clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Daniel Kaluuya Is the Most Interesting Under-35 Actor in Hollywood

The gifted star of ‘Queen & Slim’ can make you feel what he’s feeling—empty evil, contempt, uncertainty—from a single stare

Nate Creekmore

From May of 2015 to today, Daniel Kaluuya appeared in five movies. They are as follows:

He was in 2015’s Sicario (he played an FBI agent partnered alongside Emily Blunt). And he was in 2017’s Get Out (he played a photographer; he was the star of this movie). And he was in 2018’s Black Panther (he played a high-ranking member of the Wakandan government). And he was in 2018’s Widows (he played a criminal). And he is in Queen & Slim, an on-the-run film he costars in with Jodie Turner-Smith that just opened this past weekend (he plays a regular nobody who goes on a Tinder date and ends up part of a nationwide manhunt).

The collective Rotten Tomatoes score of those five movies is 92.4/100.

Daniel Kaluuya has impeccable taste.

Daniel Kaluuya is the most interesting young actor in Hollywood.

The best quote about him—or about his essence, really—came from Steve McQueen, who directed Kaluuya in Widows, a thoroughly underappreciated heist movie. McQueen told The New York Times: “He has that gift you don’t see often, a presence even in his stillness. You feel what he is feeling, you see what he is seeing.”

It’s a perfect distillation of what makes Kaluuya so compelling. He slow-cooks everything: every look, every word, every emotion. The result of that is all of his everything feels heavy (in the way that expensive things feel heavy), and rich (in the way that tasteful things feel rich), and deliberate (in the way that intricate things feel deliberate), and masterful (in the way that … well … masterful things feel masterful).

He could, for example, do something as simple as stare at a person—like the way he stared at an underling who’d messed up in Widows right before he shot him in the head, or like the way he stared at T’Challa when he was losing that first fight with Killmonger, or the way he stared at so many people so many times in Get Out, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor—and more than just knowing what he’s feeling, which is what a good actor elicits, you feel what he’s feeling, which is what an exceptional actor elicits. You feel his empty evil, or his contempt, or his uncertainty. It’s remarkable, and impossible to ignore.

In Queen & Slim, he stares at a camera for a picture after he and Turner-Smith are on the run. He explains that the reason he’s taking the picture is because he wants people to know that he existed, and that he currently exists. But really, he didn’t have to say any of that. Because here’s the photo:

Universal Pictures

He’s saying what needs to be said without saying anything. It’s the eyes that do it. They demand that you look at them; that you consider them; that you see them; that you understand them, and if not understand them then at least honor them; that you honor that his character, a pleasant Costco employee named Earnest that the universe decided to turn into a martyr, is done being invisible.

(This is an article about Kaluuya, but this feels like an opportune time to mention that Turner-Smith is wonderful as Queen, legal name Angela, a lawyer who gets shoved into the darkness after watching one of her clients get executed.)

Universal Pictures

Regarding Kaluuya’s eyes: The moment that Kaluuya announced his all-caps BRILLIANCE was during the hypnosis scene in Get Out.

Get Out is about a black man who meets his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. He (Chris) and her (Rose) go to their house together for a weekend visit. While there, Chris discovers that the family has been harvesting the bodies of black people and using them as vessels for rich white people (they do this through a medical process referred to as the Coagula Procedure, in which they take the brain out of an old, rich white person and place it into the body of a healthy, young black person). Prior to that realization, though, Chris ends up getting tricked into a therapy session with Rose’s mother (a hypnotherapist named Missy played with unsettling skill by Catherine Keener).

Missy walks Chris backward through the feelings he experienced when his mother died. And Kaluuya—who, in that moment, has to be someone who is trying to buck back against his own emotions as they begin to overwhelm him—is absolutely perfect. You see the defiance, and the heartbreak, and the ache, and the despair. But, more to the point above, you feel those things. His character wants so desperately to get up, to leave, to do ANYTHING other than what he happens to be doing in that particular moment. But he just can’t. And you can’t. His body won’t let him. And your body won’t let you.

He starts crying, but only his eyes are crying. The rest of his face tries its very best to ignore them. After a few seconds, nearly the whole bottom half of his face is wet.

“How do you feel now?” asks Missy.

“I can’t move,” he manages to say back, the words barely escaping his mouth.

“You can’t move,” she says to him, but really she’s demanding it of him, and of us.

“Why can’t I move?” he asks, knowing that no good answer is going to greet him in return.

Moments later, Chris gets sent to what Missy refers to as “the sunken place,” a kind of catatonic state that she can activate by tapping on her cup of tea with a spoon. (This all sounds totally ridiculous to anyone reading this who hasn’t seen Get Out, but it makes perfect sense to anyone who has.) Here’s the entire scene:

It’s the most impressively acted scene from the most impressively performed movie of the decade, and Kaluuya is the reason why.

He’s mesmerizing. Every rewatch of it reveals a new trick that he pulls off, or a new emotion he baked into the moment. It’s the kind of showing where you watch it and go, “Well, obviously this person is a virtuoso, and I can’t wait to see what he does for the next 30 years.”

Kaluuya starred in “Fifteen Million Merits,” an episode of Black Mirror, in 2011. It’s on Netflix right now. He is, as you might expect, outstanding in it. He plays a person who builds and Builds and BUILDS his way toward an eventual breakdown. It’s wrenching to watch the episode play its way toward what you know is going to be a crushing outcome, particularly now, given that he has worked his way into becoming an undeniable star (which means your body almost reflexively roots for him). But it’s also extremely interesting to watch; to see an early blueprint of all the things you know he’s going to become a world-class talent at doing.

Universal Pictures

To close the loop on all of this: There’s an alternate ending to Get Out that, like the McQueen quote, gives you a fast look at what makes Kaluuya so dazzling. In the original version, the movie ends with Chris’s friend driving up just as Chris is about to choke the life out of Rose. A car pulls up, you see the red and blue lights flashing, and you assume it’s the police, and that the movie is going to end in the worst way possible: with Chris going to jail or, worse still, getting murdered. But it turns out that the lights belong to the TSA car that his friend is driving (his friend Rod is a proud transportation security officer).

In the alternate ending, though, it is the police. They pull up, start yelling at Chris, and then the screen cuts to black. Then we see Chris’s friend, Rod, settling down onto a seat in the visitor section of a jail. Chris sits down opposite of him, a thick piece of glass between them. The two talk for a minute. Rod tries to get Chris to retell the story, hoping that some new detail will lead to Chris’s release. But Chris has no interest in that. “Rod,” he says, and his eyes—those fucking eyes, man—have so much heft to them that you can barely even look at them, “I’m good. I stopped it, you know.” Then a beat. Then, again: “I stopped it.” He holds his gaze on Rod for a second, and Rod can’t do anything but look back at him. Then Chris gets up and leaves, walking (presumably) back to his cell.

It would have been a very good time for some sort of stirring monologue right there, for Kaluuya to put a pin on his Oscar-worthy performance. But he doesn’t. He leans the other way. He leaves all the heavy lifting to his eyes. He leaves the work of the presence-building to them, and to the stillness.