men writing music for a 30-year-old Black woman to sing as though it was her own. 

There was an obvious disconnect there, of what they might express and what might come out of them. Songwriting is so personal, as are the things you start to dig into and connect to as you’re writing a song. There was such a disconnect in our experiences and cultures, and so we really had to own that, then make space for me to bring more of myself to it. 

The song that was originally going to be in the film was “The Ghost of Cincinnati,” which Aaron and Nicole had already released through Big Red Machine. It’s a great song but, at some point, it really hit me; “The Ghost of Cincinnati” references this Over-the-Rhine area numerous times throughout the song. How can I be a Black woman who grew up in this city, witnessed this area change, witnessed the people that look like me be displaced from the area, and not talk about that? 

We were trying to figure it out literally down to the wire. We’re literally setting up for that scene, where Dandelion is in her bedroom singing part of it. I just went up to Nicole and said I couldn’t do it. I said, “This moment will ring as inauthentic in your film. We have to do something. It does not make sense to her to sing this song about this area if she’s not talking about what’s actually happening there.” 

I asked Nicole, “Can you give me and Noah Harmon—who was hired as our guitar teacher but is now credited as music supervisor, because that’s what he became—some time to see if we can crack this and find a way to honor what “The Ghost of Cincinnati” means in the film but also honor what Cincinnati is for this character, now that she’s being portrayed by a Black woman?” Noah and I went to the green room and, by the grace of God, this song started to come out. 

That scene in the bedroom was the first time Nicole heard “Over-the-Rhine,” because we’d literally just written it. [laughs] But that’s what the collaboration was like. That’s what the trust was like between me, Nicole, and the Dessners to give me that space and to trust that, in doing so, something that felt even more real would come out of it. 

There’s an electricity to that moment, which I’m sure has plenty to do with the reality of having created “Over-the-Rhine” on set. In your creative process, performing in this film, what balance did you strike between spontaneity and preparation? 

It always depends. Sometimes, a melody will just start creeping in. That song honestly wrote itself, because of my connection to Over-the-Rhine. The performing arts school that I went to in Cincinnati was in the heart of Over-the-Rhine, back when it was not a great place. I remember thinking, “Why is there a performing arts school for fourth through 12th graders in the middle of this area?” Once Noah started playing that rhythm, it started coming out of me. It was real. I was imagining myself now walking those streets. Why does it look so different? Where are all the people that look like me? Why can’t I afford this place anymore? What are these random bars?

It came out of that, and it also came from Nicole giving me that space, putting that much trust in me and trust in my commitment to this character, that I could tell her, “Nicole, this doesn’t feel real; these lyrics don’t feel real coming out of this instrument. Can you trust me to make adjustments?” That moment was spontaneous in how it came together, but the seeds were planted throughout the process. I was doing the film, conversing with Nicole and the Dessners, and the seeds were being planted. Then, finally, it was time to bloom.

It goes back to what you said about independent filmmaking. It came out of that culture that develops when you’re working on an indie film with a tiny budget, how we all have to come together and support each other to nurture this story and make sure we are giving it our all. When Nicole heard I was trying to give this song more of myself, I think that’s why she could let me try.

On one hand, she’s the director looking at me, like, “Oh my God, my lead actress is telling me that she’s not about to do this song we’re about to film. Cool!” [laughs] But also, “my lead actress is telling me that she’s feeling something more deeply, and I’m going to let her go on that journey, to trust that KiKi is going to come back with something that’s going to feel more real for her, and, thus, that will feel more real in this film that I’m creating.” It speaks to independent film culture.

We’ve been discussing connections between your life, your craft, and this character, but given the depth and range of your experience as a performer across theater, music, and film, where else did you draw inspiration from to play Dandelion? 

One big inspiration was being back home and having my family on set. That was honestly one of my gauges for the music. I even said this to Nicole: “I want to make sure that this is also music that my brothers and my family can bop their heads.” In the finale, the song “River (Ten Feet Deep)” came out of that desire for me to understand what the sound was of an artist who's gone through all that Dandelion has gone through up until that point. 

She’s written as an indie-folk artist; I said to Nicole and the Dessners, “I totally understand that, but my folk are a little different than your folk.” How do we bring that into this? Connecting with my family was part of the inspiration for me, figuring out who my folk were that I wanted to honor in this music.. We did a screening in Cleveland, and my family was there and when “River” started, I was seeing my family's heads bobbing and thought, “Yes, we did it!” 

“Dandelion” is also a romance, one that digs into the difficulty of the power dynamics in play between these two artists at different points in their lives and careers. What did you, Nicole, and Thomas Doherty discuss in terms of depicting that relationship honestly?

We see Casey at this point of having a family to take care of. It’s one thing to be out here, being an artist; whatever is going on, it's just you eating ramen noodles every night. When you have a family and a child depending on you, it brings a whole other element to it. Honestly, one of the most profound moments in the film is when Casey leaves his guitar behind. That’s massive. How do you even quantify what that is, as an artist, to truly leave it behind? Him being that close to that decision, and Dandelion wrestling with it, adds to the tension and all of the things that happen in that relationship. 

When she’s writing music with him, it changes her sound; she’s going on that journey as an artist where you collaborate with people and are influenced by them. When we get to that final song, you see what she learned from him and what she took from it, but you also see in her a certain confidence, a boldness. Here she is, in a hot-pink suit, creating the energy of that moment. She’s not a superstar yet, because that’s not what happens for most of us, but she’s onto something. At least she’s found her voice. She’s owning her voice. She’s owning her look. In the film, you see all these pictures of white guys in folk music, and she asks, “Where do I belong in this genre?” Her owning her look, owning her folk, and bringing it into this genre and into this space that’s one of my favorite moments in the film. She’s onto something, and I’m rooting for her. 

“Dandelion” is in theaters July 12 via IFC Films.

Isaac Feldberg

Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Chicago, who’s been writing professionally for nine years and hopes to stay at it for a few more.

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