He then breaks into a smile himself, and returns to discussing technique: “You build and build and build. Later, when I started getting scripts, it was like, you’re telling me what to say? Amazing.”
Even relying on prewritten dialogue, Kaluuya, 31, introduces a dynamic quality to his roles; standout moments often come back to his eyes. The image of his face as he descends into the sunken place in Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is indelible, eyes wide open as tears stream down his cheeks. In Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” his chosen intimidation method as a mob enforcer involves forcing two soon-to-be victims to rap while he stares them down from just inches away — a spectacle that could have stopped at ridiculous, but to which he adds a necessary layer of menace.
In Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah,” now on HBO Max, Kaluuya radiates charisma. He plays Chairman Fred Hampton of the Black Panther Party’s Illinois chapter, who was killed in 1969 by police and federal agents in Chicago. Although viewers know how the story ends, Kaluuya’s embodiment of the leader demands their attention, earning effusive praise from critics.
In the process of researching Hampton, Kaluuya says, “I was hit by how brilliant of a mind he was. How much he knew and how much he cared, how much he loved and how much he did.”
Kaluuya can’t recall much from filming the speeches in “Judas.” He used to remind himself during his improv theater days that “once you’re in your head, you’re dead.” Projecting Hampton’s verve as an orator required the actor to let go of himself and allow the chairman’s words to take over.
He was introduced to the project through producers Ryan and Zinzi Coogler, who pulled him aside during “Black Panther” reshoots and told him they were interested in him starring as Hampton. They had LaKeith Stanfield in mind for the lead role of William O’Neal, who was arrested as a teenager for impersonating an FBI agent and later given a choice by an actual special agent, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons): face a seven-year prison sentence or work as an informant by infiltrating the Black Panther Party’s local chapter to keep tabs on Hampton. O’Neal chooses the latter.
There’s quite an age discrepancy between the actors and their characters; Stanfield and Kaluuya are each about a decade older, as Hampton was killed at 21. To believably inhabit Hampton, Kaluuya had to capture his spirit. He had to convey the magnetism of the chairman’s addresses, which fellow Panther Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) likens to poetry in the film. The actor worked with a dialect coach to slip into Hampton’s style of speaking and met with an opera-singing instructor to learn how to properly engage his diaphragm to make it through 12-hour shoots.
“There’s a different cadence to when he does speeches than when he speaks casually,” he says. “I found the speeches were the talking version of singing as opposed to the singing version of talking. I was able to articulate for myself why it was resonating with me while I was watching him.”
“Judas” highlights the humanity of a man made out to be a villain by the FBI, underscoring the well of emotion and careful thought driving his political stances — first encountered in the film when Kaluuya delivers Hampton’s address proposing socialism as a solution to capitalism’s failings.
This scene is when Hampton and Johnson meet, leading to a romance that allows viewers a glimpse of Hampton’s more vulnerable side. Johnson, unfazed by his stature, later comments on how surprised she is by his shyness. Kaluuya leans into the charm of this trait, making it clear why an interview tidbit about his desire to star in a rom-com has been making the rounds online.
“This is why I enjoy storytelling,” Kaluuya says. “It’s like you get a window into someone’s soul.”
Kaluuya is poised to earn a best supporting actor nomination for “Judas,” which would be his second shot at an Oscar following a best actor nod for “Get Out.” He already landed a Golden Globe nomination for the new film — making him one of three members from the original cast of the British teen dramedy “Skins” to be recognized this year, alongside Nicholas Hoult of Hulu’s “The Great” and Dev Patel of “The Personal History of David Copperfield.”
“Me, Nick and Dev actually linked up last year,” Kaluuya says. “That made me so happy. I’ve known these people since we were 16, 17. … [We’re] growing together. That’s invaluable.”
“Skins” struck a chord with audiences for how authentically it depicted the lives of teenagers, part of that a result of actual young people populating the writing staff. Kaluuya, who played the supporting role of “Posh” Kenneth, was a contributing writer for the show while starring on it and is credited with two episodes that ran during the second and third seasons.
To this day, Kaluuya keeps viewers in mind while choosing and working on projects. He calls himself a firm believer in “accessible excellence,” opting for work he thinks will resonate emotionally.
“I make films for people who watch two films a year,” he adds. “That’s who I make films for. Either the second or a cheeky third, because you know there’s gonna be the one that’s the staple, that’s your thing, that’s your franchise. I want to reach audiences. I want them to watch it.”
With the industry-altering “Get Out” and “Black Panther” under his belt, Kaluuya’s methods have proved successful. He doesn’t want to dictate how audiences respond to “Judas,” but hopes they are as blown away by Hampton’s words as the actor was when he first read the script treatment.
Kaluuya accepted the role “to serve Chairman Fred, to serve the Black Panther Party,” he says. “He’s been silenced, and been erased and been assassinated, physically and culturally. This is an opportunity to put him in his rightful position.”