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Daniel Kaluuya on Playing Fred Hampton in ‘Judas’ and Letting Go of the ‘White Version’ of Himself in Hollywood

Also on this episode, writer and director Eliza Hittman talks about "Never Rarely Sometimes Always."

Daniel Kaluuya Variety Oscars Nominees Lunch
CHRISTIAN WEBER for Variety

Daniel Kaluuya’s performance in “Judas and the Black Messiah” has garnered a lot of awards buzz for the actor, who plays Fred Hampton, the iconic Chairman of the Black Panther Party. “It’s not about me,” he told Variety’s Awards Circuit Podcast. “This film is bigger than us. There was something coming through us. It’s hard to not feel it when you’re dressed as him.”

While portraying the civil rights activist was nerve-wracking for the Oscar-nominated star of “Get Out,” Kaluuya accepts any challenge he’s given. On this edition of the podcast, the British star opens up about how he learned about the role while shooting Ryan Coogler’s box-office smash “Black Panther.” Listen below:

Kaluuya also opens up about the criticism that a British actor would be portraying the fallen Hampton and how he’s a “vessel” in the cinematic art form. In addition, he discusses the progress of diversity in Hollywood and how he “gave up on the white version” of himself years ago. The 31-year-old wraps things up by sharing what type of film he wants to make next, and who he wants to star alongside him.

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Eliza Hittman
credit: Victoria Stevens
Courtesy of Victoria Stevens

Also in this episode, writer and director Eliza Hittman joins to discuss her process in bringing her critically acclaimed film “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” to the big screen.

“I’m always talking about things that don’t sit well with audiences,” she said. Starring newcomer Sidney Flanigan, who she met when she was 14 while Hittman and her partner were filming a documentary, the filmmaker reflects on her beginnings with her first two features “It Felt Like Love” and “Beach Rats,” along with being a college professor at the Pratt Institute in New York City, the love that her film has received from critics, and what types of projects she would like to take on in the future. The screenplay for “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is available for download on the Focus Features awards site.

Finally, the Awards Circuit roundtable gets together to discuss the nominations for the Critics Choice Television Awards and some of the best mentions that include “Better Call Saul” and “Ted Lasso.” We also talk about the critics’ award leaders, the frontrunner for best visual effects, and the changes that were implemented for the international feature shortlist, set to announce on Feb. 9.

Below, some highlights of the Awards Circuit Podcast interview with Daniel Kaluuya:

How did you get involved with “Judas and the Black Messiah”?

Daniel Kaluuya: I was doing a reshoot of “Black Panther” when Ryan [Coogler] and Zinzi [Evans] pulled me to the side and they were developing a Fred Hampton film. More so, it was about Fred Hampton and William O’Neal, about his rise and fall during 1968-69. And he said I’m interested in you playing Chairman Fred Hampton. I was like, “what an honor.” He said I’m going to send you a treatment, and if you like it, sit down with Shaka [King], the director. The treatment was two pages, and it was really concise and really clear. He also pitched it as, “it’ll be great for you and Lakeith to be working together again.”

Then I sat down with Shaka, which I think I did before I read the script in New York. I was doing all the “Get Out” press for awards season. I really enjoyed his energy. He was really honest. I liked the reasons he said why he was telling the story. How it spoke to him and how he wanted to allow the story to get to the masses. And then I read the script, and I just thought, “wow, this is just incredible.” Chairman Fred Hampton as a man, his words, are just incredible. And then it hit me again that he was 21-years-old. I knew that before, but then hearing his words in this way. I can’t believe this happened, and he was a kid. He’s a kid, but he was a man. He was a leader and someone who had ideas, and cared about the people, cared about his people. He was very big and didn’t look or feel 21.  There’s nothing about him during that time that felt like what a 21-year-old would be today. Actually, this is the most adult role spiritually, that I’ve ever played. I had to kind of, “age up,” in terms of understanding myself in order to get to Chairman Fred.

We’ve spoken with the filmmakers about the difficulty of getting this film made, and starting with you filming “Black Panther” in 2018, and it’s finally seeing an upcoming opening, was there a point when you felt this might not happen?

Kaluuya: I think inside, I was confident, and it felt like the time was now. But it did have a few bumps along the way. And there was a point where I was like, “Is this happening?” We were blessed when Ryan went out to pitch it and shop it around, it was right after “Black Panther” and it made a billion dollars. He was in a stronger position to make the film in the way that Shaka wanted to, But I think it’s supposed to take a while. It tests you on, how much do you care and want it, and how many obstacles are you willing to go over? Sometimes I really encourage those questions.

There were some criticisms that were shared after the trailer dropped back in August about a British actor portraying an African-American historical figure like Fred Hampton. Systemic racism is a global issue and wanted to provide you an opportunity to respond to those criticisms on your involvement.

Kaluuya: For me, with all acting, The roles I do, I’m not the person. I’m a vessel for a spirit that is going through me. For whatever reason, that opportunity comes to you and you’re occupying that space. You want to interrogate your own reasons and my own reasons for wanting to do it. And if I feel they’re respectful, as well as interrogating everyone else’s reasons for wanting me to be a part of it. I’m blessed enough to be in this position, and I feel like it’s important for us as Black people, across the Diaspora, to be together. And that’s not to discount what Black Americans feel, and what they’ve been through, which is what this dynamic reflects. I’m here, and I’m here to be a vessel. This is about Chairman Fred Hampton, it’s not about me. There are a lot of people that don’t know this man existed. A lot of people don’t know the words that he says in this film, that those words exist, especially in post-production. We shot this film and everything happened this year with George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. This film articulates the feeling that’s been happening this year.

In a recent interview, Kate Winslet spoke about this perception that people have that all British actors are trained, scholarly, and students of the craft. Do you feel this unattainable expectation of you, because of where you come from?

Kaluuya: I don’t really, I felt it when “Get Out” came out and was like, “Oh, there’s a British actor narrative” within America that hasn’t really been offered by British people. It’s how Americans perceive British people, and that was quite confusing. Especially since that hasn’t been the quintessential trajectory of a British actor. It hasn’t been my journey. It just kind of happened. I couldn’t afford drama school.  Going the hard way, and the long way, and then to get to a position and hearing people saying, “you’ve only got that because you were trained.” It can be quite disorienting, My blackness has prepared me for my Britishness.

If nominated for an Oscar, you will be just one of eight Black actors to have ever returned for a second nomination, following their first. How do you feel about that, in comparison, to White actors in Hollywood, and what’s afforded to you versus them?

Kaluuya: A couple of years ago, I let go of the white version of me. That guy does not exist. I was just torturing myself, looking at him and saying, “Oh, hope he gets this and he gets that.” And then it becomes, “What do you want? What do you feel like?” Also, who do you want to come from within, and not from how people see me. What am I about? Where am I heading, and am I going to accept what’s happening and own whatever space? Maybe I may be afforded less. I don’t engage, I wouldn’t know because I don’t think of it in that way. I just feel really blessed to be doing what I am doing and the work I’m doing. Work that speaks to me, people around me, and speaks to people that look like me. That’s a blessing. And that’s not to negate that. It’s really difficult for Black people and we are afforded less. I want to keep going. I want to keep pushing the envelope. I want to keep raising the bar. There’s only me. There’s only the Black me and I’m here. There are things that people feel that I can’t do. Because I believe I can do it, I will do it. That’s it. It will happen. It’s happened already.

How was it shooting during the 50th anniversary year of Chairman Fred Hampton’s murder?

Kaluuya: Intense because of certain scenes. It was just really intense man. On the 50th anniversary of Chairman Fred Hampton’s murder, we filmed the scene where Bill O’Neal spikes Chairman Fred’s drink. I feel like artistically, we went above and beyond to support each other. In those moments where you felt the gravity of what we were bringing into reality, on screen. As a creative partner, that’s what you got to do. You have to support your peoples. We just stayed in the zone, stayed in that space. I loved it because it was the truth and I hope people feel that energy on screen. Fred Hampton Jr. was on set. It was a lot. It wasn’t a joke day. It felt heavy. This film is bigger than us. There was something coming through us. It’s hard to not feel it when you’re dressed as him or Dominique Fishback is dressed as Mama Akua. You can’t help but feel the weight of what these people were fighting against. The right to be themselves, the basic rights of humanity, and working to awaken people. Dedicating their lives to wake the brothers and sisters around them, who were suffering. It’s a huge responsibility, a huge privilege.

Filmmakers this year like Ekwa Msangi, who directed “Farewell Amor” about a Nigerian family, spoke about the absence of the African experience in cinema. With a Ugandan background, do you share that same sentiment?

Kaluuya: 400% I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m I’m in this game, and I’ve been put in this position; to shed light on those narratives and the stories that speak to me. My childhood and what I’ve experienced, and what my family’s experienced. I’m actively searching and looking for those narratives that put a light on the continent in a different way.

What kind of role are you aching to portray, either a specific person or genre?

Kaluuya: A rom-com. Something like “When Harry Met Sally…” I watched that film twice a few weeks ago, and I was like, “This is the shit!” Something like that, I would love to do next. That kind of lane. I think it’s really hard to translate joy on screen. It’s very difficult. And so if something’s a challenge, I’m saying “let’s go. Let’s do it.” Some kind of joyful cinema, with very joyful moments. I think the films I’ve done had joyful cinematic moments, usually with a tinge of darkness.

First of all, I love that answer. Secondly, do you have anyone in mind for your “Meg Ryan” love interest?

Kaluuya: Issa Rae. I’m a real big fan of “Insecure.” That was the first person that came to mind, Doing a deep dig, because you want lightness and spirit, but I find Natasha Rothwell hilarious. She’s probably one of my favorite actresses at the moment. Zazie Beetz as well.

Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast, hosted by Clayton Davis, Jenelle Riley, Jazz Tangcay and Michael Schneider (who produces), is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every Thursday.