DANIEL KALUUYA IS LIVING THE DREAM

Words: Jesse Bernard
Photography: Hyperfrank

Costa Coffee, even if it is in London’s affluent area of West Kensington, isn’t the kind of place I’d have imagined interviewing the Oscar-nominated star of Get Out. It’s busy and it’s one of the coldest Thursdays of 2017, however my biggest concern leading up to the conversation, besides a last-minute cancellation, was ensuring the environment was conducive to having an open discussion with Daniel Kaluuya.

He walks in, I doubt many recognise him in his all-black getup, with his hat so low that it would make it difficult for many of the tourists in the store to clock who it is. This was two months before he became an Oscar-nominated actor, but given the way his name has been ringing out over the past eighteen months, the noise isn’t without just cause. “The fact that there’s a change means that things weren’t right before,” he says, referring to the buzz Get Out created, “so, for me, I really just keep it moving.” Daniel is among only a handful of black actors nominated by the Academy, let alone British, standing alongside icons such as Noah Cullen, Gabourey Sidibe, Laurence Fishburne, Morgan Freeman, Cicely Tyson and Viola Davis.

Kaluuya doesn’t make a grand entrance, but his presence is felt and there’s a self assurance that he carries so effortlessly that I doubt anything can diminish the strides he takes. “I have to own the fact that I’m a black man—that’s why I did Black Panther and Widows because if I play the industry game, I lose.” And he’s winning big. “I’m not trying to hide from myself; I don’t think I’m famous, but that also means audiences engage with your work first and not your status.” 

Like many second-generation millennials, Daniel’s mother made the passage to London, where he was born, while his father remained in their native Uganda at a time when the country was recovering from the trauma of civil war. Attending St. Aloysius College in Camden, Kaluuya wrote his first play at the age of nine—which won him a prize in a local competition—however his working-class background meant that he wasn’t able to receive traditional acting training many other actors are afforded due to circumstances and privileges that he didn’t have, being the son of African immigrants. But it was at the Anna Scher Theatre, a community drama school, where he paid £5 a class to learn and study the craft of improvisation. Think back to the opening scenes of Get Out where Kaluuya’s character, Chris Washington, ever so nonchalantly glides the razor across his skin with Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” playing in the background, you could see the improv skills he learned all those years ago come to life in front of us.

“What attracts me to some projects is that I don’t know what will happen at the end of it—especially if it’s never been done, like with Get Out,” he says. There’s a hyper-awareness that black people must live with on a daily basis, something that Daniel brought to life so casually that the cautiousness his character displayed was almost unsettling. “I feel hyper-aware in London,” he tells me. “I feel really black here, and really British in the States. It’s this constant cycle of displacement—we’re trying to find our tribes and where we belong.” 

Last year, Kaluuya came under criticism from Hollywood veteran Samuel L. Jackson who believed that the role of Chris Washington should’ve been reserved for a black American actor, who understood the nuance of race dynamics in America. However, as Daniel eloquently argues, “Being in the UK and getting into random situations when you leave the M25 or go into pubs, you do often feel what Chris felt because these people don’t see us everyday so they behave differently.”

“I’M A KID FROM A CAMDEN TOWN ESTATE, AND TELLING STORIES IS WHAT I DO.”

Despite critical acclaim and accolades pouring in left, right and centre, particularly from audiences who saw Get Out as a critique on race, cultural critic Myles E. Johnson sought to ask the film the same question that Dean (Bradley Whitford) asked: What is your purpose? “This film was not designed to disrupt or transform anything,” Johnson says. “It was designed to entertain as many people as possible with the conversations we find fascinating in a post-Obama and post-Ferguson world.” While that’s true to an extent, the strength of the film lies solely in Kaluuya’s performance and playing on those fears and superstitions black people often have regarding white people. “I wanted to tap into that inner truth of Chris, in that scenario, where he was trapped in a prison of politeness around these white people. And that truthfully exists in the world we live.”

Jordan Peele may have directed Get Out, but as Kaluuya wrote three episodes of British cult teen drama Skins, there’s an understanding that he aims to get to the heart of each character and their stories, to the point where he revealed new depths and layers to his co-star Betty Gabrielle’s character, Georgina. “A black woman in ‘The Sunken Place’ doesn’t need a flash,” he explains. “Chris is broken-hearted because he feels as though he let a black woman down, in the same way he feels as though he let his mother down.” 

I recline in my chair as I ponder on that thought some more, and it led me to believe that with his own role, Daniel sought to provoke something in audiences that requires them to pull back the layers and what it means to have only one black woman present. “What kind of place is this where a black woman is left in the road to die?” he asks. “When it comes from a black male perspective, especially given the trauma Chris experienced, sometimes you have to honour that and tell the truth exactly how it is.”

Daniel Kaluuya’s career trajectory over the past decade hasn’t been short of inspirational—at least to the school of black British actors, who would never have imagined they’d be in regular attendance at the biggest award ceremony which has historically been very conservative with recognising black talent. Nor does it mean black actors should be thankful for the acknowledgement, since the fiasco following Moonlight’s win last year revealed the sentiment towards marginalised voices being given their moment (if only to be later cut short). 

Kaluuya’s no newcomer, either—especially those acquainted with his work on Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, which he starred in back in 2011. To re-emphasise: Daniel’s been here. There are the Royal Court Theatre credits where he gallantly played Leon in Roy Williams’ Sucker Punch, a young boxer from London in 2010, for which he won both the Critics’ Circle and Evening Standard Award for Outstanding Newcomer. What does a breakout role then mean for someone with such a decorated CV, while still under the age of 30? “I’m a kid from a Camden Town estate,” he says, “and telling stories is what I do. But if you don’t fuck with me, I don’t fuck with you. These critics aren’t the authority on my ability—and they certainly aren’t above me—so, moretime, I try to ignore the noise.” 

Annoyingly so, however, the noise merely suggests that for the most part, British media has relatively ignored his achievements over the past decade and much of that is down to his working-class background, which is what made Samuel L. Jackson’s remarks so intriguing. Jackson didn’t take the traditional route into acting, but instead used his own truth as inspiration which led to a breakout role in Jungle Fever, where he tapped into his own experiences with drug addiction to deliver a mesmerising performance as Gator Purify. 

As I reel off the list of accomplishments which are probably only a fraction of what he feels he’s personally achieved, Daniel looks across the room as he grins. Still, he remains poised as we awkwardly ignore the glances from two men across from us in Costa, who have likely spent five minutes talking about how they’re sitting opposite from ‘that guy in Get Out’.

Daniel is a craftsman before he’s an actor, in such a way that in every performance, he always delivers. Such as in Black Mirror, where he beautifully delivered a passionate monologue at the end of the ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ episode which displayed his adeptness at improv, since it wasn’t rehearsed. “I still have people to this day referencing that scene—especially since it came out on Netflix in the States—and that’s crazy to me, because that role is no longer a part of me.” Even in his role as Posh Kenneth, in Skins, there was a truth that was conveyed that only someone who knows what it’s like to be forced to integrate into white society can truly understand. “With that role, I really felt like I was living the character, and performances like that always come so natural.”

Kaluuya’s role in Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther film may not be the most prominent, but especially for British audiences, it’s arguably the most important. Less so because he’s British, but more because he stands among a host of black actors who originate from across the diaspora, allowing us to reimagine a place where all of us are seen and heard. “This is the film of dreams and I never knew I could dream like that,” he says. It’s hard not to feel warmth when he says this because that’s what art that is delivered in a truthful way allows us to do, which is dream. 

“There’s a lot more at stake with this film. We were watching a clip at Comic-Con and Chad [Boseman] was crying—that’s how real it is. We can’t lax just because we had one thing. This should be the standard. We’re the standard already, especially back home with Ugandan films, but we deserve stories that relate to us,” he explains with such an astuteness and wisdom, that you almost feel he’s been doing this a lot longer than he lets on. “I think the word ‘diverse’ is a cancerous word, because it’s life. It’s a PC way of saying ‘non-white’ and it ultimately suggests that white is the standard. ‘Diverse’ shouldn’t be an actionable thing—it should just be.”

Diversity has become a buzzword in the industry, even more so since #OscarsSoWhite, to the point where it often feels more like virtue-signalling rather than a conscious effort to include marginalised voices. “Jordan saw it from a particular perspective and, sometimes, if you try to accommodate for certain ideas, it can often dilute what the story’s about and patronise because that deserves a story in itself,” he explains. “And that’s why we have shows like Insecure, because it’s important to have a range of voices in this industry.”

Shows like Insecure and Atlanta, and classics such as Girlfriends and Living Single, reveal there is room for such stories told by black people, if only given the opportunities to succeed and sometimes fail. “It’s also about developing what’s already out there; Insecure grew from Awkward Diary of a Black Girl and that needed a shot just as much as Lena Dunham’s Girls, and that’s just the reality,” he says, adding: “Lena Dunham couldn’t have done it because that’s not truthful because she doesn’t roll with black women like that.” And as he mentions the virtue of truth, I recall a conversation I had with a friend of Daniel’s, Babirye Bukilwa, who describes him as the embodiment of “craft, talent and truth,” and without those attributes, he wouldn’t be the actor that he is. “For the past decade, Daniel has consistently picked exceptional, clever and poignant pieces of work,” she said, “and as an actor watching another actor do it, that is how those three traits come together.”

Now, almost a year since Get Out was released, Kaluuya stars in Marvel’s Black Panther alongside Black Hollywood’s veteran elite in Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett. But he also represents a changing of the guard with Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman, Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira. Would Black Panther have been possible twenty years ago? Possibly, but it’s unlikely that we would’ve seen any black British actors starring in such a film, at a time when the Morris Chestnuts, Halle Berrys and Cuba Gooding Jrs were still in high demand. “Nollywood is where we’ve found our superheroes for the longest time, so to be in a blockbuster inspired by an African superhero? It’s a bougie Nollywood, and we’re coming [laughs].”

“‘DIVERSE’ SHOULDN’T BE AN ACTIONABLE THING—IT SHOULD JUST BE.”

There’s a scene very early on in Get Out where a police officer pushes Chris to present his I.D., and he quietly follows orders. Only someone who has lived such an experience in reality knows how to navigate such situations gracefully. In 2010, the same year he landed the role in Sucker Punch, Daniel was wrongfully arrested due to police assuming he fit the description of a local drug dealer. Both Daniel and I sat back and lower our voices, as this was one of those conversations. He felt comfortable and a sense of relatability, not just because I’ve been a situation much like his, but in such an assured and affirming manner, he says “it’s not a reminder that we’re black—it’s a reminder that they still have a problem with us.” 

And for the first time in the interview, while Daniel had already let his guard down, he had shown the same emotions that drove his performance in the final leg of Get Out, where he battled for his freedom. “We shouldn’t internalise this, and it’s hard because it does affect us mentally and physically—but I can’t let that get to me. I had to fight that because I want to live in America and they’re trying to ruin my dream,” he tells me. In 2013, Daniel won a suit against the Metropolitan Police, after he was assaulted and racially profiled three years prior. “They’re trying to legitimise their own existences through this violence, and that’s one of the things I learned by playing Chris.”

At this point, the conversation takes a candid turn, where the interviewee is keen to hear more about my experience. It feels uncomfortable—it’s not commonplace in an interview—but here Daniel exhibits the true depths of his character and nature. “I was bugging out and my head was all over the place, but I couldn’t let it defeat me because I know that a lot worse has happened and can happen,” he admits. “When it happened to me, I was working on this film and I was thinking to myself that no one else on this production would ever have to experience that, and it’s lonely.” For a brief moment, we sit in silence and try to process the depths to which the conversation went. Daniel looks up and, to his right, he sees two black boys in school uniform who have undoubtedly recognised him as they seem excited. I tell him, “this is what it means to finally be seen,” and he smiles. 

On the eve of the biggest moment in his career thus far with The Oscars on the horizon, Daniel Kaluuya is the black British creative reckoning, the new renaissance even. It’s been almost an hour and more people are starting to recognise who he is and just as we wrap, I ask Daniel what drives him to commit such dedication to his craft. He tells me, “You’ve got to be purposeful and truthful. And with the idea of storytelling, where a movie is often like a short story, you have to lean outward in order to put so much in.”


Posted on January 30, 2018