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Lakeith Stanfield leaps onto the A-List with Oscar-nomination

Words by Rob Chilton

A magnetic performance in Judas and the Black Messiah is a turning point for the actor

William O’Neal is an important figure in Black History but you probably don’t know the name. Don’t be embarrassed though, because the actor who portrays him in new movie Judas and the Black Messiah had no idea who he was either.

“I’d never heard of him,” admits Lakeith Stanfield. “But I’m happy to tell his story.” O’Neal was an FBI informant in the late 1960s who infiltrated the Black Panther Party and brought down the inspirational chairman of its Illinois chapter Fred Hampton.

“I researched his court transcripts and I saw his bravado and also his regret,” explains Stanfield. “He was sneaky, smart, a thrill-seeker. I had to find the humanity and the truth in him and that took me a long time.”

Stanfield (right) with Dominique Thorne and Daniel Kaluuya

Stanfield co-stars with Daniel Kaluuya in the movie directed by Shaka King that has garnered six Oscar nominations: cinematography, original screenplay, song, movie and two best supporting actor nods for Stanfield and Kaluuya, who has already won a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for his performance.

While Kaluuya has the stirring speeches in the movie, it’s Stanfield as the anxious, twitchy O’Neal that critics have found mesmerising. Stanfield feels the telling of O’Neal’s story was important. “A lot of history books gloss over the Black Panthers,” he begins. “They did a lot of beautiful things, not just for black people but for all people. It was about the liberation of all people. I was moved by it.”

Back catalogue

The California born star started out in modelling but since moving into acting has quietly gone about his work, appearing in Selma, Straight Outta Compton, Get Out, Uncut Gems, Knives Out and Donald Glover’s TV show Atlanta. But it’s his magnetic performance in Judas and the Black Messiah – and the deserved Oscar nomination – that should propel Stanfield into the mainstream.

Christopher Patey/Getty Contour Stanfield is up for an Oscar on April 26

It’s a transition that he continues to deal with and meditation, he says, has helped him. “I’m finding ways to balance it all out,” he says. “It’s a strange, weird and new world I’m in now – especially in LA where there's a lot of energy – but I’m finding ways to have fun with it. I’m grateful to be in a position that I always wanted to be in.”

Admitting he’s “always been described as quirky or weird or strange,” Stanfield has done well for someone who wasn’t comfortable at auditions. “I’d always get super nervous, I’d feel judged and intimidated,” he says. “I failed so much, I thought ‘Forget it’. Once you throw it out the window you find your power because then you realise you don’t have to overthink it.”

Unlike many actors, Stanfield watches his performances to improve and “see the things that need to be attacked.” Although he seems to have an effortless style on screen, Stanfield feels it’s a constant process of hard work. “I love this craft so much, but it isn’t easy. It’s challenging for me to get into these different characters and do these things. But I like that challenge, I enjoy pushing myself. I’m always looking to push myself a little bit further.”

Story teller

As seen with his character in Judas and the Black Messiah, Stanfield hopes his performance as O’Neal may enlighten audiences today. “I don’t think that I’m a politician or a holier-than-thou figure, but I do have a lot of people watching me so I might be able to help,” he says.

A recent convert to therapy, Stanfield believes opening up will add depth to his acting. “I realised I had a lot of pain and that has to come across in my performances,” he says. “I want to use that devastation I’ve experienced in my life to help tell stories and inspire people and bring some healing – that’s a beautiful thing.”

Playing a detective alongside Daniel Craig in Knives Out

Things are continuing to open up in his career, says the actor who names courage as his greatest asset and planning as his greatest weakness. “I'm very chaotic and sporadic and random,” he smiles. A natural on the red carpet – probably down to his modelling experience – Stanfield won’t let success go to his head. “This game is very fickle,” he says. “You never know where your next job is going to come from. It happens very quickly so you have to constantly be aware. It's a scary, trippy game to operate in.”

The Oscars are held on April 26

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