In a few short years, Daniel Kaluuya has gone from unknown to Hollywood leading man. But, despite an Oscar nomination, MCU role, and scene-stealing performances, the Get Out breakout isn't satisfied.
"There's stuff I want to say and there's stuff I want to help people say," Kaluuya, 31, tells EW. "I feel like I'm trying to be a vessel for that. So I kind of don't see it as success — it's like the mentality changed."
Beginning with Get Out, the British actor has in some fashion tackled race in America through all of his films, whether it be Black Panther, Widows, or Queen & Slim. And that continues in a new and, unfortunately, timely way with Judas and the Black Messiah.
Serving as multiple reunions for Kaluuya (Black Panther director Ryan Coogler acts as a producer and Get Out actor Lakeith Stanfield plays FBI informant William O'Neal, a.k.a. the titular Judas), the new film from Shaka King stars Kaluuya as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. The charismatic activist inspired a generation, until, as he lay in bed, he was shot and killed by police in 1969 at the age of 21.
"Everything comes back around if it's not put to rest," notes Kaluuya of the present-day mirroring.
Ahead of Judas and the Black Messiah's 2021 release, Kaluuya discusses wanting to show the "full picture" of the Black Panthers, hoping the film "ignites something" in people, and making a live-action Barney movie (yes, you read that right).
Read more from EW’s The Awardist, featuring exclusive interviews, analysis, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year’s best films.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Before 2017's Get Out, you were essentially unknown in Hollywood, and then you get an Oscar nomination and it's off to the races. So what’s your life been like the last few years?
DANIEL KALUUYA: It's interesting, because when you dream of something, you only see the ideal. And then once you go to it, it then becomes more balanced, so it doesn't feel like the ideal. Sometimes I do look back and go, “Wow, you’re really from Camden, [London,] man.” My craft has grown, and you do see that journey. But I’m operating from a place of, How am I helping say something? There's stuff I want to say and there's stuff I want to help people say. Coming from that position, it doesn’t feel like success. There's a lot of people that are just making films or just making music or just making TV shows, and that's okay, I love that stuff, but some people have got something to say and I feel like I'm trying to be a vessel for that. So I kind of don't see it as success — it's like the mentality changed. And I think that's just growth. I'd worked for 10 years professionally before I even got Get Out, and it's kind of like, by the 10th year, you're finally in the game. You just want to get in that game, deliver, and help the team win, as opposed to, "Wow, I'm a footballer!"
Dating back to even your supporting turn in 2015's Sicario, you're on a pretty unimpeachable run of projects and roles, between Get Out, Black Panther, Widows, Queen & Slim, and now Judas. How do you explain that incredible success rate?
I’m very blessed to be in this time where all these exciting filmmakers are around and making authentic expressions that feel really unique to them. For me, I don’t have a plan. My plan is to inform myself as much as possible in terms of cinema and storytelling and filmmaking. I wouldn’t say I’m picky, but, if it doesn’t speak to me, I can’t do it. Just a different me shows up. I look at some things as like, "If it was a play, would I do it?" "Yeah, like back in the day, I would." I go with how I feel about it and how the people I’m around feel. And if it informs my feelings, if it makes me feel something, then I just got to leave it there and not try and question it, and hopefully an audience will connect to it in a similar way and feel something, too.
Speaking of these exciting filmmakers you've collaborated with, it's a list of people who weren't necessarily household names as filmmakers but now appear set as a big part of the industry's future, whether it's Ryan, Jordan Peele, Melina Matsoukas, or Lena Waithe. What do you attribute to being able to identify and pair yourself with these kind of talents?
I don't know. I think I made a decision about what kind of stuff I want to make and I just care about accessible excellence. I really care about that. For me, it's that kind of thing where I made those decisions and I go, "This is what I'm about." I feel everything through that outlook. It just happens to be that people that I'm fans of would gravitate towards you, and you gravitate toward them. Personally, I find it really exciting that, like, you sit-down with Shaka and you love Newlyweeds, it was a really great first film, and then I saw on-set a bit of the sequence of Lakeith's introduction into the film and I'm like, "Wow, like, you're a filmmaker." I think that the principles and decisions that I've made awhile ago are just kind of cashing out. So then I'm working with people that are similarly-minded, and I feel really lucky that I'm at this part of a lot of people's journeys, whether it's Melina and Lena, whether it's Jordan, whether it's Shaka. I'm really at the beginning, or near the beginning, of a lot of these people working in film. So that's really exciting to me, because I want to learn and I want to grow, and these are filmmakers that don't really know the rules, and that's okay. They can surprise you with their form and how they think.
Why did you want to play Fred Hampton?
It came to me on a reshoot of Black Panther when Ryan spoke to me about it and about Fred Hampton, and that Lakeith was a part of it. And then I read the script and it resonated with me, and I really wanted to go on this journey and delve into this time and understand this time. I felt blessed to be a vessel to allow this story to happen, because so many people have tried to make it happen and it hasn’t come to pass. Him as a man speaks to my spirit, and because there’s so much information about his death, the idea of making something about his life really drew me in.
What was your awareness of him before being approached?
I knew him sparingly. They don't teach that at schools, not in England. They don't teach that part of the civil rights struggle. I found out about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Muhammed Ali, but it would not be in schools, and you wouldn't really know about the Black Panthers. I kind of just was aware of his presence and aware that he was a force. You find out that this man meant some thing.
Once you got caught up, how did you go about preparing to portray him?
For the research, I read the majority of the Black Panther reading list, which is, basically, they have a six-week program in order to be a full member and you have to read a list of books. I also read dissertations about the time, about Chicago, about the Black Panthers, about the Oakland chapter, about the Illinois chapter. I kind of sewed myself into the time. Speaking to ex-Black Panthers, reading up on all the figures that were around, reading up on every single stepping stone that led to this time in America, and soaking in all the information of, like, "Why did this generation do this at this time?" Approaching the character from that timeline, as opposed to a man in 2019 that's living in it.
And I saw that a lot of speakers [like Fred] do a talking version of singing, so I went to an opera coach, because I was going to be doing these speeches all day and that's very taxing on the voice. I lost my voice on some days. So I needed to prepare my body for the endurance that I'd need. And singing Gospel songs and James Brown and other songs from that era that felt like him. There's so much that went into it. I did the accent every day, and I'd stay in it all day. I kind of just followed my nose. I'd read and watch him every day, trying to awaken that energy that he was trying to awaken in others.
Last year, you did an EW roundtable for Queen & Slim and you said of your character, who is forced to go on the run after killing a white cop in self-defense, “I connected to Slim because I’ve been in that situation, especially with the police, where it’s out of control but you’re trying to do your best. If you respect yourself, that’s a problem. It’s when oppression is so visceral. If I believe in me, that’s a problem for you.” So was there anything specific here that you grabbed onto for Fred?
It kind of was a weird one. I don't think with everyone I go, "Oh, it speaks to me this way, and this is specific in this way." It was like I went to him, in terms of thread. I went to him and his loving the people and wanting the best for everyone that he's around and being unapologetic about it. It just really spoke to me, and the weight of his shoulders really spoke to me. I just went to him, as opposed to looking in myself. I was like, "What do I love about this man? What do I admire about this man? What about this man do I believe in?" And trying to accentuate those discoveries that I found, in a very personal way, in terms of his spirit.
This isn’t a conventional biopic as dramatic liberties are being taken with the story. What did you like about the approach that Shaka and the writers took with the telling of this story?
There was a want for it to be what they say...put the medicine in the candy. So there’s an urge that they wanted it to be entertaining and watchable. It has a sense of style that really reflects the Panthers and being honest to the people and the times we’re in.
Admittedly, before the trailer dropped, I didn't realize that you were making a movie with Lakeith and Jesse Plemons. And that revelation was huge to me, because I think you are three of the best young actors out there. Were you as excited as me about that combination?
Back when I first heard about the film, one of the points was to get to work with Lakeith, and coming back together to put a story like this out into the ether. Lakeith is one of the most talented actors of our generation, and I just think he's an incredible person. It's just exciting to work with people that inspire you. And I got excited when I asked who else was going to be in it and Shaka was like, "Jesse Plemons," and I was like, "Oh my God." It feels like everyone's figured out that Jesse Plemons is amazing — I thought I was the only one. And then you sit-down for a read through and you're in an environment where you're doing things that are challenging, but you're around people that will challenge you to grow, and you grow working with them and being around them, and also to be able to support them in scenes. I had only one day with Jesse, but I'm such a fan of his and so it's exciting to be in the same movie.
A powerful moment in the film is Fred chanting, “I am a revolutionary.” For you, as someone who had to live that and perform that, how do you interpret that message?
Having agency over your life, in spite of psychological warfare. It's that I am everywhere, I am in power, I am in charge of who I am and how I see myself and how I believe in myself. That really spoke to me. In terms of a reflection of where those people are at, at that time, I feel like that is the exact sentiment that clearly resonated and needed to be heard. Because the history of oppression is deeper than deep, it can get you low, and you need the revolutionary charge within you to get yourself out of that situation and get what's yours. They were articulating how people felt and resisting the narrative that had been unjustly put upon them.
The Judas trailer was released amidst social justice protests and movements following numerous murders of black men and women at the hands of police. Considering your film is set more than 50 years ago, what's it been like to watch these parallels play out in our current moment?
Everything comes back around if it's not put to rest. It's a ritual of acknowledgement. It's something that's been building, that the people who have been oppressed within America, it's finally acknowledged that that's happened. I don't think it's an accident that this film is coming out at this time. It's going to resonate. The Black Panthers articulate how people really feel, and there's been an absence of that kind of message in society. The time is opening itself up for that message to be received, because things haven't been laid to rest. People haven't been taken care of. Black people haven't been taken care of.
When people do see Judas, what do you hope they would walk away talking about or thinking about?
I just hope they want to take it. Art is at its best when it's just a reflection of yourself, and you're seeing something about yourself. It ignites something in you, and then you have to look at what it brings up. But it's not for me to say, "This is what the message is." I find it fascinating to see what people bring to it, or what people want to take away. I'm trying not to dictate that. One of my aspirations was to show how brilliant these people were in every way, and what they were really doing, to show the full picture, away from the narrow narrative that has been portrayed. Show what they were really doing in this time, and how revolutionary their ideas were. It didn't necessarily mean destruction. They were actually about healing and loving and taking care of your community. These activities do not feel like they're associated with the Black Panther party but that's the foundation of it, which is why it spread. Which is why other communities wanted to take on the ideology. It's about putting that out there. Then, if people want to take it, that's the blessing.
Earlier you mentioned that you aren't necessarily strategic in planning out your career, but, moving forward, is there anything you specifically hope to do?
Just take it as it comes, and keep challenging myself, keep refining, keep growing, keep trying to go, "How do I say this simpler? How do I do this simpler?" The quest and race for simplicity is how I see it. I love the unknown nature of that. A lot of time, I do a film, it's just the work that speaks to me and where I feel I need to be at. I like the immediacy of that.
Something that must have spoken to you is a live-action Barney movie, which you are set to produce with Mattel. I have so many questions, but I'll settle for why you wanted to bring this to life.
Barney taught us, ‘I love you, you love me. Won’t you say you love me too?’ That’s one of the first songs I remember, and what happens when that isn’t true? I thought that was really heartbreaking. I have no idea why but it feels like that makes sense. It feels like there’s something unexpected that can be poignant but optimistic. Especially at this time now, I think that’s really, really needed.
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