Daniel Kaluuya Understands The Reality Of ‘Living The Dream’

Words: Jesse Bernard
Photography: Edison Zajmi

Daniel is home, but for a long time he hasn’t felt settled. In the two years since we last spoke, his personal wins column has grown considerably. At the same time, while he’s enjoying the moment and each role that’s made its way onto his path, he hasn’t had a permanent base in all that time. The excitement and joy he expressed two years ago is still there, but lurking in the room is a sense of unease. Maybe it’s the press run he’s currently doing; it could just be tiredness. But he was pretty hesitant when asked if he was okay.

When we met just over two years ago, Daniel Kaluuya hadn’t yet received his Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his role in Get Out. He was buoyed by his then-upcoming appearance in Marvel’s Black Panther, which more than exceeded expectations. However, he’s still yet to reach the apex of his career. Starring in Get Out and earning an Oscar nomination was akin to Kobe Bryant winning two rings within the first five years of his career—a rarity for a lot of young NBA stars. Michael Jordan won his first in his seventh year. Daniel, however, doesn’t see it that way. He was drafted into acting, fresh out of school, skipping university entirely to attend drama school. He’s now ten years into his career, but unlike an athlete whose window of opportunity for success is narrow, he has an entire frontier to explore.

Daniel’s already begun to expand his territory far beyond the role of Chris Washington, his breakout role. In 2018, he starred in Widows alongside Viola Davis, Jon Bernthal, Cynthia Erivo and Colin Farrell as a psychopathic enforcer to a crime boss played by Brian Tyree Henry. His latest endeavour sees him take his talents to America’s South in Queen & Slim, his first leading role since 2017’s Get Out. It’s hard to imagine that it’s only his second lead role when, in Widows, he arguably stole the show with his chilling performance that had me wondering who would win in a mob war: Marlo Stanfield or Jatemme Manning?

Bar the sight of dashboard cams and mobile phones, you’d be forgiven for thinking Queen & Slim was set in the 1960s. While the film received criticism for its portrayal of police brutality, resistance and civil justice, Kaluuya expresses that for black couples in the South, a romance drama isn’t always ‘boy meets girl, girl falls in love’. The Melina Matsoukas-directed film written by Lena Waithe is carried by Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith’s performances, but it’s drawn criticism for the way in which supporting characters—such as Junior, played by Jahi Di’Allo Winston—were portrayed. Elements of the film, like the scenes featuring Winston, were romanticised and took it somewhere it didn’t necessarily need to go. However, balance was made when Kaluuya, Turner-Smith, Indya Moore and Bokeem Woodbine’s deeply engrossing performances.

On the run from the law, Queen asks Slim why he doesn’t like taking pictures. He takes a pause, looking intensely into Queen’s eyes as though he were contemplating diving into them, before saying: “As long as my family remembers me, that’s all that matters.” If you’re used to watching Daniel Kaluuya on screen, by now you’re no stranger to those long, drawn-out stares that tell stories of a thousand words. The eagerness to learn more hasn’t left or been dissipated; instead, it’s grown. The roles he takes on are challenging and uncomfortable, given that each of them are so different, but it’s that desire to step outside of his zone into the unknown that made him such a captivating presence on our screens ever since his appearance in Black Mirror.

We caught up with Daniel to see how life has changed.

“When you check the wins and losses column, it’s the same but you learn how to hide the losses.”

What’s been happening since we last spoke?

I hadn’t been nominated when that happened. A lot has happened, but I’m good... Well, getting there. I need to find a place, even though I know I’m gonna be running around for a while. I’ll figure it out, though.

How have you been finding that uncertainty and not having a base?

It’s tough, because it’s hard to create when you don’t have a foundation. You have to navigate that but my life proper changed, so I have to figure out what’s permanently changed and where I want to go but you have to do that while you’re on the go. When you dream, you don’t dream of the uncomfortable bits. That’s why I don’t believe in levels—I believe in territories. I have this saying where every view has a blind spot. Trying to find which spot is comfortable is what I’m trying to do, but you can’t see that until you experience it.

Are you unhappy with that uncertainty and discomfort?

Nah. Is it bad to say that? There’s moments where you think this is sick and I’m living my dream. You have to adapt your process and that’s really uncomfortable.

Did you feel you had to do that for Queen & Slim?

Yeah, there’s an element of it where it’s just us two and you’re having to mine the character, especially when it’s just us in the car. I tried a couple of new things out.

What were some of those new techniques?

Just a different approach that I hadn’t really tried before: writing down the character’s history, figuring out what’s being said about them, and working out who the character is in between. That was key for me to understand Slim as a person, rather than thinking about what I’m going to say. So when I’m on set, it’s all coming from a real place because the character is a living, breathing person. It’s the first lead I’ve had since Get Out so you’re not an unknown anymore and there’s a different expectation.

Did you feel that added pressure and expectation?

I don’t feel the pressure, but I do understand that I’m perceived differently because I’m in a different space now. The further away you are from that perception others have of you, the easier it is to do what you feel you were called to do. But I never know what that perception is because I’m never in the room when people figure out what that is so it feels like you’re playing catch-up to people’s idea of you.

The themes in Queen & Slim are quite heavy, obviously touching on race and state violence. But what was it like stepping into that character given your previous experiences with the police and having to understand it from an American perspective?

It was a lot when we were shooting it. It brought me back to that moment but, hopefully, it enriched the storytelling of going through it. Maybe people will identify with the humanity of the situation, which is essentially a guy trying to get home to his family. For me, when the police stuff happened to me, a lot of people from all over started hitting me up and they were beginning to understand that it was a universal thing. That was just a catalyst and it’s fundamentally a love story. They’re just two people trying to connect in a disconnected world and when they do finally disconnect, they’re able to see each other. I think that’s what the film’s about; I understand people wanting to distill it down to race, but it’s many things.

I’ve been reading An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, and one of the things she asked readers was whether she felt the title reflected the story. In my head, it did, given the American criminal justice system and how it can tear families apart. So when you say it’s a love story, I guess it’s a realistic one for the world we live in, especially as black people.

That’s it! It’s for the world we live in. That’s the reality, and it’s interesting that you can tell a love story through that. I’m black, so why can’t I have elements of what actually happens in real life in this storytelling? Why can’t we make genre pieces from that?

Has this experience given you that desire to find that base so that you’re able to create more freely?

I still need to figure everything out. I think I have to accept that I’m going to be on the move for a minute and the reality of coming from where I’m from and the resources I had. I’m not going down a path that many from where I’m from have walked before; there’s no one for me to holler at for advice like that. You just have to figure it out and mess up as you go again, but you also have to learn to accept that.

That’s part of the success stories we never hear. No matter where you’re at, you’re still figuring it out as you go along. You may have picked up a few things along the way, but it’s not any easier.

100%. That’s what’s mad, because the more visible you are, the more you have it figured out. And I’m like, nah g. There are things I’ve figured out but then they open more questions. It’s consistently happening: day in, day out.

It’s a weird one trying to figure out how to get things in order while essentially winging it half the time.

Maybe it’s a lesson in not being comfortable in chaos but getting used to it. I can handle myself in certain situations, but it’s mad. It’s all mad! Proper.

Has your perspective changed since turning 30?

Probably... I think so!? I give less of a shit about things now and I let go of a lot of stuff. I don’t know what it is, but I’m excited for my thirties. I feel like I’ve been working for a minute because I started working at 16 and I had six years ahead of my age mates, so I’m happy and excited about this time in life. Something just shifts.

You just wake up one day and think, ‘Fuck it! I don’t even have the time to care about the small stuff.

The biggest shift is around 26, 27. Those years are hard because you’re a big man, so you can’t be immature, but you’re still actually young. That was the biggest “rah” moment because when you’re younger, you think that’s a big age. Now I’m not performing adulthood, you come to accept who are. It’s funny because my wins have become louder but the ratios are still the same. When you check the wins and losses column, it’s the same but you learn how to hide the losses.

Queen & Slim is out in cinemas nationwide.

Posted on February 03, 2020