The celebrated actor talks fatherhood, God of War and being outspoken as a Black leading man
So it’s a shock to see Judge contained on a small screen, in a Zoom call. When I joined our remote meeting, he was already leaning forward into the camera, laughing with a pair of PR people. As we started talking, he nodded earnestly as we went on about families and Christmas plans. Judge’s, in fact, had fallen apart.
“We were gonna rent a motor home, like in the old days. We were gonna take a road trip,” Judge said, lamenting the vacation that never was. Fresh off overwhelming critical praise for his performance in “God of War Ragnarok” — including a Best Performance win at the 2022 Game Awards — Judge was mostly concerned about the family trip.
In the corner of the modest office space he spoke from, a poster from 2018’s “God of War” and a painting of Frederick Douglass hung on opposite walls.
A Los Angeles native, Judge entered the world of acting after a couple of successful seasons playing defensive back for the University of Oregon. (An old Oregon stat book puts him at 6′2″). But football was always meant to be a steppingstone to an acting career, and that career began with stints on shows like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “21 Jump Street,” and “MacGyver.” It wasn’t until 1997 that Judge would find his place in the cosmos as Teal’c of Chulak on the sci-fi series “Stargate SG-1.”
Teal’c was a fully realized Black man in a sci-fi epic, not an amorphous blob or barbaric alien. But in 2007, the series was suddenly canceled, stunning fans of the 10-year journey that saw the scripted show reach 200 episodes — no small feat. Judge’s role in that series, and his career since then, is evidence of a larger truth about Black men in science fiction and fantasy: That if given the room, we could be the leads.
At his core, Judge is a family man. But there’s a broader community he’s also deeply concerned for: Black actors working in a space where the lead doesn’t often look like Judge.
“We — and when I say ‘we,’ I’m talking about the sci-fi, fantasy, gaming community — are supposed to be the most inclusive, open-minded, educated genre of fans that there is,” Judge said. “But behind the scenes, it’s still the same people and the same structure that are making the decisions.”
Allowing Black creatives to flourish starts with honestly discussing the state of the entertainment industry. Last year, Judge hosted a panel titled Elevating Black Voices in Sci-Fi, featuring standout talent in the fields of writing, content creation and acting. He got real with the panel when asked about the hostility Black people face in the field.
“I knew when I got the gig what was coming with it,” Judge said.
As recently as September 2021, Matt Sophos, God of War’s narrative director, called out a “vocal sliver” of players bemoaning the addition of a Black character to “Ragnarok”: Angrboda, known as the “mother of monsters” in Norse mythology. Critiquing the casting of a Black actor for the role, some on social media used overtly racist language. (Despite this, Laya DeLeon Hayes turned in a stellar performance.)
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Judge takes personal responsibility for opening doors and addressing racial disparities in the industry.
“One of the things I feel guiltiest about [is that] I haven’t made it easier for anyone else,” he said. Of course, that’s not entirely true. I reminded Judge of his place among the stars — more specifically, among those Black stars who have paved the way: Avery Brooks as Benjamin Lafayette Sisko, LeVar Burton’s Lt. Commander La Forge, the late, great Nichelle Nichols as Nyota Uhura.
Still, Judge said he hasn’t always been outspoken enough. “I haven’t been honest enough about what goes on in rooms and on sets,” he said. “I haven’t protected any of these younger people.”
He’s trying to fix that.
“Stargate SG-1’s” cancellation in 2007 was followed closely by the Writers Guild of America strike and the Great Recession. It was an inflection point, and a shock to the industry. For Judge, the realization of his resume’s deflating value quickly became clear.
“When things did pick back up, the whole landscape had changed,” Judge said. “Your quotes meant nothing, what you had just come off of meant nothing, because everyone needed to work.
“My agent sent me this [“God of War”] script and first I was offended,” Judge said, laughing. From the script, he assumed it was a blockbuster movie, way out of his league. “Finally, she admitted it was a video game. Then I was even madder.”
Judge was also worried about voice acting. He had never done it before.
“I didn’t have that capability of those wonderful voice actors who have a million voices and could break into them and dazzle you,” Judge said. “I have one voice. And that’s deep. Maybe two voices; [the other] is deeper.”
Still, his agent encouraged him to go to the audition. When she called after to ask how it went, he could only reply: “I don’t know?”
The evolution of Kratos: Brutality, fatherhood and redemption
At the audition, Judge also participated in a chemistry test alongside a ten-year-old, Sunny Suljic. (A “little shrimp,” Judge joked). Dwarfed by Judge’s massive frame, Suljic was surprisingly unafraid of his deep voice and massive presence. The two immediately clicked, with Judge leaning on his experience as a father.
“I’ve had ten-year-olds,” he said, describing the process of wrapping his head around the project. Kratos is also a father, a fact that animates some of the key tensions of both most recent God of War games — and inextricably links the character to Judge.
Kratos, fatherhood, and self-love
Kratos, the vengeful demigod and main character of the God of War series, spends much of his time seeking retribution for the death of his family in the earlier titles. We learn that his father, Zeus, had betrayed him. The two engage in multiple battles — and they are brutal.
Kratos debuted in 2005’s “God of War”; Judge didn’t portray the character until the game’s second “era,” which began in 2018. But the demigod’s backstory has parallels to Judge’s relationship with his father.
“My father was an evil, violent man,” Judge said. “I say that the only two things he ever gave me were a love of golf, and alcoholism.” (On the bright side, he credits his mother with his love of language and learning).
Judge has been vocal over the years about his struggles with alcohol and sobriety; he’s said before that getting a second DUI saved his life.
“In the course for your first DUI [they ask,] do you think you’ll drink again?” Judge said. “I was like, ‘Yea, I’ll just be more careful about it,’ because I hadn’t admitted to myself yet that I was an alcoholic.”
It was Dorothy Perkins, Judge’s addiction counselor, who he says “wouldn’t stand for all my tricks” after he coasted through the first course he was required to take after his DUI. When it came time to take a second course, Perkins didn’t let him avoid the task of addressing his addiction — and the way it damaged his sense of self and personal relationships — head on.
“She cut me to the quick, [and it] was painful,” Judge said. “I adored that woman for that.”
Judge said there was a lot he had to come to grips with about his relationship with his father. One thing became crystal clear, though: He didn’t ever want to have that kind of relationship with his own children.
“[Kratos is] so representative of all men of a certain age that we’re not taught how to father,” Judge said. “Playing Kratos opened the conversation to [that dynamic], and when I hear someone say they’ve been estranged from their father but this [game] opened the door to conversations, that’s the most rewarding thing there is.”
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In the context of that kind of relationship, Judge says it absolutely matters that he’s a Black man.
“I learned at a very early age that violence was the answer to everything,” Judge said. “If I was called n—–, somebody was gonna get an a– beating.”
But he says he learned all the wrong lessons back then. Punching first and talking later left bruises on him that he’d carry into his adulthood.
“This conversation is so important for Black fathers to have with their Black sons, because the thing that we’re given is survive,” Judge said. “We’re not taught to be loving, to be accepting, to be someone else’s hero.”
A lot of Kratos’ journey centers on forgiveness and self-love; it’s territory Judge says he’s long worked at cultivating.
“The first game wasn’t easy, emotionally, but it was healing,” Judge said. “So, to have the relationship I have with my children now is so fulfilling. [The first “God of War”] was a thank you to them for letting me be better.”
“Ragnarok,” though, was different. “This was about my s—,” Judge said.
When “God of War” released in 2018 for the PlayStation 4, Judge’s Kratos was a reimagining — albeit one that alluded to his rage-filled past. Players met his son Atreus, portrayed by Suljic, and learned that his mother, Kratos’s wife, recently died. The two embark on a journey to scatter her ashes. At first, Kratos is a cold and abrasive presence in Atreus’s life.
“Ragnarok” revealed a more emotional Kratos, willing to listen to Atreus in ways he rarely did in the 2018 title. It also explores the vulnerabilities of a father quickly realizing his missteps as a parent.
In one major scene toward the end of “Ragnarok,” Atreus tells his father that it’s time to let him go out on his own. After quietly taking the moment in, Kratos suddenly comes across a hidden triptych, one of several wooden murals that appear throughout the game, displaying a powerful prophecy wherein he’s revered rather than feared by the people around him.
“Especially because of my relationship with my father, I grew up [thinking] I wasn’t worthy of love, and that I couldn’t love anyone,” Judge said. “But that came from not knowing what love is to give anybody.”
Judge remembered looking in the mirror in his teens and not loving what he saw.
“You can’t love anybody until you love yourself, and that’s what ‘Ragnarok’ represented for me,” he said.
The scene broke him down emotionally. After he gathered himself, Eric Williams, the game’s director, came over and embraced him.
“Eric looks at me and says, ‘You okay?’ and I say ‘Yeah.’ Then he said ‘That was great … now give us one [take] we could use,’” Judge said, laughing.
Jamal Michel is a freelance journalist based in North Carolina. He’s written for NPR, Wired, Poynter, and focuses on culture in digital media.