Movies

LaKeith Stanfield On Finding Empathy In A ‘Reprehensible’ Character In ‘Judas And The Black Messiah’

LaKeith Stanfield has emerged as one of the best actors working today. Hands down. No doubt about it. When he’s on the screen, he’s got … well, he’s got “it,” whatever “it” is. He’s got an acting style that we might have seen in the ’70s, when auteurs ruled the screen, with a unique grit and gravitas that’s impossible not to notice. Think of a movie like Knives Out (when I bring this movie up in the interview, Stanfield immediately says how much he wants to work with director Rian Johnson again), where there’s an entire all-star cast, by design, hamming it up for the camera. Yet there’s Stanfield, as the erstwhile detective, just doing what he does, laying the groundwork of a character we could all latch onto, surrounded by eccentric weirdos. It’s remarkable how he still stands out, even in a hyper-stylized situation like that. (TL;DR: No matter how good your movie might be, if you want your movie to be better, put LaKeith Stanfield in it.)

As you’ll read below, Stanfield struggled with playing William O’Neal in Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah (which premiered at Sundance this week). The movie is casually referenced as “the movie about Fred Hampton” (played by Daniel Kaluuya), but that doesn’t tell the full story. The movie’s main character is William O’Neal, the man who infiltrated Hampton’s Black Panthers as an FBI informant (an option given to O’Neal instead of jail time for a crime he committed), later giving the feds the information that would get Hampton killed. Stanfield personally found O’Neal’s actions “reprehensible,” but still found a way to give the character some empathy. Stanfield scoured old interviews with O’Neal and, believes, he found the man to have remorse. Also, as Stanfield points out, the fact O’Neal later committed suicide on the night a documentary about his actions aired is a telling sign that he was battling the demons. But what if Stanfield is wrong? What if there wasn’t remorse? What if he’s giving some humanity to a man who doesn’t deserve it? Stanfield admits this question haunted him and made this one of the toughest roles he’s ever had to play.

And that’s the thing that makes Stanfield great. He’s such a thoughtful actor. It’s obvious how much this responsibility weighed on him, which we see in his electric performance. By the end, I’m left a little awestruck, basically just asking, “Hey, man, why are you so good?” Of course, there’s no good way for an actor to answer that, but I couldn’t help myself. It’s just remarkable what he can do. Again, if you want your movie to be better, put LaKeith Stanfield in it.

What is your personal opinion of William O’Neal?

I didn’t know the man when he was alive. I mean, he died in 1990, right before I was born.

Right.

But I never could have known him, so I really can’t say my actual opinion about him fully. My opinion about some of the things that he did, I find him reprehensible. Although, in my studies, I’ve become a little bit more empathetic to the human being than I was before. I sort of opened up my awareness and allowed myself to view him more as a human being instead of casting judgment based on some actions that he’s done. I guess I should have just kept this short and said I ended up feeling sorry for him a little bit. It’s really tragic thing the way his story ended and the way that it unfolded for him. I want better for my fellow humans, all of them.

That’s why I was really curious what your position on what he did, because there is some empathy there in your performance. I kind of got the sense it’s hard to say you feel empathetic for someone who did what he did. But at the same time it does feel like they put him in a situation where there were not a lot of good options.

Yeah, it made me reflect on what I might do in that situation. It’s easy to say I’d take 10 years. I’m not going to put someone like Fred Hampton in a compromised position. But the way things unfolded, you may not even have known that’s the decision he would end up having to make. It was a snowball effect, apparently, where he made a couple bad decisions and now you have to continue along this line or things just get worse for you. So you have to do more and more extreme things. This may very well have been the case. My interpretation was that this was how it went down. Now, I can’t be completely sure about that, even given the information that I had because it’s just simply not enough to know whether or not this is how it went down. In my mind, that’s the only way I could rationalize it.

Right.

So, I tried to put that on the character. So, that way, it could make sense to people and make sense to me. Because I couldn’t understand the character that just would be just a complete villain who is just like, “Fuck these people.” Okay, I’ll put it this way: There’s no way you can sit at a Fred Hampton speech and not be moved by the words that this guy was saying unless you’re just a complete lizard. And I don’t think that William O’Neal was that. Because I saw his interview, Eyes on the Prize, full-length interview. You could see, even though he was attempting to try and be tough and not let his interior show, you could see, in little slivers in-between, what he didn’t say that he felt very guilty about what he did. You could see it in the interview! “I felt bad about it, but I had to continue to play the role.” The fact that he felt bad about it, that’s all I needed to know. Now I know that he’s a human being and, okay, now I can play you. I can’t play anyone that’s just not a human. But if you’re a human, I can play you.

But if he is this villain, you don’t want to portray him as something who’s sympathetic. Did you worry about giving him too much credit?

You know what? That’s exactly right. No one’s even asked me that. But yeah, I did worry about that. I was on set the whole time, I kept asking Shaka, “Am I doing this right?” I didn’t want to do it too much. I definitely did not want to do that. So I was trying to find the balance, but it was really difficult. So I was telling Shaka every day, I would be like, “Is the tone okay? Am I keeping steady? I’m trying to keep balanced. I need perspective.” It was really tough to try and find a balance. Shaka would reassure me all the time, “Okay. Boom, boom, this and this.” Try to help me find the right energy balance, but it was really hard. I didn’t want to make him too sympathetic. And because I don’t know if he was at all, it’s a risky thing. But I was just like… I don’t know. I don’t know.

It looks like a hard needle to thread…

I saw it in the interview in the moment and I just wanted to take that and expand upon it. I thought that, at certain points, that it might be beneficial for the story for me to play him as his tough exterior. But I knew that he wasn’t acting like that every day, the way that he was acting in the Eyes on the Prize interview. He’s not acting like that every day. This is after he’s much older and he’s had time to sit with things and come up with his responses for the interview and put his suit on and the lights are on. So I wanted to tap into the unseen parts, the part that people didn’t see in him and bring that to life, if that makes sense.

It does make sense.

I know it was risky, but I thought it might be worth it.

And for a lot of people, this will be one of the records of what happened. So it does make sense why this was tough. Like you said, this is really difficult.

Yeah. But also isn’t it informed by the way he went out?

I wanted to bring that up. That’s a good point.

And we can speculate about why he committed suicide. But if you look at his record, even outside of Fred Hampton, he went on to continue working with the FBI and being their footman for locking up a whole bunch of different people, getting a lot of people in a lot of trouble, and hurting a lot of people. If this didn’t mess with his psyche? And the way that he went out was so violent, running into traffic. To do something like that, you have to be in a mental state of just disarray completely. So you can’t convince me that he was a stone-cold lizard that didn’t feel anything.

Because it was the night the documentary aired, right? And he watched it, and this is just me guessing, but it’s almost like didn’t even realize all of the terrible things he did. And then it was just spelled out to him and then he ran out into traffic. Am I over-reading it?

That’s a good interpretation. That’s just as valid as anyone else’s speculation at this point. One thing is for sure, he was going through something. And the fact that he did it on that night meant that maybe it was that he didn’t even want to deal with even watching it. Or the fact that it was aired to millions of people and that he knew in that interview he was lying about saying, “Oh, I did whatever I needed to do. My kids, they’ll be fine with it.” He knew that wasn’t the truth, and he couldn’t stand, perhaps, one more lie. It was like, “I’m not going to do this.” Actually, he had tried to commit suicide several times before that, and it was thwarted by his cousin. I read in a book, actually, he tried to do it many other times. So he had been going through mental trauma and stuff for years and you can’t battle with those things if you’re just a straight lizard. You just don’t care. But I think, yeah, there was something there. So I got an indication of that in the interview and wanted to use it. I hope that we found some nice little balance with it all.

Because there are definitely moments in the film where he’s like, “I just don’t give a fuck about what you’re talking about.” He’s like, “I don’t care about the Black Panthers.” Or, “What are you talking about? The Martin Luther King guy? I guess. I don’t know.” There are those moments, because I don’t think everybody back at the time who was Black was either like, “I’m a Black Panther,” or like, “Fuck Black people.” You know what I mean?

You mentioned the scene with you and Jesse Plemons when he asks, “What did you think when Dr. King was assassinated?” and you as William basically says he was sad, but that’s about it. That’s an interesting scene. The FBI feeling him out if he’ll be a good plant or not. At least that’s how I interpreted it.

Exactly. No, exactly. That’s my interpretation as well. He was just, yeah, trying to feel him out. Once he realized that he wasn’t connected to this in this way, it’s perfect. All right, good.

Since the pandemic started I’ve watched a lot of ’70s movies. A lot of Altman actually. And your acting style reminds me of some of the acting styles from those types of movies. What are your influences? What are you doing that is so unique? I know that’s probably an unfair question.

Well, thank you very much, first of all. Very kind words. I appreciate it so much. I love this. I love doing it. I’ve done it all my life in one way or another. I love it, man. I love telling stories. It’s my thing. I don’t know. I don’t know. I love it. I don’t know what else to say. I love it. I work hard at it.

Well, you’ve always got this kind of blunt, unique, to the point style. It’s always something I look forward to.

Thank you very much, man. I really appreciate that. I try to give it my all every time I go in. There’s a unique ensemble of people that it takes to make a movie, and I’m just one part of that. I just love doing it, so I appreciate you for appreciating the work.

I know with the next Knives Out movie it’s supposed to be Daniel Craig’s character going on different adventures. But I feel you could come back? Hopefully someday? Or is that it?

I love Rian Johnson. It was really fucking cool working with him. I’d love to work with him again. Who knows? It’s the story makers, story writers and stuff. I’d love to come back. That’d be cool.

This is weird, but he and I are on a Pokemon Go thread. Next time some Pokemon Go thing comes up about Kyogre or whatever I’ll sneak in a, “Hey, also, put LaKeith in another Knives Out.”

[Laughs] Yes! I appreciate you, bro.

Okay I’ll do that.

Hell yeah.

‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ opens Feb. 12th in theaters and on HBO Max. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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