“I had to find a way to connect to his humanity”: LaKeith Stanfield on playing FBI informer William O’Neal

The actor, who plays informant William O’Neal in Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, discusses the film’s urgency and finding the humanity in villainy.

12 March 2021

By Nicholas Russell

Director and co-writer Shaka King directing LaKeith Stanfield in Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Judas and the Black Messiah is available to rent online from 11 March 2021.

In Judas and the Black Messiah, writer-director Shaka King’s new film about the assassination of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party and deputy chairman of the national BPP, at the age of 21 by police in 1969, LaKeith Stanfield FBI informant William O’Neal, the film ’s antagonist, opposite Daniel Kaluuya’s charismatic revolutionary. Nicholas Russell spoke to Stanfield about his performance.

This is your second time working with Shaka King, following the 2017 short LaZercism [▶︎]. Did you get involved in the project early on?

Shaka told me about it a while before I got the script. I thought I would be playing Fred. I was excited because it was so beautifully crafted. I called him, I was crying, and said, “I love this script. I can’t wait to play Fred.” And he’s like, “Um, actually we want you to play O’Neal!” I was a little thrown. But I read it again, and I realised there was an opportunity to explore something interesting.

LaKeith Stanfield as informant William O'Neal and Jesse Plemons as FBI agent Roy Mitchell in Judas and the Black Messiah

There’s an interesting similarity between the character you played in Sorry to Bother You [2018] and O’Neal in this movie: two black men convincing themselves that what they’re doing is worth the damage that’s being incurred.

Hmm. I had to wrestle with the contentions that I had in order to play O’Neal as a human being. O’Neal did some things that I found reprehensible, but I had to find a way to connect to his humanity. What made him make these decisions at these crossroads? What were the things that he was triggered by, that he’d been through, that I could bring to the forefront? I had to understand him as an overall being, rather than the archetype of a villain character.

At one point in the film there’s a juxtaposition between a recreated interview from the great 1989 Eyes on the Prize documentary series, and the actual footage. You and the real O’Neal are close, but it doesn’t seem like you’re forcing an impersonation. Did you to do a lot of research?

I did research, but it was pretty limited. There wasn’t a lot of information available. Because all I have is data – he’s no longer here. I’m sure [O’Neal] went by many different names, did a lot of different operations. What we did have was quite valuable, which was the interview from Eyes on the Prize. That let me know, by the way that he looked in his countenance and the way he moved, how he felt about certain things. I wanted to leave it at that.

LaKeith Stanfield with Shaka King filming Judas and the Black Messiah

There’s obvious relevance to the film right now. It feels like this year non-Black people started paying attention. This film adds to that feeling. Did you have a sense of the urgency while making it?

Well, yeah, we’re living in it. We’re going through the transition. We were filming right up to Covid, right before shit got really crazy. But as an artist you’re always taking in information. We realised that the landscape of America was on shaky ground. We knew we were on the brink of some sort of change. So we felt there were a lot of things that parallel with the story. Much has changed in our relationship to government and our relationship to ourselves, but much has remained the same. In some senses that’s sad, but in others it’s inspiring, because we knew that we were telling the right story.

Do you hope that this film starts a conversation?

I hope people can see themselves in the characters – both of them, but most importantly Fred. The courageousness of what it means to be a person like that. What’s on the line, and what will be on the line as we move forward. Things are getting more complicated and we have decisions to make about our personal selves and how we affect others. I hope people question what side of the fence they find themselves.

When you make movies, sometimes they’re entertaining and sometimes they also can have meaning that can help steer the course of how people make decisions. And it’s a beautiful thing to be able to tell a story like this, because it puts you in a position to ask: “Do I want to be Fred or do I want to be O’Neal?” And we do have a choice.

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