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Kiki Layne and The Fine Art of Playing Make-Believe

Kiki Layne is as animated as ever in "Chip n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers." She speaks with En Fuego about her new movie and a career that's just getting started.

There’s a moment in the new “Chip n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers” when the eponymous heroes are worrying about their pal Monterey Jack—suddenly vanished and fresh off a stinky cheese bender—that Captain Putty begins to monologue.

He is abruptly interrupted by Ellie who stands three stories tall. Well, three-chipmunk-apartment stories.

It’s in that moment that something hits you. It starts off as a feeling you may not have felt in quite some time, perhaps decades. But sure enough, like getting hit over the head with a cartoon anvil, I suddenly need a huge bowl of cereal.

Of course, substitute whatever nostalgic conveyance suits your own childhood. But no showing of “Batman: The Animated Series,” “Tiny Toons” or “Rescue Rangers” ever went without an obscenely big bowl of sugar-laden cereal.

And it’s that kind of movie that you are watching and it kind of takes the edge off the last couple of years.

Playing Make-Believe

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“I got to connect to that initial joy of acting, of just the fun, of using my imagination to be in worlds that are a little outside of reality,” Kiki Layne, who plays Detective Ellie, the film’s lone human protagonist.

Having previously worked alongside the likes of Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”), Charlize Theron (“The Old Guard”), and Eddie Murphy (“Coming 2 America”), Layne had to go back to the land of make-believe. The world she enjoyed before playing alongside kings, queens, and mercenaries.

It was the kind of play that we all enjoyed once upon a time, when talking to chipmunks and police captains made of putty made perfect sense.

“I am fighting crime with, you know, two little chipmunks, but, on the actual day, on set definitely presented its challenges as an actor because I basically never had scene partners,” she said.

"I would just stare at a puppet or a piece of tape from my eyeline and just went for it. But thankfully, our director Akiva is so clear about what each scene was, what each character was doing, how they were moving. So even though I was using so much of my imagination, there was actually still so much clarity that I could be grounded.”

Akiva is Akiva Schaffer, who has helped bring so many laughs to screen already. A member of The Lonely Island, he’s written for “Saturday Night Live,” “Popstar” and produced on “MacGruber” and “Palm Springs.”

Callbacks from the 90s are rife in a movie that knows what it’s about. It’s here to get you to chill like a kid for a little over an hour and perhaps do so with the family you may have collected in the decades since the original cartoon was on TV.

It’s a refreshing addition to streaming options and a moment of levity for cast that jumped at the chance to get old school with their methods.

“It was so much fun because every single person on that set, I think, was enjoying that,” Layne continued. “We were playing make-believe and especially after the year that everyone had had this was one of the first films to start shooting again after the industry was shut down.

“So I think everyone just felt really good to be coming back to a project that reminded us of, as creators and members of the film industry, we enjoy playing. No matter what the movie is, you're playing pretend, you're playing make-believe. And for a lot of us, that's where it started.”

Believing In Yourself

Layne spoke with Jimmy Fallon recently about booking “If Beale Street Could Talk.” As she explained, at the time of her chemistry read she went out to New York with a little over $100 on her credit card, which was an issue when the hotel she was staying at wanted to put a hold on the card.

It was a moment of fear but one that offered clarity. “I have to book this,” she remembered thinking. “If I don’t book this, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

She did book it. And audiences have enjoyed her presence on screen and her range as an actor ever since.

As she tells En Fuego, the negativity and doubt don’t just end when you book your big role. That’s a constant that you have to beat back if you want to move forward. For those actors experiencing similar, she has advice. 

“I'll say to them the same thing that Regina King said to me not too long ago,”Layne said. “Because that journey, that fight of pushing through all of the noise and rejection and all of that, it continues even post big break.

And I was having a low moment and I reached out to her and she just said, 'Kiki,' she said, ‘This is what you want to do, right? You want to be an actor, right?’ I say, yeah, this is what I want to do. And she said, ‘Well, you need to figure it out.’”

It reinforced her conviction and drive and motivated her to continue doing something she believed in tremendously.

“It truly was that conversation that shifted my energy, shifted my mindset. And I said, you know what? Forget all of the negativity. I can't make space for that anymore because it's stopping me from doing what it is that I actually want to do.

“We really have to be mindful of our mindset because if you're entertaining a lot of negativity, it's literally going to be the thing that stops you from being able to show up in the room and execute to do your job and do the thing that you really want to do.”

Doing It All

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Layne’s career is hard to label, which is by design. Being a person of color in the business, it’s easy to find yourself typecast as one kind of character played out in myriad movies under different names.

Layne is here to show the audience more. From mercenary to chipmunk pal, Layne is here to highlight the many splendored talents we all share.

“Every role that I take, I really think about is this something that I wish I could have seen more of when I was a little girl? Just seeing someone who looks like me playing in these different worlds and really trying to fight to not be placed into any type of box,” Layne said.

“It's important that people can see themselves represented in all of these different ways because that's just the truth of life,” she said. “Dark-skinned black women don't operate in these, I don't know, few spaces that film and television often made us feel that way. And so I think there's so many communities of color, you know, we have to continue to fight for that.”

My two Latino boys get to sit down with their own bowls of cereal, chomping away as they stare at a world where chipmunks solve crimes, friends are sometimes famous hedgehogs, and the worst thing someone could do is get hooked on stinky cheese.

And there is Kiki Layne, front and center, proving again that the industry is better when more of us get to play make-believe.