Queen & Slim's Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya Are Rebels On The Run

Queen & Slim's Jodie Turner-Smith and Daniel Kaluuya Are Rebels On The Run

As black as Queen & Slim seems on its glossy exterior, there's another layer to explore beyond the blackness, a level of self-awareness that both protagonists endure that encapsulates the heart of those that relate on a spiritual plane. To see the realization of that happen in real-time at the highly-anticipated film’s star-studded premiere afterparty at Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel is something you wouldn’t soon forget.

Snoop Dogg walks through, Janelle Monae is over there, Tracee Ellis-Ross’ illuminating smile turns heads, Rihanna flicks it up with stans, all while the fearless foursome of the movie’s screenwriter Lena Waithe (creator of Showtime's The Chi), director Melina Matsoukas (of HBO’s Insecure and Beyonce music video directing fame), and stars Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Black Panther) and new stunner Jodie Turner-Smith bask in the accolades and appreciation. So much so, that there is a moment where the movie’s many co-stars (Bokeem Woodbine is stellar as "Uncle Earl") and fellow Hollywoodites stare in awe as Turner-Smith takes pics and b-lines to her reserved section where her mom and family welcome her with open arms. Clad in an all-black skintight number, Turner-Smith shakes what her momma gave her in a happy two-step victory dance that looks like a “Momma I Made It!” commercial.

And rightfully so. Kaluuya watches proudly from the stage, as does Waithe and a beautiful middle-aged black woman from public relations rushes up, hands shaking from nervousness and bursts into tears while speaking to Turner-Smith. “You have no idea how much joy you gave me seeing you with your brown glowing skin, strong stance and grace. You. Gave. Me. Strength!” Turner-Smith takes in the energy, delivers a hug and love right back before she gets emotional. Her task of breaking through the screen to touch hearts is seemingly accomplished. Yet, her job of explaining how she and Kaluuya brought this universal gem of a tale to life starts now and will continue for them both as their performances elicit a certain soul-stirring bond for viewers that will stick with them for eternity.

Earlier that same night presented the most Hollywood of movie premieres for Queen & Slim. You know the setup: the hustle and bustle of overzealous security guards, stressed-out public relations reps trying to wrangle talent from the hangers-on in tow of celebrities that barely know where to go or which camera to look into while on the red carpet. Then there's the air of VIP status from everyone else in attendance, scrambling on check-in lines for prime viewing seats and after-party wristbands so they can drink the spirits and the night of celebration away. The scene at the legendary TCL Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd., for the early view, rebels on the run film was no different. Well...maybe it was for a bit this unusually chilly November night.

Before the movie starts in front of the dark cavernous 900-plus seater with only the stage area lit, Waithe and her choice in director and good friend, Matsoukas address the crowd. Both have heartfelt words to impart to one another, the audience and the lead actors Turner-Smith and Kaluuya. The British thespians stand next to them, while Waithe and Matsoukas wax poetic on the two that create the world that Queen and Slim navigate through so thoroughly.

Waithe’s short-cropped haircut and orange and blue tapered slacks and fitted jacket takes to the podium and loves on the satin-white-suited Kaluuya: “With a single look, you can break my heart. With a single movement, you can make me feel like I’ve known you all my life. You don’t just disappear into roles, you morph into the human being you’re playing, because you’re not playing. You’re doing the impossible, you’re existing in celluloid so that we as a people can never be forgotten. You are not an icon awaiting, but an icon already...we love you and thank you for sharing your gift with us.” There's a loving embrace between Waithe and Kaluuya, surrounded by well-deserved applause.

Then Matsoukas steps up in a hunter green leather pantsuit, long bob hairstyle and shines a light on Tinseltown's newest black woman lead in Turner-Smith, who's rocking a sheer lavender gown with 1920s Billie Holiday finger waves. “Jodie, our Queen, this was the role of a lifetime and not only did you take it on and exceeded all of our expectations, the moment we saw your face, we knew it was you," Matsoukas said. "When you walked into the room for your chemistry read with Daniel, he shrank. Not because he felt small, but because he knew he was in the presence of royalty. [Wild applause] Your stride, your skin, your power can’t be forced. You are walking joy. So for you to play a woman that liked living in the dark, that doesn’t smile easily and doesn’t like to let people in, is truly a master class in acting. Your performance is stunning. We are so honored to introduce you to the world. Thank you for trusting us with your gift. We love you and we know the rest of the world will too.” More applause, more hugs and more screams of positive affirmations flood the venue.

Queen & Slim's production is rather rare in its make-up when you analyze the team that put it together. Waithe, a Chicago repper, is a certified star of writing (Queen & Slim is her first movie screenplay), acting and producing, being the creator of a hit cable series and part of successful productions (Netflix's Master Of None, NBC’s This Is Us, BET’s Boomerang). The New York native, Matsoukas is a directing vet in the music and television world, but Queen & Slim is her directorial film debut. This project screams breakthrough for not only those two, but also for both Turner-Smith and Kaluuya. The main characters are in new positions as Turner-Smith’s first leading role and Kaluuya’s first executive producing shot. Understand, this cinematic offering rarity is majority woman-led and black woman-led at that. 

Being in prime production position to cheer for from the get-go is what has everyone so wild with enthusiasm about Q&S. The movie trailer, in its present-day setting is fast-paced, glossy and gritty all at once. You see the slick old school ride with big chrome rims, Queen’s thigh-high snakeskin boots, dirt and gravel paved country roads, lush greenery that speeds by in blinks, Slim’s velour sweatsuit so synonymous with parking lot pimpin’ pros from the aughts era that you’d think he was a rapper first and not on the run. Yet, all of the glitter to gain your attention is slashed with what the movie is here to do for you...for us, as a people. “We wanted this to be a love letter to blackness,” Waithe shares at the premiere. What she means by that is how the little things throughout the viewing experience will trigger nuances that attach to damn near every aspect of black life you can live out. The food, the attitudes, the dancing, the words, the rhythm of walk [Queen glides in scenes with the strides of a Gazelle], the tension, the music [the soundtrack will make you dance in the aisle], the love, the anger, the softness, the humor, the confusion, the pure black assed blackness you can’t wash off and you’ll understand it even more so if you are black.

Two days after premiere night's bright lights, the fearless foursome and various supporting cast members are jetting from suite to suite for press interviews. They're all hunkered down on the second floor of Hollywood’s lavishly-laced The London Hotel of Young Thug and J. Cole song fame. Kaluuya is in a friendly state, interacting with hotel staff on the elevator. “Pardon my Bluetooth speaker playing, I need this song right now,” he states with wit. He later admits that the song was probably one by Travis Scott. Waithe passes by in haste to another interview when we say, “Great job on the film, Lena. It’s a hit.” She replies warmly with her hand over her heart, “Why thank you…” No...thank you. 

After our photo shoot at the hotel, Turner-Smith appears in elegant style. Still, in the salmon-hued double lapel blazer we shot her in, her face is full of quick smizes and her energy refreshed by a few bites of lunch. We sit and chat on the balcony of the press suite. She's exhausted but ready.

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Jodie Turner-Smith

Jodie, seeing you and your family interact at the premiere party felt like a family reunion. Can you share what that moment was like for you? 

It's so funny because it made me immediately think of how my mom and my stepdad came to visit me on set in New Orleans. It was so special for them. When I moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago, they didn't know what the hell I was doing or why. They’re Jamaican and they were very concerned. They were like, "This is not a plan." When they came to New Orleans [where Queen & Slim was filmed] to see me, they had a chance to actually see me work. I rented this house in the Garden District and I remember one day coming home from set and we all started dancing in the living room. It was the first time we did something like that. What I love about my parents and Jamaican families is that exuberance we have, which I think is where I get my joy from, my energy and my attitude. They're just like very fun-loving people, but I had never really interacted with my parents in that way because when you're a kid it's like you need to be seen and not heard, you need to do what you need to do. For them, I feel like to celebrate with me in that way, it was like how far we'd come in our relationship and how far I thought...like they trusted, and what joy that I had come in my life. When I was dancing with my mom at the premiere, it just made me think of that day in New Orleans when we danced together.

It makes me so happy that they can see me doing this and feel proud of me because really that's worth everything.

Yes indeed.

(Wipes tears from her eyes) I'm so emotional.

Yes, that's beautiful. And then just as your emotions are coming out now, right after that moment, you start to mingle with everyone else and a woman comes up to you as I'm about to approach you and she starts crying.

Oh, my God.

Remember that?

Yes, I do.

And you were trying to console her, but she was going on and on about how your character was strong throughout the film and gave her so much strength and how beautiful you were in how you moved within the film.

Yes.

Do you understand as much as you've made your family proud, how many other women, especially women that don't get the representation that you're putting on screen, do you know how much you're representing for them?

I mean, I'm starting to see it. Wow, I'm just like a mess. I'm sorry, you're making me cry.

Oh, my goodness. Take your time. It was such a beautiful moment to see because she just started pouring her heart out. You're taking this energy, you know, from this woman that was just obviously wowed by your performance.

Honestly, you think about it in a way, in a smaller way because...when they were casting this role, they wanted a specific kind of woman for this movie. You think about that because I'm a black woman, I'm a dark-skinned black woman. I think about what I grew up seeing, what I didn't see growing up, and what it felt like when I did see someone who I thought that I could relate to, just living their life on screen.

For everyone.

For everyone to see, you know? So that wasn't lost on me that. There's going to be people that felt like I felt when I was younger and that first time that I saw someone that was like me. I have definitely thought about that before, but you can never really account for what it feels like when someone stands in front of you, when they are so moved. I was just so humbled by that because I really understand that what that's coming from is that I allow myself to be a vessel for Queen's truth, and for who that woman was created to be. I know that because I know that in order to do it so many times, I have to tell myself that I have to get out of the way because if I try to do this through the lens of who I am, I would be lost and confused. There were so many times where I just had to be like, "I surrender to the story. I surrender to the process. I surrender to the leader's vision because I trust her so much that she knows what she's doing and how she's doing it." It's just really beautiful to be able to be a vessel for that because I know that in many ways, it's not about me.

I know that it's happening because I was able to be that vessel. I'm humbled and glad. I remember when we were making the film that there would be small times and moments where people on set would say something to me and it would make me feel like if even one person had a response like that. Like I've done something, I did something.

I don't know what I did, but I did something. It's such a privilege to be given the opportunity to make us feel something. I feel a lot, as you can tell. I'm just here weeping. 

Well, it's beautiful. Throughout the film, what you get to see is a strong black woman who fights for others’ rights and is dealing with so much past trauma.

Listen, trauma. It's so funny because I was talking to someone about it. I was saying it's interesting how certain things that you experience, whether you believe in God or not, certain things that you experience will make you feel God. Love, you know what I mean? Trauma, tragedy. All those things will make you feel—

Joy?

Joy. Hope. "I'm not a prayer person." You'll always hear that [from others]. "I don't usually do it, I don't usually talk to you [God], but I'm going to talk to you now because..." So interesting how whatever you believe that God is, we all feel God.

 

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ALL THIS CHOCOLATE. @queenandslim premiere. #AFIFEST

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Yes indeed. Did you believe that it was destiny for you to be able to have your breakout role with Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas where everyone seems to be in a new position with their firsts: Lena's screenplay, Melina's directorial debut and Daniel's first big executive position?

Definitely. It feels way too special to just be. I don't really believe in coincidence. And the way that everything has happened in my life, especially for the last 10 years of living in L.A. and the way I've seen things happen, it's like everything has been like this. It's always like this culmination of being. I went to business school so what they teach you in business school was that success is about positioning yourself to get lucky. It's not just about how hard you work. It is also about a little bit of luck. To position yourself to catch the luck when it comes. There have been so many things that I've done and it was doing that, where I was just, without even knowing, because I was never attached to what it would look like if I was positioning myself to one day find myself in an opportunity like this. When it happened, I need to sit and sit with them and hear them talk and hear them say that they knew when I walked in that I was Queen. This whole thing has been a meditation and remembering that yes, you deserve this, you earned this, you're supposed to be here.

It's okay to embrace that.

And Daniel would always tell me that, too. I see now that I've gotten through the process and the experience of that, that we're all kind of evolving in our relationship together and with the filmmakers. Someone very close to me watched the movie and said to me, “When I watched that movie, I saw how much Melina trusted you.” It's something that even I didn't realize while I was doing it.

The iconic imagery of it, like the photo, everyone wearing your shirt, you know that's going to happen immediately after this film.

Everyone loves the shirt already. I have a box of merch, my family, my friends. I mean everyone.

They were handing it out after the after-party.

Yeah, my aunt puts on the T-shirt...I'll tell you my mom was so upset. She said, "Why are you putting that on over your outfit?" My aunt said, “I don't care, I'm wearing this.” It's so dope to be a part of a film that I feel like we've made for the people and the people love it.

And the messaging of it. Do you feel like there are different layers as far as self-love? Police brutality?

Yes. I feel like that speaks to blackness in that it's like you have love, right? Then you have this violence, you have this trauma. For example, the love scene is intercut with the riot.

It's such an example of what it means to be black and the black experience because here you have black love existing and thriving. Meanwhile, there's this violence and turmoil and the way that Melina cut that scene. It was always written that way that it would be intercut, but the way that she cut that scene and made it like poetry. Then to see these two black people making love and it was sensual, passionate, and urgent. Nothing about it felt hyper-sexualized and animal, which is usually how it is. And especially for myself, I came from modeling and doing music videos. It's like the way that people always want to depict and I'd be like myself is in a way that's animal.

And look, all of those things exist in us. Whereas humans, we're also animals. But it's often just being depicted in that way, in a way that is not about the art of it or even it's not about the agency, it is that this is the lens through which the person who is trying to take your picture or capture you sees you. 

Just the way they got the look on there, too. Lit beautifully, the cinematography is amazing.

The cinematographer was a white man, Pat Radcliffe. Melina said something that I thought was so interesting, too. He never gave us any limitations of color because some people say, "Oh, you know, you don't want to put black people in white because then we don't know how to fu**ing light it." And it's like no, this man knows how. To me, things like that, that's being a white ally.

When you and your craft understand, like our makeup artists. My makeup artist is a white woman. That woman in the beginning of the movie, I remember the first time I said, “Oh, you know what? She's the truth.” [It] was when she did my makeup and when I came to the end of the day to take my makeup off, I was like, “Oh, it's still my face.”

Wow.

It wasn't much different. Whereas toward the end of the movie, because she was creating a story with our faces because as we were on the run, everything was trauma. She started creating the trauma on our face as well, you know? The stress. By the end, I would take my makeup off and say, “Oh, thank God. That wasn't my face," because I was like, “Oh, I look fu**ed up.”

Queen going through it.

"I'm tired, girl, what's going on?" Melina, after a set point in the movie, said, "You have to be ashy." And I was like...wait a minute, “Melina, what?” She said, “You're on the run. You're not going to be lotioned up.” I said, “Melina.” I'd have to sneak lotion in the morning before I came to work. I could never put lotion on at work. I looked awkward, too, like “Baby, you're ashy.”

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Daniel Kaluuya

When I watched your Today Show interview, you said it usually takes you about four hours to read a script, but you read this one in an hour? What part of that hour did you say, "All right, I'm in?"

There were no breaks. I just wanted to know what happened next. At the end, I said, "What? We're going to make time work." Especially after Get Out. I'm sitting there like, "All right, cool." [Black] Panther hadn't come out yet. Widows hadn't come out here, and I'd got Panther and Widows pre-Get Out, coming out.

I realized that "Oh, after Get Out, I need to be very purposeful. It's going to say a lot about me, what I do after that." It just felt like I really wanted this to go, "When I'm more responsible for my career, this is how I move, this is the direction I want to step into." It was after filming it that it came to me.

 

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Slim in The Underground, 2019. By Andre D. Wagner. #QueenAndSlim

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What made you say, "I'm going to step into this role”?

I felt a kinship to the source material. I wanted to help it get over the line and do what it needs to do, but also it's understanding the frustration and the disappointment in so many films that you'd hear about being from England, being from London, black films that you'd hear about and they never make it to the cinemas.

And they just said, "Oh, they don't travel. They don't this. They don't that." And feeling a responsibility to go, "I want to change that narrative and say no." Not necessarily other films that are way more specific than, I don't know, a Great Debaters or a Menace II Society. They travel, they managed to make it through. They managed to get a nationwide release and there's not a pressure for them to make money in order for them to be valid. I felt a responsibility to go, "Listen, I need to be part of those conversations." And also to support these women, I was helping out with a script. There's a lot of the stuff that's in the script that's from conversations me and Lena have had. I was the first person to read it.

Whoa. She felt like it was for you?

No, not at all. We were just in conversation. We were talking and chilling and then she said what she was working on. Then she sent it to me and said, "I'd love for you to read it."  Then I said, "I want to play Slim." We just had early conversations. I read it before Melina, so it was that kind of situation.

Now that you are an executive producer on it, why did you name your company 59%?

It's the win rate of Billy Beane in Moneyball. I love Moneyball, I feel like my life is Moneyball.

Really? Why?

Because I had to think differently to get what I need to do, to do what I need to do.

To act, you had to think differently?

100 percent.

Why?

Because I'm black.

But also, hold on. If you're out here [in America], you're not just black. Samuel L. Jackson, of course, has said something along the lines of "the black British guys get the best roles." But, it’s as though you had to...

It's not... Not only I'm black, but I also come from a background where... I was on free school meals. People don't know to understand the nuance of the British experience and what it's really like. I couldn't afford drama school. So this perception I'm coming in with like, "You're benefiting from XYZ," I don't. I couldn't afford the privilege that I'm supposed to have had. So there's this self-education that I've had to have had and have to think differently before I could even think about working in America. I had to have a 10-year career. I've got to get my mom situated. I've got to get my family financially supported and have a foundation in order to even think about living my dreams. And that's the same with Damson Idris, John Boyega, Letitia Wright. We're all a wave of people that didn't go to conventional drama school.

But that label is there because of what—

But that's the problem: we're misrepresented. And that's a parallel, we're told who we are. You didn't even have a conversation with me about it. That's what I'm trying to say, I have to then take that in and go, "All right, cool. Dah dah dah dah dah," and try and go, "That's not who I am,” and still navigate that space. That goes about thinking differently and seeing the game differently.

Things really shifted in me when I stopped playing the conventional game and tried to do what everyone else is doing and go, "Listen, I'm not competing with anyone but myself. And my past. And the stuff I want to do. That's it." 

What 59% represents is... I Googled all my favorite football managers, like soccer, football managers that I love, and over a 40-year career, the best managers, their win rate was 59 percent. I said, "This is a through-line in here and this is what winning actually looks like. This is because the winning is in the win. The win is the journey, and the fulfillment and satisfaction you have on that journey." So I said, "How you think differently when an obstacle or something's trying to derail you, is actually an opportunity to grow, and figure it out." At the end of the day, no one's 100 percent. It's just how you show up the next day. There's always another game and I love that metaphor.

Did you gravitate toward him in that way because of the transition he made?

Well, yeah man, there's an evolution there. And I think it's an interest in meditation and the interrogation of black masculinity. What does that mean to be hard? The parallels between Slim and Uncle Earl, he's the one that's outwardly, overtly what someone would go, "That's that guy." But look at the turmoil he has gone through. Look at what he does when he's intoxicated. Look at the hurt he inflicts to people that he supposedly loves. Then Slim is seen as the more vulnerable sensitive type, but he's there for his woman.

He called his family. That was an important thing for him to get to his family.

Exactly. He just wants to be with his family and there's strength in that. There's strength in wanting to have a life just there. Just wanting to have family, wanting to chill. There's strength in that, and we put a lot of these aspirational people on a pedestal when actually, sometimes they're just running from stuff. He's not running from anything. He's trying to keep his life together because he actually loves his life, and he loves the people in his life. He's surrounded by love. 

For me, a satisfying element of cinema is seeing someone change over the course of two, three hours. I always look for points where I could do that.

You did it excellently.

Thank you.

What did you feel was the film’s message outside of police brutality, poverty, relationships and love? What did you get out of that, working with Jodie?

Compromise was a big theme. Relationships are about compromise, respect, and how easy compromise is if you respect each other. You don't hold onto sh*t, you don't need to because it's, "All right, if that makes a person happy, then cool." Putting the ego to the side when you have to and making sure you're present. It's so interesting that they’re able to connect when they throw their phones away. They're not running away, they're not trying to go, "I can get someone else in this app, get someone else here, I can go out there." They have to face each other and they actually have more in common than they realize.

Right.

And I think that's a really great theme that's in it.

You're looking to play Fred Hampton. What was it about his story that attracted you?

I just thought he's a brilliant man. And I'm similar to you, where I heard about him, rap lyrics, and then I saw the Soul of the Nation and there was an art piece that was inspired by him. I was like, "He's 21?" It blew my mind. And he doesn't look 21. He's got such a presence.

Right.

When this came through and Ryan Coogler and Shaka King spoke to me about it, and I read it for the first time, I said, "I don't even understand the ideas he has." This is like 1969, and I said, "I don't understand how he speaks and what he thinks." And just any opportunity, for me, what's blessed about all of our jobs, we live in a space where we can just learn stuff that we wouldn't know because...and we get paid. We can spend all day like, "Oh, what's this mean? What's that mean?." It all informs our work. It's really great to go into his psyche, go into the world of the late '60s and understand the history and what led to that point of that generation being, "We're not having it anymore." And understanding him as a man, and what he was around and the tide he was up against.

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Photographer: Peter Dokus

Art Designer: Nicole Tereza

Videographers: Laetitia Rumford

Wardrobe Stylist: Petra Flannery

Wardrobe Assistant: Lauren Mock

Makeup Artist: Allan Face

Makeup Assistant: Ruby Vo

Hair Stylist: Larry Sims

Groomer: Tasha Reiko Brown

Nail Artist: Thuy Nguyen

Main Image Credit: Peter Dokus