Nope, which is one of the year’s most highly-anticipated movies, reunites Daniel Kaluuya with writer-director Jordan Peele, but what we get this time is a very different experience from what they served up in Get Out. Oh, and they’re now both Oscar winners.
Since their first outing together, Kaluuya has become a jewel in Hollywood’s crown, gaining further acclaim for his performances in such films as Judas and the Black Messiah, Black Panther, and Queen & Slim.
Nope sees him play OJ Haywood, a man who shares ownership of a Californian ranch with his sister, Emerald, played by Keke Palmer. After a series of strange events, including power outages and random objects falling from the sky, they try to capture the cause on video. What the pair, a tech salesman friend and a documentarian they rope in, discover is unearthly.
I caught up with Kaluuya to talk about the film, which mixes sci-fi and horror, why an 2002 Dwayne Johnson movie gets a nod, fan theories regarding the film’s title, and the fact it didn’t have a title at all when he got on board.
Simon Thompson: When did you and Jordan start talking about reuniting? Nope is the first time you’ve worked together since Get Out.
Daniel Kaluuya: It was a long while ago. He mentioned an idea that wasn’t his idea, and that conversation was in person, and then he called me probably a year after, during the pandemic. That’s when we spoke about this and had a two-hour chat. He explained the whole film to me over the phone, beat for beat, as it was in his head. I think it helped him in his process because he was drafting. We kept on having those conversations, and the world started opening up, so we started meeting up and talking, and here we are.
Thompson: I’m guessing at that time it still had the working title of Little Green Men?
Kaluuya: No, but wow, you know your stuff. Little Green Men was the first iteration, but it was a different kind of thing in a similar area. This never had a name. We kept on talking, and I just assumed it was called Little Green Men, but he told me in the first conversation that’s not a thing. I think it was in a rehearsal when it all became clearer, and I was like, ‘What is this film called?’ There was a month or two to go, and he was like, ‘Oh, it’s called Nope,’ and I laughed so loudly. It was genius.
Thompson: So when you got the script, it didn’t have a title or anything? Is that quite rare?
Kaluuya: Not really. I was part of the process from such an early stage, having that conversation. You have to see projects differently when you jump on them earlier.
Thompson: I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but a lot of people were trying to guess what Nope meant or stood for, especially when the first trailer dropped. People were coming up with various theories. Were you or Jordan aware of that?
Kaluuya: I liked the theory that Nope meant Not Of Planet Earth. I thought it was really clever. Jordan might say something different to me, but I felt like it was how the audience would react when there’s a horror film, especially a black audience. They’d be like, ‘Nope,’ and just leave (laughs). That was the basis of it. I found that even more funny, but there’s also the fact that the things happening in the film are just very ‘nope’ situations. It’s like, ‘Let me get out of here.’
Thompson: Are you guys already discussing working together for the third time? It’s always a big deal, and you’ve got big, clear visions.
Kaluuya: For me, it’s always the idea and where the premise leads. If Jordan wants to do something that doesn’t include someone of my spec, and if there’s a character there, then there’s a character, and that’s great. I don’t really see it as, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do this.’ I’ll let the ideas run from Jordan, and I just want to watch Jordan Peele films whether I’m in them or not. We’ll see what happens.
Thompson: Was there anything different about working with Jordan this time? You are both in different places in the film industry from where you were a few years ago.
Kaluuya: We’re more ourselves, in terms of both the creative process and personally. We’re coming back and having the same kind of experience, but we’re different, and things have grown and moved. It was really interesting catching Jordan in this place in his life and career and then catching me.
Thompson: You were saying there was a long conversation where Jordan went through this entire movie with you on a phone call. Does what we see on screen match what you saw in your mind’s eye as he broke it down?
Kaluuya: A little bit, but his mind’s eye is quite large when he’s talking about something he’s creating. I don’t look to see it; I look to see if he sees it. If he sees it, then alright, cool, let’s go. It’s more like that.
Thompson: What was on the creative mood board that Jordan presented you with when it came to inspirations for Nope? I certainly got hints of Close Encounters and Jaws. Was it more movie references and cultural touchstones?
Kaluuya: Not really. We talk about character, story, and relationship dynamics more than anything. He didn’t say, ‘Oh, watch this and watch that.’ I’ve watched quite a few films, especially with the pandemic, so we were referencing the same materials. I was like, ‘Oh, that reminds me of this,’ or, ‘This reminds me of that,’ and he was like, ‘Yes.’ Also, he’d say something, which would be precisely what I was thinking, so we’re aligned and on the right track.
Thompson: Did you have a long time to learn all the horse riding and other things you needed to know for Nope?
Kaluuya: We had three and a half weeks because the Judas press tour ran over, but that was for great reasons. I had to go on holiday because it was crazy, but that break ate up nine days of prep. I was like, ‘If I don’t have a break, I won’t be able to give as much as I can.’ I had done it before for Black Panther, and I had an injury on that, so then I was a bit trigger shy, but, as they say, I had to get back on the horse, so I just got back on it and rode out.
Thompson: Your character OJ is a man of few words. Did that make the role more of a challenge? You are a contemplative man; you choose your words, watch, and think.
Kaluuya: Just coming up after Judas and the Black Messiah, I was not talking. Being more inward was an exciting challenge because how do I tell the audience so much without the luxury of words? I relished that. I’m inward when it’s necessary, and I think, and I look, so I understand OJ. That said, I think I had to get to a different place with him because his introversion is to do with what happened to his father and that he hasn’t really got friends. He communicates with horses, so vocabulary isn’t the first language that you go for. He goes for grunts or deeds, he’s a feeling, and he’s very calm. Then you have Emerald, his sister, who is very busy, and that balances out. That allowed me the space to even be even more silent.
Thompson: Something that happens with only a certain number of movies is that they get immortalized in theme parks. The Jupiter’s Claim location from Nope is now a permanent addition to the Studio Tour on the backlot at Universal Studios Hollywood. What do you think about that, and how does that feel?
Kaluuya: I remember Jordan and Cooper, who produced Nope, mentioned it. They were talking about Jupiter’s Claim and how they would make it a thing, which was amazing. It’s genuinely surreal that you’re in a film that’s on the backlot in that sort of way. I never thought I’d get to that place in my life, period, but certainly not being in a movie that is on the backlot before the film has even been released or the reviews are out. It’s a very surreal experience.
Thompson: Talking about surreal moments, I also wanted to ask about The Scorpion King, which gets a shout-out in Nope. It’s related to OJs clothing, but it seemed like a random choice. What was the deal with that?
Kaluuya: I did ask Jordan about that. I think it’s just the fact that we just wanted his OJ’s wardrobe to be film swag like crews get. He doesn’t go out and shop. He just wears the clothes from the sets. The grips will give him a t-shirt, Mario’s Catering will give him a t-shirt, and so on. There’s also the hero thing, to be a Scorpion King, someone in that King position for the last run of the film. I don’t think we read into it that deeply, but maybe Jordan knows something different.
Nope lands in theaters on Friday, July 22, 2022.