As he heads towards his thirties, the electrifying actor is laying himself bare — and finding a new sense of balance
For nearly a decade, LaKeith Stanfield has used his screen time reveling in the bizarreness of America’s racial consciousness. Whether Atlanta’s quippy street mystic Darius, or the code-switching sardonics of Cassius in Sorry to Bother You, his characters have always seemed to be in on the joke — and in his latest, Judas and the Black Messiah, Stanfield is closer to the secret than ever before.
Shaka King’s film, which chronicles the final days of Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) through the sullen eyes of FBI informant William O’Neal (Stanfield), finds the actor in his darkest, most nuanced rendition of the Black saboteur to date. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” the 29-year-old said over a Zoom call last week, “I just really wanted to make sure I was getting it right. But then also not getting it too right, if that makes sense.”
Stanfield has built a name on playing conflicted characters, but a figure with as much baggage as O’Neal — who was forced into his own role while still a teenager — demanded what he calls a “necessary nuance,” one that became, at times, overwhelming. The film set became not just a vision of radical Black politics, but a space for Stanfield to process his own upbringing in order to be a more “realized, holistic” person. LEVEL spoke with the actor about how playing O’Neal helped illuminate his path toward a healthier decade that included both therapy and meditation, heading into his thirties.
LEVEL: Judas and the Black Messiah was supposed to drop in August, but 2020 had other plans. How does it feel to know it’s coming out?
LaKeith Stanfield: I’m excited. I want people to learn about Chairman Fred Hampton’s story. It’s something that’s not spoken about enough. Everything has been such a question mark with this pandemic — not knowing how it was going to come out, or whether it would come out, period. So here we are with Black History Month, this story of Chairman Fred Hampton, and everybody gets to experience this in the most honest way we could put it in. I’m really happy. I’m going to host a screening at my house and just invite everybody… who’s been tested. [Laughs]
By my count, this is the second role that Daniel swiped from under your nose. Didn’t he get you for Get Out, too?
That’s right. You know what, for Get Out I auditioned for like every role. I came in and I read with Jordan Peele. And then I read for another — I think it was Rel’s role — and ended up eventually reading for my role. Damn, I forgot all about that.
How can we keep being friends with a dude who just steals roles from you, bro?
Nah, it’s all good. [Laughs] Ultimately, those decisions are made by people who have a better understanding about casting and their relation to the story than I do. If they’d asked me to play a hat in this movie, I would’ve done it.
It doesn’t seem like a Hollywood thing to do at all.
Hollywood is not always behind things like this. It took years to get it to the point where we could actually make it. These are stories people are yearning for. We have to always prove that time and time again, unfortunately, but it is what it is. We show and prove these kinds of stories are human stories. They’re specific to the Black experience, but it’s global. We hope that we can get these studios to understand that more and more.
How did you relate to [William O’Neal’s] isolation and paranoia he lived with? How did you tap into that?
I didn’t see him as someone I could connect to, so we started to design the character from the inside out. The thing is, we don’t have any information about O’Neal outside of his Eyes on the Prize interview, a couple of court transcripts, and other eyewitness accounts. We could create him from scratch and give him different dimensions. I wanted to introduce how he might be a thrill-seeker. He might get fun out of creating imbalance. He steals cars — he wasn’t very afraid to put himself in a line of fire — but he was also a person who eventually felt guilty about what he did. In the full-length version of his Eyes on the Prize interview, he says at one point, “I felt bad about the things I did, but I had to continue to play the role.” He contradicts that later by saying, “I’ll let history speak for me.” Clearly this guy has an internal struggle that we missed.
Wearing all these different masks.
In the scene where I had to poison him, a lot of it didn’t end up making it to the final cut, but we shot [me mixing it in] Kool-Aid, and I had to go through all those motions. With somebody like Daniel, who I just respect as a human and an artist, as Fred Hampton, it felt like I was actually poisoning Chairman Fred Hampton. One thing [co-star] Dominique Fishback mentioned to me is that your body doesn’t always differentiate the experience from your imagination. So sometimes your body thinks that’s real, everything you’re putting it through. It’s no wonder I’ve been feeling so stressed out and having panic attacks. I realized going forward before I step into something like that again, maybe have a therapist. [Laughs]
“There’s a dynamic between celebrity and the common man that Covid-19 has really lifted the veil on. We all gotta wear our masks or we suffer the same fate. You’re not special.”
For Black people playing an op it’s different. There’s real pressure. Especially for a character who’s never been portrayed.
That’s how I felt when I first figured out I found out who he was. But you don’t go into something like this not knowing that’s going to be the case. I hope I was able to portray him in a way that made people see themselves in the character. What decisions would you have made? Were you trying to go to jail for five to 10 years? Would you try to stay out? What does that mean? Those are the more important questions. Let’s say there’s a million people in the world: two of them are Fred Hamptons; the rest are William O’Neal. I want to challenge people to think about the ways they might be O’Neal-esque. And maybe through seeing this, you might distance yourself from some of those things.
If the pandemic has revealed anything, it’s the disconnect between the celebrity class and everyone else. People like Hampton and [Bobby] Seale are trying to do cultural work. We’re seeing that there’s disconnects here. How does a film like this impact your view of celebrity?
These roles are metaphors for so many things. Chairman Fred Hampton as a metaphor for socialism, selflessness, and O’Neal could be argued to be a metaphor for capitalism and selfishness, or perceived celebrity ego. There’s a dynamic between celebrity and the common man that exists, which Covid-19 has really lifted the veil on to a significant degree because we all sit in here on Zoom, right? [Laughs] We all gotta wear our masks or we suffer the same fate. You’re not special. This made everybody have to sit down and confront that idea.
One could argue that the fact that Fred Hampton died at a young age is justification as to why you shouldn’t try and put things outside yourself for the greater good, because it ends up being helpless and hopeless. I don’t agree with that. I think that Chairman Fred Hampton’s legacy lives on, like he said, “you can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill a revolution.” I remember being in that scene where Daniel was giving a speech, and I’m thinking, the things that Chairman Fred did all those years ago, today we are here experiencing this moment collectively because of him. While I’m doing this, I’m looking into the audience, seeing Afros, seeing Black people, seeing the beauty and the confidence and love, I don’t really even see that these days. So he zapped me back into a time where this is what people were on. We gotta find that in ourselves again and unlock it
You have a great way of playing chaos agents. Whether it’s a muted performance in Atlanta or muted in a different way in Uncut Gems, where your character was always on the fucking edge. Why do those roles as subversive figures speak to you?
I haven’t really thought about it but I know one thing’s for sure: I tend to lean toward characters who have internal dialogue or struggle. I like trying to find some groundedness and truth in the in-between of two extremes. These characters appeal to me on a subconscious level because that’s how I am. I like taking things to crazy extremes and then trying to find some kind of balance in that. I’m also attracted to characters being able to show the mirror to you and have you see something that activates something in you. Those characters that have you see yourself through absurdity.
You mentioned earlier how young these dudes were. Fred Hampton was 21 years old when he was killed. If he made 24, 25, I’m wondering how much more he could have gotten done. Being Black, we make it to 25, it’s a thing. You’re now about to make it to 30. How’s it hitting you? Do you think about age at all like that?
Not really. Not really, but to some extent, this is a landmark moment for me. I feel like I’m just starting to really get my shit together, like personally. And be the better version of myself for myself. I just started therapy just this year.
Thanks man. Going into my thirties, I plan to continue to do it. It’s been helpful for me to unpack a lot of stuff. I’ve been through a lot of stuff, there’s a lot of things I just didn’t confront. Those things mount; you act out in different ways and they can become harmful to you. So I just said this year, I’m going to make the choice to try and be better. Like I was always throwing off therapy. I never wanted to try it. I was like, whatever. It was just something that’s bad in my family. Growing up, everyone’s like, “therapy, what the fuck are talking about?”
So I wanna continue working on that — working on myself and finding a better sense of balance, and by virtue of doing that, unlock more potential in my heart. And I’ll be able to express in a more realized, whole holistic way. Those are my ambitions moving forward.
There’s always a moment where you just know that you need it. That, there are strategies you just don’t have that you need to build to be a person. Was there a moment for you where it’s like, fuck I really gotta go to therapy. I really gotta get some help?
I wake up every day and I have the same thought: Fuck, I gotta go to therapy.
I was kind of raised like a wolf. I didn’t have parents or people who were guiding me or told me anything. So I had to figure out everything on my own — try on masks and faces and hats and wigs — and try to figure out what my place is in the world. For a long time, I didn’t realize I was stunted because of that. Not having that at home, and at an early age being traumatized by things I was seeing. Just now, I’m starting to really find the tools to help me pull that young self out of that abyss. It took me a while to even realize there was a problem because I was like, “Oh, you guys are crazy. I’m not crazy.”
Were you shopping for therapists during the pandemic?
It’s all on Zoom now. I’ve found this really cool therapist. It’s great and perfect for me right now. Hopefully it continues to be the case. It’s helped me a lot. After doing press yesterday, I had another session and it was amazing. It helps you unlock things about yourself. It’s not even necessarily about the person that you’re doing therapy with, but like you said, perspectives and strategies and tools that you didn’t have access to before.
Especially in the work you do, it’s important to extricate yourself — that period of like, okay, I gotta get out of this. How have you come back to yourself in this period of time?
It’s been meditation. The one good thing about this pandemic is being able to sit at home by yourself and deal with yourself and just your inner voice. And even though that’s annoying as hell, beautiful clarity comes out of it. People would be surprised how many answers they can give themselves just by listening to themselves and not distracting yourself with so many things like social media or movies and stuff. Now, it isn’t easy, especially once you become hooked into a pattern, but it’s really worth it.
That’s been beautiful for me just to take those moments. It’s important and it’s taught me a lot about myself. And that’s kinda what pushes you. Now that you understand and recognize some of the issues that you want to make better about yourself, you can plan on ways to do that. Whether it means therapy or yoga, which I also started doing.
There’s a scene in the film that feels like the Last Supper, and it’s just gut-wrenching. That sense of dread is so hard to tap into, but it also feels of a piece with what so many of us have been going through — knowing that people are losing their lives, either from our government or from a virus, and living with that same dread.
It’s a real thing. I went to the hospital recently on some health stuff. When I was in there, there were a bunch of Covid-19 patients being moved about. Being in a hospital is pretty scary right now. People screaming and literally dying around you. There’s an overall energy. Like this feeling of loss permeating in the world today.
Before we started this movie, my best friend who I grew up with got killed by his brother. So I was carrying that with me the whole time. One thing that made those moments real for me is that I know what it feels like to lose somebody abruptly, violently. When we filmed me having to poison Fred Hampton, it was a really tough day — I was thinking about my own brother, just in a whole different place all day. On set crying. That sense of loss, knowing the violence of all of that, really informed everything for me. There was no distinction between reality and what I was experiencing in the moment. Most of the takes in that scene, I was actually bawling. I had to tone it back.
The worlds are just overlapping with one another. That’s fucking wild.
I hope having gone through all that, somebody watching it can be moved or touched. Maybe it helps put emphasis on Fred Hampton and why it’s so valuable to protect people like him.
As someone who lost someone close recently, some days it feels like your worlds are collapsing on one another. I just lost my dad this past summer. It’s weird to even talk about, but the fact that you have to just carry on, with your friend’s death sitting in the back of your head is…wild.
With movies, you never know if we’re doing the right take, or even if it’s ever going to be seen by anyone. Especially with something like this, you never really know. I’m so grateful for everybody putting their best foot forward. I want everybody to see it. I really want Black people to see it, especially Black kids in Chicago. I want them to see someone who really put things outside of themselves and put something first and gave in love. I just hope that somebody sees it and it touches them. It makes them think about something a little differently. That’d be dope.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.