Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine the Academy Award-nominated performance by Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out.
In the second act of Jordan Peele’s social thriller Get Out, the Armitage family throws a large garden party at their estate. Feeling uncomfortable as the only Black man in a sea of white faces, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) retreats to his room to catch his breath and check his phone. He bumps into the Armitage’s maid, Georgina (Betty Gabriel), confiding to her, “If there’s too many white folks, I get nervous, you know.” Her face contorts in confusion as tears well in her eyes, like an inner voice is struggling to be heard before she regains composure. Chris wanted to connect with someone who understood his feelings, but all he’s given in return is a quizzical face thinly concealing a horrifying secret.
Someone who does try to connect with Chris is Jim Hudson (Stephen Root), a blind art dealer he meets at the estate. “Ignorance,” he remarks to Chris, gesturing to the partygoers, “All of ’em. They mean well, but they have no idea what real people go through.” Hudson, aware of Chris’ prodigious talents as a photographer, expounds on what draws him to his art, “The images you capture. So brutal, so melancholic.”
Hudson is talking about Chris’ photography, but the brutal melancholy he describes also articulates the qualities that underlie why Kaluuya’s performance as Chris is so effective. The character is defined by the death of his mother, and his inability as a child to help her has haunted him his entire life. Even though Chris doesn’t voice these feelings to his girlfriend (Alison Williams) or his best friend (Lil Rel Howery), through Kaluuya’s understated energy, we can sense his melancholy deepening as his weekend getaway turns into a nightmare.
Kaluuya doesn’t play Chris as a tortured soul, but as someone weary of navigating the microaggressions of being a Black man in America. And even though Kaluuya is from the United Kingdom, the experience of being the only person of color in a predominantly white space is universal. He didn’t have to fully invent the psychological place Chris lives in throughout the film; he just had to reflect on his own life. He told the Los Angeles Times:
“That party sequence is why I really wanted to do this film, because I’ve been to that party. Those are the times you have to bite your lip, when an officer’s disrespecting you, in order to get by. In order to have freedom. In order to not be strip searched. In order to not be imprisoned. So you circle at the party, having to smile, because if you stand up and want to go, you’re the troublemaker, you’re the nuisance, because you are not playing the game — you’re not making everybody else feel comfortable.”
Daniel Kaluuya was born on February 24, 1989, in London, England. He got into acting as a child on the suggestion of a teacher. As the Telegraph noted, “Kaluuya had been doing stage work since primary school, in an attempt by his mum and his teachers to keep this apparently inexhaustible child out of trouble.”
He sharpened his talents by attending theater classes as a teen across London before he got his first big break on the millennial soap Skins. After his stint on the series ended, Kaluuya continued steadily working in the UK until his second big break came, with an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. Kaluuya’s performance in “Fifteen Million Merits” caught the attention of Jordan Peele, which led to his being cast as the lead in Get Out.
Despite his previous achievements, Kaluuya still had to audition for the role of Chris. As Peele mentions during a Q&A on the Blu-ray release of Get Out, “He did an audition, and you know the hypnosis scene? He basically did that performance the first time I met him. He just sat there, did it, and it was like, ‘Dude, close it down, he’s got it.’ We probably shot it five times, every time, the tears coming down his cheek on the same syllable. He helped me retire from acting is what I’m saying.”
The scene in question between Chris and Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) is the perfect microcosm of everything Kaluuya does so well in Get Out. The nuances he imbues Chris with, in the scene, are almost indescribable as wave upon wave of emotions sends tremors through his body. We don’t need to hear about Chris’ wounds over the death of his mother to see that trauma on every inch of his face.
He brings into the hypnotism scene all the apprehension Chris has felt since the first moment he stepped foot onto the Armitage estate. After being unnerved outside by the strange behavior of Georgina and Walter (Marcus Henderson), Chris steps back indoors only to run into Missy, who chastises him over his cigarette habit. We learn in a previous scene that Missy had hypnotized her husband (Bradley Whitford) to get him to quit smoking, and while that thought lingers in the back of Chris’ mind, he knows he has to “play the game” — as Kaluuya phrased it to the LA Times — so he sits down in a large chair in her office.
But as Missy asks questions prying into an area of Chris’ life he’s uncomfortable discussing, a bemusedly inquisitive expression falls over Kaluuya’s face. This conveys to the audience that Chris is aware Missy’s questions are beyond the scope of a mother’s curiosity about her daughter’s new beau. But because Chris is trying to keep up appearances, Kaluuya plays the scene coolly, allowing the audience to recognize his discomfort, without his character revealing to Missy that he knows she’s up to something.
But then the scene shifts, and Chris’ control on the situation begins to slip. As Missy asks Chris about the night his mother died, Keener slowly stirs a silver spoon in a teacup and Kaluuya’s physicality becomes drowned in tension. “Why can’t I move?” he whimpers as Missy replies, “You’re paralyzed. Just like that day when you did nothing.” He tries to change the subject, telling Missy he doesn’t want to talk about his life’s greatest tragedy, but with each scrape of the spoon, Chris becomes locked inside his body — and eventually his mind, as Missy pushes him into the Sunken Place.
But even though he does not move in the chair, we still see Kaluuya’s Chris fighting through the scene. All the rage and confusion we see in his face at the bottom of the Sunken Place is still apparent as he sits frozen in Missy’s office. Only, rather than a dynamic silent scream, it’s in the tension we see in his shocked face and the pained tears that fill his eyes. Using his body to convey something unspoken about his character is one of the central components to Kaluuya’s acting process. As he told Backstage magazine:
“That’s part of the storytelling, as well, how your body looks, how your hair looks, everything. That’s to give the audience a subconscious indication of something that I felt consciously when I [prepared for the role.]”
The scene was shot in one day, and as it was the only scene of the day, Kaluuya had to stay in that vulnerable headspace for extended periods of time. To make it easier being in an emotionally fraught mindset for that long, he would hide himself away from the cast and crew between takes. This allowed him to stay inside the moment, never breaking from the feelings of psychological and physical agony Chris experiences as Missy drops him into the Sunken Place.
Get Out helped audiences reconsider the substance of horror movies at the dawn of an era fraught with socio-political strife. The horror genre has always been about representing something more than just the grisly images we see on screen. Sure, it’s fun watching a pack of ravenous zombies eat people in Night of the Living Dead, but the film comes alive once you realize how revolutionary it was casting Duane Jones as the heroic lead character, Ben. It’s hard to see through the grindhouse grime of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but under the rust-colored surface is a parable about generational shifts in rural America during an age marked by severe economic inequality.
With Peele’s film, there is no questioning the socio-political points it makes about racism, bigoted microaggressions, and the everyday horrors people of color must experience for no fault of their own. Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as Chris distills these experiences into a singularly melancholic performance as his character comes face to face with an evil as old as the country. As Peele told GQ on casting Kaluuya:
“Most important was having an actor who related to the isolation of being the only Black person in a given space. My presumption was that might be a uniquely African-American experience. But when I asked Daniel, he was like, ‘No, bro. This is what my friends and I are always talking about, bro.’”
Get Out introduced Daniel Kaluuya as a major Hollywood player. The role landed him his first Oscar nomination for Best Lead Actor, and three years later, he would win his first Academy Award for playing Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah. It’s safe to say that Kaluuya’s star is solidified for years to come, but it’s in the ease and precision of his performances, as well as his ability to use lived experiences to surface truths about his characters, that has made him one of the most celebrated actors working in the industry today.
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