Daniel Kaluuya On Playing Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton In ‘Judas And The Black Messiah’: “The Biggest Version Of Me Had To Show Up”

In taking on the role of chairman Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah, 31-year-old Daniel Kaluuya took on the biggest role of his career. Up until now, the British-born Oscar-nominated actor’s been a major part of critically and commercially well-received films like Get Out and Black Panther, and commanded the screen in movies that are revolutionary just by their existence, Widows and Queen & Slim. But his latest role for Judas, which plays out the story of the informer who helped the FBI assassinate the civil rights leader, is one that required a lot of introspection, much research and daily dialect work.

“It’s because it’s Fred Hampton,” he tells Deadline, on a Zoom call from London, when asked about what made him say yes to playing the iconic figure in American history. 

Deadline: You seem to have a knack for working with really exciting directors, who have such clear visions of what they want to say. What had you known of director Shaka King and what made you want to work with him?

Daniel Kaluuya: Ryan [Coogler, director and producer] introduced us and so I always really respect Ryan’s view on people, point blank, in and out of the industry. So I sat down with Shaka and, for me, you can see where someone’s at, in terms of the reasons why they do it. If their reasons are aligned, and it’s about something more than just themselves, it’s usually more likely to produce a story that’s likely to elevate, to resonate. But also it’s kind of an instinct, I don’t really consciously think about it. It’s just kind of like, ‘Oh, this makes sense.’ And I don’t question why it makes sense. Things rarely, in the world we live in, they rarely make sense. But Shaka’s an incredible person. He really cares and is really collaborative, and really has the vision at the same time. So it was a joy to work with Shaka. I feel very blessed.

Deadline: The film is a Fred Hampton biopic, but it’s more than that too — it deals with the broken systems that still are operating in the US, and freedom and hate and brotherhood. What made you say yes to playing Fred Hampton?

Kaluuya: It’s because it’s Fred Hampton. He is a figure that encapsulates so much of what people today are fighting for in America, and around the world. And he was a channel. He was murdered at 21 and he was a channel, a vessel for all these incredible ideas, incredible philosophies, that are still being used today. And what the Black Panther party represented, as well, really resonated with me, and really resonated with how I see the world, and how I want the world to be. So it was that. And it was also working with Shaka, working with Lakeith [Stanfield, co-star], working with Ryan, working with Charles [King, producer] and Macro [King’s production company], all of those factors, it was like so many stars aligned. So, it just made sense.

Deadline: Because it is Fred Hampton, like you say, I imagine there’s also a lot of responsibility and scrutiny to play this part. How do you put that aside and just focus on doing what you do best?

Kaluuya: I think you put it aside by accepting it, and going, ‘This is real, this is a responsibility.’ If you ignore it, it will just fester and manifest in a way that you won’t have control over. So I accept it, listen in conversations, ask questions. For me, it was really important to have the family’s blessing. So I took myself to Chicago and opened up to see the family. And we eventually got to see the family, Fred Hampton Jr. and Mama Akua [Njeri, Hampton Jr’s mother]. I just accept the conversation, accept the responsibility. Then you can put it to the side and do your job. If you understand what it is, you can contextualize what it is, and go, ‘Okay cool, these are real things. These are valid things.’ And then just go, ‘Alright, put that to the side, I’m still here to do a job.’ And if I go, ‘Oh well, there’s all these other factors that come in, that’s why I couldn’t do it, that’s why I couldn’t learn my lines.’ No one cares. I mean, with love, not in a dismissive way. No one cares, you’ve got to show up and do what I’ve been working for.

Deadline: Does that go for criticism about you being a British actor playing an American person too?

Kaluuya: Yeah. Because to be real, it’s triggering for generations of African-Americans and you have to address it, and accept it, and have the conversation, and then interrogate your reasons for doing a project, and your reasons why you’re going in, and going, ‘Does the pros outweigh the cons of it?’ And then if it does, then you move forward. If you don’t, then you don’t. That’s why I don’t ignore the conversation. I try not to block it and ignore the conversation, let it flow. I just believe that we are stronger together as a diaspora. And I want to help that union, and if people don’t want to unite, then that’s what they want. I can’t force them.

Deadline: Chairman Fred Hampton, as he was known, was 21 when he died. If you look at video footage of him on YouTube, he seems older than he was. How did you work on capturing his magnetism?

Kaluuya: I feel like he wasn’t his age, he was his purpose. He was what he felt he needed to be for the people he was talking to and awakening. When you are in those positions spiritually, a wiser and older age is projected upon you. Because we aren’t our ages, we are our experiences. He understood and felt the responsibility of changing the course of history for his people. And hopefully that would cause a kind of avalanche around the world. So I feel like I just had to see him as a spirit and go, ‘What’s his purpose here?’ And just lead with that. Because I don’t think he led with his age. I think he led with how much he loved people, and how much he wanted to care for the people.

Deadline: You also take on another American accent, which is very different to the ones that you’ve done in Queen and Slim, Widows, and Get Out. What kind of prep did you do for that?

Kaluuya: Oh, so much prep. So much prep. I just worked on it with Audrey LeCrone, my dialect coach, who’s amazing. I asked her, ‘Please be honest. I want to feel confident when I’m out there.’ We just drilled it every day. This is like a couple months before the shoot, every day we just drilled it, drilled it, drilled it. I watched footage or listened to audio. And then I would record the session, and then listen to it back when I was at the gym, and then go back and then mend stuff bit by bit. But it really was a situation where, drop by drop, a river is formed. So we just have to show up every day and do a little bit, and then hopefully it will grow into a fully formed interpretation that’s honoring his spirit.

Deadline: Would you say that this is the biggest role you’ve done? The most important for you that you’ve taken on?

Kaluuya: Yeah. 1000%. If I’m being brutally honest, it’s a huge weight, a huge responsibility. And he’s a huge man, he’s a huge spirit. His words were big. The biggest version of me had to show up, in order for me to even hold the words in the way that they needed or were warranted.

Deadline: Did you feel like something had changed for you inside, after playing this part?

Kaluuya: Yeah, I think there was a lot of unpacking and untying my way out of it, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. It was like, ‘Okay, you went to a serious place there.’ The weight on those people during that time was real, the thoughts and beliefs that they were having in order to say the things they were saying, with as much feeling that they felt, in order to ignite the people who they were trying to ignite, had that weight. It’s hard to be conscious of that weight, and not feel different as a result of it. I’ve had a window into a perspective that not a lot of people my age, or in my generation, would know. So it does change you, and it gives you a deeper understanding into a lot of things. Why things work the way they work, and you just see more. You’re more aware.

Deadline: It’s hard not to think of Breonna Taylor, when you watch those scenes of Fred Hampton being killed in his home while he sleeps, by the FBI. The films you’re in seem to have a eerie timeliness to them…Do you feel like making these films, they’re always going to have this resonance until something fundamentally changes within our world, within society?

Kaluuya: What I go out to find is the truth. And how do you tell the truth? I think that’s what art is, it’s articulating and visualizing things that people are too scared to say normally. Just say it and going, ‘This is it.’ How it resonates as a result, is just to do with timing. That can’t be manufactured. When we were filming it, it was pre the murder of George Floyd. There was a different level of consciousness about this. I’m not saying it was devoid of it, it was just a different level. So if you just tell the truth, then things happen. When we shot Get Out, Obama was still in office, and then when it came out, Trump was there. Then that changed how people viewed the film. That’s out of your control. All you can do is tell the truth. And then when it comes out, how people take it, and where people are at when they’re taking it, is just that.

Deadline: In terms of your research, did you learn things about the Black Panther party you didn’t know about before?

Kaluuya: Yeah I learnt loads. Shaka gave me the Black Panther Party reading list, which is basically the political education that they needed to have before they were a fully-fledged member of the party. So I’ve read the majority of books on that, and just understanding that, from the outside looking in, they were perceived as antagonists. However, they were doing such amazing work in their communities. They were feeding kids before school, because a lot of kids were going hungry. They were educating kids before school, they were opening medical centers, they were trying to open medical centers to heal the vulnerable within the community. Whether it’s diabetes or sickle cell, even helping the Hispanic community. It alludes to it in the film, that they also formed a rainbow coalition, with the Young Patriots, which is an all-white organization, that was their enemy. I mean, they were doing a lot of great work. Something that Shaka always said is, ‘There’s so much information about Fred Hampton’s death. And we’re trying to show how incredibly he lived his life.’ I went to his old school in Chicago, I went to his old home, all his old homes, and just felt the vibe of the city, and spoke to people that knew people that knew him.

Deadline: You worked with Lakeith Stanfield again, although this time you have scenes with him. He had a difficult role to take on too?

Lakeith is an incredible performer, and an incredible soul, and knowing that he was a part of it, I was like, oh yeah, I’m in the right place. We workshopped a lot of the scenes in rehearsals, and obviously in the read through, and it kind of just built, built, built. But we honored each other’s processes at the same time. We supported each other on those really intense days in the film, where Lakeith especially, needed support because there were certain scenes that we shot, like on the 50th anniversary — that was a huge scene when we shot the drugging of chairman Fred. That was a tough day. You’ve just got to support each other in what each person needs.