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(This story contains spoilers for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.)
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse star Daniel Kaluuya was, quite literally, born to play Hobie Brown/Spider-Punk. The Oscar winner and his anti-establishment Spider-Man character are both from Camden Town, a borough in North West London, and so Kaluuya’s voice performance in Sony’s smash hit took inspiration from the cast of characters he grew up around in the ‘90s and early 2000s.
Hobie was first introduced as a potential threat to Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), given that he had some form of an intimate relationship with Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), but instead of another clichéd love triangle story, Hobie turned out to be the ultimate hero of Across the Spider-Verse. He not only helped Miles Morales escape the clutches of Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), but he also left his portal watch for Gwen to assemble a team that will hopefully rescue Miles from Earth-42 in 2024’s Beyond the Spider-Verse.
Of course, it wouldn’t make sense for a nonconformist like Hobie to join the Spider Society unless there was a good reason, and Kaluuya wants to make his character’s motivations crystal clear.
“One of the reasons why Hobie was there was to have Gwen’s back. He wouldn’t be rolling around with the (Spider Society) otherwise,” Kaluuya tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Hobie saw that rebellious spirit (in Miles), he identified with him and he wanted to support and help him. So Hobie knew that Miles would unravel the system or the status quo within the Spider Society.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson-directed film was Donald Glover’s live-action cameo as Aaron Davis/Prowler, which briefly fulfilled the promise that his appearance in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) first set up. It’s unclear if this is the same Aaron Davis that Tom Holland’s Spider-Man met, but since Hobie apprehended this particular Prowler, Kaluuya was thrilled to have a hand in one of the film’s most memorable moments.
“I was not aware of that (during recording). Afterwards, I was like, ‘Oh shit, I fucking caught Glover’s Prowler,’” Kaluuya says. “They may have mentioned it, but there was so much happening and I was so overwhelmed. So I don’t think I processed it until I watched it, but that’s a pretty cool Easter egg to be involved in.”
From Get Out and Black Panther to Nope and his Oscar-winning supporting role in Judas and the Black Messiah, Kaluuya has been on quite a run of good fortune the last six years, but even after all that he’s accomplished, the comic book-loving kid in him still couldn’t contain his excitement while in the recording studio with co-director Powers and writer-producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller.
“When they showed me Hobie moving for the first time, it was him walking down the runway with everyone at Spider Society HQ,” Kaluuya shares. “And I was like, ‘Guys, thank you so much for letting me be involved in this. I know it’s supposed to be normal for me, but this ain’t normal for me. This is fucking cool.’”
Below, during a recent spoiler conversation with THR, Kaluuya also reflects on the early days of his acting and writing career on Skins, before looking ahead to Netflix’s sci-fi drama The Kitchen, his first produced feature screenplay.
Well, Daniel, you had a pretty good weekend. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse was your fourth go-round in a film that opened number one.
That is a great statistic that I did not know. Thank you for that. I’m gonna take that with me to tomorrow’s shoot. It’s a great feeling when you make a film and you’re proud of it. That’s mostly what it’s about, you know what I mean? I always care about who the key target audience is when I take something on and I work with them in mind. So that’s a representation of that. Sometimes, it’s a massive audience; sometimes, it’s a really small audience, but just as long as they’re catered to, that’s what matters to me. I loved Into the Spider-Verse and I love this film, so I’m part of that demographic, too. It’s great.
Since you loved Into the Spider-Verse, was Across the Spider-Verse pretty much an automatic yes?
Yeah, I really wanted to be involved in it. It was just about building the character with Kemp (Powers), Chris (Miller) and Phil (Lord), and then making that work. But yeah, I really wanted to be involved, and the character they had drawn out for me was just so clear and so distinct.
Did you reference anyone specific while creating Hobie? Did you know anyone with his particular essence in London?
Well, I’m from the area that Hobie is from. Hobie is from Camden, and that’s where I was born. So I just dipped into that. Camden is a very interesting place. I mean, it’s where punk was born, so it’s very counterculture at times. So I knew the essence and the vibe, because I’ve been around it my whole life. So it’s great to show that side of where I’m from.
Did you change your approach and line deliveries for the animated medium, or is this performance pretty close to what you’d do in live-action?
I find it hard to not do it, so I just use my voice. The true communication and the true medium is the voice, so then you focus more on that. But I’ve done quite a few radio plays that are coming up. So I’ve done a lot of that, and it’s about playing the truth still and not playing for the last in the room. It’s about playing the truth of the scene, even if it’s funny. Playing what’s honest was always the priority, and the voice is the biggest communicator of what you want to get across.
Do you think Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) and Hobie actually had a relationship? Or was Gwen using Hobie as a shield to prevent potential tragedy between her and Miles (Shameik Moore)?
Gwen and Hobie, I think something was happening. (Laughs.) She left a lot of stuff at his house. They’re part of this band, and one of the reasons why Hobie was there was to have Gwen’s back. He wouldn’t be rolling around with the (Spider Society) otherwise, but he felt that Gwen was not well. So I don’t think Gwen used Hobie for that. I think they have a genuine friendship, but how deep that goes is between Gwen and Hobie.
Yeah, he clearly doesn’t trust the Spider Society, so there had to be a good reason for him to stick around.
Yeah, it was to have Gwen’s back. At the end of the film, he gives a gesture to Gwen again. He just has her back, you know what I mean? Someone’s gotta watch somebody, and he wants to hide how much he cares. He watches over people that are coming from the same type of place that he feels he comes from. So, him being in the Spider Society is a lot of that.
The movie set up a potential love triangle between Hobie, Gwen and Miles, but it wisely didn’t go that route. In fact, Hobie was the only one who had Miles’ best interests in mind the entire time. He tried to protect him from the Spider Society, and then he helped him escape. So why do you think Hobie was the one who had Miles’ back before his friends finally adjusted course?
He saw that Miles does what’s right no matter what, especially in that (Mumbattan) sequence. Hobie saw that it pissed people off, and he kind of liked that. Miles also didn’t back down. He didn’t apologize for doing what he did. He was like, “Nah, I wanna do this. I’m gonna keep on doing this.” So Hobie saw that rebellious spirit, he identified with him and he wanted to support and help him. He looked at him and thought, “This kid is alright,” after he probably heard certain things about him. So Hobie knew that Miles would unravel the system or the status quo within the Spider Society.
Hobie was the one who caught Donald Glover’s live-action version of Prowler. Were you aware of that surprise when you were recording?
No, I was not aware of that. (Laughs.) That was pretty cool. Afterwards, I was like, “Oh shit, I fucking caught Glover’s Prowler.” They may have mentioned it, but there was so much happening and I was so overwhelmed. So I don’t think I processed it until I watched it, but that’s a pretty cool Easter egg to be involved in.
Did you record most of your stuff in a proper studio, or did you have to create your own makeshift vocal booth wherever you happened to be?
No, I made it into a proper studio. I was there with (co-director) Kemp (Powers), (writer-producers) Chris Miller and Phil Lord, and I really wanted that. I wanted to work with those guys. I’m a massive fan of them and a massive fan of their films, so we really got into the nuts and bolts. We had a big session to talk about the character and the narrative and his arc, especially because you don’t really get the script. So it was like, “Alright, cool. Then what story am I telling? What am I serving here? How can I best serve you guys, the narrative and also the fans of Spider-Punk and this universe?” So we had a big chat, and it was great to build with them. And then we spent the first hour and a half just trying out the voice.
Yeah, Hailee also told me that she never got a full script and that watching the movie was like reading the script for the first time.
Yeah, same. I didn’t really know the scale or what was happening till I watched it. I knew the narrative, I knew the arc, but a lot of it is about the animation and how the story is told. So that really is part of the storytelling, and it was a pleasant surprise when I watched it for the first time.
When you recorded, did they show you early versions of Hobie’s animation styles with different frame rates?
They showed early versions of him, but they weren’t moving images. They were like, “This is the style.” And I was like, “Oh, this is cool.” And then, when they showed me Hobie moving for the first time, it was him walking down the runway with everyone at Spider Society HQ. And I was like, “Guys, thank you so much for letting me be involved in this. This is the coolest shit in the world.” (Laughs.) I was like, “I know it’s supposed to be normal for me, but this ain’t normal for me. This is fucking cool.” So I felt really grateful and really blessed in that moment to be involved in it, man. It was one of those childhood dreams.
You were unavailable for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever because you were making Nope. Did Across the Spider-Verse help fill that void of not being able to do Wakanda Forever?
A lot happened. The Oscars had just happened, and there was a lot happening with the pandemic. It would’ve been a quarantine in Atlanta (where Wakanda Forever was shooting) and a quarantine in California, where we were shooting Nope. So it wasn’t really on the horizon. You didn’t know what was real during the pandemic. It was just one of those times. I only really believe things once I’m in the booth or on set. I’ve done that since the beginning of my career. After doing years of auditions when you’re too invested, I can’t really think that anything is real until I’m doing it.
Whether it’s Across the Spider-Verse or something like Nope, you’ve been hosting screenings for local youth groups in L.A. and London. What’s been the most rewarding aspect of these events?
Yeah, I’ve been doing youth premieres. The (screening series) is called The Local, and I’ve been doing it for a long time, to be honest. I’ve always done it; I just never said I was doing it. I like to give back whenever I am in London, and Across the Spider-Verse was the first time we did it in L.A. We had a great youth group come through and they were so excited. But the most rewarding aspect is just seeing people give. We had Kemp Powers and Chris Miller talk at the L.A. one, and Hailee Steinfeld, Shameik Moore and I spoke at the London one.
So everyone opens up and talks about their journey. They talk about their craft as well. A lot of times, it’s about headlines, and so these incredible mainstream artists don’t really get to delve into their incredible way of going about things, because their work skews more commercial. They aren’t really able to get into the nuts and bolts of how interesting their process is and how they got to what their process is. So it’s really important to show that side, and all these young people and young creators get to understand how you can get into the industry. The kids ask great questions as well.
I’m an old-school Skins fan, and so you’ve been on my radar for a long, long time. But when I saw you in Sicario, I remember thinking that you were starting to take off. Did you feel like you had some wind at your back, post-Sicario and shortly before Get Out came along?
Yes and no. I did Sicario, and then I was a bit disillusioned with acting. So I needed a break, and I took a year and a half off. I spent the majority of that time writing The Kitchen, but when I was on the Sicario set, I was on set with Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins. And that made me feel like I was in the right place and doing the right things and making the right choices. So it was a mixture of both, but I knew that I had to pause. So it wasn’t like things were rolling with me right after I shot it.
When Sicario came out (in September 2015), I had my audition for Get Out right after Sicario’s opening weekend. I went in with Jordan (Peele), and then I got the role from that. So it was just one of those things that happened, and then Black Panther came. But a lot of people that had seen my work from 2010 and 2011 (Black Mirror) were waiting to give me opportunities to work. Widows came around that same time as well, so it was a great moment.
I’m also quite familiar with your writing on Skins all those years ago. Did that experience give you the confidence to tackle your first feature script, The Kitchen, which Netflix is releasing later this year?
Well, I wrote before I acted. I wrote my first play when I was nine. I started acting at 13, and then I came back to writing at 16. I was writing plays and stuff like that. And when Skins came along, I joined as a writer before I did as an actor. I don’t know how I was so confident at 18 or 19 to write episodes of television, but yeah, it did give me the confidence. I knew I could do it, but I also knew I didn’t have control over it. So then I just studied my favorite films, and I wanted The Kitchen to really be something that I could be proud of on a storytelling and craft level.
I’ve asked Nicholas Hoult and Kaya Scodelario this same question, but why do you think Skins spawned so many future stars?
All credit to (co-creator) Bryan Eisley, who actually said that he wanted Skins to be like Manchester United’s ‘92 youth team. It had David Beckham, the Neville brothers, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and all these amazing English football players that went on to the first team. So Bryan wanted that for Skins, on and off camera. He set that intention, and he also had freedom on E4, which was a new cable channel at the time. So he was free to cast who he wanted and what felt right. They also just had great taste in people, and we were all passionate about telling great stories in an honest way. We told the truth, and we weren’t scared of it. That was the point. That was all at the beginning of our careers, and we kept that ethos. So I feel like it makes sense that all of our work cut through, because we were taught to cut through from that culture. We were taught that you’re supposed to make something that makes people feel things and has something to say. So we all adopted that, and we keep running on it.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.