Originally commissioned by and published on Film4 Online.
With short film Two Single Beds — which Daniel Kaluuya wrote and stars in — available on Film4 on All4, we spoke to the Oscar-nominated actor about learning experiences, pressure and the freedom of making short films. By Nicole Davis.
Two Single Beds was born of a desire to just make something.
As a man without a shred of pretension, it tracks that Daniel Kaluuya’s first foray into writing a short film would be about the learning experience. “I used to make online sketches and I think that the sharpness I have is because of those kinds of things, and those kind of shoots, so I want to keep doing them to grow.”
He presented director William Stefan Smith, a long-time friend, with the idea of two stand-up comedians who share an encounter away from home and whose loneliness forces them to “seek solace and comfort and intimacy”. The creative life can be an isolating one, where those living it search for “intense dopamine hits in order to feel something different.” That notion of watching a spark or a potential ‘hit’ unravel piqued Kaluuya’s interest.
“I also liked the idea of two black people from London in England [the film is set in Doncaster], but not in London.” As an actor who has been vocal about the deficit of roles for black actors in England, Two Single Beds is something of a corrective. Though it certainly doesn’t have that air. It’s charming and real.
Kaluuya admits to being tempted by stand-up but “didn’t want to bomb in Doncaster.” He has a deep respect for it the as “a narrative art form” and cites Josie Long as someone who he watched as a teenager and could elevate it to that status with her gift for storytelling. He’s possessed of the same gift.
The script went through some changes. Kaluuya corrects himself, “it grew”. It was just part of the process, he says, “you can’t remember how tall you was at four.” The growing just happens without cause for notice. He’s quick to attribute that growth and the film’s many “layers” to the creative team that came onboard, alongside Film4.
Scriptwriting itself isn’t entirely new to Kaluuya, who wrote episodes for the generation-defining TV show Skins, of which he was also a member of the cast. But he admits that writing a short film is “a difficult art form”, more so “than people realise.”
“In order for it to resonate you have to put the same amount of headspace” and heart into the project, as if it were a feature. It’s still deserving of consideration and feeling. And Kaluuya isn’t the type of artist who does anything by half measures.
Writing for and acting in Skins, whilst also going to school prepared Kaluuya to graft and get things done whilst short on time. Nowadays, he’s busier than ever, so he has to be “aggressive” with the time he forks out to work on projects such as Two Single Beds. At one point he churned out a new draft every day. “I wanted to get it moving.”
Kaluuya rejects the idea of creative pursuit. For him, writing isn’t about making the transition to screenwriting, or being seen in a different light. He’s a “creative being” and however he can best serve a story, whether as a writer, producer [he executive produced last year’s Queen & Slim] or actor, is how he wants to “be used”. Ultimately he wants good art “to exist.” If he has an idea, that someone else executes he’s just happy that’s it’s now in the world. It doesn’t have to have come from the Kaluuya factory.
That being said he recognises that his name can get certain projects “over the line” and that sometimes you have to “position yourself career-wise” for that passion project to exist at all. There’s a quiet savvy to Kaluuya. You feel wiser just for having spoken with him.
You have to wonder, given that he has ‘currency’, whether writing a short film was about getting something out of his system before the expectation and pressure descended. I’m quickly shot down. “I don’t feel pressure.” He pauses. “I can’t internalise people that have an opinion of me, but who don’t know who I am.” It starts to feel like I should be paying for this.
That sense of calm comes from following an instinct about what feels good and what “makes sense”. Again, it’s not strategic. “Other people might say ‘he’s trying to do this’, but they haven’t chatted to me to make those conclusions.” To Kaluuya, it’s about what feels honest at any given “moment in time.”
Kaluuya has acted in over ten short films since the beginning of his career. He clearly doesn’t need to make them, so why does he keep returning to that medium? “There’s a level of freedom. There’s less hubbub.” It’s a playground for experimentation and a possibility for learning. “I use every job as a learning process.”
I ask what Kaluuya learnt about himself from making Two Single Beds? “The importance of planning ahead. I can be impulsive and present, which is a privilege as an actor, but you have to be forward-planning” to make a film. Whose to say what Kaluuya’s plans are, but have no doubt, that it will make sense at the time.