How Daniel Kaluuya claimed a place in Hollywood among most consequential leading men of his generation

The New York Times
·6-min read

Daniel Daniel Kaluuya sized up the room. It was the kind of Hollywood meeting room he'd been in countless times before, brightly lit with white walls and framed posters of classic movies. It was summer, 2019, and Kaluuya had driven to the Warner Bros lot in Burbank, California, for a table reading of a movie that hadn't yet been cleared for production: Judas and the Black Messiah, a crime thriller and historical epic about the downfall of Fred Hampton, the rising star of the Black Panther Party who was murdered by police in 1969.

Seated next to Kaluuya on one side of a long conference table were his would-be co-stars, Dominique Fishback, Lakeith Stanfield and Jesse Plemons. Clustered across from them were the Warner Bros big wigs who had the power to give the film the green light: Niija Kuykendall, executive vice president of feature production; Courtenay Valenti, president of production; and Toby Emmerich, head of the studio.

Kaluuya, who was playing Hampton, felt petrified. He figured he was only a quarter of the way into preparing for the role, his first in a film based on a historical figure. Word of whatever he did in that room, he knew, would spread throughout the building. What he didn't know was that the stakes were even more concrete; producers of the movie had arranged for the reading as part of an effort to get $1 million added to its budget. A good reception could convince the studio to write the check.

During the second half of the hourslong reading, in a scene where Hampton gives a rousing speech to a throng of fired-up supporters, Kaluuya pushed all his chips on the table. "If I'm going to die, I'm going to die shooting," he thought, standing up from his chair and staring out at the group. Heart pounding in his chest, he thundered the lines of a call-and-response that would later be made famous by the movie's trailer.


"As soon as I heard him in speaking in Fred's voice, I just started crying," said Stanfield, who was playing Bill O'Neal, the FBI informant who betrays Hampton.

"Everyone else was in a screenplay reading, but he turned it into a play," said Shaka King, the movie's director, co-writer and producer, who was seated across from Kaluuya. "There were only around 20 of us in the room, but he played it like he was performing in a theatre for 300 and had to reach the back row."

Shortly after the table read, Warner Bros agreed to the extra $1 million in financing, King said. The film went into production that fall.

In four short years, Kaluuya, who is 32 and grew up on a public housing estate in London, has claimed a place in Hollywood among the most consequential leading men of his generation. A child actor who got his start in the influential British teen drama Skins, he earned a best actor Oscar nomination for his first leading role in the United States: as the intrepid survivor of a secret race cult in the 2017 smash Get Out.

Kaluuya followed that breakout moment with a succession of tailored and captivating performances in an eclectic range of genres. He played a conflicted warrior in Marvel's international blockbuster Black Panther, a blood-chilling villain in the Steve McQueen thriller Widows and a charismatic love interest in the romantic getaway drama Queen & Slim. Whatever the part, Kaluuya's bone-deep immersion pulled you a few inches closer to the screen.

Finding Fred Hampton

Kaluuya has a confident aura, penetrating gaze and self-described "kind African face." To play Chris in Get Out, he had to dial back his natural boisterousness, which manifests in conversation as a kind of benevolent intensity. "My essence is more Chairman Fred, energywise," he said, referring to Hampton. Because he has so frequently played an American on film, his working-class London accent is initially jarring. It's befuddling to imagine the British-born son of a Ugandan immigrant beneath the layered incarnation of Hampton that appears in Judas.

Kaluuya approached his performance from several angles at once. He steeped himself in the Panthers' formative influences, including works by Frantz Fanon and Jomo Kenyatta; grew out his hair ("As a Black person, hair is how you see yourself, how you feel about yourself and how you treat yourself"); put on a noticeable amount of bulk; and even temporarily took up smoking. ("When I see a film, I can always tell when someone smoking is a nonsmoker," Kaluuya said.)

But the trickiest element was the voice. Hampton, who was raised in Chicago by parents who moved from Louisiana during the Great Migration, was known for his sonorous, idiosyncratic intonation. To summon it, Kaluuya began with the Black Power idol's lived experience.

He consulted with Hampton's family €" including his son, Fred Hampton Jr, and Junior's mother, Akua Njeri (formerly Deborah Johnson) €" and took a field trip to Maywood, the Chicago suburb where Hampton grew up. Kaluuya visited Hampton's early homes, schools and speaking venues, talking with the people he met there, including students and former Panthers, about Hampton's life and legacy.

"An accent is just an aesthetic expression of what's going on on the inside," Kaluuya said. "I had to understand where he was coming from spiritually, what concoction of beliefs and thinking patterns allowed this voice to happen."

Kaluuya further refined the performance with the help of dialect coach Audrey LeCrone as well as an opera singing coach who taught him how to condition his vocal cords and engage his diaphragm for the big speech scenes. By the time filming started, he felt able to deliver his lines with what felt closer to honesty than imitation.

The Anniversary

The weight of history hung over every take of the Judas shoot. But Kaluuya remembers one day in particular as the hardest of his professional life.

The cast and crew were re-creating the night when Chicago police officers shot a drugged Hampton dead in his sleep (O'Neal had put a barbiturate in his drink at a dinner party) on the 50th anniversary of the real-life events.

"It was a hard night for all of us," Stanfield said. "The energy was so thick that you could feel it."

Kaluuya, who had worked hard to create and maintain the borders between himself and his character, felt them beginning to crumble. Suddenly, he was viewing the scene not as a Black man in 1969 but as one in 2019, with a half-century of further data on the odds of survival in a white world.

His first instinct was to suppress the emotions rising inside him. "If you get too invested in your own feelings, in can start to muddle you up," Kaluuya said. But he decided they belonged on the screen. It was the one thing he had left to give.

"That's where the hours show up. That's where the craft shows up," he said. "You don't deny that feeling; you use it, because it's the truth."

Also See: Judas and the Black Messiah movie review: Lakeith Stanfield, Daniel Kaluuya share spotlight in tragic tale of betrayal

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Judas and the Black Messiah director Shaka King on navigating a white Hollywood: I learned you can't apply logic to racism

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