Uganda-born actor Daniel Kaluuya hit the big one when he won this year’s Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his powerful performance in the film Judas and the Black Messiah. This has been the peak of an incredible arc that started in a rundown London council estate. Profile by Gail Collins.
Daniel Kaluuya’s rise to fame has been an unruffled affair – eminently suitable for the unpretentious working-class kid whose confidence in himself has been the key driver to where the 32-year-old man is today.
Rewind to the late 80s when his mother, Damalie Namusoke, travelled from Uganda to the UK to start a new life. His estranged father, Stephen Kaluuya remained in Uganda and Daniel spent the first couple of years of his life in hostels until the family were offered a council flat in Camden, North London, where he lived with his mother and older sister.
By the time he was nine years old, his creative aptitude was already noticeable when he won a competition, writing a play about two men in McDonald’s, which was performed at London’s Hampstead Theatre.
During his teens, Daniel’s work would once again graced Hampstead Theatre when he co-authored a short play that was performed there; and again when he appeared in his own one-man show in 2006, whilst still in year 12 at school.
That same year he also made his television debut in the play, Shoot the Messenger, and began to make his mark in the industry by writing episodes and appearing as Posh Kenneth in the E4 cult TV series, Skins.
At school one teacher recommended he should go to acting classes, hoping it would burn up some of his boundless vitality and graciously describing him as “a bit busy”, which Daniel openly admits was more a euphemism for hyperactive and distracted.
He ended up at the Anna Scher Theatre School, studying improvisation (purportedly recommended to his mum by the local plumber). The drama class was for the community kids in a tough part of London, giving them a chance to channel their energies into something positive.
The proof of its success comes not just from Kaluuya but others such as Kathy Burke (actress, comedian, writer, producer and director) and Reggie Yates (actor, presenter, DJ and documentary filmmaker).
At fifteen years of age, Daniel was already thinking to himself that acting was something he could do full-time, banishing his younger dreams of being a professional footballer – although he remains an ardent Arsenal fan.
By 2010, he was treading or rather sparring on the boards again in the Royal Court Theatre’s production of Sucker Punch, in a role which deservedly garnered him the Critics’ Circle and Evening Standard Award for ‘Outstanding Newcomer’.
The actor sees this play as a defining moment in his life, saying, “It changed everything. Everything I’ve got now is probably from Sucker Punch.”
His performance was described by the Evening Standard as one of “piercing intensity… As Leon, a young black boxer growing up in the Eighties, Kaluuya combines anger, eloquence, a pained worldliness and a strangely childlike capacity for fantasy.”
Kaluuya lost a couple of stone for the role, telling people he missed his mum’s cooking. Her significant role and influence is a recurring theme throughout his career.
His screen appearances became more frequent, something he maintains happened when he stopped thinking about them. In 2008, he appeared in the film Cass, and TV series Delta Forever, Silent Witness, and That Mitchell and Webb Look.
The following year he was in Doctor Who, Lewis, FM, Philanthropist, and 10 Minute Tales. For the next couple of years, he was kept busy appearing as Michael ‘Tealeaf’ Fry in 13 out of the 14 episodes of Psychoville, and he had a recurring role on Harry and Paul as the character ‘Parking Pataweyo’ from 2010 to 2012. Amongst other appearances, he was in one episode of the massive hit, Black Mirror (2011) which inadvertently lead to what would be his biggest breakthrough.
However, life was not just one long series of auditions and acting. In the same year that he received awards for his role in Sucker Punch, he was taken off a bus travelling through Camden by police and wrongfully arrested.
His alleged crime? Fitting the description of a local drug dealer! He later sued the Met Police for their treatment of him. His experience with the police is not something he often refers to, but if asked he answers candidly. In a 2019 interview with the US’s Essence magazine, he described growing up in London and being stopped by the police, as a “weird black male rite of passage”.
Taking the big screen by storm
He made more appearances on the big screen with parts in Chatroom (2010), Johnny English Reborn (2011), Welcome to the Punch (2013), Kick-Ass 2 (2013) and Sicario (2015).
He next took the opportunity to re-evaluate the direction of his career, taking 18 months off, spending his time writing and reading scripts and questioning what he loved about some films and writers and why.
Actor and comedian Jordan Peele, watching Black Mirror on Netflix, saw Kaluuya and was impressed by his performance. He cast him in his directorial debut – the 2017 comedy horror movie, Get Out. It was a resounding success and earned Kaluuya the BAFTA Rising Star Award. Hollywood had truly beckoned and Daniel’s role in the 2018 cultural phenomenon Black Panther was followed in quick succession by a part in Steve McQueen’s Widows and a leading role in 2019’s Queen and Slim.
This year we saw his toughest role to date – a portrayal of the Black revolutionary socialist and activist Fred Hampton, in the biopic film, Judas and the Black Messiah.
In his quest to absorb the characters of those he portrays, Kaluuya met with Fred Hampton’s family and ploughed through the Black Panther reading list. His performance in the latter is so immensely powerful that on 25 April he was rewarded at the 93rd Academy Awards with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
His mum was there and must have felt extremely proud and emotional when he said in his acceptance speech, “For my Mum, thank you so much for pouring into me. You gave me everything, you gave me your factory settings, so I can stand at my fullest height.”
His next comments, which can be seen everywhere on the internet, quite possibly brought a flush to her face!
So, what next for this man of the moment? New challenges, of course. Already with an eye on future projects that expand his portfolio of work further, he has plans to breathe new life into Barney, the purple dinosaur loved by kids since the 90s.
Working with Mattel, this will be his first project as a producer. “Barney was such a big presence in my childhood and there’s that song, ‘I love you / You love me’ and I was just like, ‘He didn’t ask about what happens if they don’t love you back?’ That’s interesting because Barney the Dinosaur doesn’t know how the real world works. And then I thought, as a premise, that just really spoke to me.”
Daniel Kaluuya is living his life by the words he once used during a British Film Academy interview in 2017: “I’m the kind of guy that if I can see someone in the room doing it, then why can’t I do it? I have nothing to lose.”
Oh, and his fashion advice? “Love yourself.”