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'Queen & Slim': How Film's British Stars Immersed Themselves in Americana

Daniel Kaluuya observed Costco customers, while Jodie Turner-Smith visited the Deep South

While Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith are British and their characters in "Queen & Slim" are American, the love story at the heart of their new movie is universal. And in taking this journey together as star-crossed lovers on the run from the law, the actors got a better sense of how their environment and worldview have shaped their own lives.
Melina Matsoukas's film is an Americana odyssey that takes Kaluuya and Turner-Smith from the frigid cold of a Cleveland winter to the humid, mugginess of New Orleans. And in researching their characters and breaking out of their comfort zone, both actors identified with how a whirlwind of events like Queen and Slim experienced could happen anywhere.

"I wanted to make him an everyman, make him feel like anyone. Make him feel like you. Make him feel like somebody in India. Make him feel like somebody in South Africa. It could happen to anyone," Kaluuya told TheWrap. "And when it happens to you and you feel like you strive to be good, when you confront it with the bad that's in you, it's the bad that's in society and what that does to your identity and how you feel about yourself."

Lena Waithe wrote the screenplay for "Queen & Slim" about two Ohioans on a Tinder date gone wrong when they're pulled over for a traffic stop and end up shooting and killing a racist police officer in self-defense. While on the run, they find they've become a reluctant symbol of the racial divide in America.

Kaluuya spent time in a Costco in Cleveland to get an idea of how his character might talk, how he might stand and what he might do. But he observed that Slim was a local and someone with no urge to actually leave home.

"I tried to understand him and just go on that journey with him. Because if you are an American, you aren't aware you're an American. You just are where you are and you are where you're at. Sometimes if you're looking at yourself, you have to leave your area to see your area," Kaluuya said.

Turner-Smith, a British and Jamaican actress, has lived in America much of her life, but she too was struck by exploring the South and observing the living history of what it means to be black. She noticed Confederate flags, monuments to Andrew Jackson, and in preparing for her character Queen she got into the mindset of people like Sandra Bland and Angela Davis and how where they lived dictated their lives.

"So how does that affect their environment? How does that affect their circumstances? For Queen, how would that affect her anger, her choice to, in her work as a lawyer defending people on death row, particularly black men on death row, what would that make her think and feel," Turner-Smith told TheWrap. "While I might not have a specific experience that is fully American, there is still a knowledge, something that I logically understand as a black woman and a black woman who is existing in America and a black woman who is in the diaspora that are just known quantities that I think anyone can relate to who is black."

Because of how Queen and Slim change their haircuts to avoid detection from the law, Kaluuya and Turner-Smith filmed much of the movie chronologically, learning about each other as their characters similarly grow to fall in love. Turner-Smith first met Kaluuya during her audition and was initially intimidated because she was such a fan of his work. And Kaluuya was similarly "taken aback" at his co-star's regal quality and innate screen presence.

"After I was chosen to play the role, that's when I started to really get to know Daniel because I was able to open myself up to that and he was very kind and generous and open himself, so we really got to know each other through the rehearsals, exploring New Orleans together, and we went over the script a lot just the two of us and also with Melina," Turner-Smith said. "I was also clearly supported by Daniel who really gave me the space to be Queen, to really live in that character and really gave me the energy that I needed to be in that dynamic couple."

"It was really organic that we got to know each other more. But also Jodie is so open and so generous that it was kind of easy to extract that connection. She has 'It.' The It Factor," Kaluuya said. "It was really cool to see it happen, to see her grow in confidence and grow in us being more connected. The grace that Jodie has, and she just knows how to hold a camera effortlessly."

But when they couldn't lean on each other, they always relied on the guidance of either Waithe or Matsoukas. The two each praised the vision shown in the script, the classical storytelling and the confidence that this story was strong enough to be universal.

"It's very rarely you get people who are just content, that characters that are simple, like in a beautiful way, people who want simple things and just want to get by," Kaluuya said. "It's really romantic in a very accessible way."

"Even when I felt fearful or felt overwhelmed, I just surrendered myself to the process because I knew that this woman was my captain and she knew what she was doing, and she knew exactly what I was doing," Turner-Smith said. "So that really was where I found the strength and the energy to get it done."

"Queen and Slim" opens in theaters Wednesday.