LaKeith Stanfield Didn't Want to Play His Oscar-Nominated 'Judas and the Black Messiah' Role at First

LaKeith Stanfield earned his first Oscar nomination for Judas and the Black Messiah. Stanfield plays William O’Neal, an FBI informant who helped the Bureau assassinate Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) in 1969. Stanfield said he had reservations about playing the role.

Stanfield spoke at a virtual summit for Judas and the Black Messiah on Feb. 2. He discussed his initial hesitation and how he came around to playing the role that earned him an Oscar nomination.

Lakeith Stanfield wanted to play Fred Hampton in ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

Stanfield admitted the Hampton role was the one that drew him. Director Shaka King had to break the news to Stanfield. 

When I first got the script, for some reason I just assumed I would be playing Fred. Didn’t even cross my mind that I would be playing anyone else. I was never told I’d be playing Fred. I guess it was just wishful thinking in retrospect. Then when I called Shaka and talked about the story early on, I said, ‘This is really exciting. I can’t wait to play Fred. I just kept talking and rambling. He just let me ramble for a while. Then he was like, ‘Uh, actually I was thinking about you for the role of William O’Neal.’ There was just silence, this pause.

Then LaKeith Stanfield learned more about William O’Neal 

Judas and the Black Messiah opens with a clip of O’Neals interview for Eyes on the Prize. O’Neal never quite expressed remorse for his involvement in Hampton’s death, but Stanfield saw something there. 

“After I actually saw Eyes on the Prize Extended, I got an indication that a lot of the exterior bravado he was bringing in the interview was sort of boring and secondary to me to what was in between the words he was saying,” Stanfield said. “To me, there was this sense of regret and there was this sense of I did something wrong, but let’s not talk about that. That was the thing I felt was more interesting than all that other stuff.”

He didn’t want to make William O’Neal too sympathetic in ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

Understanding his character is one thing. Stanfield still wanted to make sure Judas and the Black Messiah put O’Neal in the proper historical context. 

“I want to really get into what his fears were and hopefully making him more relatable to me can make him more relatable to people,” Stanfield said. “A lot of times I wouldn’t know if I was going too far, not far enough. Should I make him a little bit more crazy in this moment? Shaka helped me fine tune all those things to calm me down.”

Stanfield said that perhaps his conflict over O’Neal could manifest itself in the drama of Judas and the Black Messiah. 

“I had internal conflict the whole time with everything that the character was doing,” Stanfield said. “I was conflicted about it so I guess you can see that working in the character as well. You can see that I hate doing this. I hate being here.”

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