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How Daniel Kaluuya Became Fred Hampton for Judas and the Black Messiah

The Get Out and Black Panther star breaks down one of the most electrifying performances of the season, from finding that iconic voice to tapping into Hampton's fiercely original mind.

by | February 16, 2021 | Comments

The world didn’t really need more evidence that Daniel Kaluuya was a once-in-a-generation talent: In just a few years, he has wowed us in Get Out, collecting an Oscar nomination for his efforts; terrified us with a scene-stealing turn in Widows; and given us an irresistible and charismatic modern spin on one half of the Bonnie and Clyde equation in 2019’s Queen and Slim. Since 2015 he’s had something of a golden touch, with every one of his live-action films Certified Fresh.

But even his acclaimed and awarded work in those titles didn’t prepare many moviegoers for what was to come this February: His electric turn as former Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton, in director Shaka King‘s Judas and the Black Messiah.

The landmark performance – Golden Globe and SAG nominated so far, and a hot favorite for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar – comes in a film that is anything but your typical biopic. Rather than telling the story of Hampton’s life, Khan and screenwriter Will Berson (along with Kenny and Keith Lucas, who worked on the story) home in on the betrayal by FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a nervy and opportunistic young criminal who infiltrates the Party and befriends Hampton to tragic ends.

Judas is a showcase for Kaluuya in its biggest and most rousing moments – as Hampton commands a church or classroom – as well as its most intimate, when we get glimpses into the revolutionary’s humanity through his friendship with O’Neal or relationship with girlfriend Deborah (Dominique Fishback). With the Certified Fresh movie earning buzz as viewers catch it in theaters and on HBO Max, Kaluuya sat down with Rotten Tomatoes’ Jacqueline Coley to break down how he became the fiery and thoughtful Civil Rights icon.

Judas and the Black Messiah

(Photo by Glen Wilson /© Warner Bros. )

“I went to Chicago for a week, that was the tipping point in my research.”

“I think there was a tipping point when I went to Chicago by myself for a week. That was the tipping point [in my research process]. I would not call it more important than anything else [I did to prepare], because I think everything is as important, even small details, but it was a tipping point in terms of, ‘Cool, I feel I am in here.’ I needed to get into that space and just completely focus on him for a week in order to sit in a certain position and be the vessel that I’m aspiring to be.”

“That day on set was me shedding the icon-ness of him and really embodying him.”

“It was the first day, probably halfway through the first day, when he was at the Young Patriots [meeting in the film] – that was the first day, and I was really nervous, and I think something was not working. The scene wasn’t working, and then we managed to figure out why it was not working. I think it was the first time I had done the voice and had everything in a scene. Halfway through the scene, it was just, ‘We will be okay because I think I tapped [it].’ That day was me shedding the icon-ness of him, and I actually was really embodying him. I had to wear it for half a day in order to feel it and then go, ‘This fits.’ It was halfway through the first day when I realized: I am playing a man who has a goal and loves this group of people.”

Judas and the Black Messiah

(Photo by Glen Wilson /© Warner Bros. )

“I needed to get into his thinking to be able to move in a space of his speech.”

“I looked for people that sound similar to chairman Fred and just there were none; he has a very distinct way of speaking, and I just had to focus on him. If speech really is a window into how you think, I needed to get into his thinking to be able to move in a space of his speech. Why does this rhythm make sense? Why am I saying this? How are the new thoughts igniting from the thought before – igniting in a different way? Which is why you’re speaking that way. You see that in the classroom scene. He can take his time, but then the turn is… pow! And that’s what’s quite thrilling about the way he speaks. I saw that from watching him: It is: this, this, this and boom; this, this, this and boom, another direction. And no one can even see that turn. I needed to process those thoughts in that way in order to replicate the rhythm.”

“I found old-school Richard Pryor tapes to find if there was anything that would feed what was building up.”

“I think that’s the alarming thing I found about chairman Fred: There was no comparison. There was no touchstone, that I could go, ‘I get it.’ When I read [the script], I said, ‘This is brand-new.’ I have never seen what the hell is happening here. I remember Shaka did have two touchstones that he thought of that helped me access the voice, actually: It was Bernie Mac, and then he mentioned Richard Pryor. It is not something that I had internalized, but he was saying that the command that they had over an audience was similar [to Fred’s]. And I think they’re both Illinois, they’re both from Chicago, and Richard Pryor was definitely the era. I know I found old-school Richard Pryor tapes, and I was listening to that to find if there was anything that would feed what was building up. I wanted specific ones – but the ones from 1968, ’69, you cannot find them.”

Judas and the Black Messiag

(Photo by © Warner Bros.)

“I wouldn’t compare him to Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. He absorbed those ideas and created something new. That is the genius of him”

“I think knowing that he listened to Malcolm X and listened to Martin Luther King in his regular day, in order to build his oratorical abilities, gave me a window into his thinking even more. But I wouldn’t compare him to Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. He absorbed those ideas and created something new. That is the genius of him. He absorbed all these ideas and created something original. Original thoughts, and an original way, that hasn’t been seen again in the public domain. That was probably the biggest mountain, I had no touchstone.”

“For me that’s what separates the movie: it is a genre piece.”

“Shaka, the Lucas brothers, and Will Berson’s decision to make it a genre piece made it accessible for crime viewers and thriller watchers – it is a similar narrative to Donnie Brasco or The Departed or those kinds of films. And so in that sense, if someone loves that sort of narrative, they are going to be drawn into it and meet this world and these politics and these views and these perspectives and chairman Fred Hampton. For me that’s what separates it: It is a genre piece, as opposed to just being about educating and informing people about the Black Panther Party. What did Ryan [Coogler, who produced the film] and Shaka say? ‘You put the medicine in the food’ – that’s how they saw it.”

Judas and the Black Messiah

(Photo by Glen Wilson /© Warner Bros. )

“I think LaKeith and I were both in service of Chairman Fred. That’s the reality.”

“Shaka said it today: What O’Neal isn’t shows you what Chairman Fred is. He says it way more articulate than I just said it… But I think it’s that you can’t appreciate the light without the dark. That’s just life, that’s just truth, that’s law. I think LaKeith and I were both in service of Chairman Fred. That’s the reality. I have heard LaKeith articulate that for himself, in order to access what depths and places that he had to go to. I think we just kind of sat in that truth and supported each other on days that we needed support. On certain days where he had to do some really intense stuff, I was there, like, ‘Yo, what do you need?’ And when there were days where I needed to do that stuff, he was there, yeah: ‘Dan, what you do need?’

Judas and the Black Messiah is in theaters and available on HBO Max now.

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