Daniel Kaluuya plays Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton in the new film “Judas and the Black Messiah.” He has won the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award for his performance in addition to a nomination from the SAG Awards.
Kaluuya recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about the research process for playing Hampton, the weight of the role itself and what he hopes audiences will get from the film. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: You star as Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” He was assassinated by the FBI when he was just 21 but he wasn’t as widely known as other civil rights figures of the era. Were you reluctant at all to take on such a historically significant role?
Daniel Kaluuya: I was not reluctant in the slightest. I was deeply honored and I felt deeply blessed that it came my way and I’m in a position to receive it and it just moved like that.
GD: And how long was the process of preparing for the role before shooting even started, research and dialect and all that?
DK: A bunch went into it. I read a majority of the books on the Black Panther reading list, which is, essentially, in order to be a fully-fledged Panther, you needed to go on six weeks of political education. So I read the books to understand the mindset and the perspectives, went to Chicago for a week, went to Maywood, where Chairman Fred’s from and his old schools and homes and where he used to speak at, sat down with Shaka [King] for a couple of days and read the actual speeches and just kind of played in the space and spoke, had an amazing dialect coach, Audrey LeCrone, who really helped me through a lot of that. And then she advised to go find a singing coach so I found an opera singing coach to study cadence because he had a different cadence when he speaks to when he does speeches and also to kind of engage my diaphragm and also condition my vocal cords.
GD: And the speeches that you are performing are so powerful and so impassioned that I imagine that could do a number on your voice, shooting a lot of takes, I don’t know how many takes it took, but was that part of the singing coaching? Did that help keep your voice, not just what it should have been for the character, but also just to protect it?
DK: Yeah, because I have a tendency when I do scenes like that to kind of lose myself and then forget my technique. So I kind of see it as boxing. You learn, you learn, you learn so when you’re in a fight, when you’re tired, you’ve still got the craft, you’ve still got the technique. So that’s what it is, is when I’m on the eighth hour of the day, I still have a subconscious like, “Yo, engage your diaphragm,” because you will just damage yourself. I felt like in this film, there’s moments where I’m in a play and everyone else is in a film because of the demands of my vocal cords. So I had to condition myself to be ready for that and it took a lot of Throat Coat as well, a lot of tea.
GD: And giving up emotionally for those scenes as well, what was your preparation for building up to that kind of emotional intensity that Hampton had?
DK: Truth, just being a vessel and not more aiming to be good, aiming to be honest. I didn’t overthink it. I just kind of stayed present and let it come through me.
GD: Would you say it was more challenging to develop this character in terms of the technical aspects of the voice or conveying who this man was deep down, getting into that emotional side of him? Was one more challenging than the other?
DK: No, I kind of wanted to show up and be as detailed as thorough and as clear on every single facet of his spirit. I think everything matters. There would be some days I’d have one line and I’d care a lot about how I’m saying that line and I put as much thought as if I’m saying 48 lines. Yeah, I kind of kept in that space.
GD: Was it ever difficult to come down emotionally from the intensity of those scenes? Did you keep the character with you at all times or was it easy to kind of take it off?
DK: No, I think I kept him with me, but I just tucked him. Because I had to do the “Queen & Slim” press run in between shooting so I was leaving Cleveland to go and promote “Queen & Slim” so I just tucked him and I kept it, but I kind of felt like my hair was grown out in a certain way, my weight was in a certain space, I was still listening to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King‘s speeches in the morning, I was still smoking. So I was doing the rituals to get me into that space.
GD: And the film tells the story, not just about Fred Hampton, but also William O’Neal, played by Lakeith Stanfield, who betrayed the Panthers and betrayed Fred Hampton. Did you ever come to feel sympathy for that character as well, what he was going through, how he was being used?
DK: I got sympathy mostly from Lakeith’s portrayal of him. If you really study and read what he did, especially after, how he continued on, I just was really repelled by his actions and I think the way Lakeith humanized him, you saw that he was a pawn in terms of how he was used. I think it was a reminder and I never had that thought in the shoot that he was 19 when he got taken in and weaponized by the FBI. So I have compassion for him, I just don’t agree with what he did. It doesn’t align with who I am.
GD: And the film telling this true story, of course, Deborah Johnson, now known as Akua Njeri and Fred Hampton Jr. are still around and they gave their blessing to the film. What was your interaction with them like? Did that increase that feeling of responsibility that you had towards the story?
DK: Yeah, it kind of felt like an emotional responsibility sitting down with them and speaking to them and understanding that this is their lives. This is their life, they’re really going through this day to day, the repercussions of what happened almost 52 years ago. So I did understand and it just made me show up even more and then whenever I got tired, I was like, “What’s that? What’s that mean?” I mean, it’s nothing. You’re upholding this man in this family’s legacy and that’s what matters.
GD: And you’re also showing this warm private side of him especially in the scenes with Dominique Fishback as Deborah. How different were those scenes compared to what we see of him at his most political and as a leader as opposed to this man who is falling in love?
DK: So yeah, I thought it was a great opportunity to show where his love of the people was rooted in an intimate way. This is a man who had a lot of love in him. He has a love for his own and to see him falling in love in the narrative and paralleling his political objectives, I just feel is just the most honest way to kind of depict him.
GD: It’s all building, of course, to the assassination, and I spoke to a couple of the members of the cast and Shaka as well, and they mentioned that the scene where William drugs Fred, that was shot on the 50th anniversary of Fred Hampton’s actual assassination. What kind of emotions were going through you at that point? Did that feel more intense because of the timing of that?
DK: Yeah, it did. It was very intense. It was an intense day. You felt the weight, the cultural weight of what we were doing. We felt his power, is how I felt. You felt that, “Wow, 50 years later, we’re all in a room telling his story in a place that looks like his place.” It was in his house, that was mocked up as his house. So it was a really deep, profound moment, and it was really tough on Lakeith and it was tough on everyone on that day. Even what I was doing in that scene, him choosing the people over his escape, essentially, just drummed home what kind of man he was on that day.
GD: And so much of the intensity of that scene is how thoroughly it recreates that physical space, the events of that day. Fred Hampton, was drugged and unconscious for much of that. What it was like for you in the midst of that recreation?
DK: I felt low. However, I knew it wasn’t about me and we’re here to tell the truth and we’re here to tell the full truth of the story and understand. So I felt low because I just felt sad. It’s a really sad thing to have happened and the way they did it and disregarding and the physical assassination and then the cultural assassination, which is why a lot of people didn’t know about him before this point. So it was a not fun day.
GD: What would you wish for audiences to take away from this story of Fred Hampton, not just obviously how he died, but also his life and his principles? What do you hope people take away from this?
DK: For me, it’s always I want them to take it. I want them to want to take it. That, for me, is a privilege for an audience to want to go, “Oh, I’m gonna take this, I’m gonna read up on this.” And hopefully, they can look upon the free medical clinic that he set up, the breakfast program feeding kids, the educational program for the kids and really look at the Rainbow Coalition and how he united people from different communities, even people he had conflicts with and found points of interest, but not in the sacrifice of love and Blackness and love in the Black community. I think that’s really the stuff that really spoke to me.
GD: And the film has been getting a lot of awards attention over the last couple of months now, but it just opened in theaters and on HBO Max on February 12th. So more people are getting a chance to see it. Have you been getting reactions already from people and what your performance, what the film as a whole is meaning to them?
DK: Yeah, I’ve been getting a lot of lovely texts, a lot of great texts from a lot of great people in my life. It’s just nice that it’s touched people, and that’s all we wanted to do, is to touch you, to make you dance, to make you dance on your insides, to feel something and we just gave our all for other people to feel and to see this man and see how these people lived.
GD: And is it a different experience because obviously with the pandemic, there’s less of an actual seeing people and sharing things with them personally to be able to now share this film, even if now you’re promoting it virtually, for instance, and just having that connection?
DK: I mean, it’s really surreal. It’s a whole digital release, essentially. There’s nothing I’ve done in the real world. I don’t think there’s anything I’ve done in the real world. So that’s quite strange to not really be around people, not feel their energy. That’s why it’s kind of like someone’s sent you a text, you’re not feeling it. You’re not feeling the vibe, really, but it’s out there and the ripple will keep on going as long as it goes because we’ve lasted this long on Chairman Fred’s words and we’re sitting here 52 years later. So I think those words will keep reverberating and resonating and growing.