From being followed in supermarkets, to being laughed at in Lithuania, Daniel Kaluuya explains how he channelled his own experiences as a black man to capture the true horror of racism
If Get Out, Jordan Peele’s screamingly funny satire of white-liberal prejudice in America, was just one continuous take of Daniel Kaluuya’s face, it would still be a gripping watch. The film, in which Kaluuya’s character, Chris, endures the weekend from hell at his girlfriend’s painfully ‘right-on’, Wasp-y parents’ place in the suburbs, has struck a nervy chord in the States, where it has grossed upwards of $100m.
Part of that success is down to first-time director Peele’s terrific script, which is like Meet the Parents meets Rosemary’s Baby, with a heavy dose of George A Romero-grade satire thrown in for good measure. But it’s Kaluuya’s expressions – doubtful and bemused at first, shading into disbelief and angers as the story tightens its grip – that really sell the film, and put us in the shoes of the character from the start. This much should come as no surprise. From Black Mirror to Sicario, there’s a quiet watchfulness to the London-born actor that makes him a riveting presence, and suggests a man with an interior life that keeps him working overtime.
We spoke to Kaluuya, who knew he’d “kill it” in the role as soon as he read the script, about the prejudice depicted in the film, his own experiences of racism, and Samuel L Jackson’s recent criticism of black British actors taking African American roles in Hollywood films.
I watched the film for the second time last night and I was struck by how much of the story is written on your face! Because Chris has to suffer all these indignities in silence out of politeness, but you can tell exactly what he’s thinking throughout.
Daniel Kaluuya: It’s like Peep Show, it’s the conflict between what the person does and what the person feels which makes that show pop for me. Chris is trying to be cool even though it’s not cool because that’s his girlfriend’s people. Also I felt it was really important that Chris is not too passive in that situation, because he could be perceived by the public as being a coward, which is such bullshit for him. And I wanted him to be a hero. But the way he goes from understanding and being aware to where he gets to at the end is quite an interesting arc.
It’s funny how his girlfriend, Rose (Girls’ Allison Williams), gets so worked up about the racism that Chris is subjected to, while Chris himself seems to have learned to suck it all up...
Daniel Kaluuya: When I was in Skins shooting in Lithuania when I was 17 I encountered so much racism out there, and I remember all the white members of the cast got so hot about it. And I was like, ‘It’s cool man, whatever.’ But that does have an effect on you, internally, always reacting that way. I did lose my shit at the end of (the shoot). We were in this restaurant and people were laughing, I don’t know if they were laughing at me but I was like ‘Just stop fucking laughing,’ I was shouting and everyone else was like, ‘It’s cool it’s cool.’ It was just ten days of people laughing and pointing and staring, constantly constantly, and it probably wouldn’t have bothered me (normally) but that’s what happens, you just flip.
We are subjected to the racism (as black people) but we’re not allowed to diagnose it because we’re too close to it to identify it. And that’s a shit thing to be a part of, because it ends up coming out in these mad situations. But if I’m passionate and I believe in my shit, I believe in stuff, I’m perceived as aggressive. You can’t understand how fucking shit it is to have your emotions reduced to aggression. And so I understood that part of Chris, because if you’re a black man and you stand up for yourself it’s perceived in a certain way – and that’s the shit that your mum used to teach you. So there’s nothing you can do.
That makes me think of a scene early in the film where Rose lectures a cop for hassling Chris. That scene could have played out very different if it had been Chris doing the talking, I guess?
Daniel Kaluuya: He could’ve got shot! That’s the stakes, bruv. Day in, day out for black people. You could die. Even if you’re not convicted, it would fuck up your work opportunities. It would fuck up your life. That’s the stuff you have to be aware of. You have to be aware of you, and you have to be aware of how people perceive you.
What drew you to the script initially?
Daniel Kaluuya: That’s stuff that black people say in private. I was like, ‘Woah can you do this?’ So for me it was just like, ‘I’ll kill this shit.’ Jordan knows story, he knows his genre. There’s a confidence of his writing, he knows his voice, this man had a vision. That’s what really got excited about it.
Were there other ways in which you were able to draw on your experience in playing Chris?
Daniel Kaluuya: I’ve had racism my whole life, bro. I go into fucking Lidl and get followed by a security guard, they genuinely think I want to rob shit from them cos I ain’t got fucking money. It’s hard to explain how demoralising that is – being followed in Lidl. Lidl. And it happens every day. That’s just dehumanising. It’s those little things – tok-tok-tok – that keep bringing the meter up, so that’s what resonated with me (in the script). It’s that trajectory of going into that darkness, that rage. And the party scene – I’ve been to those parties; I’ll be going to those parties for the rest of my life. So it’s constant, you know, when your highlighted as ‘other’. That’s constant. And it’s the paranoia of that, which makes me feel isolated and weird.
“I go into fucking Lidl and get followed by a security guard, they genuinely think I want to rob shit from them cos I ain’t got fucking money. It’s hard to explain how demoralising that is – being followed in Lidl. Lidl” – Daniel Kaluuya
What did you make of Samuel L Jackson’s recent comments that African American parts should go to African American actors?
Daniel Kaluuya: Samuel L Jackson is someone who has done so much. He’s a legend, he’s a proper legend, and that’s genuinely helped me in my career, more than people probably realise he’s actually helped me. On the screen and off, just by helping people, because he does do that. But what I’m hearing is he hasn’t watched the film, so I can’t speak on those comments, I feel like it’s about is the issue. And all I can say about it is Samuel L Jackson has opened up doors for me, and so many people...
Jordan seems to have shared some of those concerns before casting you in the role. Did it come up in your conversations?
Daniel Kaluuya: I think he was worried that an English person wouldn’t get that, and I told him this is what I want to do, and that I get it, I just get it. Black people are subjected to racism all over the world, it’s just that American news is everywhere. You don’t really hear about black Brits because that isn’t the mainstream news, it just isn’t. The reason why I’m privileged to do the shit that I’m doing is because of people who fought in the 70s and 80s, and that isn’t common knowledge. But in England we’re only starting to tell our stories. I remember going to Florida when I was 12 and this woman who was black heard me and my mum talk and she was like, ‘Oh my God there’s black people in England? I thought it was all Prince Charles and shit’.
UK rappers are being blocked from doing shows because people don’t like their names, yet the Killers are fucking number one? There’s rappers actually having to change their names in order to have a career. What’s that? So I was just like, ‘We get it. We just don’t shout about it too much because we’ve got too much to do.’ And that’s what I said to Jordan, I get that. I get that. This is my life. I can’t get roles in Britain because of the colour of my skin, and I can’t get roles in America because of the colour of my passport. It’s the same shit. But I’m not here to solve racism, I’m here to help people, help my family, help my friends, I’m just doing what I’m doing. I’m shining my dreams, bro.