29/09/2020

The ‘Get Out’ star talks to Adam White about his new film, ‘Queen & Slim’, being told to forget about acting as a 16-year-old, and why he’s reluctant to talk about race

On the set of his new film Queen & Slim, the British actor Daniel Kaluuya realised something about himself. Its really difficult to play people that are content, he explains. If you look at Get Out, my character was riddled with trauma, guilt and borderline self-hate. In Queen & Slim, Slim is just, I believe in God, I want a family, I dont think Im gonna change the world. Theres less conflict. But, honestly, those people are so valuable. Because thats the good life. Theyre so content and so fulfilled.
Its a statement that suggests that, deep down, Kaluuya isnt. Which feels wrong. Hes one of our most exciting and multifaceted young actors, an Oscar nominee, and is consistently drawn to momentous and galvanising projects such as Widows (2018), Black Panther (2018) and, pre-Hollywood, Black Mirror and Skins. It sounds like he should be content, surely?
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Yeah, but Im black, bro.
He erupts in a cackle.
Now it gets interesting! 
I meet Kaluuya, 30, at the end of a press tour that has been dominated by incendiary headlines related to his ethnicity Daniel Kaluuya fled the UK because the colour of his skin was preventing him getting roles; Daniel Kaluuya says he is tired of being asked about race. Hes still processing it all. He says he was texted by a friend the previous night about the most recent headlines, and has faced a day of interviews in which journalists have repeatedly asked him why he wont talk about race anymore.
What Ive said has been reduced to a headline in order to entice people, he says. But that doesnt mean that thats my perspective. My perspective has been used to spew something. People dont understand how sensitive this issue is. Like this can cause something, but it dont really matter to a lot of people.
The people that see you more as a person, theyre gonna come to you as a more rounded being and theyre gonna ask it in a much more sensitive and nuanced way, he continues. They aint gonna reduce it like that, because they care about the impact of it, and the effect of it. A lot of the people Im talking to arent respectful of the issue, which is why theyll reduce it, and theyll twist it. Look at the Stormzy thing boom, and its twisted.
Much like Stormzy, whose quotes about racism existing in the UK were distorted by a baying press and weaponised against him, Kaluuya has become a reluctant poster boy for black Britishness. It understandably becomes wearying to talk about when its made the dominant conversation. 
Those people are so valuable: Jodie Turner-Smith and Kaluuya in Queen & Slim (Universal Pictures)
Queen & Slim tangles with blackness, but at its heart is a story of love. Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith are the young couple of the title an initially mismatched pair who meet on a Tinder date, only for it to spiral out of control when the car theyre in is stopped by a racist cop. An altercation occurs, leaving Queen injured and Slim shooting the cop dead in self-defence. They then go on the run, recognising that theyd never receive a fair trial. As they plot to flee to Cuba, they fall in love with one another, while becoming mythic heroes to black America. 
Kaluuya is bewitching, and appears to relish playing a character who is at ease in life, romantic and sexy. His work in the film, however, hasnt been spoken of as much as his race, and he is visibly frustrated by it. Particularly when he is faced with journalists who have decided to craft a narrative around him before they even meet. He recalls a recent journalist who couched a leading question in a compliment. 
Youre in this film Get Out, wicked film, I love that film lets talk about how you were rejected from England, he sighs. And thats what they lead with, that I said I had to leave the UK. Thats what theyre hearing when I talk. People think that its me bringing up [race] when people are just asking me about it. The person thats asking me about it is more obsessed about it than I am, but then I look more like the one whos obsessed.
He jumps to his feet in the hotel room hes been sat in for the day, and walks to a nearby window. He flicks the bottle cap hes been playing with for much of our conversation out if it.
Im the one thats having the symptoms of it, and the effect of it, he continues. Come on, man. Its a trap, bro. He returns to the sofa, and clarifies himself. Its not even like its a trap, its just its odd. Its very odd. And thats all I was saying its just tiring. Because it is tiring! And more tiring because I know Ill say it and then it gets put in someones hands and theyll just run with it. A lot of people are educated above their intellect, or educated above what theyve seen in the world, so they dont know. There are certain issues that you cant misquote.
Kaluuya as Chris Washington in critically acclaimed Get Out (Universal Pictures)
Even removed from the press cycle, there is a discomfort to Kaluuya that seems related to his present circumstances. It brings to mind that there are two kinds of famous people: those who take to it as if it were their calling, flourishing amid the attention, and others floored by how unusual their lives have become. The latter tend to be like Kaluuya: working class, deeply empathetic, and told in their most impressionable years that great success would never happen to them. 
Kaluuya leans across the table separating us, and fixes his eyes on me. His eyes are captivating things, utilised to their fullest by the filmmakers he works with. In Queen & Slim they convey sass and flirtation, in Widows they were piercing tools of intimidation, and their teary, terrified stare in Get Outwas so effective that his eyes made up the entirety of the films poster. 
The thing is: look at me, he begins, stroking his sleeve. I love this coat, Im having the career of my dreams. My lifes sick! Last night I was surrounded by people that I love. Yet theres still something. He enthusiastically rubs his hands together, as if imitating a villain, or someone with ulterior motives. Like you reach your goals, but there seems to be a narrative. Its not the reality. I have to be aware that its not about me, its about how people see me. It affects me, but its not from me. Yet even though its not from me, Im still questioned about it.
I know that Ive been working my ass off all of my life to get in the position Im in, he continues. Im very blessed to be in the position Im in. Im very blessed to have the opportunities I have. And I prefer my narrative of myself than anyone elses narrative who doesnt understand me, of me. People need to know that. Thats them. They need to not look like its them for it to feel real and for it to spread. So it is what it is.
Intimidation: Alongside Brian Tyree Henry in Widows (Fox/Film4)
When Kaluuya was 16 and growing up in Camden Town, London, he told his mum that he wanted to be an actor. She was all stressed and that, he remembers with a laugh, so she took him to Connexions. It was basically youth advice. So we sat down with this woman in Connexions who told me, Acting is not gonna work out. Could you imagine if I listened to her?
As worried as his mother was, Kaluuya quickly embodied a drive and determination that would put many teenagers to shame. Amid drama workshops and plays at the Anna Scher Theatre, he found work as a runner on a shopping channel at 16 and began writing and performing at a local theatre company. It was there that he was swooped up by Company Pictures, who were looking for young writers to advise on scripts for a forthcoming Channel 4 teen drama they were producing.
The series was called Skins, and Kaluuya contributed to its scripts in the first series. At the same time, he attended an open casting call for a mystery project that coincidentally turned out to be Skins, too he would subsequently portray Posh Kenneth, a hip-hop fan with a plummy accent who recurred through the shows first two series. By night, Kaluuya would work behind the scenes on the show, eventually scripting two episodes himself. The show would become a wellspring of young British talent: Nicholas Hoult, Dev Patel, Hannah Murray, Kaya Scodelario, Jack Thorne and Josie Long all came up through the school of Skins. 
I was still in education, I was still getting EMA [education maintenance allowance], he remembers. I was figuring s*** out. But I was just like, Yo, this s***s fun. I loved being around creative people. It was a great space to be in. I hosted the Skins podcast, and I wrote their MySpace pages. It was like this thing that allowed me to stretch all these muscles that I didnt even realise I had. I was like, Ooh, let me try this, let me try that. Looking back, it was really enriching.
He remembers with fondness his time in Bristol, the city in which Skins was filmed. Its a beautiful city to walk in, he says. Id already had holidays, because my mum made sure we went on holidays growing up, but it was weird to have my worldview changed by just going to a different part of your own country. Camden is kind of like a village, and so inward. Bristol gave me an exposure to things. Its like what I presume people who go to uni feel I didnt go. So it shifted something in me.
Fearless: Kaluuya stars alongside Mitch Hewer in Skins (Channel 4)
He describes himself back then as fearless. I didnt give a s***! I could do anything, and I didnt even have to say that out loud I just did it, you know what Im saying?
He also says that hes trying to keep that spirit intact. I know where I want to head, I know that I can get an idea and I go for it, he explains. Im trying to keep that fearlessness, but what happens is when youre more visible, that becomes harder. There are just more voices. I feel like you grow up and people try and project their own insecurities and fears onto you, to dull that sense thats just in you when youre a young person. Like, You cant play this, you cant do that its the antithesis of creativity.
From Skins came appearances in Johnny English Reborn (2011), Sicario (2015) and Psychoville, as well as the starring role in Roy Williams acclaimed play Sucker Punch. It was his presence in the second episode of Black Mirror, playing a young man trapped in an enclosed space and generating power in exchange for money, that caught the attention of filmmaker Jordan Peele. He was subsequently cast in Peeles Get Out, which scored him an Oscar nomination in 2018.
Today, Kaluuya is a major industry player his production company 59% signed a deal with Paramount Pictures last year, and hes just finished filming the starring role in a Warner Bros biopic about the murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton. The film also reunites him with his Get Out co-star Lakeith Stanfield. Were on the same journey, Kaluuya explains, so its pure pleasure to connect with him. 
For his next project, hes looking for what he describes as something with vibes. He wants to do a romantic comedy, and discover roles that continue to challenge him. 
I think your life is a true art piece, he explains. When you look back at your life, and youre about to bounce say Im in a hospital bed, say I get hit by a train, you just look back and go, You know what, I liked that piece and what I created there, or I like who I touched there, and I like who touched me. And then you just keep on pushing. 
Queen & Slim is in cinemas now