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You’d Be Unwise to Bet Against Daniel Kaluuya
Daniel Kaluuya is exhausted. It’s the day after the London premiere of Black Panther, and the 28-year-old actor celebrated his long-awaited homecoming in style.
“It ended up being a late one,” he tells me, stifling a huge yawn. “I caught up with my friends. They’re people … who’ve known me since I was eight-years-old, so it’s nice to share these moments.”
As moments go, the Marvel superhero epic is a pretty big one. Already a box office and critical smash, Kaluuya stars as W’Kabi, the trusty head of security in the mythical African kingdom of Wakanda. Not that his mates would know too much about that, as they were shouting and cheering whenever he arrived on screen.
“You can’t take them anywhere!” he laughs, shaking his head. “It’s nice, man. They proper know the journey.”
The journey goes like this: born to a Ugandan mum, Kaluuya lived in hostels until he was two, before moving into a Camden Town council estate. (Editor’s note: council estate is the UK term for public housing.) After a few too many complaints from his primary school teachers, he started to channel his boisterous energy into acting at a local improv theatre group. He soon won a playwriting competition at age nine, and in 2006 he was recruited to write and act in the ground-breaking Channel 4 series Skins.
He went on to star in a selection of well-received TV and stage productions, before landing a lead role in a Black Mirror episode. But then the roles started to dry up, and the ambitious young actor decided to take his chances in Hollywood.
I ain’t gone drama school, I ain’t gone uni, so I just thought: cool, I’ll go elsewhere.
“I just wanted to do stuff I believed in, and after Black Mirror that stuff got more scarce,” he says of his opportunities in the UK. “It didn’t feel like the powers that be were allowing me the opportunity to just learn. I ain’t gone drama school, I ain’t gone uni, so I just thought: cool, I’ll go elsewhere. You’ve just got to learn an accent and you’re free to create the career you want, as opposed to the career that’s handed to you.”
In Britain, starring roles generally aren’t handed to black, working class kids from council estates. “It’s hard, isn’t it? A lot of art is basically just: ‘I’ve got so much money that I have time to get good at this.’ And working class people have different priorities. To their family. To earn a wage and live. Success is often just a reflection of the time you’ve put in.”
Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out (left) with Allison Williams, and in Black Panther (right).
Universal Pictures, Marvel
In 2016, researchers found that just 16 percent of British actors come from working class backgrounds, and Kaluuya blames a culture of inaction around the issue. “A lot of these people write these think-pieces and articles, but what are you doing? You can write an article all you like, but you ain’t putting stuff in place. There’s awareness and then there’s legislation. What are you doing? How are you helping?”
It’s exactly why, he argues, arts funding is so crucial to creative kids trying to earn an education and make their mark. “I’m a product of these free and cheap organizations. Stories are a reflection of the kind of people who get to write them.”
With 2017’s critically-acclaimed Get Out, Kaluuya landed upon a story that resonated with marginalized voices the world over. The horror-comedy, which took satirical aim at the state of race relations in America, transformed the British actor into an Oscar-and-BAFTA nominated star. Was it a surprise to him that Jordan Peele, a comedian who had made a career in sketch shows, had written something so ground-breaking?
“It wasn’t stuff that he intellectually knows, it’s stuff that he intimately knows. He’s the guy. I trusted him.”
Kaluuya is as stunned as anyone by his rapid ascent to global fame, primarily because he wasn’t even concentrated on acting when Peele spotted him on Netflix. “Throughout this I’ve been writing on the low, so it’s surreal. Before Get Out, I was at the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab with my film script.”
That’s happening at the end of this year, and he’s also in the process of writing a TV series. “They’re London stories. I think London’s a world class city, man. There are loads of stories about New York and Los Angeles. Let’s stop looking at other people that we don’t identify with.”
Daniel Kaluuya at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January.
Jordan Peele recently revealed that he’s open to revisiting the Get Out universe. Would Kaluuya be interested in forming a writing team with his former director? “He’d have to ask me first!” he says, cautiously. “I’d love to work with Jordan again. He’s a special voice. If it makes sense it makes sense. He doesn’t strike me as a person who’d put his heart and soul and pen to paper for anything that wasn’t worthwhile.”
Either way, Peele will have a huge impact on whatever Kaluuya does next. “I’ve been working with some incredible voices, and I put a lot of pressure on myself. But you have to let go of that and allow yourself to fail and stumble. I may not get there first time, but I just try to tell the truth.”
This story originally appeared on Esquire UK.