Honest Daniel Kaluuya Sets The Record Straight

Daniel Kaluuya is a hard man to pin down. His star is firmly rising and he keeps his multiple talents busy, year round.  But, knowing that he was to appear as Chris in the award-winning Blue/Orange, we persisted, and were rewarded two-fold. Not only did we catch him during what should have been his lunch break from rehearsals, but the first words out of his gifted mouth were…

“I’m happy to be doing it! I love your organisation and everything about it, genuinely. I think it’s great!”

**BLUSH** For those of you who don’t know, Kaluuya has a growing portfolio of solid, critically acclaimed roles on TV, film, stage and radio, which have earned him multiple awards nominations and wins. He has also developed a highly praised produced, writing career.

I loved The Fades in 2011 (BBC 3) – loved you as Mac, and I saw you as Mubutu to Ejiofor’s Lumumba in A Season in The Congo at the Young Vic in 2013 – came away from that in an emotional state. You followed up as Agent Tucker in Johnny English: Reborn (2011) and documentary film maker in Babylon (Channel 4, 2014). Last year, everyone we know was talking about your Agent Reggie Wayne in Sicario (2015) … So, I’m very aware that your career has just quietly been on this steep trajectory… You must be quite pleased…

Thank you! It’s amazing to genuinely do what I love. I just feel really blessed… I was into acting, I just knew it was for me. But I was poor, so if I failed, what did I have to lose? I don’t think I could have been any poorer – I was eating McDonald’s sauces… I went to lots of random youth clubs around North London. I went to Anna Scher – that was the one that pushed me. I did Wac in Belsize Park; did a bit of Hampstead Theatre, Heat and Light Theatre Company, Round House, Sylvia Young Saturday school – classes… From Anna Scher I knew a lot of people actually making a career out of it. So I thought, I want to do this; I can make this work! Then I got my first job and started writing plays which got me the attention for Skins [Posh Kenneth, E4, 2008-09], I got a better agent and I thought, if I make it work, I’ll be OK; I’ve scraped the bottom of the scene.

It paid off because just as you entered your 20s you landed the role of Leon in Roy Williams’ Sucker Punch, and everybody loved you in that!

BLUE ORANGE by Penall,         , Writer - Joe Penal, Director - Mathew Xia, Design - Jeremy Herbert, Lighting - Adam Silverman, The Young Vic Theatre, 2016, London, UK, Credit: Johan Persson/
Daniel Kaluuya (Christopher) in rehearsal for Blue Orange. © Johan Persson

I feel blessed that I got that job, with Roy [writer] and Sacha [Wares, director]… I feel that with all the stuff that I’ve done, so many factors need to be in place to be a part of it, let alone to be something that you’re proud of. I got that role because I did a play 2 years before called Oxford Street by Levi David-Addai who wrote Youngers [E4, 2014]. Sacha was associate director at the Royal Court then, she saw it and she fought for me, because I was overweight for that role. Maybe if it was a different director I wouldn’t have got that role. Before that, no-one else would see me… I couldn’t get a theatre job because I wasn’t trained, didn’t go to drama school. That’s why I feel so fortunate. That’s why I work so hard. I feel like I have to honour that.

But as Leon, not only did the Evening Standard take note, but the London Critic’s Circle did too – you won the Editor’s Award for Shooting Star and Outstanding Newcomer! You got to work with Dawn Walton, AND the ensemble cast was nominated for the Olivier for outstanding achievement in an affiliate theatre (Royal Court) …

Yes, she [Dawn Walton] directed Oxford Street. She gave me my first theatre job. She’s wicked. I love Dawn, she’s a great person.

You played Mobutu in A Season in The Congo – an older character, a dark, foreboding turncoat. Was that your last theatre appearance?

Yes it was at the Young Vic, 3 years ago now…

…Then you got the Sicario role… We were disappointed not to hear more mainstream buzz about the great work you did in that film, seeing as you were in a significant number of scenes…

I was surprised at how much I was in the film. Seriously. I knew I was cast, I was doing it, I did it. But I remember I sat down with my mum and said, “Mum, I’m in this film!” and she’s like, “You’re in this film” and I was all, “Alright, cool!” I feel like I wanna be engaged with people that care about me and genuinely are supporting me and believe in me like I think The British Blacklist does… I just want the work to do the talking. If you see it, you see it and if you don’t you don’t. I’m very chilled about it. I just loved [Sicario], and I was so happy to be a part of it. When I went to New York and L.A. after, it changed a lot for me. It’s why I got the film I just did – Get Out with Jordan Peele [writer-director, of Key and Peele fame]. That’s all you want, to get stuff that you want to do as opposed to just getting ‘stuff’. It’s given me amazing opportunities to do more [projects] that I believe in. I want a career, I don’t want a job!

Get Out is now in post-production – a horror-thriller which tells the tale of how interesting things happen when a young African-American man visits his white girlfriend’s cursed family estate. The genre was chosen to provoke thought on race in America. It is testament to the confidence Peele has in Kaluuya, since he felt that the conversation had been started, but not advanced, since Night of The Living Dead in 1968…

What I’m loving is that across your whole career, across all the media in both acting and writing, you have embraced quite a range of genres, but a lot are comic – dark humour, straight comedy, sitcoms, or light relief… Is it true that you’re also a comedian?

No, I’m not. I don’t know who first said this. I remember I went on this show with Trevor Nelson and he called me a comedian. I said, “Bruv, I’m not a comedian!” I’ve never done stand up in my life. People just assume because you do comedy acting… I’ve done sketch shows on TV, online and everyone I worked with were comedians. I can’t claim to be. I think it would be disrespectful to the stand-up community, who actually do comedy, and I’m just pretending I’ve got a whole occupation that I’m just lying about [laughs]. So I’m just saying the lie is NOT from me [laughs]. Maybe I’ve just got a funny face, I don’t know…

It is on your Wikipedia page – “… British actor, comedian and writer…”

(l-r) Chiwetel Ejiofor as Patrice Lumumba ; Daniel Kaluuya as Joseph Mobutu in A Season in the Congo (Young Vic, 2013) Photo: Johan Persson
(l-r) Chiwetel Ejiofor as Patrice Lumumba ; Daniel Kaluuya as Joseph Mobutu
in A Season in the Congo (Young Vic, 2013)
Photo: Johan Persson

There’s so much wrong on there. My birthday’s wrong; it’s in February. I get birthday cards and wishes on random days, I get presents, it’s mad! I don’t even know who did it. Everyone’s probably thinking I’m doing some fraud shit. I just want to say on the record, I’m not a fraudster.

As much as I enjoyed it, I thought you gave some much-needed light relief in the BAFTA-winning BBC3 supernatural drama The Fades (2011). Your innocence and naive bemusement as Mac was a brilliant study of a hormonal motor mouth, a gentle geek who keeps his friend grounded, but then steps up to fight by his side in the face of a possible apocalypse he has no special powers to change. Lots of loyal petitioners were gutted when it wasn’t renewed for a second series.

The Fades threw Kaluuya into the company of some big names and emerging talent who have also gone on to mainstream success. But, Kaluuya has compounded his by graduating to the big leagues in terms of critically acclaimed theatre. Joe Penthall’s Blue/Orange, directed by Matthew Xia at the Young Vic. This play debuted in 2001, and every time it’s been staged, it’s attracted more or less universal critical acclaim.

At 27, you’re probably at an advantage, because you were probably too young to have caught the 2001 or 2005 versions. So, first of all, congratulations on winning this role, because there are some large shoes to fill… Chiwetel Ejiofor (2001), Jimmy Akingbola (2005), Shaun Parkes (2005 film) …

Yes, I’m stretching out my feet, trying my hardest to fill them. But I’m trying to forget about it. I admit I heard about both of the productions coming into this. Then, it [Ejiofor’s 2001 production] was at the Young Vic, which is one of my favourite theatres in the world, especially because I’ve worked with Chiwetel, seen him everyday for like 3 months! What you saw in [A Season in The Congo], he did that in the read-through. All I was thinking was, “I am [screwed]! My friends and family are gonna PAY to watch me get slaughtered on stage!” [laughs] So I have that at the back of my mind. But you’ve got to say I’m here, this is what we’re doing. Be unapologetic about it. That’s the most important currency in this day and age, in this society – conviction. This is what we’re doing, and that’s it. So you can approach it completely fresh, and bring that immediacy to it. I respect everyone – Parkes, Akingbola, Chiwetel. These are the reason why I can do my job as young as I’ve been able to do it. But our generation is creating our own legacy, and this is what we’re doing right now. So all I’ve tried to do is find my interpretation and tell my truth.

Blue/Orange is about mental health in the black community, how non-black doctors see black people, and how their subjective opinions can influence whether someone is let out or kept in. It’s such an interesting subject, especially when you have two white characters debating about what it’s like to be black. Why do you want to debate about being black? I don’t understand where that even comes from. I feel that’s even truer nowadays in terms of how the white opinion has a bigger presence and more credibility in certain debates, because it’s seen as removed and unbiased. This play wrestles with that but through mental health, BPD [Borderline personality disorder], and all that this character’s going through.

Also it’s about how quite a lot of young black men are quite isolated within their communities and what that does to a person, what loneliness does to people, especially if you feel like you’re being persecuted – because you’re being stopped by the police, because you’re being harassed, because you’re getting looks from the old ladies, and what that does to someone that’s feeling lonely. Then, they’re ripped away from their community. My character Chris is from the Congo, so what does that do to him? How do all those factors contribute to him being institutionalised? Basically, it’s his last day and one doctor thinks he should stay, one thinks he should go, and it’s about what happens over those two days.

Is this the first time you’re playing someone with a medical affliction?

(l-r) David Haig (Robert), Luke Norris(Bruce), Daniel Kaluuya (Christopher) in Blue Orange at the Young Vic © Johan Persson
(l-r) David Haig (Robert), Luke Norris(Bruce), Daniel Kaluuya (Christopher) in Blue Orange at the Young Vic © Johan Persson

I think so. The condition is all about the conviction of their thoughts, what they believe in – it’s delusional, but they believe it. A lot of the physical symptoms are to do with the medicine they’re taking. People think that it’s the illness, but it’s the side effects of Haloperidol or Clozapine. The writer, Joe Penthall,  said there was a story similar to what we’re doing here, about this guy in a market who [kept saying], “These people are coming to get me; Idi Amin’s secret police are coming to get me, they’re coming to get me!” Everyone thought he was absolutely insane, so they sectioned him. When his 28 days were up, he went out and got killed.

That’s what’s so interesting – what is crazy then? How can you prove that you’re not crazy? How do you prove that you are? That is the ambiguity that this play deals with. People’s lives are in the hands of doctors’ opinions, and we’re just hoping that they have seen enough to make the right choice. We had psychiatrists come in and say they’ve made loads of mistakes, fatal mistakes with someone’s life and it’s their opinion; the only authority in this situation…

It’s quite timely that this revival is happening the same time as the diversity in the arts debate. How does a white doctor, who can only frame something within the white British domestic experience, relate to someone from a war-torn developing nation if you haven’t done Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) or had an experience like that? This is directly relevant to the stories and content creators which don’t fit the white privileged male default. You must have people from different backgrounds who can consider projects from a more relevant perspective…

I just feel that you need to see people as 3 dimensional human beings. Even the word ‘diversity’ is a problem for me. Because it’s normal, it’s life. By saying diversity, are you saying that white British is normal? That’s just incorrect to me. Because we live in the world; billions of white people, billions of black people. All the words are so loaded.

How did the role of Christopher come to you? 

I’ve been writing a lot, so I haven’t been acting for a while. My agent told me about it quite a few months ago, I came for an audition, did a read. I met up with Joe, Julia Warren and Matthew the director and talked about what I felt.  They offered it to me and then I jumped on board. With a project I like to make it accessible. I want people who don’t come to the theatre to come and watch it. That’s what I want. Realise that you don’t have to play by the rules, you don’t have to be quite formulaic or be so traditional and straight up. That was one of the most satisfying things about Sucker Punch, so that’s what I liked about the essence of this one, everyone could come and watch this. I feel the Young Vic represents that; the doors are open…

You said you’ve been writing for a while…

I’m writing a film. It got into Sundance Screenwriters Lab. I went in January, and it just got into the Director’s Lab. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past year. I worked on Sicario and then I thought cool, do the script, did Sundance and then started looking at jobs for the next year. I just did Get Out in Alabama; doing this now, and then going back to writing. I wrote my first play when I was 9 and got it performed at the Hampstead Theatre. So I’ve been writing for quite a while and it takes up a lot of time for me, putting my head down…

It’s interesting that you were talking about the difficulty getting work or be considered because you hadn’t gone to drama school, which is exactly what Wil Johnson was facing in the 80s. But, then someone took a chance on you…

It is what it is. I remember why I got that role in Oxford Street. Maybe someone pulled out or something like that and they couldn’t find anyone who could play ‘street’ London. Shane Walker asked Dawn to have a look at me. So I understand it as well, in terms of voice, knowing how to project, doing voice work, sustaining, and having the stamina to scream every night – you could lose your voice, especially on a matinee day. Now I do voice classes and the rest, because you have to honour your craft and work hard, and keep growing. It gives you that insecurity that you want to keep on, to hone this or that.

Kaluuya has impressed his peers of all ages with his range – street kid, hormonal geek, MI7 and FBI agent, posh London teen, African general, film maker, and many more. Just as Wil Johnson pioneered the TV black detective, I wonder if Kaluuya will pioneer the black agent – he’s played two already!

I am looking forward to experiencing Blue/Orange and I want to see this intelligent, energetic artist, who has a significant, but natural gift of wit (he made me laugh A LOT). Having admired his work since 2011, maybe I put a bit of pressure on him to do well. As I wished him the traditional ‘break a leg,’ he floored me with laughter, as he said…

I’ll have to break all the legs or Deb’ll kill me, she’s like, “Paid a lot of money, do a good show, I don’t want it to be sh*t. Please, don’t fuck it up.” OK cool, noted.


Previews of Blue/Orange began on May 12th 2016, with a running time 2½ hours including interval. Evening performances begin at 7.30pm, Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Blue/ Orange runs until July 2nd.

To book tickets, visit the Young Vic website


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