“I was in the middle of this thing that was a Thing and I’m here now. I made it.”
“I made it out.”
This is the straight-to-the-point way that Daniel Kaluuya described his sudden rise to prominence when interviewed by The Guardian in 2018. It may be a little short as a biography, but it’s certainly accurate.
At the time, the now 32-year-old was still at the centre of the hype surrounding Jordan Peele’s 2017 thriller Get Out, in which Kaluuya played the starring role. Merging the traditional formula of a psychological horror with parallels to the real-life experiences of American people of colour, Get Out was an immediate hit and had everybody talking, with much of the conversation focussing on the talents of its leading actor. It was entirely unsurprising when Kaluuya was nominated for an Oscar for the role, with the real shock being that he ultimately lost out.
For Kaluuya, the months following the release of the film were something of a whirlwind. Peele’s film was praised across the world, not just for its objective value as a piece of entertainment but for its ability to shine a light on the real-life experiences of young black men like Kaluuya’s character, Chris. So clear was this subtext that, after reading the script, Kaluuya asked his agent whether or not Peele even could make the film, adding that the ‘universal black truth’ portrayed in the story seemed almost ‘unsayable’.
However, what Kaluuya hadn’t particularly thought about before the release of the film was how he might be considered by interviewers afterwards – how playing a character who was targeted for his race would position him as an unofficial spokesperson in the eyes of the media. This was a role that Kaluuya found difficult to deal with, especially given that he had never expected the release to receive so much attention in the first place.
“To be honest, it surprised me that so many people had an opinion. It was a £3million horror film,” he told NME, “I thought I was making an indie at the time.”
Everyone had something to say about Get Out after viewing – an opinion which, according to Kaluuya, can give a lot away about a person’s personality.
“I remember, I went to a party and this white woman came up to me and said, ‘I think racism shouldn’t be handled in that way’,” he recalls, “She was saying the film belittled racism because it had comedic moments. And I was like, ‘OK.’ I try not to challenge people, because I think this film reveals who they are.”
“I find it fascinating. And I’ll think, ‘If a black person is communicating something about his experience, he should be able to do it, and you policing it is very interesting.’”
The hype surrounding Get Out had swelled to a point that Kaluuya had never expected. Following critical acclaim of his performance, Kaluuya found himself quizzed on issues of race and aspects of the black experience at every stop along the promotional trail – something he felt both unprepared for and incredibly frustrated by. He may have starred in a film that touched on real-life aspects of the black experience, but he was surprised that so many felt that this made him the right person to speak on the experiences of all people of colour.
“I’m not just going to ignore that I’m surrounded by racism, but I’m not defined by it,” he told The Radio Times, “I’m just Daniel, who happens to be black.”
He admitted to the outlet that he was becoming bored by being invited into the same discussion in every interview he sat down for.
“I’m not a spokesperson, I’m an individual. Who’s the spokesperson for white people?”
These comments, made back in 2018, prompted yet another unexpected turn of events – widespread backlash from the black community. Across the internet, some felt that his comments were irresponsible, especially of an actor who had starred in roles which explicitly explored the experiences of black people.
One Twitter user at the time wrote that if Kaluuya was ‘bored’ by the discussion, he should ‘rethink which roles he accepts’.
‘I’m sure there are any number of Black actors who would be happy to appear in films like “Get Out,” “Queen & Slim,” etc. and discuss the impact of race in our world,’ the post read.
‘I don’t have a problem with Black actors from the UK & other places playing African Americans…. But it’s important to be thoughtful about how you approach and discuss your work.’
However, some felt that Kaluuya’s heritage did make his comments problematic. Hollywood legend Samuel L. Jackson even questioned whether or not Kaluuya was the right man to play in a role exploring the experiences of black Americans in the first place.
“I tend to wonder what that movie would have been with an American brother who really feels that,” he said during a radio show appearance, “What would a brother from America have made of that role? Some things are universal but not everything is.”
To Daniel, much of the debate surrounding whether or not the role was suited to a black British actor is based on misconceptions surrounding not just the experiences of black Brits, but surrounding his own class and heritage, too. Being British, he feels, automatically makes you appear ‘posh’ in Hollywood.
“It’s just not factual,” he says, though he understands how such misconceptions came about.
“You’ve got to look at what’s being transmitted from England to America: it’s Downton Abbey, it’s The Crown and Notting Hill – the real Notting Hill doesn’t look like the movie Notting Hill.”
“But that’s Brand Britain,” he concludes, “I’ve made my peace with it.”
It’s easy to see why a misunderstanding regarding his class could be frustrating to Kaluuya, however. He didn’t make it into acting by mistake, born into a well-connected family who had the expendable income to fund his career, following an expensive private education – Kaluuya grew up on a council estate with his mother and sister in Camden, North London.
Having been advised by a teacher to find a young Daniel an outlet for his hyperactive energy, his mother enrolled him at the Anna Scher theatre school, which he attended on an extra-curricular basis. She has since admitted to Daniel that she got him into the school to prevent him from hanging out in the streets.
At Anna Scher, natural class clown Daniel developed a new sense of discipline, having discovered a love for acting through the school’s improvisational games and exercises in which students had to command the attention of the whole room. It wasn’t long before Daniel’s natural talent caught the attention of those within the industry.
By the second year of his A-Levels, which he admits he took mostly to please his mother (who, he says, ‘finds acting too erratic of a profession’), Kaluuya was writing for and acting in the hit British teen drama Skins.
A modern classic amongst Brits whose teen years fell between the mid-00s and early-2010s, Kaluuya is one of several Skins cast members who have gone on to make it big, including Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel and The Great’s Nicholas Hoult.
After he wrapped on Skins, he spent some time working on stage, as well as securing small parts in classic British dramas, such as Lewis and Doctor Who. In 2011, he played in an early episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. Despite the series being met with critical praise across the UK, the role didn’t lead to anything new for Daniel – that is, until the series was picked up by Netflix.
As the streaming giant got ahold of Black Mirror, Kaluuya’s 2011 performance was introduced to a brand new audience – and in that audience was Jordan Peele. From there, he was invited to audition for the role that would ultimately change the trajectory of his career.
Four years on from the film’s release, Kaluuya is well and truly hot property in Hollywood. He may have lost out on his Best Actor Oscar for Get Out, but he was recently awarded the Best Supporting Actor for his role in Judas And The Black Messiah, the story of Illinois Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton and his subsequent murder at the hands of authorities.
Given how stratospheric his rise to fame has been, it’s no surprise that Kaluuya has, at times, found it overwhelming.
“My life’s mad,” he told NME back in 2018, “I can’t even process it.”
We can imagine that, as a new Oscar-winner, it must be even more complicated to do so now.