Movies

When It Comes To Acting, Daniel Kaluuya Has No Fear

Maybe the best word to describe Daniel Kaluuya is “focused.” While interviewing the Get Out star for his tremendous performance as Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah (which just garnered him a Golden Globe and SAG nomination), it honestly, at times, felt like interviewing a professional athlete. Kaluuya speaks with an intensity and confidence about his performance that does feel like he’s about to go out and win a World Cup.

As an example, part of what’s so remarkable about Kaluuya’s performance of Fred Hampton is that there really aren’t any other performances over the years. He’s playing this larger than life figure, and his performance will be seen for generations as the performance of record. It’s the kind of performance that can affect a historical figure’s legacy. And the thing is, Kaluuya obviously knows this. And admits, yes, there is a responsibility and he was quite aware of it. But at the same time you have to push that aside and do the job. For Kaluuya, failure wasn’t an option, nor something he even thought about. If he started thinking about failure, well that’s how a person fails. (Actually, maybe Kaluuya might win a World Cup one day. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.)

Kaluuya also expands on his plans to make a movie about Barney. Yes, the lovable purple dinosaur. And he was a bit surprised by the confused reaction to this news, but, as before, you have to ignore all that and just get the job done.

(When our interview started I was given a time limit that was double what I was told before, which I tried to clarify, to Kaluuya’s amusement.)

I have that much time? I thought it was half that? Not that I wouldn’t want to spend as much time talking to Daniel…

[Laughs] You did not want to do that! You did not want to do that. He was like, “What the fuck?”

For the record, I would spend any amount of time.

“I got shit to do.”

No it’s, “Oh, I’m going to bore this man to death.”

Nah, man. It’s never that, man. I’m sure you’re a fascinating and interesting human.

Well, you’re out of luck there. But, first, congrats on the Golden Globe nomination.

Thank you so much.

Were you excited?

Yeah. I was excited in the sense that it means more people are going to hear Chairman Fred. Watch Chairman Fred. It can reach a wider audience because of it, so I’m excited in that sense.

Is there a weight to playing Fred Hampton? Maybe responsibility is the better word.

There is a weight. There is a weight and there’s a responsibility. Sometimes you have those kinds of moments, to see how strong you are or to get stronger. That’s what tension and resistance does. I had to step up and stand at my full height in order to reach the incredible spiritual heights that he reached. I did that. Then drop by drop a river is formed. I moved like that. Didn’t try and do too much too quick. Just little by little, and not beat myself and judge myself when I didn’t go in the right direction in the process of building an interpretation of Chairman Fred.

I’m curious what you mean by that. I get the impression you want to play this man as a human being, but also show his gravitas. Those can be hard things to combine.

Yeah, he’s a human being with gravitas. The gravitas is part of his humanity. You just have to go a different way. Gravitas, it’s a human trait and you have to go that way. Own it and go, “Okay, this is who he is.” Accept who he is. Accept it as a guide and go closer towards it is how I approached it and thought of it.

What did you find to be the most difficult aspect of playing someone like him? The thing I can’t stop thinking about is there aren’t many performances of him, so this will be one people watch for years to come. If something goes wrong, this is a real human being with a real legacy.

To be honest, I don’t even engage in “don’ts.” I cannot afford to engage with it falling through, it not working out. It’s going to happen. It’s happening. The end.

Right…

What can I build from that? How am I going to read the text? That’s all ego. I have to surrender that in order to play this in a certain way. I engage with all my characters. I’m in service of the story. I’m in service of the narrative. I’m in service of Chairman Fred. That’s how I engage with it. If I engage from a service standpoint, there is no fear.

Surrendering ego. How does one do that? Because that sounds like something that’s easier said than done, for anyone.

Yeah, you’ve got to decide, bro. You’ve got to decide and you’ve got to make it happen. That’s the end of the day. Do you have control over your mind or do you don’t? Is your mind in control of you? Is your mind bigger than you? You know what I mean?

Yes.

I’m thinking in my mind and I go, yo, we’re going this way. Oh, nah, nah, nah. Nope. We’re going this way, and I move accordingly. So that’s how I see it. If I become aware of those negative thoughts, I do not allow them to consume me. If I’m unaware, then I’m unaware, and then it’s consuming me. I’m unaware. I’m unconscious. But if I’m conscious and I’m up, then I’m bigger than that. I am bigger than that. I think everyone is bigger than that. It’s just do you believe in it or not?

Also, this is stuff that my mom passed down. This is my mom’s stuff. There’s real-life that my mom’s gone through. My experience pales in comparison to what she’s overcome. Nah, I don’t even engage with that. I’m blessed. I’m born here and I’m getting it, and every goal that we have we’re achieving. Not even in an arrogant way. Just because it’s here. That’s the way it is and I’m blessed that my mom gave me those factory settings.

That’s a really nice thing to say about your mom.

Oh, I appreciate that. It’s the truth, my guy.

Was there a specific scene that you found particularly rough? [Note: there are spoilers ahead, which depict real-life events.]

Doing the poisoning scene on the day of the 50-year anniversary was a really tough day. It was just a tough day in general. To be doing that scene on that day, it was really heavy.

Oh, I didn’t know that. It was actually filmed on the 50th anniversary?

It was really, really, really, really heavy and everyone felt it. We just knew it was a moment. We had a speech, said a couple of words, really thankful to be here and thankful for what Chairman Fred did for us to be here together. To honor him and to honor his words and bringing it to a wider audience. So that was a really heavy day. Even the stuff I was saying in that scene, the decision he makes in that scene, to say that on that day, was really heavy. I think if I did it another day I wouldn’t be able to do it like I did it.

LaKeith Stanfield said he had a tough time playing William O’Neal, giving someone who did what he did some humanity. As an actor getting into the role of Fred Hampton, did you ever resent LaKeith’s character?

You’re talking about the 50th anniversary, that scene, right?

That scene stands out as an example.

No, because I was unconscious. Chairman Fred was unconscious. That was really happening. However, I didn’t feel comfortable playing it in a way where he was oblivious. I think there’s a line where I go, “When I get out.” And I just said, Shaka, I was like, “I’ve got to give it to O’Neal and give that line. Give him that thing and have an ambiguity within, in the sense that he knows his time’s up in one way, shape or form. Or this time in this chapter.” You have that with the imminent birth of Chairman Fred Jr. You have that with the decision he makes in the scene. People want him to flee and you can tell that something has shifted. I just thought that he knows something’s up. Spiritually speaking, I wanted to transmit that. If people pick up on it, they pick up on it. If you don’t, you don’t. But I wanted to have that ambiguity there that he wasn’t oblivious of his unconscious.

Were you surprised by the lack of past Fred Hampton portrayals?

No, because the reason why there’s not many portrayals is the reason why he’s not figure in the position that he’s supposed to be. He was assassinated. He’s assassinated in the sense, his body, but also his trajectory, his words, his ideas, and his strategies were usurped. And the credit of him of being the origin of certain ideas was taken away from him. Especially, when I was doing the research, wow, there’s so much information about him, about his death. Not a lot of information about how incredibly he lived. Also, it was from an outside point of view. It wasn’t from in the party or from Chairman Fred. So I can understand the assassination that happened with Chairman Fred was a physical one, and a spiritual one, and a social one: in terms of suppressing him being known in a certain way.

So that’s what I meant earlier about the weight and responsibility, because your performance, people are going to watch over and over again for a very long time.

Well, it is. And at one point you’ve got to go, are you strong or not? Are you big or not? You got to go around carrying it. Then you get to point where your muscles get stronger, your muscles get stronger, your muscles get stronger, and now you’re just carrying it. You’ve got heavier, you’ve gained weight, and you’re built for it. It’s not something at the beginning of the process I felt like I was built for. It was something I really worked at and conditioned myself. And understanding myself. And coming there with empathy and love and service. I moved like that. But I understand your point of view from your vantage point. It’s like, “Yo, this is a big weight. This is a big responsibility!”

Right. In soccer terms, it’s like you have to score a goal here and you did. But it’s not easy to score a goal.

But the concept of easy, I don’t even engage with. The concept of easy doesn’t help me in any process. It’s what’s the truth. It’s what’s the truth. If I’m trying to score a goal, that’s going to ensure that I don’t score the goal.

That’s interesting.

You know what I mean?

Yeah, I do.

I can’t come from that space. I’m coming from what’s honest? What’s truthful? How am I vessel? How am I channeling this? Then there’s no ego. It’s like, I’m not trying to do this. Boom. I’ve done that. I did that. In that sense, so I just go, “That happened.” That’s what I’m trying to say about surrender. I really mean that. It’s a state of being that I have to be in order to move closer to that spiritual space in order to be a vessel and a channel for it.

A few months ago a story broke that your production company is making a Barney movie and people seemed confused by it. I just watched a documentary about Sesame Street, I assume that’s similar to how you feel about Barney. Are you going to bring back David Joyner? Maybe that’s too specific of a question, but I’m just really curious about this.

Yeah, we’re developing it at the moment. I can see the reaction was really interesting because I was like, oh, they don’t see how I see it. Oh, okay. Cool. I see it. Then I just keep moving. To be honest, I don’t really enjoy “announcements.” I prefer trailers to press releases. It’s that thing where I get that’s the game and it came out. I think we see something, we see something that’s interesting, and we’re going to just go into that direction. If people don’t get it, then they don’t get it. I can’t really engage with them because it’s a different level of investment. But I appreciate their viewpoint and I listen at times when they say this and that, because actually there’s some cool ideas in criticism. If you take away your ego and your personal views on it there are some really cool ideas. I go, oh, I never saw it like that. Cool. Cool. I’ll take that on. So, I’m open, I have strong opinions loosely held, and I just move like that.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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