Daniel Kaluuya on his performance as the Black Panther Fred Hampton: “I gave it everything I had.”Credit...Erik Carter for The New York Times
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By Reggie Ugwu
A Table reading Worth $1 million
DANIEL KALUUYA sized up the room. It was the kind of Hollywood meeting room he’d been in countless times before, brightly lit with white walls and framed posters of classic movies. It was summer, 2019, and Kaluuya had driven to the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif., for a table reading of a movie that hadn’t yet been cleared for production: “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a crime thriller and historical epic about the downfall of Fred Hampton, the rising star of the Black Panther Party who was murdered by police in 1969.
Seated next to Kaluuya on one side of a long conference table were his would-be co-stars, Dominique Fishback, Lakeith Stanfield and Jesse Plemons. Clustered across from them were the Warner Bros. big wigs who had the power to give the film the green light: Niija Kuykendall, executive vice president of feature production; Courtenay Valenti, president of production; and Toby Emmerich, head of the studio.
Kaluuya, who was playing Hampton, felt petrified. He figured he was only a quarter of the way into preparing for the role, his first in a film based on a historical figure. Word of whatever he did in that room, he knew, would spread throughout the building. What he didn’t know was that the stakes were even more concrete — producers of the movie had arranged for the reading as part of an effort to get $1 million added to its budget. A good reception could convince the studio to write the check.
During the second half of the hourslong reading, in a scene where Hampton gives a rousing speech to a throng of fired-up supporters, Kaluuya pushed all his chips on the table. “If I’m going to die, I’m going to die shooting,” he thought, standing up from his chair and staring out at the group. Heart pounding in his chest, he thundered the lines of a call-and-response that would later be made famous by the movie’s trailer.
“I AM! A REVOLUTIONARY! I AM! A REVOLUTIONARY! I AM! A REVOLUTIONARY!”
“As soon as I heard him in speaking in Fred’s voice, I just started crying,” said Stanfield, who was playing Bill O’Neal, the F.B.I. informant who betrays Hampton.
“Everyone else was in a screenplay reading, but he turned it into a play,” said Shaka King, the movie’s director, co-writer and producer, who was seated across from Kaluuya. “There were only around 20 of us in the room, but he played it like he was performing in a theater for 300 and had to reach the back row.”
Shortly after the table read, Warner Bros. agreed to the extra million dollars in financing, King said. The film went into production that fall.
In four short years, Kaluuya, who is 32 and grew up on a public housing estate in London, has claimed a place in Hollywood among the most consequential leading men of his generation. A child actor who got his start in the influential British teen drama “Skins,” he earned a best actor Oscar nomination for his first leading role in the United States, as the intrepid survivor of a secret race cult in the 2017 smash “Get Out.”
Kaluuya followed that breakout moment with a succession of tailored and captivating performances in an eclectic range of genres. He played a conflicted warrior in Marvel’s international blockbuster “Black Panther,” a blood-chilling villain in the Steve McQueen thriller “Widows,” a charismatic love interest in the romantic getaway drama “Queen & Slim.” Whatever the part, Kaluuya’s bone- immersion pulled you a few inches closer to the screen.
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With “Judas and the Black Messiah,” he has set a new high-water mark. The performance “takes up the burden of incarnating and exorcising both the monster of Hoover’s imagination and a martyr of the Black Power movement,” the Times critic A.O. Scott wrote, adding that Kaluuya “more than meets the challenge.”
For his efforts, Kaluuya has been rewarded with a Golden Globe for best supporting actor and presumed front-runner status in this year’s Oscar race. Getting here required him to dig deeper than ever, navigating precarious historical, physical and emotional fault lines in the process.
“People can say whatever they’re going to say about the performance, and I’ll still feel free,” Kaluuya said from Los Angeles, in one of two conversations we had, by video and phone call. “I gave it everything I had. I gave. I gave. I gave.”
Finding Fred Hampton
KALUUYA HAS A confident aura, penetrating gaze and self-described “kind African face.” To play Chris in “Get Out,” he had to dial back his natural boisterousness, which manifests in conversation as a kind of benevolent intensity. “My essence is more Chairman Fred, energy-wise,” he said, referring to Hampton. Because he has so frequently played an American on film, his working-class London accent is initially jarring. It’s befuddling to imagine the British-born son of a Ugandan immigrant beneath the layered incarnation of Hampton that appears in “Judas.”
Kaluuya approached his performance from several angles at once. He steeped himself in the Panthers’ formative influences, including works by Frantz Fanon and Jomo Kenyatta; grew out his hair (“As a Black person, hair is how you see yourself, how you feel about yourself and how you treat yourself”); put on a noticeable amount of bulk; and even temporarily took up smoking. (“When I see a film, I can always tell when someone smoking is a nonsmoker,” Kaluuya said.)
But the trickiest element was the voice. Hampton, who was raised in Chicago by parents who moved from Louisiana during the Great Migration, was known for his sonorous, idiosyncratic intonation. To summon it, Kaluuya began with the Black Power idol’s lived experience.
He consulted with Hampton’s family — including his son, Fred Hampton Jr., and Junior’s mother, Akua Njeri (formerly Deborah Johnson) — and took a field trip to Maywood, the Chicago suburb where Hampton grew up. Kaluuya visited Hampton’s early homes, schools and speaking venues, talking with the people he met there, including students and former Panthers, about Hampton’s life and legacy.
“An accent is just an aesthetic expression of what’s going on on the inside,” Kaluuya said. “I had to understand where he was coming from spiritually, what concoction of beliefs and thinking patterns allowed this voice to happen.”
Kaluuya further refined the performance with the help of the dialect coach Audrey LeCrone, as well as an opera singing coach who taught him how to condition his vocal cords and engage his diaphragm for the big speech scenes. By the time filming started, he felt able to deliver his lines with what felt closer to honesty than imitation.
As a teenager in London, Kaluuya learned acting at an experimental improvisational theater, and he tries to augment his performances with a top layer of spontaneity. He wants to feel as if even scripted moments are unfolding in real time, a sense of dynamic possibility that can be transferred to the audience.
“I don’t feel like I’m entitled to anyone’s attention,” Kaluuya said. “I have to offer, or channel, or shape something that’s going to make you want to give it to me.”
Lena Waithe, who wrote and produced “Queen & Slim,” told me that while filming that movie’s climactic sequence, in which the fugitive main characters face a moment of truth, she thought Kaluuya seemed in touch with a higher power.
“He was in another place,” she said. “He was allowing himself to find things that aren’t on the page.”
THE WEIGHT OF HISTORY hung over every take of the “Judas” shoot. But Kaluuya remembers one day in particular as the hardest of his professional life.
The cast and crew were recreating the night when Chicago police officers shot a drugged Hampton dead in his sleep (O’Neal had put a barbiturate in his drink at a dinner party) on the 50th anniversary of the real-life events.
“It was a hard night for all of us,” Stanfield said. “The energy was so thick that you could feel it.”
Kaluuya, who had worked hard to create and maintain the borders between himself and his character, felt them beginning to crumble. Suddenly, he was viewing the scene not as a Black man in 1969 but as one in 2019, with half a century of further data on the odds of survival in a white world.
His first instinct was to suppress the emotions rising inside him. “If you get too invested in your own feelings, in can start to muddle you up,” Kaluuya said. But he decided they belonged on the screen. It was the one thing he had left to give.
“That’s where the hours show up, that’s where the craft shows up,” he said. “You don’t deny that feeling; you use it, because it’s the truth.”
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|Place of origin||Wakanda, Africa|
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|Country||Democratic Republic of the Congo|
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|Birth name||Rosa Luini|
|Born||20 July 1989 Milan, Italy|
|Genres||Pop hip hop rock|
|Occupation(s)||Singer songwriter rapper musician model|
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