Ondine Jean-Baptiste is the Assistant Social Media Editor at InStyle. She helps the Social team craft compelling digital rollouts, snappy copy, and engaging visuals for all of InStyle's social platforms.
Let’s get one thing straight about Kendrick Sampson: he’s going to bring the heat. The Houston-bred actor has no qualms about speaking up — whether it’s discussing social justice, advocating for his co-stars, or setting a hard boundary around his own needs. So, when he asked me to change the location of our interview to somewhere a little more accommodating to his present need (hunger), I was happy to oblige.
In person Sampson seems to glow, brightening the room with his effervescent laughter and signature wink. You might think I’m being poetic about the light he carries — but the day of our chat was the first warm day we had seen in New York for a while. Perhaps it’s just something about that sunny, Southern demeanor. But people definitely notice.
As we headed into a Williamsburg hotel with a mini entourage of Sampson’s agent, videographer and stylist, one of the employees outside instantly recognized him and shouted “broken pussy!” at Sampson, an Insecure reference for the fans. We all erupted into laughter, even as some on-lookers exchanged puzzled glances. That’s the thing with Kendrick Sampson, if you know, you know. There’s just something about him that makes you feel good.
And what brings him pleasure? Definitely not East Coast weather (“Anything under 75 [degrees] is death,” he tells me as we discuss his newest movie, Something From Tiffany’s, a holiday rom-com now streaming on Prime Video he filmed last winter in New York City), and not small talk, either; he’s quick to bring a conversation back to the good stuff.
Any fan of Sampson’s would tell you that his oeuvre spans genres and character types — from confident college kid in Vampire Diaries to charming father in Miss Juneteenth to the handsome but hard-to-pin-down barber in Insecure. The man most definitely has the range.
“Hello Sunshine was open to my input,” he says, referencing the Reese Witherspoon-led empire behind his latest project. Since its inception in 2016, the company has become renowned for its inclusive storytelling — and that served as one of the main draws for Sampson to take on the role of Ethan in Something From Tiffany’s, a romantic comedy where two men shopping for jewelry accidentally swap shopping bags, and a meet-cute with Zoey Deutch’s Rachel ensues on his journey to get the gifts switched back. Another huge draw to the film? The opportunity to portray a single Black father raising a young girl, which translated to a sense of responsibility to make sure that Leah Jeffries, who plays his daughter, was protected and heard during filming.
“I did make sure, especially with the young kids and young Black girls on set, that their makeup is cool, because I also know how hard it is to advocate for yourself. If she looks uncomfortable, I'll either pull her to the side or I'll be like, ‘Hey, I don't think that looks … something don't look right.’ And then that kind of gives them permission to be like, ‘Yeah, I was thinking …’"
Coming up in the industry, Kendrick saw the huge disparity in attention and care given to Black actors and actresses when it came to hair and makeup. On a Hello Sunshine set, he says there was a willingness to listen and make necessary adjustments.
“There's a long, long, long, long, long list of hair problems,” Sampson says of his experiences on sets throughout his career. “And then the really frustrating part is when people are not culturally competent and have an all-white hair team or makeup, and will ask you if you're OK with going on your own time to get your hair done not knowing how long it takes. Even if it's just me going to a barber and getting a 25-minute, 40-minute haircut, I shouldn't have to do that on my day off. I got other things I got to do on my day off, like studying my lines. And the other actors are not burdened with that.”
While other actors might find inequality an awkward subject to broach, Kendrick oscillates between talking about pain and pleasure with ease, showing me his scars from when the police shot him with rubber bullets at a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles two years ago before jumping into a quick story about cliff-diving in Oaxaca between bites of bolognese. To him, life is but a series of picking yourself up after being kicked down, and he’s a self-proclaimed lover and fighter.
There’s a brief but touching scene in the film where Sampson sits with Jeffries and styles her natural hair. No words are exchanged, but the moment remains powerful nonetheless. Through his company BLD PWR, the actor also consulted on the film to ensure the relationships were culturally authentic. “I was just like, ‘Ain’t no way a single dad is getting away with not doing her hair,’” he laughed.
Created in 2018, BLD PWR (pronounced Build Power), Kendrick Sampson’s org acts as both media brand and collective, born from a need to “reimagine and realize the liberated future our people deserve.” What does liberation have to do with a holiday rom-com set in New York City? Everything.
While Sampson is usually indifferent to romantic comedies, what drew him to Tiffany's were the parts that weren't typical of the genre.“They did their best to flip a lot of the patriarchal shit and be self-aware, which was good,” he explains. “And then, more than anything, it was the relationship with the daughter that was intriguing. One, I felt like whatever actor was in that role, I almost felt like a responsibility, like, ‘I hope they take care of the child.’”
For Kendrick Sampson, the personal is political — and it’s near impossible for him to separate the two. This mindset is evident in the activist work he dedicates his time to, of course, but also the roles he chooses to take on, like his breakout role in Insecure. Ever since Issa Rae’s HBO hit exploded onto our screens in 2016, it’s been a staple of the culture. Black culture, to be precise. The celebration of natural hair, the visibility of dark-skinned women falling in (and out) of love, and the struggle to rehabilitate and preserve the culture of Windsor Hills proved to be a monumental and welcome shift on modern TV. Sampson’s character, Nathan Campbell, a cute-but-complicated barber from Houston, was not just one of many sexy love interests for Issa. His character opened up discussions about bipolar disorder, sparked arguments on Twitter, and had people rooting for #TeamNathan to be her endgame.
Aside from Insecure, Sampson appeared as suspicious new kid Caleb in How To Get Away With Murder — a show helmed by another icon, Viola Davis. You want to talk about breaking records? Annalise Keating was the first Black bisexual woman on mainstream TV to portray success and struggle, triumph and chaos, vulnerability and strength, all in one character. With this role, the actress made history in 2015 as the first Black woman to take home an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Her impact, not lost on Kendrick, will forever be remembered by showing the world the true scope of what Black actors can do.
“[Viola] had already made history as the first sexualized Black middle-aged woman — dark skinned. And on top of that, took the wig off and all that other stuff. But just her identity alone in that leading position. And people were saying it was a Black show. It wasn't,” Sampson says.
“It was created by a white man, produced by a Black woman, and had Latina, white, Asian … so many different characters and representations, and she was the lead. That was a big deal. That was groundbreaking and it was sensational and it performed really well.”
Much like his former co-star Rae, Kendrick Sampson is rooting for everybody Black. The summer of 2020 is much remembered for the health epidemic colliding in real time with a racial reckoning in the United States — and Sampson took to the streets during the pandemic, protesting, educating, and above all else, refusing to keep quiet about the multiple inequities and atrocities plaguing the Black community. Sampson truly embodies fellow Southerner Zora Neale Hurston’s famous words: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
Regardless of the upward slope of his acting career, Sampson refuses to be silent. What does this mean for a traditionally apolitical (and very white) Hollywood? Does he worry about the roles he could potentially miss out on, due to his very public politics? “I do,” he admits. “It's not as much, ‘Should I say this? And how will it affect my career?’ It's more just I know for a fact that people have actively organized against or sabotaged political efforts within Hollywood and outside of Hollywood that either my organization or I personally was working on. I'm more worried about that than how it'll affect my career. People actively trying to sabotage liberation and shit. And some of it is our own. Some of us don't realize how much we've internalized colonization and anti-Blackness and [a lack of] true community building. So even now I do think a lot about that. Are people, because they don't like me, going to sabotage good work that's being done to liberate other people?”
And committed to community building, he is. In addition to founding BLD PWR, Kendrick regularly hosts voter registration events, forges networks with other creatives of color, and uses his platform to have conversations about the issues plaguing young people today. “When I decided to start being more vocal in activism (and I haven't come away from that yet), I was like, ‘My silence would be complicity.’ I mean, that's pure capitalism, right? I'm going to save my career?” When he’s not taking to the streets, you’ll frequently find him on Instagram Live discussing prison abolition with a local activist or raising awareness about mental health. The actor isn’t satisfied to simply share a social media post and feel like his work is done; when Kendrick sees injustice before him, he gets up and does something about it.
“I was more privileged than a lot of actors, but I was still poor,” he shares about when he started his activism. “I had just just booked How to Get Away with Murder, maybe not even that when Mike Brown was murdered,” he reflects, before touching upon the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. “And also hearing for the first time people forced to react to that news. Because it was always shit like that that we would talk about in private.” When asked if being politically outspoken has ever cost him a job, he says, “I've heard some shit, but most of the time, I won't know.”
Yet true to form, Sampson remains optimistic. “What's even more of a blessing, that I do do my best to focus on, is the very rare occasions that happen, where people are completely aligned with my values or at least really interested in understanding them and want to collaborate and create together, and they have a budget. Or don't. And whatever it is is just a beautiful creative experience that adds to the liberation of our people.”
Above all else, Kendrick Sampson still manages to find time to prioritize pleasure, especially in the little things. “If I get a little slice of watermelon, it’ll change my whole motherfucking day — if it’s good. Got a little crunch to it, not too mushy. Sweet, but not too sweet.” When I ask him what he’d title his memoir, he doesn’t hesitate. “Shake That Ass,” he says. And shake that ass, he does. You will be loath to find a party, event, or roller skating rink where Sampson is not encouraging people to get up and find joy in the moment, even while he’s simultaneously calling on you to change the world. When our conversation ends, I leave Kendrick Sampson to bask in the afternoon glow and enjoy the warmth before he has to flit off to his next event. Somehow, he always finds the light.
Who is your celebrity crush?
Meg Thee Stallion.
Favorite song of the moment?
“Free the Homies” by Vince Staples.
What is your love language?
The way I express love the most is acts of service. I do things for people and I expect them to understand that that's because I love them. I now obviously realize that everybody does not take it that way. They're like, "You did that because you were supposed to or because you wanted to. Ain't nobody asked you to.”
And time. I'm the type, if I really care about you, then I want you in my presence, but I can't always be attentive. I don't think you should expect me to be around all the time, and I shouldn't expect you to be around all the time. But when we are in each other's presence, we need to schedule time to be locked in. Then other times, if you want to come and chill, if I come to your house and pop up on you and you not ready, I should be willing to sit there and just chill while you getting ready and not bother you. So, I do my best to do that. And then vice versa. I can just sit and be in the presence of my mom without having a conversation with her and be fine. We sit and watch this view together, eat together, smoke together.
Have you ever bought jewelry for someone you were into? How did it go?
I know this sounds like I'm trying to be sweet, but my mom liked jewelry so she was the only one I really bought jewelry for like that.
Eggnog or Irish coffee?
What was the last thing you read or watched that really made you think?
The last thing I really loved was Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Do you read the “requests” folder in your DMs?
I do sometimes. It’s entertaining. Sometimes I be gettin’ hit on, sometimes I get all kinds of strange requests of being in people’s personal houses…marriage…sometimes I get death threats… It’s entertaining. It’s really fun.
Shag, Marry, Kill: Jesse from The Vampire Diaries, Caleb from HTGAWM, Nathan from Insecure.
I would probably shag Jesse, kill…I don’t know. Caleb’s crazy, but the crazy ones be the good ones. So maybe I should shag Caleb, kill Jesse (since he died anyway), and marry Nathan. Me and Nathan would make a good…you know what? Where’s Nathan at?! He’s from Houston…maybe [he’s got] some communication problems, but we could get past that, ‘cause I have ‘em too.
When was the last time you made a decision with your heart and not your head?
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