AFI FEST Interview: QUEEN & SLIM’s Lead Actor Daniel Kaluuya – American Film Institute

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AFI FEST Interview: QUEEN & SLIM’s Lead Actor Daniel Kaluuya

QUEEN & SLIM is the Opening Night film at AFI FEST on Thursday, November 14 at the TCL Chinese Theatres in Hollywood.

QUEEN & SLIM is the powerful feature directorial debut of AFI alum Melina Matsoukas from a provocative and poetic script written by Lena Waithe. The film starts on a cold night in the Midwest with a black couple having their first date. As they drive home together, they are pulled over by a police officer for a minor traffic violation, only for the situation to escalate rapidly and tragically. Fearing for their lives, they suddenly become fugitives, and inadvertently become figures of trauma, grief and humanity.

In the lead roles are Academy Award®-nominated actor Daniel Kaluuya and newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith. Kaluuya has amassed a diverse roster of credits on films ranging from Jordan Peele’s socially conscious thriller GET OUT, Ryan Coogler’s BLACK PANTHER and Steve McQueen’s WIDOWS. He is also set to star as Black Panther revolutionary, Fred Hamption, in Shaka King’s new film JESUS WAS MY HOMEBOY, produced by Coogler.

Ahead of QUEEN & SLIM kicking off AFI FEST, we spoke with Kaluuya about building a rapport with Turner-Smith, filming during the Polar Vortex and what he hopes audiences will take from the movie.

AFI: With this being Melina’s feature film directorial debut, were you familiar with her other work before coming on board?

DK: I was really obsessed with the music video for Solange’s “Losing You” before I even knew Melina had directed it. It was the first time I saw Africa depicted in a mainstream way that looked like the Africa that I had visited. It looked really flamboyant with colorful suits, styles and manner. It looked really fun. I also liked her work on INSECURE, and her Formation video is incredible. I would always come across her work in real-life, not things that the industry was telling me to watch, but things that I’m genuinely into. So it was really exciting to be a part of this film.

AFI: Lena Waithe crafted an incredibly sharp, provocative script. One of my favorite lines of dialogue was when Slim is getting to know Queen and he says, “Why do black people always have to be excellent. Why can’t we just be ourselves?” When first reading it, was there a particular scene or dialogue that hooked you and made you want to do the film?

DK: That line of dialogue you mentioned actually came from a conversation between me and Lena after I’d read the script. I remember speaking about that idea just as friends, and then it ended up in the script.

But I think it was the whole opening Tinder situation that gripped me. I just knew that if I’d heard that story, I would have wanted to watch that film. And if a friend came to my house and told me that story, I would want to hear more. And that is all that I want cinema and film-going to be is asking, “what happens next?” I also found it really funny at the beginning, and that balance was great to see in a movie about this subject.

Daniel Kaluuya in QUEEN & SLIM / Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

AFI: Slim is established as a God-fearing, churchgoing, saying-his-prayers-before-dinner type from the beginning.  Can you talk about your character’s religious beliefs & how you tapped into that? 

DK: Well, I grew up in the church. My mum made me go to church, and I also went to Catholic school. So I understood that world, and I understood getting more information and questioning yourself. One of the commandments is, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and after Slim goes on this journey, he realizes that it’s complicated. I think he’s navigating that. I tried not to go outside of myself to find that. I tried to look within myself. As an avid churchgoer growing up, you have those principles and then you’ve done something that goes against those principles. Do you judge yourself? How do you treat yourself? I find that really interesting.

Slim’s really tough with himself. You can see him battling with that in certain scenes, especially in the scene when he’s looking in the mirror after he’s cut his hair. He’s wrestling with himself. He never thought he’d be this guy. Even by saying “this guy,” it’s a very reductive way of seeing life. Things happen, and you have to forgive yourself. We’re taught to forgive others, but you also have to forgive yourself and extend that to yourself. And he has to reckon with that.

AFI: The film hinges on the chemistry of you and Jodie as a couple who has to get to know each other really fast under dire circumstances. How did you two build that relationship, which is both loving and contentious at times? 

DK: Jodie is just cool people. She’s very open, very generous. We hung out. I drove her somewhere one time and made her this Spotify playlist that we listened to. It’s one of my favorite pastimes — especially in America because I play all this UK music, and people don’t understand what’s going on. We connected by spending a lot of time together before the shoot.

AFI: You shot the scene where you’re pulled over by the cop in Cleveland during the Polar Vortex. Can you talk about what it was like shooting that day and how you powered through that mentally and physically draining scene? 

DK: I had to pretend that it wasn’t happening. Touching that car in that scene was one of the hardest things I had to do and act at the same time. Because that car was just sitting there all day, and I had to touch it with my bare hands. And then having that fight scene on top of it. Even the dialogue that pivots that scene to another direction — a more violent direction — was “it’s cold.” That wasn’t in the script. It was just cold. And that’s what we’re kind of talking about is that Slim just wants basic human rights. He’s like, “Can I be warm? If you haven’t found anything, can I be warm?” And that sends it over the edge.

Daniel Kaluuya getting his hair cut in QUEEN & SLIM / Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

It’s a right that’s extended to a large population of the country, but it wasn’t extended to him for reasons that are most likely racially-motivated because it’s like “how dare you speak up. how dare you ask.” All Slim is saying is, “You’ve searched me. I haven’t done anything. I haven’t drank anything. You’ve looked through my stuff. It’s cold.”

Being in that situation, he’s like, “Bro, it’s cold for you too.” He’s not saying, “I’m cold.” He’s saying “it’s cold.” That’s why it’s really specific in the language with Slim thinking, “we both want to go home.” He’s just speaking to the cop as a person and trying to get through the uniform. He’s like, “you’re not going to find anything because I haven’t got anything.” And then it escalates for whatever reason. That line really brought that to the forefront.

AFI: Melina has called the film a “reverse slave escape narrative” from north to the south. What do you hope audiences will take away from seeing the film at AFI FEST?

DK: I’m hoping that they take away that Queen and Slim are human beings. We’re showing them as human beings and not as icons. We see that the world takes them as icons, but the narrative really shows that they strive for what everyone wants, which is love. They’ve gone through this experience, but they’re still open to a connection, they still enjoy life, they still have a dance and they still face their own demons. I want to show that, but I think what people actually take away from it is far more interesting than what I want them to take from it.

Tickets to all films in the AFI FEST program lineup are available here.

QUEEN & SLIM opens in theaters on November 27. Watch the official trailer below:

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