Judas and the Black Messiah is generally described as a film about Fred Hampton, the late chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party. LaKeith Stanfield was one of the first to discover that it actually isn’t. The movie is about William O’Neal, the FBI informant whom director Shaka King persuaded Stanfield to play instead. There’s always a darkness to Stanfield’s projects, like Atlanta, Sorry to Bother You, and, most famously, Get Out. But the fact that his character in Judas helped orchestrate a 21-year-old’s murder was at times almost too much to stomach. For W's annual Best Performances issue, Stanfield discusses his approach to the role, his refusal to say, “Get out!” and an early lesson he learned on the playground.
What drew you to Judas and the Black Messiah?
The director, Shaka King, told me he had a story about Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party. He was interested in me for a role, but I didn’t really know which. So I was excited at what I thought was going to be my chance to play Fred Hampton, and then he said, "No, I want you to play William O'Neal," who is the Judas in the story. So I took some time to sit with that and read the script a couple of times, because I was very nervous about playing someone who was a traitor. I didn't know if I could connect to the character, and I didn't know if I could show him in an authentic light. I struggled with that throughout the shoot.
How much research did you do into the real O’Neal?
I had court transcripts, documents, his interview from Eyes on the Prize—just a wealth of stuff to dive into to be able to figure out what it is exactly he did. He worked with COINTELPRO closely, and after the assassination of Fred Hampton, he continued to work with the government. Until he committed suicide, apparently, in the ’90s, around the time that his Eyes on the Prize interview was set to air.
To play O’Neal, did you learn to hot-wire cars?
I did learn how to hot-wire a car. In case this whole acting thing doesn’t work out.
Do you have any other secret skills?
I’m good at fitting through small crevices, because I’m very skinny. I can go through doggy doors, and I can shimmy through crowds with ease. I can almost disappear if I turn to the side.
Everyone in Short Term 12, the first movie you booked, has gone on to be major. Did you have a sense that that would be the case at the time?
It just felt like we were making a movie. For me, it felt like the first time, so I was really excited and had a lot of energy. But it didn't feel like it would be something like a cultural phenomenon or something anyone would blow up from. I was actually concerned about where I might get my next job. I was like, I just hope this isn't the last one. Then the Film Independent Spirit Awards nominated me for Best Supporting Male, and I went to my first awards show. I was sitting at a table right over from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and was just like, Damn, okay—I didn't expect to be here this quickly.
When did things really start to feel different?
Maybe after Get Out, because I became a meme. Everyone noticed who I was if I walked outside. I got a little annoyed, actually, after a while. Not with the lovely people—just the ones who interrupt you when you're trying to eat pizza and stuff.
And the ones who want you to say, “Get out!”? You’re the only one in the movie who gets to say the title.
Yeah, I’m like, I’m not saying that. When I said, “Get out!” the first time, I remember thinking, I hope this ends up in the trailer, and it did. At the Oscars, I had a little bit where I had to run onstage and tell everyone in the audience to get out. And I remember seeing the outfit in the green room and thinking it’s crazy how iconic it became. People had started dressing up as me on Halloween. My mom had people coming to her door dressed as me!
Growing up, did you have a favorite film?
I loved The Lion King. My aunt assigned us all characters in it, and she made me Simba. I loved it—I was like, I’m Simba, and he’s going to be king! I just took my baby to see the newer one with the crazy graphics. I was crying, and my baby was looking at me like, Why are you crying? And I was like, I just love this movie. And it's so cool that you get to see it how I saw it when I was little.
Where was your first kiss?
On the playground, in kindergarten or first grade. But it really wasn't a first kiss. I just liked this girl and I thought, If you like a girl, you go kiss her. And so I ran up and kissed her on the cheek. And then, since we were on the playground, she was kind of sweaty so I had a bad taste in my mouth, and I threw up all over the playground. She was there and just kind of kept walking. So I got my karma for running up kissing people.
Did you ever speak again?
No. After that, I don't even know if I ever went to school again.