Amandla Stenberg Is the Voice of a Generation, so Listen Up

It’s nearly impossible to be anonymous in our hyper-connected world. While millennials have been flouted as early adopters of technology to a detrimental degree, Gen Zers were born into the age of digital media. They know that what gets published on the internet stays on the internet. That’s a fact of the 21st century that many young people have embraced, including actress, singer, and activist Amandla Stenberg. 

Stenberg is many things, but she’s certainly not your average starlet. The 22-year-old began her career with Disney at age 4 and burst onto the young Hollywood scene as Rue, the beloved tribute from District 11 in the first Hunger Games movie. More recently, Stenberg played Starr Carter in the fantastic 2018 adaptation of The Hate U Give, which garnered even more visibility for her as a voice of Gen Z and as an activist in the broader Black Lives Matter movement.

After a year of keeping busy behind the scenes amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Stenberg is back in the spotlight, starring as Alana Beck in the film adaptation of Broadway smash hit Dear Evan Hansen. A confident, hyper-involved, type A valedictorian, Alana follows in the footsteps of Grease’s Patty Simcox and Election’s Tracy Flick—with a notable twist. Alana has always been played by a Black woman, as originated by Kristolyn Lloyd when the show debuted on Broadway in 2016. Stenberg considered this critical casting element as she stepped into the role. “Within the Black community, conversations about mental health are not normalized culturally,” she explains. “There’s a societal pressure to prove yourself, especially if you have the experience of being the person in your family to achieve upward mobility or the child who carries the responsibility in your family.” With this insight top of mind, Stenberg embraced the opportunity to dig deeper into her character’s psyche through song.

Alana’s presence is secondary in the stage performance, serving mostly as a vehicle for comic relief. However, fans of the original will be delighted by the new life that Stenberg breathes into her character with an expanded role and original solo. “I remember reading the script and already feeling very connected to her, thinking this girl is super cool and weird,” Stenberg divulges, noting that it was easy to draw parallels between the two. “I was a super–type A student,” she shares, “Like, really hard on myself and intensely academic. My grades felt like life and death for me.” In addition to the pressure of being a 21st-century teen, Stenberg had to contend with the pressures of coming of age in Hollywood, a double-edged sword hardly imaginable by the students in Dear Evan Hansen’s high school setting. 

Through close partnership with screenplay writer Steven Levenson and creators Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Stenberg penned “The Anonymous Ones,” which reveals Beck’s internal struggle with anxiety, perfectionism, and climbing the ladder of success. “When I was cast, [Pasek and Paul] came to me pretty immediately and said, ‘We have this opportunity to expand this character on the screen and to explore her more. So who do you want her to be? What do you want to communicate through her?’ and invited me to collaborate on the song,” recalls Stenberg, who appreciated the ability to explore her character emotionally through the power of music.

Stenberg was in her element writing the song with Pasek and Paul, which was executed not just over Zoom but also across time zones, with two-thirds of the team stateside and Stenberg in Denmark. (She is half Danish.) “A lot of our Zoom sessions were late at night for me, which I loved because I’m a night owl. It was just me and Ben Pasek and Justin Paul and many, many cups of tea. We spent nights debating over lyrics, and there were many moments of spontaneously breaking into ‘Kiss From a Rose,’ by Seal. That’s musical theater work,” she explains with a note of playfulness. “Bursting into song or just genuinely being foolish was preordained, and I’m proud of how it turned out.”  

Not only does the song specifically shout out the use of Lexapro, a common prescription antidepressant, but it also prompts listeners to take stock of their personal struggles and coping mechanisms. “We decided to focus on her journey with mental health,” Stenberg explains, astutely noting that, whereas Evan has this feeling of isolation throughout the film, this was an opportunity for Alana to bring in another perspective, one which not only subverts the type A character archetype but also lifts the veil on what it’s like to feel pressure and worry as a young Black kid. “That was something we talked about a lot in the construction era of the character,” shares Stenberg. “Pasek, Paul, and Steven Levenson and I talked about how it feels to be a Black kid with that weight on their shoulders who is struggling with depression and anxiety.” This is something Stenberg knows a thing or two about from her personal experience growing up in the limelight. In writing “The Anonymous Ones,” Stenberg empowered her character to communicate the anxieties that bubble under the surface. Though the song is not lyrically complex, the message is strong: “It’s a challenging process and experience to be a human being and to be vulnerable to other human beings,” explains Stenberg. “I hope that people connect to it or feel seen by it. That was the main priority for me—that the kids who already have a connection to the [Broadway show] feel further seen and understood by the song.” 

Although Alana’s vulnerability is simultaneously unexpected and striking, Stenberg’s version of the character is not a foil to Evan Hansen, the titular character and antihero protagonist reprised by the inimitable Ben Platt. Rather, Beck is a mirror, reflecting the usual coming-of-age trope: Appearances can be deceiving. “There are actually tons of people who feel similar [to Evan], and Alana reveals herself to be one of those people, even though you might not assume that about her,” she clarifies.

The film, which is equally heavy as (if not more so than) the original show, debuted on September 24, but Stenberg and I caught up earlier in the month over Zoom. Between the New York Fashion Week frenzy and preparing for her trip to the Toronto International Film Festival, she talked with me about Dear Evan Hansen and her character as well as her personal style and, crucially, her passion for speaking up about mental health. “It was really exciting for me to play a Black girl with anxiety and depression,” she shares. “It has taken years for me to arrive at the point where I can seek out the help and treatment that I need because that treatment is not super normalized. So to play a Black girl that’s on meds was really gratifying.”  

It’s no coincidence that we sought out Stenberg for Who What Wear’s October cover (in addition to her expanded role in the highly anticipated film, it is Depression and Mental Health Screening Month), so it was wonderful to be able to have a conversation that was refreshingly candid, vulnerable, and a bit therapeutic. We called in from our respective dwellings in Brooklyn, and Stenberg elected to make this a video-free interview. That’s just one way she chooses to set boundaries and preserve her stamina during this busy period of publicity and high visibility. 

It’s not lost on anyone that music plays a significant role in how Stenberg takes care of her mental health. Notably, several of her past projects have featured her singing, whether in character or over the credits. The timing of Dear Evan Hansen is also prescient, aligning with Stenberg’s release of her first original single and music video that she produced and wrote herself. “I’m in this really exciting moment where I’m less afraid or, at least, feel developed enough as a musician to show that off to the world,” Stenberg emotes. Although, she is still debating over the song’s title, which she acknowledges is a critical item on her vast to-do list.

Of course, it comes as no surprise that Stenberg’s musical tastes are excitingly eclectic. Obviously, she can do musical theater, but the self-proclaimed “raver kid” describes her sound as house, emo, and alternative R&B, with a few bars of rap thrown in. “I live in New York City and DJ events and raves. That culture is inevitably intertwined in queer culture, which is really important to me and the way that I express myself,” she confides. 

Since relocating from her home in Los Angeles to NYC, Stenberg has found support and strength in her social circle, which is mostly comprised of similarly minded queer folks like herself. “I think therapy is critical for everybody. Everyone should be in therapy. That’s kind of my belief system, and it’s really normalized in my immediate community, which is nice,” she shares. “I have a really tight-knit queer community mostly comprised of people of color, and we definitely process things together. That has done wonders for my mental health. It’s also something me and my partner have removed the taboo around.” By incorporating regular talk therapy sessions into her overall self-care routine, Stenberg is able to maintain a baseline instead of seeking help solely in times of strife. She continues, “Therapy is not just something you do in moments of conflict or low moments, but rather as a continual practice that you lean on to stay actively working on yourself and your relationships.” 

Being vocal about one’s mental health needs is still challenging for many people. That pressure is magnified for those with public personas, like Olympian Simone Biles and tennis superstar Naomi Osaka. This summer, both women were at the top of their careers, performing at the pinnacle of their professions, when they chose to take a step back. Biles sat out a few events during the Summer Olympics in Tokyo following a scary encounter with the “twisties,” and Osaka dropped out of the French Open after choosing to forgo the routine press conferences. Both women cited the need to attend to their mental health as their priority.

The world—and Stenberg especially—took note. “I can’t imagine what being at that sort of critical juncture in your life, having so many eyeballs on you, and being under that amount of pressure must feel like, literally competing in the world games,” she reflects. “Deciding to be vulnerable and public about the fact that you need to attend to your mental health… I’m grateful for their bravery. It seems really terrifying.”  

As a card-carrying member of Gen Z, Stenberg is also a big fan of mental health TikTok. “I see so many conversations centered on mental health and neurodivergence in general,” she recalls. “Using the internet as a place of communion to discuss the fact that struggling with mental health is normal and thinking of mental health as something you need to tend to as actively as your physical health is a cultural shift that I find refreshing.” On a more analog note, Stenberg also pursues inner peace through music, alone time, and something she and her mom call “pajama days,” which are filled with comfy clothes and marathons of I Love Lucy. Though, that could probably be translated into a TikTok trend, too. 

Given Stenberg’s busy schedule, it’s understandable that digital still reigns supreme in her universe. She loves virtual reality and uses it to keep up with her family and friends. “I’ve always been an internet person,” she acknowledges. “I used to be a blogger, and I’ve always spent time in online communities.” Interestingly, this has had a huge impact on her style, which has plenty of E-girl elements, like fun makeup and flashes of skin. “[My family] ends up spending a lot of time together in VR, like neon fairy princesses running around space. I just want to look like an avatar,” she says. “And that’s what the shoot reminded me of.”

Ah yes, the photo shoot. Who What Wear worked with stylist Rachel Gilman to serendipitously style Stenberg as the E-girl of her dreams, complete with looks from Nanushka and Elliana Capri, Amina Muaddi shoes, and early 2000s–inspired makeup by Steven Canavan. While, as Gen Zers say, “that’s the vibe,” Stenberg has only recently become comfortable with her “work style,” which includes doing red carpets and going to events. “In moving to New York, I wanted an opportunity to start from scratch and have my style be a really authentic reflection of me,” she says. So Stenberg has started collaborating with stylist Kyle Luu, who she describes as occupying the same world, personally and creatively, and she most recently donned memorable looks by Gucci and Thom Browne at TIFF and the Met Gala.  

With Dear Evan Hansen, mental health, and personal style fully dissected, Stenberg and I parted ways, on to the next items on our endless to-do lists. For one of us, taking a proactive COVID-19 test before TIFF lied ahead; for the other, writing this article; and for both, checking in with our therapists.

Dear Evan Hansen is now playing in theaters. Photographer: Phoenix Johnson. Stylist: Rachel Gilman. Hairstylist: Ro Morgan. Makeup Artist: Steven Canavan. Manicurist: Ami Vega. Set Design: Milena Gorum. Producer: Erin Abeln . Creative Director: Alexa Wiley

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