For someone only 29 years old—really, yes, he is that young—Lakeith Stanfield has a face best described as “world-weary.” Perhaps that stems from his eyes, which harbor an intensity that dares you not to look away. Or maybe it’s his confident sense of style. When we spoke over Zoom in early February, just after the Sundance premiere of his latest film, Judas and the Black Messiah, he wore a beautiful trench coat, a pair of tartan slacks, and a knit hat. Or maybe that sense of having been worn out by the grueling society around us emanates from Stanfield’s career choices. Since his feature debut in Short Term 12, which premiered in 2013, Stanfield has ping-ponged from a zombified modern-day slave in Get Out, to a doomed young civil rights activist in Selma, to an eccentric weirdo in Atlanta, to a struggling office worker who finds himself in a wild conspiracy in Sorry to Bother You.
Directed by Shaka King, Judas and the Black Messiah stars Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and Stanfield as William O’Neal, the informant who sold Hampton out to the FBI, leading to Hampton’s death at age 21. The real O’Neal died by suicide on Jan. 15, 1990—the same day that his first-ever interview about his role in Hampton’s death aired.
Stanfield has given some … unique interviews in the past, just as he’s talked thoughtfully on all manner of things in others, so I didn’t know which Stanfield I would get. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Allegra Frank: I’m curious about your preparation for this role, especially because you’re known for really idiosyncratic performances. When it’s someone who did exist and has this really complicated backstory, how does that affect your ability to inhabit the role?
Lakeith Stanfield: In every way really, because that was a unique challenge. As I assumed it would be, but I don’t think I really understood to what extent, initially. The most difficult part for me probably is getting it out in my own way, in my own judgments of the character and allowing space to be able to see him as a full human being. I didn’t want to run into the issue of going with my initial assumption, which is, “Oh yeah, he’s just a snitch, and that’s it.” I wanted to try and find the more nuanced parts of who he was, even though he didn’t show very much of that. I wanted to kind of try and bring that out, if I could.
Did you do much in terms of actual historical research? Maybe even watching the Eyes on the Prize II documentary that’s excerpted at the end? I was surprised to see actual footage of O’Neal from that documentary included, because there were reenactments of O’Neal’s interview in the film itself. Eyes on the Prize II has the only real footage available of Bill O’Neal, though, in general.
Yeah. That’s the only footage I had, except I was able to get my hands on an unedited version of all of his interview segments in Eyes on the Prize, rather than just the little cut that they put in. But I watched that documentary years ago actually, before I was even an actor, because I just love the Black Panthers, and I was always researching them independently and trying to just understand the group more. And I inevitably came across the Illinois chapter and Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal—in a small sense, though.
I never could have imagined that I would be playing him six or seven years later—longer than that. I tried to derive as much as I could from that, plus transcripts from his court cases after having that incident with Fred Hampton, and a couple of books that were second- and thirdhand accounts of knowing him personally and the kinds of things he was into and did. So that was helpful.
Obviously Bill O’Neal is a huge presence in the film, and probably the main character of Judas, but Fred Hampton is the better-known figure, especially as someone we just saw in The Trial of the Chicago 7. And it was hard for me not to make an immediate comparison between this movie and that one, even though they are very different. I’m curious if you have seen Chicago 7 and have any sort of takeaways on how the Black Panther movement—and the Black Panthers themselves—are shown in the media right now, with these movies coming out sort of close together.
I haven’t seen it. I love Kelvin [Harrison, Jr., who played Fred Hampton in Chicago 7]. … He’s a really good actor. I’m glad that people are now willing to talk more about these stories that have kind of been hidden in history and oftentimes not talked about at all in education. It’s important that we take care with these characters. I hope to see more of that, and people paying attention to detail and trying to be as honest as they can about their interpretations.
Ever since I started acting, I wanted to do movies like this and help tell stories about these great, big historical figures. So even when I did something like Selma, I just felt so good to be in that space. Even if Shaka would have asked me to play the hat on O’Neal’s head, I would play that too. Just to be a part of the story and help bring Fred’s story to the top of the conversation.
You’ve played a lot of different characters over the course of your career thus far. Do you think there’s something unifying between all of these characters, who you were in Short Term 12, versus in Sorry to Bother You, Atlanta, or here? What do you find to be the thing you bring to each of these roles every time?
[Stanfield points at himself.] This face! I mean, I’ve just been quite fortunate to be a part of stories where the characters are going through a transformation, and you get to see them sort of unravel. I could be just playing Barney in a costume, which, nothing wrong with that either, but I’ve had an opportunity to play roles that challenge me, and I’m able to start diving into my inner self and unlock certain things.
Is there anything that you are really eager to try doing that’s completely different from what you’ve already done?
Now, I just want to tell a great story. I want to be a part of stories that move people and that can help continue conversation.
I feel like that’s the best perspective to have when you’re in this kind of creative industry, appreciating the actual text that you’re adapting and thinking about the challenge of that and the collaboration first, as opposed to just “I want to be in a Marvel movie cause that’s the big get” or whatever. Which, that’s cool too. But you want to be in the Marvel movie that also has the really challenging, interesting script and spot for you.
Yes. And I want to be the villain.
Yeah, I was watching this GQ video you did months ago where you were going undercover online, and a lot of people were like, “Make him the Joker,” “Make him the Riddler,” which I’m very here for. Are you legitimately into the idea of “Lakeith as the Joker?”
Perhaps. But you know, for me, it’s just any character that’s challenging and interesting and smart. And I just think the Joker is all of those things. And Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker was a brilliant one that I quite liked. And that’s how I always imagined the Joker to be—just a person that’s been through a lot, [someone with] this intelligence to make different decisions and also mirror society to itself. I find those things interesting, and oftentimes more interesting than some of the heroes, so it doesn’t really matter which villain I play.
And I hope that with William O’Neal, some people that might’ve viewed him simply as a villain can see in this interpretation that they might have similarities or some other internal questions and dialogue that might be useful for them too.
Something I was thinking about in doing my research on you was how you actually tell your own story. There’s this perception that the public has developed of you as this chill, laid-back guy who knows himself very well. But then I also look at your social media, and you have an interesting relationship, I think, to that. It does play into that idea of you as this deep thinker. But then you also have this strong comedic sense. I wonder how you decide what version of yourself and your own story to tell to the world.
I don’t know. I don’t really think about it that much. I just kind of do whatever I feel like doing. And sometimes, I feel like being silly. Sometimes, I feel like not being silly. Sometimes, I’m offended by things, and I share that. Sometimes, I’m being offensive, and I share that. I’m just a human being and … people sometimes become a little bit disconnected from that reality that I’m just a human being and that I’m not really that deep.
And I think on social media, you just get slivers of people. You’re not really getting exactly who they are. You’re just getting a little minor expression and people try to derive what they can from that. … You got to understand social media is a powerful thing. Which is somewhere at times where I mess up, because I forget that people actually care about what people say and do, just because I personally don’t put that into much investment in celebrities. But sometimes people do, and so there is a responsibility to be understood within that. I think you just got to use it in the right way and not let it use you. And oftentimes the right way is not to be on it at all, because honestly, there’s cooler things, like leaves and plants and stuff.