He’s the Skins and Black Mirror alumnus who starred in last year’s surprise horror hit Get Out and features opposite Lupita Nyong’o in the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther – 2018 is set to be the year of Daniel Kaluuya
With hit films (and an Oscar nomination) under his belt, Daniel Kaluuya is gearing up for a big year.
“Got any nibbles?” Daniel Kaluuya asks very loudly. We’re sitting in a silent, very LA restaurant next to a West Hollywood art gallery. You might think the fact that Kaluuya’s become one of cinema’s most coveted young actors and an internet sensation (his expressive face in box-office hit Get Out inspired a stream of GIFS) would make him a little more reserved in public. Maybe quieter, avoiding recognition. No. Unapologetic and unaffected by his success, the 29-year-old doesn’t put on any new-fame affectations, nor does he stray far from his English roots.
Having grown up on a council estate in North London, the son of Ugandan parents, he keeps all the same friends, listens to the same grime artists and wears his jeans like the boys outside the local Tube station – below the bum. The waitress clearly doesn’t have a clue what “nibbles” are, but hazards a guess. Kaluuya has a charmed way of making you understand exactly where he’s coming from.
There’s a lightness and humour to the actor, which is a deep contrast to his on-screen roles. He’s drawn to rebellious, provocative projects, whether that’s the first cast of noughties teen drama Skins, an episode of Charlie Brooker’s dark sci-fi Black Mirror or 2017’s cult horror smash Get Out, which made more than $300 million at the global box office and earned Kaluuya a best actor nomination at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars this year. “I’ve always been looking to fuck shit up,” he says. “I was a shit in school. When I got into acting, a teacher said to my mum, ‘He needs to let out some energy.’”
When Kaluuya got the part of Chris, an African-american who goes home to meet the parents of his white girlfriend (played by Girls’ Allison Williams), in Get Out, he ignored director Jordan Peele’s advice to do his horror-film homework. Instead, he drew on his own experience of everyday racism. “I lived it. I live it. I live this,” he says. “I just read the script, so it was in me.”
The themes of outsiderdom and otherness have made Get Out almost a documentary in its realness. “I go through racism every day, man,” says Kaluuya. “Probably the same for you with sexism, no? Every day someone says some sick stuff. Racism is horrifying. People end up dead, mothers lose their kids. This shit’s fucked up. You have all these experiences and you have to keep going for your dreams, but you’re carrying this.” (If you haven’t noticed, Kaluuya says fuck a lot.)
On the subject of waking people up to hard truths, I ask if he was surprised by the revelations of sexism in his industry following the Harvey Weinstein scandal. He takes a moment. “A lot of men are raised in a mad way,” he says. “I’d be lying if I said I was shocked. Everyone knows. Now it’s time to listen to people’s stories, to do things properly. Make it a criminal case as opposed to a public shaming. Make sure there are repercussions.”
After joining a small theatre group in North London, by 19 Kaluuya had been brought in to write on the first series of Skins, a show about teenagers, for teenagers, by teenagers. The producers loved the character he created – Posh Kenneth – so much, they had him act the part himself. A cult success, the show was notorious for its depiction of sex, drug use and adolescent pressures, as well as its cast of then-unknowns who were living parallel lives to the on-screen storylines. The rave continued off set. “It was our uni,” he says. “And, yeah, it got a bit crazy.”
Fun aside, the freedom and exposure of Skins birthed a new breed of Hollywood breakout stars (Nicholas Hoult, Jack O’connell, Dev Patel, Joe Dempsie), who didn’t need private-school connections to make it. “There are so many people I know from London in LA now, and we all started together,” Kaluuya says. “We used to go raving at [London’s] Cameos nightclub. Sometimes you have to appreciate that because when it gets low, it gets low. You have to enjoy the wins.”
When Kaluuya was starting out, it was grime MCS like Skepta and JME and actor Ashley Walters (formerly Asher D in So Solid Crew) who he looked up to; people from his “ends” who made him realise he didn’t need to minimise his lower socio-economic experience to pursue success. He sees the rise of grime as a sign that the people he grew up around are getting their dues now. “Everyone was late to the party,” he says. “Systematic blocks were put in place to stop grime artists from becoming the Oasis of our time. That’s who they are. It’s so inspiring. You don’t understand how subconsciously we’ve been told that we can’t. [Now] we can just be us and we can thrive.”
Kaluuya is careful about the films he signs up to, preferring to portray characters in which he sees himself. When talking about his role in Marvel’s Black Panther, a largely black-cast blockbuster, he says, “That story resonated with me because I know that [character]. The sensibilities are aligned.” The film also stars another British rising star, Letitia Wright, who Kaluuya recorded plays with for the UK’S BBC Radio 4. “And now she’s got a phat Marvel poster of herself,” he says in smiling disbelief. He was just as surprised when the poster with his face came out. “[It was like] I’m in a Marvel film? Holy fuck… It just doesn’t compute ’cos I know my life. All my boys said to me, ‘Yo, you don’t understand what’s about to happen. After Black Panther, you can’t get a bus anymore.’ But I’m still going to get the bus.”
With his winning optimism, and the promising year he’s set to have, it’s difficult to believe there’s ever a bad day for Daniel Kaluuya. He assures me there is. “This industry’s hard,” he says. “The world is hard. Being young and black is tough. You can’t complain about it, so you need a safe place to moan. When I need a reality check, I call my mum. She gives me the realness and says, ‘You were born in England. Shut up!’”
CHECK OUT: Black Panther is out now