Daniel Kaluuya
Photo by Bennett Raglin

Daniel Kaluuya: “Making it is not impossible”

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Short Profile

Name: Daniel Kaluuya
DOB: 24 February 1989
Place of birth: London, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Actor

Mr. Kaluuya, what kind of films were you watching as a kid?

Oh, I was watching fun shit! I’m watching Robin Williams, I’m watching Jim Carrey. I watched a lot more sitcoms back then, Fresh Prince, Different Strokes, Sister Sister, Friends, and all that. I just watched films I enjoyed or liked the premise of. But most of the time I was playing outside, then you get older and you’re chatting up girls, so there wasn’t really time for that. I didn’t arrive to acting through watching actors.

How did you arrive to acting then?

I think it was just in primary school, a teacher said to my mum, like, “You should get into acting,” because I was busy in class and I was a joker! I think I just really enjoyed making people laugh. I ended up doing improv at Anna Scher Theatre — I got on the waiting list at nine and it was a four year wait! And I got in at 13. A lot of things happened during that time, but for whatever reason I still wanted to do it.

“I remember the point where I’d figured out how to improvise and make the class laugh.”

A four-year wait seems extreme! Was it worth it?

I mean, you’re going there and you’re seeing Reggie Yates, Joe Swash, Kathy Burke, you’re seeing all these people, and their pictures are up on the wall! These are the people it happened to; Dizzee Rascal, Zawe Ashton, and Adam Deacon… I think it was an environment of like, making it is not impossible.

Do you remember when you first realized that you could make it too?

Well, I remember the point where I’d figured out how to improvise and make the class laugh. My teacher Marcus he said, “That’s very smart that you figured out comedy.” I still remember he said that! He said it and that was enough, that felt right. But it probably took a year and a half to get confident enough to just be yourself and improv. It takes a while! I did that at Anna Scher for three years, every weekend. And that stage is the scariest stage I’ve ever seen because you’re there, massive stage, no words, and everyone there — if you’re shit, they laugh. And you know the least about acting! You know the very least. Like, I could do it now and go, “Oh, that’s a bit touchy,” but back then, I’d never done it before. It’s challenging in that sense, but I’m fucking happy I did it.

And then you landed your first major role with Skins in the late 2000s, and even contributed some writing to the show. What did that mean to you at the time?

You know what it was about training at Anna Scher, you’re in a place where you could just be creative and everyone’s talking about creating stuff and stories, and I just loved that. I love creating things with people, I love building things. That makes me happy. So being in the Skins writers’ room, I think I wasn’t aware of it then but I was probably so happy to be in that room. You’re just soaking in that stuff and you’re saying this is what I think, and they’re going, “Oh, no I think this,” and challenging you! Or they’re telling you to watch Arrested Development — that would never arrive to me! No one in Camden was watching that. I was exposed to something I actually enjoyed and would never have been exposed to on my own… That stuff is invaluable, it just opens your world.

Especially at only 17 years old, those experiences are really formative.

Yeah, you’re there and you’re having a laugh on set, you’re writing scripts, you’re bunking school, you come back to school and you’re having a laugh, no one knows you’ve been on Skins. I was just being creative in all kinds of ways and still having a life, still going to house parties, still just being 17. I wrote episodes of Skins, and I was cocky as fuck! I was like, “Yeah, I can do that. What?” (Laughs) I was enjoying the perks of creativity in the industry, but my mentality was still in the real world. I didn’t have any worries and I didn’t have any fear! You’re just free, you don’t care, you’re having fun and getting paid.

When did the worry and fear come into play?

Probably in my mid-twenties. They’re always hard years for a man, acting-wise, because you’re not a boy and you’re not a man. So, I think it was natural. Things weren’t going my way, you know, I was pissed about the meritocracy system that I believed in.

What do you mean?

Like, I believed that if you work hard, you’ll get it, but that’s not the case. That’s bullshit. At one point before I did Get Out, I think I lost the love of it. And at that moment I stopped acting for a year and a half. I was like, “What am I doing? What am I doing?” It’s almost like I wasn’t behaving like myself, I was accepting this shit, I was going to meetings and they don’t want a black lead and I’m like… This isn’t even me. How can I put myself in a position where these kind of people and their opinions matter to me, and it’s changing my life? I’m not moving like myself. So, I had to take a pause, and since then… I haven’t really done that many jobs. I’ve done one a year, sometimes two, if they’re both supporting like Black Panther and Widows, for example.

What does it take for you to accept a major leading role like in Judas and the Black Messiah?

That story is bigger than all of us individually, it’s about upholding Chairman Fred’s legacy and the Black Panther party, do you know what I mean? The whole thing was about taking care of your own because the government wasn’t. The Rainbow Coalition also really blew my fucking mind! The Black Panthers went and talked to Young Patriots and confederate flag-bearing white people and found points of interests and helped their kids — but without sacrificing their love of blackness and their love of the black community. That’s what I loved about the project.

“I’ve got to go and put things in place so that when it’s getting a bit mad, I can just figure it out. That’s where I’m at.”

You seem to have found a nice rhythm in the projects you’re choosing these days.

It’s more that I understand the rhythm more, and that there’s not always going to be that many great scripts. I do make films for my friends that I grew up with, I want them to like my stuff, to like the film. And I really do listen to them when they say their reviews. They’ll go, “Oh, I liked it,” “No, no, but what do you think?” I do want to actually know! I learn from those experiences. Then it’s just chilling and doing things that I want to do in my own time and carrying on.

You still need to be able to have a life outside of acting.

I still want to live life! In films, you’re just summarizing life. But how can you summarize life if you’re on set all year? Are you living? Are you travelling? Are you having a laugh? Did you go to that wedding of your friend’s? What did you do? (Laughs) Yeah, I’m in a privileged position and I’m going to exercise that privilege. I’m going to allow life to come in!

Do you worry that with your success at the Oscars and the recognition that comes with that, your life won’t be as free as you want it to be?

I used to worry. But I think that worry has already happened with Get Out. It took me by surprise! It was this whole period where I lost my life. Before Get Out came out, I genuinely loved my life. My life was so fun, it was so cool, I would do a job, come back, chill out, go raving, go travelling, this, that, I was just moving! That kind of freedom, it goes. It has to go because it’s stressful! I remember really accepting it: it’s not bad that it’s gone, it’s just gone. And I think now I’m more equipped to understand that I need to actually put systems in place so that I can be free. I can’t expect the world to just do that, I’ve got to go and put things in place so that when it’s getting a bit mad, I can just figure it out. That’s where I’m at.