Lakeith Stanfield (‘Judas and the Black Messiah’) on playing Bill O’Neal ‘without judgment’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Lakeith Stanfield plays real-life FBI informant William O’Neal in the new film “Judas and the Black Messiah.” He stars opposite Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton.

Stanfield recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about what he knew about O’Neal’s story heading into “Judas and the Black Messiah,” working opposite Kaluuya and what he hopes people will take away from the film. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: First off, was this a story you were previously familiar with or were you learning a lot through this process? 

Lakeith Stanfield: Both. I was previously familiar with it loosely. When I was younger I had done my own research of Fred Hampton, sort of talked about him in school. Yeah, I learned a lot more during the research period. 

GD: And what did you think about him just as a character, when you read the script and all the internal conflicts and contradictions about him? 

LS: I don’t know, it wouldn’t be until I landed on set that I really got a sense of traveling through that in an intimate way. I mean, when you got the clothes and you got the set and you got everything there for you, everything is put into context. But when I read the script, I thought it might be interesting to explore this and explore myself, some of these themes. 

GD: And less is known about O’Neal than some of the other figures in the film, like Fred Hampton. He was less a well-known public figure. Was there a lot of trying to fill in the blanks of who he was and what his motivations were to motivate you as an actor from scene to scene? 

LS: Yeah, I mean, most of the motivations were fear, just trying to stay out of trouble and trying to stay afloat. But yeah, there’s some exploration there. There had to be because otherwise, you don’t understand why or how someone could do some of the things he was into doing. 

GD: What was the collaboration like with writer-director Shaka King to develop this character and this performance? 

LS: It was great. Shaka is good. He’s ambitious and smart and gives his artist the freedom to explore. Yeah, he kind of just trusted me and I trusted him and we moved forward.

GD: Was there a lot of emotional prep work for the film? Because, as you say, this character is driven so much by fear. Was it a lot to get yourself into that particular mind-space for him? 

LS: Yeah, it’s a challenge, but I took the movie on knowing that it would be a challenge and I wanted to challenge myself. So that’s precisely what I got. 

GD: And one of the places where William O’Neal is featured is the documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” which is partly recreated in the film. Did you have a chance to see that, to kind of get to understand him better? And what did you get from it if you did? 

LS: Yeah, long-form interview indicated to me a lot of what wasn’t spoken that he might have some regrets or might feel bad about what he did with his time, during his time with the Panthers. So yeah, it was clear to me that when he wasn’t speaking, he was going through some type of internal dialogue. I wanted to try and tap into that and help bring that part of him to the screen. I thought that his sort of veneer of justification for what he had done, I found it quite boring. So I didn’t want to play that. I wanted to play the more interesting in between what was said, what he was really feeling, try to bring that to the surface, or at least what my interpretation of what he was feeling was. 

GD: And the character, his decisions, and what he does to betray Fred Hampton is so brutal. What was the process of trying to find empathy for him, or was it easy to empathize with him given how he was kind of used and manipulated and pressured by the FBI? 

LS: I try to go in without judgment as much as possible, get over my own biases, so that way I can tap into character in an honest way. You can’t really connect to something if you don’t see it as human. I don’t know if that makes sense, but yeah, just try to find a way to humanize everything so it makes sense to me. But I also wanted to create a balance. What he was doing is unlikable. He’s, for all intents and purposes, an unlikable character. But I think he still had love and he still had desires. So I wanted to incorporate that into the undesirable character so that way he wasn’t two-dimensional if I could. So I hope we got some kind of balance there.

GD: Another pivotal relationship for him is with his handler, Roy Mitchell, played by Jesse Plemons, and it’s a sort of transactional relationship, but there’s also this sort of pseudo-paternal almost relationship, it seems like, between them. What did you think about the relationship between the two of them and what that meant for O’Neal? 

LS: Yeah, when I was packaging O’Neal, I thought about the fact that he might not have had a father figure and I wanted to incorporate that aspect into it and we talked a lot about that. Actually, it did play across quite well where it feels like there’s this familial father-son type relationship in a way. I mean, O’Neal even says in a long-form interview, I believe, and this isn’t verbatim but he said he has his role models that were people that were in the FBI or people that were members of law enforcement. Everyone else had their own role models but he really wanted to assume that position in life. If he could, he would probably be an FBI agent, really, not just a CI, but an actual FBI agent. So yeah, Mitchell represented everything he kind of wanted to be and wanted to have, which was the power and the respect and the freedom of whiteness. So he tried to situate himself next to that in order to gain that freedom. 

GD: There’s a particular moment between him and Mitchell that’s one of the more heartbreaking scenes of the film where Mitchell is basically giving him the ultimatum, like, “You need to help us basically kill Fred Hampton or we will basically feed you to the entire group and let them kill you.” And just the sense of aloneness that he must have felt in that moment, what was it like to shoot that scene, to prepare for that scene and understand him then? 

LS: It was intense. You had to keep the intensity up for many, many takes, and that gets a little exhausting. It was a little intimidating. I had got into a mindstate where I convinced myself to be afraid of white people because I thought that might be better for the scene. So since all the extras were white, when I walked in, I pretended almost as if they were demons or someone that was out to get me or something like that and I better be careful. And that translates to anybody in the audience can be a member of the FBI undercover or anybody could kill me in any moment. I’m not safe. I just wanted to kind of communicate that idea. Me and Shaka talked about him really feeling that he had nowhere to turn, nowhere to go, so this is my option so I must take it. 

GD: And he also has this dual relationship with Fred, where he’s genuinely becoming close to him and understanding that this movement isn’t the kind of insidious movement that the FBI is making it out to be while also working against him at the same time. So it’s this friendship, but you’re always having to balance two worlds in the character’s mind. What was it like working with Daniel Kaluuya on that very complex dynamic? 

LS: Yeah, it’s a complex dynamic. I think it’s made smoother, the journey, when you’re working with actors like Daniel who engulf themselves into the role and embody it in a way that is very special and it feels like I was a lot of times in the same room as Chairman Fred Hampton, as much as I can understand what that means. So it made it easier to create the conflict within Bill because I love Fred Hampton. I love Daniel, which is Fred Hampton, and so now I have to do and make decisions that go against and betray that love and I have to ignore the fact that that love is there. So you’ll catch me in moments where I’m just looking at him and you can see that I respect and admire him, but that I have to continue to do what I have to do. So I must ignore those feelings.

In the scenes where I have to poison him was the hardest thing, because I’m looking at Daniel, the guy I, Lakeith Stanfield loves, and then I’m looking at Fred, the guy that O’Neal loves, but I have to do this anyway. So it was really tough and yeah, the hardest day on set was having to do that in the room in the house. It was exactly like anything I’d seen in photos and anything I’d seen in articles. It was exactly like it. So I was zapped into that spot and at times, Dominique said something great, Dominique Fishback, about how the body doesn’t differentiate reality from fiction. So your body believes that you’re really in these situations. So it just felt like I was zapped into that situation and my whole body was tense and it was hard to keep the tears from coming down. So yeah, it was intense. 

GD: And given the intensity of the role and trying to internalize what William was feeling, was it difficult to decompress after a day of shooting or after the production wraps to try to take off William O’Neal from you and let that breathe? 

LS: I felt like no matter where I went, Bill was always with me. I kind of kept him on me. I have this Jesus pendant. I wore this Jesus pendant and I also pinned it and it was in the shape of an ankh the whole time. This is white Jesus, by the way, which is why I wore it, because I felt like Bill wanted to be like white Jesus and Fred was like black Jesus in a sense. They both wanted to reach ultimate freedom, which is to say sacrifice. I was just thinking about it in an interesting way. But everywhere I went, I had to have Bill with me, so that I’m never really having to do much of a transition when I get on set. He’s already there. He’s like right in my back pocket so I can just pull him out. So he was a little bit of everywhere. I would oftentimes wear FBI regalia and hats and badges and gun thingies and always keeping in mind that I am actually a law enforcement officer. So things would come across like that maybe to people offset. I might speak with them with little more authority, because in my mind, I’m thinking I’m the authority, internalizing him. So that way when we get in, we go on there, it’s just like, that’s Bill. And I told everyone to call me Bill, all that stuff. So my body started to think that I was him. So there you go. 

GD:  And the film is coming out in February, a few months after these continued Black Lives Matter protests, and I feel like the film does so much to contextualize the history of especially the relationship between law enforcement and the Black community, from the Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter. What do you hope people who are watching this film now take away from this story or maybe to empower them in the current movement? 

LS: You know, I hear this question a lot, “What do I hope that people take away?” I think really, I don’t have hopes about that. I think you just watch it and you take away what you take away. You feel what you feel. That’s your internal work. That’s part of the dance. We do the whole thing and then you feel what you feel. The only thing that I want is for more people to know about the story of Fred Hampton and know about the life he lived. I don’t even care about the way he’s killed and all that, other than people should be critiquing of their government and at least look at the government and speculate, second guess about what you might have thought about your government because look at what they’re capable of doing. You might want to look at things a little bit more closely. I might throw that out there. But, I mean, everybody’s got their own journey and you have to try and figure out how it affects you. The only concern I would have is if someone could watch a movie like this and feel nothing.

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