Queen & Slim star Daniel Kaluuya tells Sophie Goddard why filming one of 2020's most impactful films left him dazed and confused...
Daniel Kaluuya should be used to starring in huge blockbusters by now (he’s already got Widows, Black Panther and Get Out under his belt) but his latest project, Queen & Slim has left him somewhat unsteady. The film – directed by Melina Matsoukas and written by Lena Waithe – sees the Oscar-nominated star appear alongside Jodie Turner-Smith in a love story that’s earned comparisons to Bonnie & Clyde (more on that shortly). “It’s very surreal,” he says, when asked how the unanimous praise feels. “It starts off being your secret, but then everyone else is watching it.” Here, he talks us through the filming process, and why he’s still unsure what he makes of it all.
Did you pick up on the film’s magic when you saw the script?
Yeah. It usually takes me four hours to read a script in one sitting but it took me an hour to read this. It flew by, so I knew I loved it. Then I thought ‘Hang on, I’m in the same age range… I think I can pull this off’. I reached out to Lena [Waithe] and said ‘I really want to play this, I really want to be in it’. She said, ‘You’ve got to sit down with Melina’ [Matsoukas] and she was on board with the idea of me doing it, and it came from there. The simplicity of the story and the freshness of the characters really spoke to me.
The soundtrack is incredible. Those songs will surely be really special to you now?
Yeah it’s weird, especially the Lauryn Hill song [Guarding the Gates] that’s really special to me. There are a lot of songs that will take me back to that time.
How was the horse-riding?
Well, the first time I ever horse-rode – not for this, for another job – I fell off and landed on my back. I got thrown off the horse over a fence, so if that’s your first experience…! I did a couple of lessons for this and that injury kept coming back. I was like ‘I can’t be injured, I need to give everything in the stunt scene’. I need to do it [learn to horse-ride] away from that time pressure.
Were any other scenes particularly difficult for you?
The ‘stop’ scene, because we were in a polar vortex, it was minus 20. The windshield made it worse. So the line where I say ‘It’s cold’ – that wasn’t in the script, it’s fucking cold! To touch that car with your bare hands, was really difficult. That’s where the ‘it’s cold’ came from – you have to use the reality, the cold. We had to have a 15 minute break every hour, the whole crew.
Your chemistry with Jodie [Turner-Smith] is fantastic, it feels like you knew each other…
We met in a chemistry read. I thought she was just incredible, then we met up when she got the role and we just hung out since then.
Can you tell us about writer James Frey’s involvement?
He pitched the idea to Lena and Lena heard it and took it, and shared the story, because James originally pitched it. So he wasn’t on set, and he didn’t write it.
How was it working with Melina?
It’s amazing to work with someone who is dedicated to detail. We only have two costumes but we literally tested those costumes and the different versions for about two months. I really respected the dedication of ‘That’s not the right shade of red, I don’t like the piping’. We actually made a whole brand new tracksuit, inspired by Sean John and another tracksuit we saw. That’s just an example of the detail and level of care Melina puts into everything she does. Even the poster, the fonts, everything! It’s nice to be part of something that feels so authored. I find that very inspirational and it makes you want to dedicate more of yourself to the little things. People won’t even realise what it ‘is’ but it’ll resonate with them subconsciously.
What did you learn from this film?
That I like content people. I really like Slim as a person, he’s an interesting person to play because he’s so satisfied and simple, in the best way. It’s like ‘Ah man, I should really strive for that’. He even says, ‘I ain’t going to bend the world’. He just wants a woman to hold his hand, that’s really beautiful.
There’s a lot of violence in the film, how did you deal with that?
I would spend Saturdays in silence. I’d watch Adam Ruins Everything, it’s incredible – it’s comedy, information, learning… I’d watch that and wouldn’t talk to a single soul, coming back to the world on Sunday. But once you’re on a shoot you’re so tired, the hours are so long and you’re like: Go home, look through the lines for next day, go to sleep, wake up.
How was filming that sex scene in a car?
I mean car sex is hard anyway! We had to treat it like any other scene, and sex is the language and dialogue of that scene. If we’re not telling the story then it’s just indulgent and showing people ‘having it off’. It’s an odd experience to have your arse out for half the day. There was a closed set so not everyone can watch it but the DOP is there and he’s telling you ‘Can you move your arse’. It’s a really weird experience. I’m so lucky I had someone like Jodie who is so cool, chill and really caring in the moment.
Is it frustrating to see Queen & Slim dubbed ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, because they didn’t actually intend to break the law?
It’s revelatory of the people that see it that way, because Bonnie and Clyde broke the law but if you look at Queen and Slim, they got pulled over because of the colour of their skin. They have to survive. But the thing is, I understand because any ‘on the run’ couple is going to get compared to Bonnie and Clyde because they’re so infamous.
You were quoted as saying we can learn a lot about people by how they react to a movie. How did you react to the film?
I still don’t understand my reaction. It kind of puts me in my place but I don’t know what place, it trips me out. I can’t really talk about it with anybody. There’s a soul in it and it moves me, it just moves me. I think that’s all it can do at the moment, in my life. I don’t really understand my reaction to it just yet.
You’ve played some amazing roles, which role do you think changed everything?
I did this play called Sucker Punch at the Royal Court. I played a boxer and lost three stone in three months. I was 21 and that put me in the room for a Black Mirror kind of role. That role started a lot of things. It was the first lead role I’d ever had, so it changed a lot for me.
And you wrote for Skins at a really young age – how did that come about?
Yeah, I was 17. I was writing plays for Hampstead Youth Theatre, the Heat and Light Theatre. There was a woman who happened to be scouting for Skins, for the first series. So there were two of us from Heat and Light that would look over scripts and go ‘This is shit, this is right’. I got the opportunity to graduate in the second series and write an episode, so I joined before it was cast. Then I heard there was an open audition – I didn’t know it was Skins – then jumped through, and got a role through that.
* Queen & Slim is in cinemas now