Daniel Kaluuya has been in the acting business for more than a decade now, but he’s about to get a lot more visible for American audiences. If you’ve had your fingers on the pulse of British TV, you might recognize the London native from his time spent as Posh Kenneth on early seasons of Skins (a show he also wrote for), or, like any U.K. actor worth his salt, from an episode of Doctor Who. Kaluuya started surfacing in American films a few years ago with a secondary role in Kick-Ass 2, and then starred opposite Emily Blunt in the quietly excellent Sicario. Now, in his biggest big-screen role to date, the Brit drops his accent once more to front Get Out, the directorial debut of comedian Jordan Peele, and one of the best horror movies of the year.
Kaluuya stars as Chris, a man who visits his white girlfriend’s family for the first time and ends up subjected to a campaign of psychological and physical terror. You probably won’t guess the specifics, but we’ll give you a hint: It has to do with race. Peele’s script neatly flips the genre’s tropes, redefining the limits of what a black character can do in a horror film, and Kaluuya’s dialed-in performance sells the whole story. In a recent conversation with Vulture, the actor discussed why he took the job with Peele, the value of hearing white people say “I don’t know,” and how the experience of racism feels like living inside a horror movie.
When this script came in front of you, had you read anything like it? I mean for horror, this is extraordinary. This is an entire subversion of the genre’s norms.
It kind of made me feel how Black Mirror made me feel when I read it, but then what Get Out was kind of like was, “Can you say this?”
“Are you allowed to say this?” And whenever something goes, “Are you allowed to say this?” that’s the number one thing I’m gonna say. So I really wanted to be a part of this, and I love Jordan. I watch his sketches and his stuff resonated with me and my friends. I just thought it was wicked. The first words you say after reading a script is always how you feel, and the first word was, “Raw.” And raw is London slang for, like, “Whoa.” So, raw.
This was such a different point of view from what we typically see in horror. As far as people of color go, there are hardly any substantial characters, especially in mainstream studio movies.
Yeah, and I remember when I was in the car, I think I was getting dropped off at a shoot and I was talking to two of the producers. And I’m so English. I don’t got publicists. I don’t know what the fuck’s going on here. So, I mean, he’s talking and he goes, “The thing about this film, Daniel, is this is a film that’s never been done.” He was talking about why the budget was so low, and it’s because it’s a film that’s never been done. That’s why I said yes, because I felt that, and I feel like the stuff that always excites me is like, I’m trying to describe it to someone, and I can’t really describe it. I was like, “You just have to watch it,” and that’s always exciting, because it’s going to be the new thing. It’s gonna start a conversation. I hope it spreads. But you just never know.
Obviously, you and Jordan are both black men, but you grew up on different sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Did you find that what he was expressing in this narrative was something that you strongly identified with in your experience?
One-hundred percent. I know what it means to be stopped by police. I’ve been stopped by police a lot. And the party scene, when everyone was highlighting how black Chris was and saying “black” things and being nice. You kind of can’t say anything, because you know the intention is to make people feel welcome. However, the impact is making people feel isolated and different, because you just want to feel included, like you belong. That’s what the conflict is, and that’s what it captured. Only a black guy could write this, only someone that lives this. I’ve been to so many parties in England and in America that’s exactly like that, where you’re kind of like seen as Other. When you’re just living your life, and you have to adopt the Other in order to understand and navigate the society. That’s what I find really cool about it.
What I was so taken aback by in this movie was just the perfectly banal scenario of going to meet, essentially, your in-laws, and how well that translates into the language of horror. You see the opposing experiences of Rose and Chris even when they’re just talking about this meeting, and from those very beginning moments I felt so incredibly uncomfortable and tense. Rose not hearing Chris’s concerns isn’t just a couple’s disagreement; it’s that something terrible is going to happen to him.
That’s what racism feels like. That’s everyday racism. That’s something you can’t describe. That’s not someone calling you a “nigger.” That’s … you live in that shit. That’s tough. Every day. And it’s like, I’ll be saying this: People think horror films have monsters and aliens and darkness and all this shit. In the real world, there’s probably nothing more horrifying than racism. Living racism is a horrifying experience. And then, having to normalize it and internalize it. Sexism or homophobia, all that shit is the same shit. It’s an everyday thing, and it’s so common, and that’s hard to really put your head around. And you having to stomach it in order to keep your job, or to get further in life. You’re having to compromise, and if you don’t, you’re a nuisance. And there’s a paranoia, ’cause you’re like, This is fuckin’ … am I going crazy? Is that person …
You’re just being gaslighted all the time.
It’s probably why I don’t even go to them parties, because I just feel like I end up being a bad vibe. I’m just like, I don’t know what this is.
I think it makes it doubly interesting that it’s a mixed-race cast. This is not all black actors who shared the same cultural experience throughout their lives; you’re making this movie that is a commentary on systemic racism with white actors that you are playing off of. Was that ever odd or tense on set, or was there conversation around why this story exists with your white counterparts?
Yeah and no. I think a lot of them get it. A lot of them get it, and if they don’t, they go, “I don’t know.” That’s the nicest thing you can hear from a white person sometimes: “I don’t know.”
I don’t know!
And that’s okay! There’s obviously lots of experiences that people live, and I go, “I don’t know.” I listened to this book, The Beauty Myth, about how beauty standards are messing with women in Western society, and I was like, “I don’t know this.” I have no idea and I don’t pretend to, but now I’m more aware of it, because I’ve engaged on that frequency. And that’s okay. That’s how all of them behave. They didn’t try and go, “This is how it is for a black person!” Everyone was really cool, and I think Jordan wouldn’t have picked anyone or decide to work with anyone if their politics weren’t right, or if their vibe weren’t right.
The thing that fascinated me most about the character Rose and her interactions with you was that it seems like, whether she is malicious or has good intentions, she’s still a villain. She’s either leading you to your demise on purpose, or she’s not being the actual ally your character needs. Even when she is listening to you, it’s sometimes like she’s not hearing you.
And that’s what that is, is when people don’t see you. People can be dating and you can be having all this craziness, but they can’t see you. And I think for the first time, she’s seeing the world through his point of view. That’s difficult. I find it’s always difficult dating girls that don’t get it. And a lot of people who don’t understand it will make you feel bad about it, and I think she kind of toes that line.
Jordan’s DNA is clearly rooted in comedy, but he did tremendous dark comedy and horror sketches in Key & Peele. How did you feel about this story being rendered as a horror movie instead of a comedy or a drama?
When I watched it, I was like, “This is how racism feels.” You get really paranoid, and you internalize it, and you get really weird around people that are close to you, and you don’t understand it. You don’t know if you’ve got the right to be angry, and then it all goes fucking ape shit, because you have this release of rage, because you’re not around people that you can talk about it with. The rage suits the genre. Like I said, there’s nothing more horrifying in life than racism. Literally today, there’s black kids getting killed by police and people going, “Yeah, but…” Like, Yeah, but?! What the fuck?
Yes, somehow a conjunction still manages to find its way into conversations about people being killed.
Do you know what I mean? And there is blood. Their blood is being shed right now. So you have to shed blood if you’re gonna deal with this. I seen a viewing last night, and it was a cathartic experience for people. Like, “Fuck, yeah,” you know? Because that’s how people feel. I don’t think comedy or sci-fi would do that as viscerally, because there’s a lot of black people that are dying, and everyone’s just going, “Yeah, but…” And that’s the world we live in. And it’s really hard, but that’s life, and you have to put your head down and go.