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Kiersey Clemons Is On Fire

Soon to be a superhero star, the 23-year-old braces herself for meteoric fame

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If 2015 was the year that put Kiersey Clemons on the map, it’s 2017 that will make her a bona fide star. Fresh off of Sundance hit Dope, a film that landed her name on the tongues of casting agents everywhere, the 23-year-old signed on to enough blockbuster and prestige projects to make herself a nearly ubiquitous presence this season. If all goes as planned, by the end of the year Clemons will have had at least five new films released in theaters. They range from star-studded major studio releases, like a reboot of the 1990 sci-fi flick Flatliners and the mega-budget DC Comics superhero epic Justice League, to independent features such as An L.A. Minute, a satire about the cult of stardom.

The journey to this pivotal career moment began for the actress at age 11, when her father’s job relocated the family from Pensacola, Florida, to Redondo Beach, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. The proximity to Hollywood helped Clemons realize that her love of storytelling and performing in local plays could be more than just a childhood hobby. “I just enjoyed getting attention,” she recalls with a throaty laugh. “It all kind of came together for me—maybe it was manifestation.”

Exhibiting a rare tenacity, Clemons found her first agent online, made herself  a fixture at auditions and wisely struck up productive relationships with casting directors. The actress’ versatility became apparent when she followed a recurring role in Disney’s popular series Austin & Ally with a guest spot on CSI, and eventually a breakout recurring role on Transparent, a program that was decidedly not “Disney-esque.” Clemons says working on Jill Soloway’s landmark series, which follows a family
reacting to their patriarch’s decision to come out as transgender, changed her on a personal level. “It definitely expanded my mind and my heart,” she says. “It was a really warm set to be on. I’m always going to seek out that feeling.”

Around the same time, Clemons’ work in Dope—the 2015 Pharrell Williams– and Forest Whitaker–produced Sundance favorite—provided a broader showcase for her talents. Clemons, who plays a lesbian teenager obsessed with early-’90s hip-hop culture, was careful to avoid leaning on any stereotypes in her portrayal. “I think when you let sexuality come into play it can be distracting because then you’re trying to make the sexual preference an entertainment, like it’s their party trick,” she says. “Being a lesbian is not a party trick.”

Dope’s strong reviews (Rolling Stone called her performance in the dramedy “crazy good”) helped open other doors for Clemons. She took a role in a mainstream comedy, the 2016 hit Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, and more high-profile television gigs including guest spots on The New Girl and the Netflix anthology series Easy. The adage “there are no small parts, only small actors” seems to be one that Clemons holds dear. While some young performers will accept a project based on the paycheck or box-office potential, Clemons insists she has a different motivation: “Mostly I look at who I am in the world of the movie. Do I believe that person exists? Are these people having real conversations?”

Ultimately, Clemons’ career decisions are dictated by the strength of the scripts she sees. “You’d be surprised at how much shit I read that’s not believable,” she says. “I literally don’t know how I’ve ended up doing the amazing projects I’ve been able to be a part of. Even if the outcome isn’t exactly what I expected, something amazing still comes out of it, like a good friend.” (Her cast friendships are well documented. When she and Disney Channel co-star Dove Cameron got coordinating tattoos, the celebrity blogosphere reported on it breathlessly.)

Despite the career explosion that will inevitably accompany the release of Flatliners in September and Justice League two months later, Clemons is most excited about her work in The Only Living Boy in New York, an intimate drama headlined by Jeff Bridges, in theaters in August. Without revealing too much detail, she notes that her character Mimi is the one with which she’s felt the strongest connection lately. “It was very ironic because the character I was playing, I feel we were in the same boat,” she says. “I love when it works out that way.” 

Clemons is already getting ready to manage her growing fame, as well as preparing those closest to her for the moment when her recognition factor goes through the roof with Justice League. Clemons notes that her boyfriend, whom she doesn’t want to identify by name, is very protective of her. She, in turn, is looking out for her family members. “I’m not thinking about myself being harmed or boundaries being crossed, but I’m always thinking about my sister,” she says. “With social media, you can see how crazy people can get. You can see how people will find your relatives and your closest friends. It’s really bizarre and threatening.”

Clemons’ relationship with social media—which she describes as sometimes “freaking terrifying”—is a fraught one. Although she seems to be refreshingly candid on her Twitter account—she’s detailed an unpleasant encounter with an Uber driver and expressed glee at the termination of Fox News host Bill O’Reilly—she claims she’s actually holding back. “There’s so much more that I could say,” she says, hinting that she doesn’t want complete strangers to feel too familiar with her. “Everyone has their social media version of themselves and I think mine is a bit more upfront and aggressive. [In person] I am probably a bit more quiet and shy and chill. It’s so interesting when people say, ‘I love what you said on Twitter.’ I’m like, ‘Me too. Don’t make me repeat it.’”

To combat the increased pressure, Clemons likes to unwind by cooking and cuddling with her dog, a Jack Russell terrier named Booty. “I’ve found you have to be very present and comfortable with being alone in order to get things done,” she says. And if the stress is unbearable, Clemons has found an antidote: “If I am in a situation where it becomes overwhelming, I just have to shut up and breathe and realize I’m the luckiest bitch in the world.”

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