Daniel Kaluuya: “My life’s mad, I can’t even process it”

Thanks to life-altering roles in satirical horror 'Get Out’, Marvel's ‘Black Panther’ and now zeitgeist-y thriller ‘Queen & Slim’, former ‘Skins’ star Daniel Kaluuya has forced Hollywood to check its privilege. Paul Bradshaw meets the reluctant British icon who’s changing the game without looking like he’s even playing it

Reel Talk is NME’s weekly interview feature with the biggest names in film and TV

Tipping his armchair back in London’s Soho Hotel, trainers propped up on a coffee table, Daniel Kaluuya gives away as little as he possibly can. This is the guy who sold hit horror Get Out with a single, terrified look – the same actor whose carefully controlled performances worked so well for everything from sci-fi anthology Black Mirror to Marvel’s Black Panther. Face motionless, eyes lowered, he listens without reacting and only crackles with energy when he needs to. For a profession that’s often dominated by big egos trying to elbow their way to the mic, it’s rare to find an actor who knows how to listen.

“I think that it’s really hard to show restraint,” says Kaluuya. “That’s what we do as human beings, because of protocol and social conditioning, but to be on the big screen and have a big moment and restrain it… that’s far more honest than it is to actually show what you can do.”

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Daniel Kaluuya
Credit: Universal

Picking up a BAFTA Rising Star award in 2018, the same year he got an Oscar nomination for Get Out, Kaluuya has become one of Hollywood’s hottest properties. Parts in pacy Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave) thriller Widows and the aforementioned Black Panther quickly followed, but it’s new film Queen & Slim that has cemented his reputation as one of the most exciting young British actors around.

Starring as Slim alongside Jodie Turner-Smith’s Queen, Kaluuya plays one half of a modern day odd couple, caught up in a random stop and search on their way home from a dud Tinder date. An accident involving a trigger-happy cop sets off a series of events that sends them both on the run across a deeply divided America. Neither “the black Bonnie And Clyde” nor “the new Thelma & Louise”, Queen & Slim is very much its own animal – with music video giant Melina Matsoukas (she’s worked with Beyoncé, Rihanna, Whitney Houston and more) building her debut feature around 2020’s ugly zeitgeist.

Queen & Slim
Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith in ‘Queen & Slim’. Credit: Universal

“The everyman character is really difficult,” says Kaluuya, choosing his words carefully. “Usually you’re just… solid. You have to let everyone else pop up and do what they do. You’re like the central midfielder in football y’know? You don’t get the plaudits, but if the team wins you’re kind of responsible. Queen & Slim is an incredibly simple story, and simplicity is a really tough thing to get right. Nothing’s wasted.”

It seems strange now, given his cool, calm demeanour, but Kaluuya only started acting because he couldn’t keep still. Born in Kentish Town in 1989, he grew up on a North London council estate – raised by his mum while his dad was kept in Uganda by tough UK visa restrictions. Always moving, easily distracted, he found an outlet in school that let him channel his energy in a more creative direction. “Teachers used to say that I was always busy, so I should probably do performing,” he says. “No one in my family was really into it.” Tipped off by a plumber about the Anna Scher Theatre School in Islington, Kaluuya’s mum enrolled him more out of desperation than anything else. Even after her son phoned up to tell her about his Oscar nod in 2018, Mrs Kaluuya still wasn’t sold on the idea of a career in the arts.

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Daniel Kaluuya
Credit: Universal

“Has she changed her mind since then? Nope!” he laughs, rocking slowly back in his chair again. “The thing is, actors are always freelancers. There’s an inconsistency that makes her uncomfortable. There are times when I need to not work for a while, and that’s just worrying for a mum to hear. I think she sees the Oscar nom as like getting a Masters. No one says, ‘Well done, you’ve got your degree, you’re done now.’ It’s, ‘So what are you gonna do with it now?!’”

Whether his mum approves of his decisions or not, she can blame early noughties UK garage collective So Solid Crew for inspiring him as a teen.

So Solid Crew
Credit: Universal

“Honestly, when I was coming up, it was all about Ashley Walters,” says Kaluuya, “Just because of what he represented and where he came from. He just spoke to me. He was one of the only actors I’ve ever been star-struck by too. I remember I did a play with him at 19 [Oxford Street, set in a discount sportswear store], and I was really nervous about what I might do and say when I walked into that room. He was So Solid, y’know? Megaman, Asher D, Skat D, Romeo, Lisa Maffia… these were my superheroes.”

Fresh out of drama school, it was, unsurprisingly, Walter’s laid-back manner in films like Hackney-set crime drama Bullet Boy that really spoke to a young Kaluuya.

So Solid Crew
The many members of So Solid Crew (2001). Credit: Getty

“Ashley’s acting style was very in the cut and in the pocket. Him, and Chiwetel [Ejiofor]’s performance in [2002 thriller] Dirty Pretty Things – they really influenced me,” he says. “That classy, elegant, effortless kind of performance. That kind of decision-making really inspired me early on.”

Earning a spot on the first season of a new E4 teen show called Skins (first as a cast member, then as a writer), Kaluuya’s first move after drama school saw him join one of the UK’s greatest incubators of young talent.

Skins
Credit: Channel 4

“People talk a lot about how important that show was, and it’s all true,” he says. “I’ve never been on that starry thing, but I’ve always wanted to be part of a wave. To know that you’re on a journey with people who see you and know you and get it.

“You had [comedian, writer and director] Simon Amstell in that writer’s room, [cast members] Nic Hoult, Dev Patel… it was insane! These are people I knew at 17. Aimee-Ffion Edwards [Peaky Blinders] and [Joe] Dempsie [Game Of Thrones] are two of my favourite actors in the world. Just to be around them is a blessing. I still see a lot of them too – they came to the Queen & Slim premiere and we all went out to dinner at a friend’s house. It’s mad to think how far we’ve all come since then.”

When his stint on Skins finished in 2009, Kaluuya found himself at a crossroads. One path led exactly where he expected it to – with gigs on Silent Witness, Doctor Who, Lewis and other serial British dramas which briefly paid the bills for a few years. The other path was less clear, and certainly more risky, marked out first by a lead turn in Roy Williams’ brutal West End play about boxing, Sucker Punch, and then by an early episode of Black Mirror (‘Fifteen Million Merits’). Both projects tackled social issues like racism, capitalism and the dark side of fame.

“I’d played roles that meant something to me before – Skins meant a fuckload to me as an experience – but this was a different kind of meaning,” he says. “I did Sucker Punch and Black Mirror about a year apart, but they were both really the biggest breakthroughs for me. That was when I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I can do things that really mean something’. The minute you hit that point where that becomes the minimum, you just kind of think in that way for everything you do… You just have to be at peace with the fact that you’re probably not gonna work as much, because now you have certain rules and principles.”

Daniel Kaluuya
Credit: Universal

Crucially, one person who took notice straight away was Jordan Peele. Watching Black Mirror while writing Get Out, Peele called Kaluuya in to read for the main character in his indie horror that would go on to lead conversations about the modern face of racism in Hollywood (not to mention raking in more than £196m worldwide).

Auditioning with the film’s excruciating hypnosis scene (tied to a chair, protagonist Chris is paralysed by a racist hypnotist who wants to harvest his brain), Kalyuua got the part. “You’d think that scene would be tough, but there were other scenes in Get Out that were way harder,” he says.

“In my head, there was no other way to play it – it kind of plays itself. That scene is a bit of a centrepiece, y’know? All roads lead to that in Get Out. But negotiating that dinner table scene with the parents? When they say some questionable [racist] stuff? That’s a hard thing to balance. The audience need to know that you’re aware that they’ve said those things… But you’re being nice… But you’re also frustrated by it… But no one can see that frustration. That’s tough.”

Tougher still, though, was everything that followed Get Out. Not the worldwide acclaim, the Oscar nomination, Golden Globe win and BAFTA award, but a press onslaught that saw him suddenly held up as an unwilling representative of ‘Black Britain’. Constantly pestered on the promotional trail, Kaluuya would fight against that portrayal at every opportunity. “I’m not a spokesperson; I’m an individual. Who’s the spokesperson for white people?” he told The Guardian in 2018, before Samuel L. Jackson waded in on a US radio show, suggesting that Peele shouldn’t have cast a Brit in a story about American racism.

Looking back on those testy few months, Kalyuua still seems baffled that his actions drove such a big conversation. “The fact that there were so many opinions, and that it travelled as far as it did, that was… a very strange experience for me,” he says, shaking his head. “I just had a sense of, ‘What have I stepped into here?’ Especially in a country I haven’t grown up in. To be honest, it surprised me that so many people even had an opinion. It was a £3m horror film – I thought I was making an indie at the time! But it’s a blessing that I was even in that position in the first place.”

Shooting Black Panther during most of the fallout, Kaluuya’s experience on Get Out led neatly into Queen & Slim – the first job he took after he blew up. Whatever else Matsoukas’ film might be saying (and it says a lot), it was the script’s take on celebrity that spoke most closely to Kaluuya’s past few years on the Hollywood circuit.

“You just don’t see too many scripts like that,” he says. “I love that Queen & Slim aren’t played as icons. All that stuff happens around them – it’s projected on them by everyone else. I can relate. I did a film that I felt was honest, and now I’ve got my face on a wall in the middle of Shoreditch!”

Referring to a giant mural that covers a whole building in London’s East End, Kaluuya seems to be about as comfortable with fame as you’d expect. “My life’s mad, I can’t even process it.” he says. “It didn’t feel that progressive either – it got pretty full on after Get Out. But, y’know, I’m sort of okay with it. I’m me. They know I’m me. In some situations when I go out I just have to mentally prepare myself for a night that could be a bit overwhelming. Just in terms of how many people you’re talking to, the amount of people you have to negotiate.”

And things aren’t likely to get much easier, either. Admitting that he’s looking forward to taking a break after a relentless few years, Kaluuya’s diary is still looking pretty jam-packed. First up there’s the lead in Jesus Was My Homeboy, a biopic of political activist (and real life Black Panther) Fred Hampton (“probably the hardest role I’ve ever played”). Then there’s a likely return to the role of W’Kabi in Black Panther 2 (“you know I can’t say anything…”), and that’s before we even get to the rumours of a Get Out sequel (Kaluuya flashes his eyes, before smiling cryptically).

“I need to reassess where I’m at. All the decisions I’m living now have been from 2017. I haven’t really made any new decisions post-Oscar nom. I just want to catch up with myself really.” Looking at his current schedule, there’s little chance of that.

‘Queen & Slim’ is in cinemas now

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