Daniel Kaluuya's Journey from the Streets of London to Hollywood

From getting tough at an all-boys school to nailing a role on 'Skins' by accident.

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Feb 24 2017, 4:11pm

In Early Works, we talk to artists young and old about the jobs and life experiences that led them to their current moment. Today, it's Get Out actor Daniel Kaluuya, who walks us through his Camden upbringing, fetching coffee in a suit, and drawing from his experience as a black man in England in his latest role.

My mom is from Uganda. She came to London to give birth to me. I lived in hostels until I was two years old, and then she got a home in Camden, where I grew up. She was on benefits for a long while, which is what Americans call welfare. Now, she works for a special needs school in Camden, which is the biggest drug market in Europe. It was where the Sex Pistols were born, as well as punk. Amy Winehouse lived there. It can be quite a dark place, because there are loads of drugs and all the drugs went into homes.

I went to a Catholic boys school in north London called St. Aloysius. It was a boisterous school, man—a lot of fighting energy. There was a time where we had all-year detention, where the school would lock up our whole year because there were fights and knife crime.

I was that kid who could do schoolwork really easily—but I was bored, so I messed around a lot. My mom was strict, so she wanted me to get my grades. As long as I got the grades, I was thinking I could do whatever the fuck I liked. I just wanted to have fun and have vibes—to get grades to prove myself and carry on. If I got bad grades, I didn't see it as a reflection of me. I knew from an early age that school was a test of your memory, rather than a test of your intellectualism. It's not about learning; it's about retaining.

School was a place that was majority black—where I found out a lot of my blackness through black people. I found out how dark I was at 11. I didn't know I was dark-skinned to the point where other black people thought it was odd. I was made to feel like an other from black people, which was quite a weird experience. Obviously, in the black context, I'm dark skinned. If I'm navigating the professional context, the majority of people are white—so, in that context, I'm black, but even the concept of being a minority is fucking wild. I'm not a fucking minority. There are a billion white people in the world, and there are a billion black people in the world. What part of me is a minority?

I wrote my first play when I was nine years old. My mom got me into it to get me off the streets, and I just loved it. I took a class at Anna Scher Theatre, where you pay five pounds and improvise for two or three hours. There were people in class who were on TV, and I thought, Oh my God, this could be possible, so I kept at it. I thought I found my tribe—people who were from the estates who loved being creative but weren't flowery or lovey. That really resonated with me.

My first real job was as a runner for a shopping channel, when I was 16. I showed up on my first day in a suit, because that's what I thought professionals did—and then everyone said, "Get me a coffee." So I was getting people a coffee in a suit, which was very interesting. My first acting gig was around the same time, on a TV movie called Shoot the Messenger with David Oyelowo. These BBC directors who were looking for kids who could play street found me acting underneath a church on Caledonian Road—which is in a working-class area in north London. It was quite surreal being on set and going back at school—a really cool experience.

I joined Skins as an actor and a writer—then I got an agent. I got my first two jobs without one, by myself. I was writing and acting in plays for a Hampton theater company, and Skins was looking for young writers, so I went there as a writer before the show was cast. There were three teenage writers—they called us contributors—and then I went to an open audition, which I didn't realize was for Skins. I was only supposed to be in one episode, but apparently I did really well in a read-through, and they wrote me in for more. When Skins came out in England, we were living it because we were the characters. Now, it's built an audience in America because of Netflix. It's quite surreal, coming to America and seeing that some people have watched the show.

When I first saw the script for Get Out, I thought, Wow, that's raw. There were things in it where I was like, "Are you allowed to say this?" At the end of the day, I wanted [Get Out's main character] Chris to be a character that black people would root for and identify with. I felt anxiety from realizing that I would represent that, in a sense—since I'm not African American.

But the way I've been brought up was similar to the African American narrative: I was working class, I had to fight for this, and I had to out-work everyone in order to get anywhere and anything. That's why hip-hop and grime resonates with me and my friends. We don't fit in with the Establishment. Even the word "mainstream" is fucked—if you don't fit in the mainstream, you're told that your thing isn't legitimate. I really identify with that, and I know [Get Out director Jordan Peele] identified with that, too.

As told to by Larry Fitzmaurice

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