Lakeith Stanfield Talks ‘Judas and the Black Messiah,’ “ I want to do impactful work”

The actor thinks that “we might have hit a pause on progression.”

Few actors have experienced career growth in Hollywood within the last decade that rivals Lakeith Stanfield. He's graduated from being a reliable indie supporting actor to a leading man; even if you don't recognize his name just yet, you've probably seen him on screen. 

His undeniably magnetic charm and acting chops make him convincing as the oddball sidekick of a regional rapper (Atlanta), a detective on a murder case (Knives Out), a petty high school bully (Dope); the protagonist in a love story (The Photograph), and, well, Snoop Dogg (Straight Outta Compton). But it's Stanfield's latest role as a real-life FBI informant who took down Black Panther Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah (out Feb. 12) that might be his career-maker, as the film is already garnering Oscar buzz.   

Stanfield's not slowing down; pandemic be damned. He's on deck for an upcoming western, The Harder They Fall with Idris Elba, and he's working on his debut album, Self-Control, scheduled to drop this year. He spoke to about Judas on Zoom from his home in Beverly Hills.

BET: What's it like opening a film during the pandemic?

LS: I think it's less stressful for sure. I get to spend extra time with my family and not be on the other side of the country, so I'm grateful for that. But it is strange… everything's different. I like actual human contact; face-to-face is just better for sure. But there's a silver lining: people can enjoy it at their leisure if they're not in a market where they can go out.

BET: One of Judas' most compelling parts is how you channel Bill O'Neal's inner torture. What was your motivation? 

LS: I was also dealing with internal conflict with even having to play the character. In the beginning, I had sort of a blanket judgment about Bill O'Neal because we didn't know much about him other than he's the one that had supplied the floor plans to get Fred Hampton eventually killed. That was enough for me. F--- this guy. I hate this guy. He's a snake and a snitch. I realized that that wouldn't be useful in unlocking the multitude of facets that reside in what it means to be human. You may be a character that people wouldn't even want to be around, but you still want something. And Bill O'Neal wanted freedom just like Fred did. He just went about it differently. 

BET: So, how did you manage that resentment towards the character? 

LS: I wanted to hate him, but I had to be honest with myself: If you're in these situations, how might you react if you had no other options? Are more people going to make the decision Bill O'Neal made, or are more people going to make the decision Fred Hampton made? More people will probably do what Bill did because they want to survive. We'd like to think that we would be Fred Hampton, but most people ain't him. He was a remarkable individual, metaphorically speaking, he was a Jesus figure. But I also didn't want to go too far in making him so relatable that you don't see the wrong in what he was doing. It was a really hard balance, and every day on set, I'd be scared that I was f*** up and portraying this guy inaccurately. Shaka [King], the director, would have to let me know where I am in the balance since he had the movie's overall view. I hope people watching it get a sense of that balance.

BET: Some of the themes Judas tackles are especially poignant right now. What do you think about the film dropping in this climate? 

LS: It seems like we might have hit a pause on progression. There hasn't been too much that's changed. It's always interesting to look at the government's role in stoking flames and how it has been directly involved in some of these protests. Think about O'Neill and how he was able to infiltrate; the government hasn't changed. They're still infiltrating and creating chaos by saying this group or that group is bad – Proud Boys, Black Lives Matter, or whatever. In preparing to portray Bill, I got to study the FBI and how they sow division by using intelligence and information, disinformation and propaganda. The central theme is we're all separated; choosing someone to hate is not the solution. I'm not saying that I know what the solution is, but I know separation is not good for us. Hopefully, this film allows us to remind ourselves of what can happen if this stuff goes unchecked.

BET: You're known for candidly speaking your mind in interviews and on social media. How do you reconcile that with your growing popularity? 

LS: I have been [acting] for about eight years, and I've matured a lot. When I started, I felt I had a statement to make. I didn't like the way everyone had a blanketed idea about what a Black man should be and how he should carry himself. As I've grown, I'm not preoccupied with making statements. I want to tell stories. I want to do impactful work. I want to make music and work with people who care about their art and want to tell a good story. Hopefully, I can say something or be a part of something that inspires.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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