In a Soho hotel suite, Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya are about halfway through a day of press, bookended by a BBC Radio 1 interview in the morning, and the Queen & Slim UK premiere that night.
Back-to-back interviews don’t seem to have had much of an effect; they’re funny, engaged and full of spirit when talking about their part in what is set to be a decade-defining film.
That’s not hyperbole; Queen & Slim is like nothing before it. The story of two fugitives who go on the run after killing a racist police officer in self defence, it starts off as a bad Tinder date, which descends into a complicated love story against the backdrop of a twisting chase across rural America.
An examination of systemic racism and police brutality, Queen & Slim has been heralded as the Bonnie and Clyde of the Black Lives Matter generation. It’s a film that feels hugely important, but in its softer moments it’s also a hilarious and gorgeously told love story. Written by Lena Waithe (Master of None writer and creator of Showtime series The Chi) and directed by Melina Matsoukas - the visionary behind Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album - the film is smart, poignant and hugely arresting.
With Queen & Slim now in UK cinemas, BURO. meets its leads. Get Out actor Daniel Kaluuya looks every bit the Oscar-nominated actor in a grey wool suit. Next to him, in a pink Gucci shift dress and matching fuchsia eyeshadow is the relative newcomer (her recent credits include new TV Series Nightflyers) Jodie Turner-Smith. She’s sharp and hilarious, boasting a wickedly contagious laugh.
Reflecting on the film, the Queen & Slim stars talk car-based sex scenes, shaved heads and the political power of film.
Daniel Kaluya: That I hadn’t seen this before. I felt like I’d never seen anything like it. It’s so exciting to come across something like that, and that thrills me. We’re all in the creative arts, but a lot of people don’t handle their careers creatively, and so when you’re able to create something new, that feels really exciting.
Jodie Turner-Smith: My first reaction was just, ‘how can I be in it?’ How can I be involved in this? As soon as I read it I was already salivating at the mouth.
DK: Art is a way of articulating a perspective from people that aren’t always heard, that don’t always have a seat at the table. You make stuff to say, look, we see you. For example, I can wear a Grenfell T-shirt; I can meet people who need rehoming, I can show my support. But I’m not in the meetings 18 months later making sure people are getting housed; I’m just not. But in terms of what I do, I have to make stuff for the people who see the world how I see the world, so we’re still interlinked, you know? If an officer saw Queen & Slim, it might make them think differently. You plant a seed, and possibly they think. That’s such a small thing but it could have a massive impact on people's lives. We’re not telling anyone how to think, you have to come to it yourself.
JT-S: Exactly. I think art is about ideas. It’s really about provoking thought, and we don’t have any control over exactly what that will create. But I also think a lot of our job as actors is about empathy. You show people something that puts them in a set of shoes they wouldn't necessarily ever walk in. If you can make someone think in a way they might not have necessarily done before, you’ve done your job. Change happens on such a micro level, person to person.
JT-S: It felt important! It felt iconic. And it felt very black, which I also appreciated - that's not something I'd ever been a part of before. Just the energy of a powerful woman making art, it’s magnanimous, it’s very big. So I felt very grateful to be part of it.
JT-S: For Queen, she was so outside of herself. She has to really reveal herself [physically] in order to hide, and that’s its own journey. It’s one thing when you put on a dress like that and you’ve chosen to and you have a certain energy, but she starts out wearing a turtleneck jumper! She’s very uptight, and so to have to wear something like that, it’s part of the journey she’s forced to go on.
DK: Yeah, their whole aesthetic changes. When I'm thinking about characters I always think about the hair first. As a black man, your hair says so much about you, what kind of person you are, what kind of genre of person you are. The fact I had a haircut within the film, it does really change who you are. You feel different, you're not twisting your hair anymore you’re more open (with shaved hair). The costume reflected that too, when you look different you carry yourself differently. When shit happens you change, you physically adapt and they’re forced to adapt in order to be undercover. We all perform characters to a certain extent.
DK: Safe words. I’m joking! We had conversations, we knew it was very important to tell a story, and for us to be on the same page. It means it’s focused, and it doesn’t meander. But I mean having sex in a car is hard in itself, let alone being filmed having sex in a car.
JT-S: Yeah, I don’t recommend having sex in a car.
DK: You’ve got to do it, to then go, I’ve got a bed, what the fuck am I doing?! I’ve got pillows and shit! We had a foundation and then we could be a bit spontaneous within that structure. Jodie’s real push was to make it less lustful, more sensual.
JT-S: Yeah. I think as two black people, when you think about how black sexuality is often portrayed as animalistic, black men are stereotyped sexually, dark black women are viewed so sexually in the media. With that in mind, it was really important to me that this was a story that we were telling with our bodies that wasn’t just about sex and the animal part of sex, it was about the connection in sex, the sensuality of that connection. It’s bonding, you’re literally opening yourself to someone and connecting with them and I really wanted to make it feel like that.
DK: Jodie took us on a haunted tour of New Orleans. In order to establish trust, Jodie Turner-Smith took me to a graveyard
JT-S: We were in New Orleans! It was so unique and interesting, they do all these tours, I was like, come on we have to do one of these haunted bus tours, we just have to.
DK: It was really interesting! I learned a lot. But yeah, Jodie took me to a graveyard to fall for her.
JT-S: You really get to know someone in a graveyard. “I just want to let you know that there's some bodies underneath you. If you don’t watch yourself, that could be you.”
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