"A lot of people didn't realize I was in that," Daniel Kaluuya says of his first starring role in an American movie, Denis Villeneuve's 2015 thriller Sicario. "I take that as a compliment to me." The British actor, who was born and raised in London, completely camouflaged himself in the American southwest fabric of that film, and he is equally convincing as a young American photographer visiting his white girlfriend's parents in the very white suburbs in Jordan Peele's Get Out, which satirized the insidious racism of that setting and garnered four Oscars nominations this morning, including Best Picture and a Best Actor nod for Kaluuya. But offscreen, the actor has never been shy about speaking his own mind. Here, in a new interview with W editor at large Lynn Hirschberg, Kaluuya, who can soon be seen in the highly anticipated Black Panther, explains that people are often surprised to discover that he's British, and the difference between racism in American and in Britain—even though "no matter how it comes out, racism is kinda f---in' shit."
How did Get Out come to you?
Because I did Black Mirror in 2011. It didn't really have any traction at home, and then Netflix happened. So Black Mirror hit Netflix like three or four years later, and then Jordan [Peele] saw me in Black Mirror, and he said "I've got this script." We Skyped, and then during the press for Sicario, I went to L.A.. I read it, and I got the part.
What did you think when you first read it?
"Are you allowed to do this?" That's what I first thought. [Laughs.] "Are they really gonna let this black guy kill all these white people and everyone's just gonna be cool about it? All right, cool." I think the most fascinating art pieces is when it's costing something from the person that's saying it. I felt like it cost Jordan something, and so I always feel it was really exciting to be a part of something like that, you know?
And with Jordan Peele, who is known for comedy, did you notice his comic timing in terms of setting up scenes?
I mean, when I read the script, it was just laugh-out-loud funny. There were some bits that were just laugh out loud, and he leans to comedy, but I feel like there's moments in our lives that are really funny, you know, and actually it makes the poignant moments stand out or resonate even more because of the balance and because it's out of nowhere. I think he tapped into the fact that people use comedy as a defense mechanism, is to help them cope with racism, you know? It's like you have to kind of lighten the situation because if you actually be real and go, "I just don't like it when you say that," it completely destroys the mood, especially being from the outside like meeting your girlfriend's family.
Have you seen it with an audience?
Yeah, opening night I went to Atlanta in the hood and I watched it, and it was amazing. It was amazing. It was one of the most amazing experiences 'cause Jordan had said on set. He would do a scene and he'd be like, "Oh, like they're gonna go 'Yo, get out, man. Get out, man, get out,'" and everyone was doing that in the cinema like to the T. They was saying the stuff that he said on set that the audience would say. To see his like brain and his vision come to fruition was really exciting to see, and then seeing people enjoy it. But it's quite weird 'cause I feel it happened in so many cinemas, so now when I walk around and I have this energy, and I'm like "I don't know what happened in your screening." Like, "I don't know what you've seen because it's quiet." [Laughs.]
It was practically a riot at my screening.
Yeah, they start clapping, they start cheering, and itw as like "Get the girl, get the girl." [Laughs.] It's crazy. It's cool.
Did you always have an easy time with it? People must be very surprised that you're English.
Yeah, people are weirded out. They're like, "Oh, you're British, man?" And I'm like "Yeah I am, mate." It's tough because I just stay in the accent. If I haven't got like family around or my girl around I just stay in the American accent, like going to Walmart and stay in American accent, and then when someone's figured out, they're flipping out. But I think it really helps 'cause I like to improvise on set. Sicario was a lot of improvisation. So it's important to just have it like walking, because we don't think about how we speak, you know, and your character has to not think, 'cause you can see it on the camera.
What was the first professional job you auditioned for?
I think it was Shoot the Messenger. I got it. Yeah, I'm really lucky. David Oyelowo was the lead, and it was when BBC were making TV movies, and it was about this teacher who gets fired from his job because a group of kids say he hit him and stuff. The original script was called F--- Black People.
And it was about this black, self-hating teacher who says everything that's bad that's happened in his life is to do with black people, and it's about him realizing and accepting his blackness. But it was a really big thing back home, and I got that without an agent. I was acting underneath a church off Caledonian Road. I didn't know it was a BBC casting director that came in, 'cause they were looking for kids. It's really hard to find London kids.
How old were you?
Sixteen. And then I got Skins from an open audition.
All of the people on Skins have stories about doing Skins.
Yeah, Skins is fun, man. We had a good time. There was this bit when I was a rapper, and I wasn't getting any girls those times, and they were like you can pick any girl to kiss on stage, and I was like "Are you serious?" [Laughter.] I was like, "Can I have two?" [Laughter.]
Do you think racism is different or presented differently in London as opposed to in America?
I feel like racism's more pronounced in America.
You think it is?
The disease is still there. It's the same disease, but it just manifests in a different way, and British culture's way more reserved, so it's more systematic. I think in America you have the systematic and then you have the overt, but also the history of America is the deal of race relations, whilst a lot of the people within London have come from—like, my family's from Uganda. They come from Africa, come from Caribbean. So they're coming from this culture, and they usually come from the Commonwealth, and have been colonized by the West. So we're navigating that, but youth... it's why a lot of black British artists are in America, because it's not seen in England, but it's felt, and it's oppressive, and it stops you from becoming your best you at times.
So you would say the overt is bad, but the hidden is maybe—
Nah, I think racism just sucks, isn't it, across the board. [Laughter.] Like no matter how it comes out, it's kinda f---in' shit.
Was your character in Sicario written for a person of color?
Yeah. Yeah, it was.
Because it felt like it could have gone either way.
Yeah, I think there was a lot of stuff that leaned towards, mention of the race element of it, but it was just really important for me when I do stuff to go like, "Black people don't even talk about blackness that much." I mean, it's just a person. It's presenting a person that is black. Do you know what I mean? It's like it's clear that that person is black, and how they are and how they move and how they think, that can be felt as opposed to overtly said, you know what I mean? So then the audience gets to know that person as a black person as opposed to just a black person.
I think that's what you've done. So do some more fun questions: What was your favorite birthday?
Favorite thing I've done on my birthday... I don't know how old I was, but we just played indoor football all day, and then we went to McDonald's after, and when you went to McDonald's, you had little bags and stuff and little play things. I remember that. That was really fun. I've had a couple surprise parties, which really touched me. I had a 21st and then 25th—
And you liked being surprised?
No, I walked away. [Laughter.] No, I don't. In hindsight, I just go, "I can't deal with this." I don't like doing stuff on my birthday, so I think people know that. So I would just say "I'm born in February." If people ask me, "When's your birthday?" I say "Oh, February 31st." And they're like "Oh, okay, cool" and then... [Laughs] then March comes and they're like "Wait, hold on."
And what do you think about New Year's?
Yeah, mostly I try and stay alive, 'cause it's just a tendency to drink a lot and lose yourself. But I try not to do it in London now. We try and go away. Like a big group of us went to, um, Brighton, and we just had a house, and we just walked on the pier, and it was like bagpipes and stuff, and then we just followed people with bagpipes and started dancing on the street on New Year's. And then I spent one New Year's in Denmark. That was fun.
Who is your celebrity crush?
Angela Bassett's pretty. She's in Black Panther. She's one of those women that you just kinda stare at, and then she looks over, and you're like "Oh, shit." But my first crush was Ashley Banks from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Yeah, she's cute, you know? [Laughter.] I loved that show. It's an amazing show. It's so hard to make a credible family show.
So I'm going to ask you some "firsts" questions: What was your first job?
[Laughs.] Runner at a TV shopping channel.
Yeah. I went in there and I don't know, I turned up in a suit. I turned up in a suit at the shopping channel, and they were like ,"What are you doing? Get me some coffee." [Laughter.] So then I was getting people coffee in this real kind of Marks and Spencer suit.
Um, good question. Went to a school play, probably. Went to a school play. It was fun, I think.
First album that you bought or first album that you received.
It's a funny story. So I got Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP. I used to listen to music while I was playing PlayStation, and then I went, "Ah, Eminem's amazing, yeah?" And then I was listening to it, and "Kim" came on. Must have been like 11. You remember the song "Kim"?
Yes, very well.
I was like, "I don't know about this, man." [Laughs.] "It's kinda scary, man," like, "What was he doing to her? I don't know about this." So I took it back and got Robbie Williams's Sing When You're Winning, and I was very much at ease. I just wanted to have good times. I just didn't need the darkness whilst I was playing FIFA '98. [Laughter.]
A little too much information at 11.
I wasn't ready for it.
Your first favorite film growing up.
Sister Act 2.
Why do you think it's better than the first Sister Act?
Because it's got the kids in it. It's got the kids and they start singing and it's a competition. Lauryn Hill's in it, and it's just these amazing songs that made me really happy.
Where was your first kiss?
Where was my first—oh, god. Southgate. Southgate is like a bit outside of London, and it was this girl who was friends with my boy; he was dating this girl, and then like the friend was there, and we was talking to her, and then... [Laughs.]
You kissed your friend's girlfriend.
No. I kissed—
The girlfriend's friend.
Yeah, and it was in Southgate, behind KFC or something 'cause I'm romantic. And then I was really ill for like a week. I got the flu. She gave me something.
Did you see her again?
This one is hard to answer: First "I've made it" moment.
Wow. I think when Sicario came out, and like we had a premiere at MoMA. And then we went to L.A., and then I came back on a bus, and the bus was changing drivers. It was really annoying 'cause I was late, then I got off the bus and there was a poster of Sicario was on the bus. [Laughs.] I was like, "That's really weird." [Laughs.] Um, yeah, it's probably loads of moments: Nas posted an Instagram about Get Out, and when we was young, that's who we debated about. Like, "Nas is the guy, man." Ah, Jay-Z mentioned Get Out in some interview. I was watching the interview, it was like an hour long interview, and he mentioned that 40 minutes in, and I just went to bed. I was like, "I can't. I can't. The day's done." I literally went to sleep. It was just so surreal.