LaKeith Stanfield: “A lot of critics don’t understand the Black experience”

With his first Oscar nomination in the bag and a solo album pending, all eyes are on Hollywood's fastest rising star

It’s been a good few years for LaKeith Stanfield. Memorable supporting roles in Uncut Gems, Knives Out and Atlanta are fun to watch, while leads in dark comedy Sorry to Bother You and romantic drama The Photograph showcased an ability to flit between genres. But despite his impressive filmography and world-beating talent, the rising actor’s yet to head up a blockbuster and cement his A-list status. That is, until now.

“It’s safe to say that Judas and the Black Messiah is the most challenging role of my career,” says Stanfield of his new civil rights thriller. Typically laid back and understated, the West Coast star avoids long answers during our Zoom interview, but his favourite topic is clear. William O’Neal was a criminal turned FBI informant during the 1960s, infiltrating Fred Hampton’s Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. “It was a hard role to get into,” he admits. “I really cared about the subject matter. I wanted to take care with it.”

“‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is the most challenging role of my career”

Beyond its gripping plot and historical importance, Judas boasts top notch performances from its lead stars. Daniel Kaluuya brings the appropriate level of gravitas and charisma to Hampton, while Stanfield’s nuanced take adds insight and context to a man who is both villain and victim. It’s deservedly resulted in Oscar nominations for both actors (although, strangely, they’re in the ‘Supporting Actor’ category). Although fame and shiny statues aren’t what drives Stanfield.

“Is it nice to have accolades and people talking about the movie? Yeah, that’s great,” he says. “But we don’t really do it for that. We do it because we want to tell a good story.” Actually attending the events isn’t as fun as it used to be, either. ”You just look at the state of where we are. Nobody’s going to no awards ceremonies this year.” Yet a chance to win an Academy Award isn’t to be sniffed at, especially when you’ve worked so hard and battled the odds to get there.

Judas and the Black Messiah
LaKeith Stanfield (foreground) and Daniel Kaluuya (background) in ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’. Credit: Warner Bros.

Born in San Bernadino, California, in 1991, Stanfield grew up poor in nearby Victorville. When asked about his earliest memories, his answer is brief and to the point: “Hard times. That’s what I think about immediately.” Still, there was some light in the darkness. Stanfield’s aunt was an early benefactor of the young boy’s creativity. “I used to do these little shows for her,” he says. “I’d dance around and play different characters. Sometimes I put her wigs or older people’s clothes on and played different roles. She’d watch me till she fell asleep.”

Footage of Stanfield’s early shenanigans is sadly unavailable – “you don’t wanna see that” – but it’s clear that the relationship was of key importance in his childhood. His aunt even had a hand in deciding Stanfield’s first name: “My Dad apparently got his name from his Dad, who was drunk when he had him. He just said, ‘Name him LaGareth’. My older brother’s name is LaGareth [too]. My name was gonna be Keith, but then my aunt said, ‘You might as well put a La on there as well. Name him LaKeith.’ My younger brother, his name is also LaGareth. The other ones [Claryssa and Kamyra] didn’t get the La for whatever reason.”

Judas and the Black Messiah
With Jesse Plemons in ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’. CREDIT: Warner Bros.

It took a while for Stanfield’s acting career to really take off. When he was younger, he thought his future lay on stage. “I used to wanna do plays”, he says. But everything changed when he auditioned for a short film called Short Term 12 in 2008 (“That’s when I realised I could actually pursue movies”). Frustratingly, work grew scarce in the next five years, probably because – by Stanfield’s own admission – he wasn’t very good at auditioning. But in 2013, director Destin Daniel Cretton turned Short Term 12 into a feature and reconnected with Stanfield, who was almost ready to quit acting. It became an indie hit, racking up awards on the festival circuit – Stanfield its surprise scene-stealer.

Parts in Selma and Straight Outta Compton quickly followed, before the breakout gigs he’s best-known for (Get Out, Sorry To Bother You) took him to another level. “I’ve garnered a little bit of interest over the last year,” Stanfield says, modestly. “I have a good crew that helps me siphon through [the roles]. Then it’s just about whatever speaks to me.”

“Donald Glover has always had a wealth of knowledge”

Of course, what “speaks” to Stanfield isn’t always in scripts or on the big screen. Increasingly, it’s music. A quietly talented musician (his rapper name is Htiekal, which is his first name spelled backwards), LaKeith has been making music as one half of rap-duo MOORS since 2013. He’s also collaborated with the likes of Run the Jewels, Michael Kiwanuka and Jay-Z, who called him out of the blue to be in his Friends-inspired music video for 2017 track ‘Moonlight’.

But not even the hip-hop legend can top Stanfield’s number one mentor – that’s Donald Glover, his co-star in music biz drama Atlanta. “He’s always had a wealth of knowledge,” he says. “He just has a different perspective about everything. But then second to that is probably Jay-Z. The way he carries himself is quite inspiring.”

With an R&B-flavoured album on the way “in the next couple of months” and more celebrity collabs in the pipeline (he’s reluctant to spill details), Stanfield’s 2021 looks insanely busy. The rest of us, meanwhile, haven’t even finished unpacking his latest movie.

It’s a role which sees Stanfield reunite with Daniel Kaluuya. Though the former-Skins star dominated their horror smash Get Out and Stanfield appeared in only a handful of scenes, Judas and the Black Messiah has both stars sharing the spotlight.

“I didn’t really get to know him or meet him that much on Get Out,” says Stanfield. “We had conversations off-camera, but I wasn’t on set for more than like a week. On Judas, we had a lot more off-screen time to hang out together and discuss things, so I really got to know him a lot better through that. He’s just a beautiful guy.”

“Daniel Kaluuya is a beautiful guy”

Like Stanfield, Kaluuya is on an impressive journey. But, perhaps surprisingly, the two didn’t talk much about life as a Hollywood pin-up between takes. The bulk of the chat focused on their early days. “We actually discussed our childhood because we kind of grew up similarly,” says Stanfield. “In the sense that we both had a lot of things we had to struggle through and get through. It was nice to bond on that.”

It’s a good thing that Stanfield has some fun off-screen memories with Kaluuya, because to embody O’Neal he had to go to some dark places. As his FBI informant strives to maintain cover, Stanfield twitches and giggles nervously through many tense moments.

Judas and the Black Messiah
‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ reunited Stanfield with ‘Get Out’ co-star Daniel Kaluuya. CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Despite the tough job – made even harder by the fact O’Neal gave just one interview during his life – Stanfield’s is one of the buzziest performances of awards season. He’s racked up nominations (including at next month’s Oscars) and the film has also been lauded for its timeliness – arriving on the heels of last year’s pivotal Black Lives Matter protests.

While the praise is not undeserved, that term is beginning to feel reductive – especially when you consider how much else Judas has going for it. “To be honest with you, most Black films that I’m a part of – or even the ones I’m not in – the way that they’re critiqued is annoying,” Stanfield says. “Because I think a lot of people doing the critique don’t really understand the experience, so they kind of miss it a little bit.

“The way Black films are critiqued is annoying”

“But timely feels right because unfortunately a lot of stuff just hasn’t changed. Especially in how we relate to government and people that are non-white. And especially in America.”

Regardless of whether he attends this year’s Oscars, there’s a good chance that Stanfield will be invited back. Job offers are flying in at record speed – and he’s keen to diversify his output in the future. “I’ve done quite a few biopics for my short career, so those are great,” he says. “But I’d love to explore something more fictional and more fantastical. Stuff that deals with surrealism and magic and imagination. Things like that.”

And who might direct him? “I’d like to work with Ava [DuVernay] again” he says, referring to their 2014 stunner Selma. “Maybe Steven Soderbergh. Ryan Coogler. And the dude that did Parasite… Bong Joon Ho.”

LaKeith Stanfield
LaKeith Stanfield has just earned his debut Oscar nomination. CREDIT: Getty

Stanfield doesn’t just want to show off his own skills to these master craftsmen. He’s keen to borrow some trade secrets as well. “I definitely wanna get into directing more,” he says. “I’m trying to create my own stories. I’ve been directing all my music videos. I’m starting with that. I got a couple ideas that I think I wanna explore with some of my friends and direct those, and then I’m thinking about directing some TV if I can. Going into this year, I started shadowing some directors and seeing what they do and seeing the whole process. So hopefully I’ll have directed something by the end of the year.”

It’s likely that this will manifest itself on the new Atlanta episodes, due out in 2021 after an extended hiatus. For two seasons he has played Darius, one of the more eccentric members in Earn’s (Donald Glover) tight-knit group of friends. Stanfield is keeping schtum on the specifics of the show’s return, but will tell us one thing.

“I’m excited for the new season. So much has happened in the world. We got so much ammunition,” he says. “In fact, sometimes I think the world is crazier than anything we might be able to drum up. But I’m excited to go see all my friends again. It’s always a good time. And I miss everybody. I got to work with Zazie [Beetz] on The Harder They Fall, so that was really cool. And it’s gonna be great to see her and see everybody again.” Considering Stanfield’s blockbuster few years, they’ll have plenty to talk about.

‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ is now in cinemas