The British actor Daniel Kaluuya has always been a bit of an agitator. A rambunctious and creative kid growing up in London’s council estates, he wrote his first play when he was nine years old—just to prove a teacher who doubted him wrong. It’s fitting, then, that his breakout role is in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a horror-comedy that, when Kaluuya first read the script, “felt like a film that was misbehaving.”
Out this Friday, the movie, an audience favorite at Sundance (unofficial tagline: “the actual terror of being black among white people”), is both funny and frightening, and an acute commentary on race. Kaluuya immediately gravitated towards the lead role, Chris, a young black man meeting the family of his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), for the first time. There, he discovers that black men are being targeted by the suburbs’ rather sinister underbelly. “It was saying stuff that you shouldn’t say, but every black person says in private,” Kaluuya said. “I like doing stuff that you know will piss people off.”
After breaking through on the cult Channel 4 show Skins when he was 17—as Posh Kenneth, an ironically named character who speaks with an “inner city” affectation to his white peers—Kaluuya eventually wound up first as a series regular, then in the writer’s room. “I was only supposed to be there for one episode,” he recalled. “And then in the first read-through the casting director was like if you do a good job then we can write you in more. My hood instincts were like, Money!” Fast forward a few more years and Kaluuya had appeared in episodes of Black Mirror and Babylon, becoming an increasingly recognizable face on British television.
But then he hit a bit of a dry patch. Kaluuya has not had a starring TV role in Britain ever since his harrowing portrayal of a prisoner-slash-contestant in a dystopian X-Factor-esque game show on an early episode of Black Mirror six years ago. It was a complex role that garnered a lot of attention for Kaluuya, but he’s still upset about the fact that he’s spent years auditioning for roles that have gone to others, and openly cited times when people in the industry have told him to his face he won’t get a part because he’s black. To this day, he is adamant about not participating in projects that demean or demoralize black people, or which fail to show the complexity of black lives. Like his disposition off-camera, Kaluuya’s presence onscreen is intense and bold (he has a secondary role in Denis Villeneuve’s 2015 film Sicario that is nevertheless memorable), but he’s still learning how to traverse the entertainment industry and its systemic racism. “Whenever I’m in a film that’s from a perspective that is dominant within western culture… I’m always trying to prove myself,” Kaluuya explained. “When it’s from a black perspective I don’t have to—they get it. I’m playing a white game, but I’m black. I love being black. All I’m doing is being in films that I would watch if I wasn’t in this industry. What I find really exciting is stories from a different viewpoint.”
Although Peele started writing Get Out eight years ago, his film does have a certain resonance now, under the Trump administration. But Kaluuya balks at that idea, somewhat. “I find it hilarious in interviews when people are like, ‘It’s really timely for racism!’” he said. “And I’m like, ‘Timely now? Are you alive? Have you been alive?”
The burden of simply existing in a black body in a white world is prominently on display in Get Out, through the black characters who enter white suburbia to then become trapped—and ultimately to have their lives snuffed out. It’s the rare film that strikes the perfect balance between horror-scary and real-scary. It also gives the audience more than a few laugh-out-loud moments of relief, often at the expense of the comically overeager white liberalism on display. Kaluuya credited Peele’s sharp writing for the balance in tone. “If the writing is funny, if it’s a funny situation, I shouldn’t have to amp up the funny, I should just be real,” he said. “Because real shit is funny, daily. And real shit is horrifying, daily. And racism is horrifying, daily. How black people handle racism is kind of sometimes really f—ing funny.”
Kaluuya’s next role feels like a natural evolution of his career: He will play W’Kabi, in Marvel’s Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler and starring a mostly black cast. Kaluuya has been on a “Coogler frequency,” he said, ever since he saw Creed—he finds the same resonance in Coogler’s work that he finds in Peele’s, and he wants to help them achieve their vision. “There’s stuff I want to say which is my writing, and stuff I want help people say, which is my acting. I think ideas aren’t ours; ideas are in the universe. Everyone is a vessel to bring the idea to fruition. That’s what it was. It was that kind of thing where like, I wanna help Jordan say this. It just felt real.”
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