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The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

KiKi Layne’s love for the unexpected: DePaul Theater School alumni reflects on career and teachings amid “Dandelion” opening

Michael Brosilow.
Kiki Layne performs in a Theater school production of “Arabian Nights” in 2013. Layne would graduate from the conservatory in 2014.

KiKi Layne, a Cincinnati native and DePaul alumna, has spent years building her craft as an actor. After graduating from The Theater School in 2014, she would coast across Chicago’s performance scene, appearing at local venues and and “Chicago Med,” as well as various stage productions. 

But in that growth, she didn’t shy away from the unexpected. As many actors do, she booked that indefinite trip to Los Angeles in pursuit of that same craft that brought her to DePaul in the first place. In three months, that move would pay off after landing a lead role in Barry Jenkins’ 2018 romantic drama “If Beale Street Could Talk.”

The film being a critical success, Layne’s spotlight would only continue to grow as she rallied back towards the unexpected, starring in Netflix’s 2020 action fantasy “The Old Guard.” Now at age 32, Layne takes on her newest step as the star and executive producer, or EP, of “Dandelion,” a film that hits home in more ways than one.

Playing Dandelion, a working musician from Ohio who rediscovers her love for music through an ensemble in South Dakota, Layne’s role as both actor and producer has given her a deeper stake and perspective in her work.

“As an EP, you just get invited to the table for more conversations about how certain decisions are being made,” Layne said. “Making sure that I had space to communicate more directly, you just have more of an understanding of some of the inner workings going on to make a film come together.”

In evolving her work as a performer, Layne reflected on her time at The Theater School and the well-worn but worthwhile struggle she bore through the program. 

“I still wrestle with a lot of the same questions, the same insecurities and fears,” Layne said. “I think it’s important to be honest about that — honest that this program kicked my ass — but I am so glad that I graduated.”

DePaul sophomore Skylar Harts, a comedy arts major, emphasized the stakes within the conservatory and how people like Layne serve as examples for aspiring students.

“It’s cool seeing someone that existed in the same space as you, who experienced some similar training,” Harts said. “It just helps in making me think that I am fully capable of doing what I want.”

Among the various Theater School productions hosted , Layne would appear in several DePaul shows during her time at university, including “Arabian Nights,” “Jackie and Me” and “Measure for Measure,” among others.

From 2007 to 2013 Catherine Weidner served as former head of the school’s Bachelor of Fine Arts and BFA Acting program. Weidner got a front-row seat to Layne’s performances, directing her in “Measure for Measure.” 

Now a theater and dance performance professor at Ithaca College, Weidner remains an avid follower of Layne’s work and continues to be moved by her as a performer.

“She works with such freedom but also with such precision,” Weidner said. “She’s organic but also technical. For me, it was sort of magical to see her working, and that was what I really was struck with when I ended up casting her.”

For her current students who remain unaware of her connection to stars like KiKi, Weidner will often air interviews of Layne and actress Zendaya to show the mannerisms found in performance. 

“As far as they know, I’m just showing two of the greatest female actors working today,” Weidner said.

Influencing creative roots beyond the halls of DePaul, Layne may seem far off from the average actor given her stardom, but she remains true to the tools she first learned in the classroom.

Noting the work of Julie Neary, a former Theater School assistant professor of acting and movement who died in 2015, Layne honed in on the skills behind script evaluation. Taught to not only understand a character but question their presence in the story, her scripts now earn their own personal KiKi treatment.

“My scripts look so chaotic, mainly because I have so many notes about myself within this character,” Layne said. “It’s just little things like that, these little gems that you learn in college that help you start to figure out how it makes sense for your artistry.”

In all this investment, those around her have been keen to notice the effort that goes into her work and the distinct ideas she attaches to each opportunity. 

“One of the things I would say about KiKi, the way that she ratchets things up, is she does her homework,” Weidner said. “Every word is expressed, but she doesn’t treat it like it’s an exercise. She treats it like she’s living in the person.”

This sensibility for understanding her characters continues to reach beyond the screen as students like Harts reflect on their own aspirations.

“I hope to be an artist that holds space and makes time to be inclusive,” Harts said. “I love how KiKi talks about her work and the beauty of collaboration and sharing perspective.”

And although her time at DePaul highlighted that sense of perspective, a person close to home has ingrained in Layne a career-defining motto.

“My mom is always saying that you should never let anybody steal your joy,” Layne said. “So if acting, singing, being a musician, whatever it is— — if that brings you joy, you don’t let anyone take that from you.”

Dandelion screened at the Chicago Critics Film Festival Monday, May 6 at the Music Box Theater and will open in Chicago July 19.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Layne appeared on “The Chi,” this mistake has been corrected. 

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