Every great actor has a defining feature. For Daniel Kaluuya, it is his eyes, which are as alert a pair as you are likely to find in the animal kingdom. In Get Out, his eyes are engorged with terror as his character, Chris, realizes that he has been lured to his doom at the home of his girlfriend’s racist family. In Black Panther, his eyes are boiling with vengeance as Kaluuya’s W’Kabi seeks retribution for the murder of his parents by the supervillain Ulysses Klaue. And in Widows, in which he plays the mob hardman Jatemme Manning, his eyes are coldly cruel, not even blinking as he calmly dispenses death to two errant employees.
In each of these films, Kaluuya’s eyes possess a similar intensity; they scan every corner of his surroundings, perhaps as if they are determining exactly how much of each particular scene they are planning to steal. Or maybe, at some level, they are just looking for a way to escape. As a film star, Kaluuya is both supremely elusive and overwhelmingly present. He will go to ground for several months, invisible on social media and giving few interviews, and then he will emerge from nowhere and suddenly be everywhere. He most recently performed this trick with Judas and the Black Messiah, the film that earned him his second Academy Award nomination in four years. After a fairly lengthy period of quiet, we suddenly saw him bellowing out from the film’s trailer, his righteous tones rolling over the top of a shuddering score, his accent and mannerisms a remarkable mimic of chairman Fred Hampton. Following that astonishing performance, he then went on to perform a star turn as the host of Saturday Night Live: and, shortly after the Oscar ceremony, he will doubtless vanish again. He (and his eyes) will surely have determined that it is time to disappear.
What is it about Kaluuya that makes him so prone to come and go? Part of that might be due to the adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder. He could be taking a cue from his legendary namesake, Daniel Day-Lewis, who stays away from the public eye for so long that each new film role he takes almost assumes the nature of a sacred event. It might also be that, since no one place truly feels like home to him, he has so far resolved not to settle anywhere—certainly not in the public eye. He hinted as much in an interview with GQ in 2017, when he observed that “That’s my whole life, being seen as ‘other.’ Not fitting in, in Uganda, not Britain, not America.” In the same interview, he also addressed criticism from Samuel L. Jackson, who questioned whether Kaluuya, as a Black Briton, had enough relevant life experience to play Chris in Get Out.
Kaluuya observed: “I’m dark-skinned, bro. When I’m around Black people I’m made to feel ‘other’ because I’m dark-skinned. I’ve had to wrestle with that, with people going, ‘You’re too Black.’ Then I come to America and they say, ‘You’re not Black enough.’ I go to Uganda, I can’t speak the language. In India, I’m Black. In the Black community, I’m dark-skinned. In America, I’m British. Bro!”
If so much of the ground beneath your feet is relentlessly unaccommodating, then it makes sense to take flight.
Thankfully, the sky has been kind to Kaluuya. From his first work in improvisational theater, he has shown a desire to keep the range of his work as broad as possible, and he has managed to maintain that breadth without sacrificing quality. He has embraced genres from sci-fi to horror to romance to crime to comedy. He has played the lover (Queen & Slim), the underdog (Judas), and the underboss (Widows). His ability to be equally strong as the leading man and the understudy is reminiscent of Philip Seymour Hoffman, another actor who was able to step forward and step back exactly as the film demanded.
While Kaluuya will rightly draw endless plaudits for his portrayal of Hampton, his gifts are just as visible in his depiction of Reggie Wayne in Sicario. In that 2015 drug cartel thriller, directed by Denis Villeneuve and headlined by Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt, and Josh Brolin, Kaluuya plays Wayne, a new but shrewd FBI agent. It’s the kind of smaller role that can be jarring for the entire film if handled incorrectly, but Kaluuya keeps it beautifully in hand, imposing himself at just the right moments.
Kaluuya, still only 32, has an ability that is evident given the caliber of directors who have already trusted him to realize their visions: luminaries including Jordan Peele, Melina Matsoukas, Shaka King, Ryan Coogler, and Steve McQueen. Beyond that, though, he has the gift of conviction. In a conversation with Booker Prize–winning novelist Marlon James for Document Journal, he referred in emphatic terms to how he chooses which scripts to work on. “If it’s not ‘fuck yeah,’” said Kaluuya, “it’s a ‘no.’”
This fierce immersion in his work is why he’s now recognized so readily. Like Hoffman, he uses his appearance as an everyman to his advantage: Because, in his own words, he “looks quite normal,” he is able to take the shape of almost anyone he has chosen to represent on-screen. (Though it should also be noted that, following the ecstatic reaction to his recent appearance in a Louis Vuitton bathrobe from several corners of the internet, he may not qualify as an everyman anymore.) And like Chadwick Boseman, the late, great star with whom he shared the spotlight in Black Panther, he brings a skill set beyond acting to his work. Just as Boseman, alongside his work on stage, honed his craft as a director and a playwright, Kaluuya found employment as a writer on Skins, the iconic U.K. teen drama, in which he also played the role of Posh Kenneth. He has a holistic understanding of what it takes to make a spectacle, and this has surely served him well.
To watch him in Judas and the Black Messiah is to witness someone supremely accomplished in what he is doing, yet also determined to push himself into areas of extreme creative discomfort. It takes a truckload of guts to believe that you can convincingly portray a 21-year-old revolutionary, Chicago accent and all. His faith that he could was rewarded with the approval of Hampton’s family, yet his progress to the world’s biggest screens has not been wholly smooth: He must contend with critics who assert that he cannot accurately portray Black American characters and that he is taking these roles away from those Black American actors whose opportunities are severely limited. While he remains mindful of these critiques, he remains focused upon the work, since his faithful execution is what has got him here. And given his enduring eye for a compelling script, the most exciting question is what Kaluuya will see next.