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Amandla Stenberg and 'The Force'

Amandla Stenberg and 'The Force'

Mae (Amandla Stenberg) in Lucasfilm’s The Acolyte, exclusively on Disney+. ©2024 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

Actress Amandla Stenberg and her mother Karen Brailsford explore the spiritual foundations shaping Stenberg's life, including her role in The Acolyte.

Journalist Karen Brailsford was over the moon when actress and musician Amandla Stenberg agreed to meet her over Zoom for this heart-to-heart about spiritual matters for Spirituality & Health: A Unity Publication. Brailsford, a lifelong seeker who feels blessed to be Stenberg’s mother, once captioned an Instagram photo of her daughter with Michael Bernard Beckwith of the Agape International Spiritual Center: “When your master teachers run into one another at a Hollywood event.” Brailsford says she has learned a great deal from each one.

Stenberg’s latest project, The Acolyte, an eight-part series airing on Disney+ starting June 4, marks her launch into the Star Wars universe. Stenberg plays the titular character. It’s an adventure she was destined to take after a string of acclaimed roles in The Hunger Games, The Hate U Give, Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, and more. “Amandla” means “power” in Zulu, and George Lucas’ world is all about “The Force.” Talk about a match made in heaven. Here is their mother-daughter exploration of the spiritual underpinnings of Stenberg’s life.

Karen Brailsford: I thought it would feel centering to begin by playing the Gayatri Mantra [considered the most powerful of all Hindu mantras] because it encapsulates what I think of you and spirituality. I remember trying to memorize the words, but you listened to it once and, boom. You got it. It’s just one example of how magical and mystical you’ve always been.

Amandla Stenberg: Aww, you’re going to make me cry.

KB: Crying’s okay. It’s healing!

AS: Crying’s great! I love crying. It’s very important to me.

KB: So, why did you say yes to this conversation with me?

AS: Recently I’ve been reflecting on my relationship to spirituality and what I deem my higher power. Life accumulates with responsibilities and events that can decenter you from a sense of groundedness. This past year I’ve realized there are practices indispensable to my being fully connected to my reality, to my body, and to my loved ones, and ultimately, they service my ability to navigate my life. This spotlight is an amazing way to reflect on this with you because spirituality has fundamentally shaped me as a person because of how you raised me.

I feel very blessed to have grown up within a spiritual community and to have had these practices instilled in me from the jump. I have a persistent sense of faith and surrender, even in moments when I don’t necessarily recognize it. It’s kind of a North Star for me—the concept of surrendering. So, when I think of moments of being able to learn something quickly, or write something, or share something, or express love, it feels like I am just allowing whatever is meant to come through me channel through me. Whether that is the art I create, the things I have to say, or the love I have for others.

KB: What does your spiritual practice look like?

AS: Because I was taught how to meditate as a kid, it’s a place I can drop into very easily now. I don’t put any pressure on myself to achieve any particular result. I don’t have the intention to find inner peace. I’m not trying to make my mind as quiet as possible. If that is the result, fantastic. But it’s more like investigation. It’s a way to feel each part of my body and what each part does. It’s an opportunity to see how I’m feeling, and that can exist on multiple planes: physically, emotionally, mentally, psychically. Or maybe to see those things that are coming up that don’t belong to me but to my ancestors. Meditation gives me so much perspective and gratitude for what it is to be alive. If I were not actively engaging in this practice, I wouldn’t feel I knew myself or that I was being as loving toward myself as I could be.

I would also use the process of creativity and fantasy to envision and create visual manifestations in my head of energetically working through things. This was something I did a lot as a kid, but as a teenager I lost touch with it for a bit. And now it is a vital practice for me.

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KB: You mentioned surrendering. I carry in my wallet an index card that says, “I surrender my life to God.” This was passed down to you.

AS: It’s been proven we hold memory in our DNA. I think about how you, Grandma, and all of the ancestors have carried memory, have carried wisdom, have carried joy, have carried pain in their DNA and passed it on. With each generation, we have the opportunity to look at generational trauma and shower love and try to heal them. What’s amazing is that work cannot be done in one generation. It is a collaboration between different generations. A lot of the work you do in your life has led me to understand how important that work is. I see how that seed was planted in you by your mother, and I see how you planted that seed in me.

There’s a quote by Audre Lorde from Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: “I have felt the age-old triangle of mother father and child, with the ‘I’ at its eternal core, elongate and flatten out into the elegantly strong triad of grandmother mother daughter, with the ‘I’ moving back and forth flowing in either or both directions as needed.”

With my favorite writers, including Toni Morrison, there is a very important acknowledgment of the nature of ancestry and the relationship between generations of women, and how those generations of women carry wisdom and pass it down. Even though I never had the chance to meet her in this plane of existence, I feel very connected to my grandmother. You have done such a beautiful job of making her alive to me, of allowing me to connect with her spirit, of teaching me I can always call on her.

KB: While pregnant, the word sentry popped into my head. I realized Mommy was on the other side waiting to usher you into life and protect you. During your birth, I had a vision of women standing in a circle holding bundles. I joined that circle with my own bundle—you—and began singing aloud “Bringing in the Sheaves.” I’m sure my ob-gyn thought it was the drugs! So, it’s only natural you would be aware that we come from this lineage, this spiritual lineage, that is very powerful and very knowing and very deep and very ancient, and palpable.

You said as a teenager you moved away from all this a bit. We take on our parents’ beliefs, and then we step away …

AS: And then we reject it a bit! [Laughs]

KB: Exactly! So that we can learn and embody it for ourselves. In one interview you said you believe in divine order.

AS: I’ve always had a deep sense instilled in me that the way things unfold is how they’re supposed to. And so I let that sense guide me toward the things that I’m supposed to do, and away from the things I’m not supposed to. When I first read Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, I started to think about the nature of time not being linear. I related that to this triad. I think my ancestors exist with as much realness and fullness as you and I do in this flesh reality.

One of my other favorite books is The Order of Time by physicist Carlo Rovelli. Time bends around planets in the galaxy. I think about it more as a river or current we experience going at different speeds at different times, depending on where you are. That to me is God. Octavia Butler says in Parable of the Sower that God is change. And for me, that is what “The Force” is. It is this current of energy that shifts and transmutes and becomes different things but always returns to a place of homeostasis. This is a concept integral to Star Wars. There’s a lot of spirituality, religion, and philosophy baked in, which is why so many people around the world love it. It embodies a lot of fundamental concepts around power and the balance of “good” and “bad.”

KB: How did you prepare?

AS: During preproduction, I had time to ponder the spiritual essence of “The Force” and to track its entire trajectory over the whole course of the Star Wars timeline and through its different TV shows, books, and movies. I had time to think about how the Star Wars universe embodies this concept that “The Force” always returns to a place of balance. What I also find magical about the Star Wars universe is that it’s a network of different concepts many different people have contributed to. And yet there is such a continuity in ethos and that has fascinated me because oftentimes, sci-fi is just a way to explore concepts we all think about consciously or subconsciously. It feels easier to digest because we’re looking at those things through fantasy.

KB: I notice you’re wearing a yin and yang T-shirt.

AS: It was given to me by the stunt department as a wrap gift. Eastern philosophy is important to the Star Wars universe. There’s the light side of “The Force.” There’s the dark side of “The Force.” It felt important for me to incorporate that imagery in a literal way. I ended up coming up with a symbol—a yin and yang combined with a spiral. I don’t necessarily think in terms of dark and light in my own life, but I do think in terms of there being forces of energy that can feel polarized at times. They’re in a constant relationship with each other. And the way I relate to that the most is through yin and yang.

KB: What’s the principal message of Star Wars?

AS: The Star Wars universe is really about spiritual force and how different communities, including the community of monks called the Jedi, relate to the spiritual force that governs the universe. Star Wars also explores how politics engages with spirituality and how spirituality can be corrupted by political systems and groups trying to enforce particular ideas of how “The Force” should be used. I knew all this before I started The Acolyte, but working on it allowed me to enter a reflective spiritual place around what I thought of these concepts. That was such a great gift. I had a feeling I was going to engage in this exploration of myself through the projects, but I could not have foreseen the degree.

I remember feeling this tingly sensation come over me. It felt very powerful and was vibrating through my body. This was when I was trying to decide whether or not I was going to do the project. I knew it would potentially shape my life in a lot of different ways. It became clear to me that it’s my job to make myself the conduit through which whatever is saying “hi” to me right now can express itself. And that was the reason I decided The Acolyte was going to be my path. That sensation kept coming back to me in preproduction. It really did feel like something ancestral was trying to speak to me. And we do have a lot of those themes in the show. There’s an exploration of womanhood, of ancestry, and of communities of women sharing spiritual information with each other and passing it down. So, all these things I felt so naturally connected to were already baked into the project.

KB: What an affirmation!

AS: Absolutely. One hundred percent. Very early in preproduction, I came up with a sort of theorem around “The Force” called “Force Balance.” I shared it with our team. It became a way to open up this conversation around how we could explore the natural arc of justice or balance in the universe.

KB: You’ve spoken out about various political issues, including Gaza. How exactly do you see the relationship between the spiritual and the political?

AS: Spiritual principles are the foundation for my political principles. The North Star of my political principles is the concept of intersectionality and the idea that prejudice or persecution is a structure, and our self-identifiers—gender, race, class—are a network.

In order to understand the persecution of one group of people, we must understand the persecution of all people. Angela Davis has provided a comprehensive perspective on what’s going on in Gaza by highlighting that you cannot address xenophobia without addressing anti-Semitism and vice versa. We can’t have a conversation about genocide without acknowledging the history of genocide for Jewish people and the fact that it is the same evil at play, which is the othering and targeting of a group of people.

What really hurts my heart is when people aren’t able to have room for the complexity of that because I feel it’s so integral to there being any sort of resolution, or just validation of human experience and pain. It’s something that happens when a group of people have experienced such pain and persecution—they continue along the trajectory of embodying some of the ethos of the oppressor. Jamaica Kincaid’s book A Small Place, set in Antigua, is about how the structure of colonialism is so pervasive it affects and shapes the ethos of the oppressed. And that is something I think about a lot in moments like this.

KB: I always go back to spiritual principle: There is no other. We are one.

AS: Yes!

KB: Is there anything that we haven’t discussed that you’d like included?

AS: Spirituality is such a crucial lens through which I navigate my life. From the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep, it’s how I process things happening in my life. I often do that through music too. Music is a spiritual solace for me. I’m really happy that most of the music I’m making right now is an exploration of my spiritualty.

KB: I hope people get that what you’re embodying we all have access to. It may not look like a Star Wars project. But we’re all part of this fabric, this tapestry.

AS: I love the idea of the fabric and tapestry. You are such a powerful guiding force for me. I feel comfortable surrendering to the idea that I can let what is meant to come through me come through me because you have given me the confidence and the freedom to do that as I have grown up.

I am excited to share more music with you and with the world because all the things we’ve spoken about I am exploring with my music. I wrote a song called “Butterfly” yesterday. I’m going to be corny and just read it. It goes, Trees never weep for dead leaves in the snow. Seeds never stop to wonder if they’ll grow. Change is the only constant we can know. Faith is to surrender control—butterfly. It’s me contending with the fact that sometimes changing or growing can feel really uncomfortable. But that change is what God is to me.

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