Interview | Daniel Kaluuya, Horror, Humor and ‘Get Out’
Certain, geeky American audiences might already have recognized Daniel Kaluuya from his roles in the hit shows Black Mirror and Skins before last weekend, But now the whole world probably knows his name. And with good cause.
Daniel Kaluuya’s performance in the hit horror thriller Get Out is a genuine starmaker, the sort of charismatic, nuanced, unnerving, romantic and amusing work that will probably put him at the top of a lot of casting sheets from this point on. But when I talked to him, shortly before the release of the movie, the tone wasn’t portentous, it was cheerful and casual. He was starring a horror film called Get Out but Daniel Kaluuya couldn’t have been more inviting.
I spoke to Kaluuya about his journey to America and how Get Out got cast. We also delved into the film’s disturbing hypnosis sequences and further into the film’s blend of horror and humor, and we ultimately discussed the particular scene that Daniel Kaluuya didn’t think worked, but that Jordan Peele made him do anyway, and how that trust in his director ultimately paid off.
Crave: How did you come about Get Out? Was it offered to you? Was Jordan Peele a huge fan? Or was there a long process?
Daniel Kaluuya: I got sent the script by my agent and I replied saying, “Oh shit! 12 Years a Slave: The Horror Movie! My boys will go crazy for this shit!” I was like, how do I get this? How does this work in America? He was like, “Oh, just skype with Jordan [Peele].” I was like, “Oh, just Skype with Jordan. The guy is a legend.” He was like, “Well, he’s a fan of you.” I was like, “What the FUCK?! What do you mean? He knows I exist?!” I was like, “What the fuck?”
So I went, we Skyped, and he had watched Black Mirror, the show I did in England that hit Netflix and has changed how people see me out here. And then yeah, I didn’t hear anything for a couple months, and then Sicario came out. I went to LA for meetings to see what happens and I did a reading for Get Out, and I did the hypnotizing scene and the scene at the lake with Rose. I did those two scenes and he said in the audition, he said to Terri [Taylor] the casting director, “He’s got the part.”
And the thing is I don’t trust anyone. There’s loads of directors that kind of said “Blah-blah-blah-blah” and I’m like, we’ll see. And then he texted me again: “You’ve got the part.” I was like, “Myah, we’ll see.” And then he’s like, “You’ve got the part.” I’m like, “Myah…” And then I was on set and I had the part. He’s true to his word and he’s committed to it, yeah. That’s pretty cool.
Tell me about the hypnotism. That’s a process, it’s real, but not everyone has firsthand experience with it. Did you do a lot research? Did you become hypnotized to see what it was like?
No, I don’t really do research like that. I try always to be led and see what the emotion is in the scene, and feel like what, emotional, this represents in his emotional arc. I think that always unlocks a lot for me. I think that it basically brings to the fore his subconscious, and then the audience understands what he internally wrestles with, which is kind of hard to do in a film that doesn’t have a voice-over or an internal dialogue. So it’s about him not wanting to open up that side of himself and him keeping it buried, and it coming to the fore in an interaction like that. So I kind of led it emotionally with him being powerless and paralyzed.
To play that, paralyzed, that’s a really complicated thing. It looks like it would be easy but it’s complicated, isn’t it?
It’s complicated but I kind of feel like, I’ve been saying this today, it’s kind of like there’s loads of people in life that are paralyzed. If a boss is hitting on his secretary and she can’t say anything because she would lose her job, she’s paralyzed. If a guy or someone says a racist comment when you’re doing your job, you’re paralyzed, right? Because you know you need to feed your family.
So that’s why I’m saying it kind of led me emotionally. It’s hard to do. It’s just that feeling where I want to move, I want to get out of this situation, but I can’t and you’re unlocking me and it’s the frustration of doing that and just going, shit, I’m out of control. I’m out of control and someone has more control over my life than me. That powerlessness and feeling that way, I feel like that’s just a cinematic version of what people live every day, so I kind of hit it from that angle.
Branching out on the idea of paralysis of a theme of the movie, you have to spend so much of the film putting up with a lot of casually racist shit.
We find out later it’s not as casual as all that, but as I was watching it I realized if you change the tone a little bit, you change the timing, if we find out there isn’t any horror going on, there’s a lot of comedy in that. Like in the party scene there’s a lot of dark comedy in there somewhere. Is it funny on the set, those sorts of scenes, or is there always an awareness of the malevolence of the content?
I feel like it’s a thin line. I remember, I did this show called Psychoville, which is a very similar tone to Get Out, not in terms of theme but in terms of horror comedy, as a series, and the director told me “Never play the funny, always play the truth.” So I always engage in comedy in that kind of space, where the situation’s funny, and having a real reaction in that situation will be funny. If [you’re] having a great time and you’re making each other laugh, sometimes that reads quite self-indulgent on screen. So I never really want it.
I want it to be us telling the story, and it’s not us being funny. It’s a necessary beat and this is how this character deals with it. Because that’s how you have to deal with it a lot of the time. A lot of time people enter the most depressing situations and they are the funniest people on Earth, because they have to be. It’s a coping mechanism. It’s how you navigate that conflict, and that conflict is story. It’s drama. It’s film. That’s why it’s necessary and that’s you’d find interesting, because he’s in a situation that he shouldn’t be but it’s dark and in order to not tell someone to shut the fuck up, he has to make it funny. He has to be cool about it, you know what I’m saying?
I think there’s this tendency to look at people who work in comedy and assume that’s what they do, that’s all they can do, and I think obviously Jordan Peele just proved them all wrong. But what is he like as a director? How does he compare to other directors you’ve worked with in terms of his style or his approach?
He’s so trusting. He’s so open to collaboration and open to hear what you have to think, and if you have a bad vibe he’s willing to listen to you. Yeah, we shot this in 23 days so we’d didn’t have a lot of time, but he still gave you the space to explore, and if something never worked he’d listen to you. We’d go in over time. So that was really amazing about [him]. And obviously he has an acting background so he understood our position. Because of, then, how short the shoot was, he had so many things to deal with. This was a very ambitious project. So he trusted us to manage arcs at times, and give us license to do… and a lot of it was improv. So it felt natural and real and grounded.
You said that if there was a bad vibe he was very open to working it out. Can you give me an example of something that wasn’t working and you worked it out?
There’s just certain scenes where I was like, “This doesn’t ring true.” There’s just certain things, but that’s just the process. A lot of the time, you know how it is, there’s never a perfect script. There’s stuff that needs to change and grow, and then when you’re doing it that’s when it comes to the fore. That’s what I’m saying. When the scene doesn’t feel natural he’s willing to switch it up and change at times. And then he’s willing to go, “You know what? I really believe in this bit and you have to trust me. You have to play this in this way.” And I’m a kind of performer where I find it quite hard, if it doesn’t ring true, I find it quite hard. I can do it but I’m very aware that it’s a turn as opposed to a person deciding something.
When you watched the film did it feel like that trust paid off?
Yeah, yeah. There’s certain scenes. That bit, “Rose, give me the keys?” That scene? That wasn’t written that way. We kind of made that up on the set, because the way that it was wasn’t working, and Jordan was like, “Listen, trust me.” And then it played out and I watched it performed, and I was like, “Yeah, that makes sense.”
The yelling, you mean? Like when it escalates?
When it escalates, that whole thing, that wasn’t in the script. It was just like I was supposed to say some stuff, I was supposed to talk to them. I was like, in terms of where the exits are and everything it doesn’t make sense, logically, to do what he’s doing right now. […] But it works, the cinematic language of it, and I trusted him.
I think that’s all you do as an actor. You give ingredients for the edit, and the edit’s the stew, and they try to make a meal out of it. That’s all you are. You just throw things in. This is an idea, this is an idea. I’ve signed up to it, it’s because I trusted someone. I trust their viewpoint. I love their work. I trust that they’ll make it work, you know, because that’s not my responsibility. My stuff is to give vibes and flavors and you pick what kind of flavor it is because the story is the king, and the film is the most important thing.
Top Photo: Vincent Sandoval/WireImage
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.