How Daniel Kaluuya and Kibwe Tavares cooked up ‘The Kitchen’

When Daniel Kaluuya turned 18, his childhood home in north London, between Camden and King’s Cross, changed overnight: “It was when the Eurostar opened [in 2007],” says the Get Out and Black Panther star, chatting in a plush hotel suite during the city’s annual autumn film festival. “Once that came in – boom. Even the names of the caffs went from ‘greasy spoon’ to ‘continental’. The whole brand of the area was different.”

Before that, Kaluuya says, parts of King’s Cross struggled with high crime rates, a blind spot for drugs and prostitution where the authorities would look the other way. But as soon as the tourists and shiny-shoed businessmen started appearing, a clean-up commenced. “It was like: ’Oh, so you can do something about it – but only if it suits your interests.’” The now inconvenient illegal activities disappeared, but so did the nearby communities that made local culture rich and vibrant – forced out by rising rents and commercial building plans.

For Kaluuya’s long-time creative buddy Kibwe Tavares, who grew up at the other end of the Victoria Line, gentrification was more gradual. “I started to notice it when I came back from uni,” he tells NME during an earlier interview. “We needed to find a place to live in Brixton and then suddenly, it’s like, ‘Oh, can we actually afford to live in our own area?’”

Daniel Kaluuya
Daniel Kaluuya and Kibwe Tavares on the set of ‘The Kitchen’. CREDIT: Netflix

Fast-forward to 2024, and the filmmaking pair have poured all of their lived experience of London – the food, music, art, friendship, family, joy and anguish – into The Kitchen, a gripping, dystopian Netflix film set in 2044 that’s stuffed with clever social commentary.

At its centre are Izi (Kane ‘Kano’ Robinson) and young Benji (newcomer Jedaiah Bannerman), residents of a rundown temporary housing development on the outskirts of the capital. Much like Kaluuya and Tavares’ childhood neighbourhoods, The Kitchen is being squeezed by a sinister establishment that wants them out. Every few days, truncheon-wielding riot police storm the brutalist maze of concrete flats. They beat those courageous enough to stay, including football legend Ian Wright’s warmhearted DJ Lord Kitchener (a nod to the Trinidadian Calypso singer, not the colonial administrator), and drag off any who survive. Izi is desperate for a way out of the area and to start a new life; while Benji seeks a parent figure to look after him following the death of his mum. They form an unlikely bond and, together, find hope amid the chaos.

“I don’t want to just uphold heritage Britain”
–Daniel Kaluuya

If that sounds like a difficult watch, it’s because it can be. Gritty and politically charged, The Kitchen contains the kind of bleak, emotional dynamite perfected by Shane Meadows in his noughties cult-film-turned-hit-show This Is England, about skinhead Midlanders struggling to survive Margaret Thatcher’s war on the working class. Like This Is England, though, The Kitchen remembers to showcase all of the wit and humour of its people too. And, as Meadows did with his seminal series, The Kitchen includes a banging, intergenerational soundtrack, taking us on a global tour of all the genres that make up 21st century London: from Afrobeats to drill, to road rap to dubstep.

One of the first things Kaluuya does in our interview is to list Meadows as a reference point. “I want to do cool shit in London for this generation, and not just uphold heritage Britain,” he says. “That’s why I think I was in love with Shane, because he was doing cool shit in his area, you know? I wanted that for London – and I think Kibwe did too.”

The Kitchen
Backstage on ‘The Kitchen’. CREDIT: Netflix

Kaluuya and Tavares first started working together more than a decade ago. It was 2012, and both were in that tricky early part of their careers when they’d had a bit of success but weren’t quite in the big leagues yet. Kaluuya, still best-known for playing Posh Kenneth in soapy teen noir Skins, needed to break out of that box; and Tavares was riding the wave of his award-winning student debut, futurist animation Robots Of Brixton, while looking out for the next gig. That turned out to be Zanzibar-set short Jonah – and when it came to casting, they ended up face to face in a fancy office off Oxford Street. “I hadn’t really met too many actors then. I was still quite green,” Tavares remembers. “Daniel was shy, but he had this presence.”

It’s a presence felt keenly when we meet him today. At 5ft 9in, Kaluuya isn’t a physically imposing man. He talks quietly and says few words. But with his slow, ponderous movements – a clasp of the hands here, an occasional chinstroke there – and his tendency to eyeball you during questions, interviewing him makes us feel a bit like prey being considered by a lion.

Of his and Tavares’ first meeting, Kaluuya remembers: “It was an audition, but not an audition audition. I was 22. I’d just done this play called Sucker Punch [in 2010 at the Royal Court Theatre] and I had a little buzz in the acting scene. Jonah was set in East Africa and I’m East African. I thought I was right for it.”

“Daniel pitched an idea about guys robbing Westfield Shopping Centre on mopeds”
–Kibwe Tavares

Tavares obviously agreed, because he gave him a lead role and they jetted off to start filming. On set, Kaluuya came across as “super hard-working” and “patient”. Tavares was still learning the ropes of live-action, and Kaluuya was so “generous” with his time that they “became close”. Spending shooting breaks on sugar-white beaches in the blazing sun, the city boys bonded over garage music and a shared love of south London pirate radio station Delight FM. It seemed natural that they would continue to collaborate once the production wrapped. The only question was, on what?

“A little bit after the shoot, Daniel pitched an idea that he’d heard in his barbershop about guys robbing Westfield Shopping Centre on mopeds,” says Tavares. Inspired again by Shane Meadows, specifically his guerilla filmmaking tactics, as well as Kaluuya’s background in online comedy, they and producer Daniel Emmerson each “put £200 in” and made a rough-and-ready “taster” to take to investors. Helpfully, Kaluuya’s barber Nev let them use his premises. Though he did cheekily demand a cameo in the eventual movie, something Kaluuya made sure to come good on.

Over the next decade, the script morphed from a smash-and-grab thriller to the class-conscious, science-fiction thinkpiece you’ll watch this week in cinemas (or, probably, later on Netflix). As his career took off, via horror hit Get Out, Marvel blockbuster Black Panther and civil rights biopic Judas And The Black Messiah, which won him an Oscar, Kaluuya somehow still found time for his passion project. “I was learning all this stuff from other directors, seeing films change in the edit and learning why they change – understanding all of that,” he says. “Then I was bringing that back to The Kitchen and what we were building back home.”

The Kitchen
Tavares and Kaluuya locked in to a shot. CREDIT: Netflix

Meanwhile, Tavares was using his architecture training to invent the film’s alternative cityscapes. He wrote an in-world history of London that helped guide any design choices – and they settled on a combination of real-life locations for the Kitchen’s interior. The former London Electricity Board HQ in Bethnal Green became a bustling marketplace with a North African souk feel via Blade Runner. Actors were banged up in Holloway Prison for the living quarters scenes. And the basement of 160-year-old Collins Music Hall in Angel got a neon makeover to become an underground roller disco. The Kitchen’s blunt exterior required a bit more thinking. Tavares didn’t want just any post-war block of flats, and the search went right down to the wire before someone at Netflix suggested the tiered, experimental complex Damiers de Dauphiné in Paris. Moving the crew abroad for a final few days would cost more money, but it “gave us the impact we needed”, says Tavares.

Though often siloed between different sets, departments and meetings – and occasionally separated by thousands of miles – the two directors were able to work as a team. In the end, their different skill sets – Kaluuya says he’s more of a “story” man, while Tavares “zooms in on the details” – came together like two sides of the same creative coin.

The Kitchen
Kano and Jedaiah Bannerman in ‘The Kitchen’. CREDIT: Netflix

If The Kitchen’s biggest strength on-set was its directors’ chemistry, then its biggest strength on-screen is its star. Brooding and tense, Kano brings the same kind of quiet power to the character of Izi as Kaluuya does in his best roles. Zipping about from place to place on a boxy, Batman-esque motorbike, he comes across like a modern-day Marlon Brando – strong and silent but capable of carrying off sophisticated emotion with a single look.

When they were throwing around actors’ names in pre-production, and Kano’s name came up, Kaluuya says there was no hesitation. “I’d watched him from the first series of Top Boy on Channel 4, which was must-watch TV back in the day, to the newer series on Netflix,” he explains. “That growth as an actor: ‘whoosh!’… and it’s not an accident. He’s worked on his craft and finally people are giving a fuck.”

Better-known to many for his pioneering grime tunes, Kano’s acting pedigree has risen considerably since Netflix (with a little help from rap megastar Drake) resurrected long-dead crime drama Top Boy in 2019 – and brought it to a hungry Gen Z audience who were waiting to binge it. Interestingly, in that show’s internet-breaking final season, which aired in September, there’s a key narrative involving civil disobedience against forced eviction.

“Kano has worked on his craft and people are finally giving a fuck”
–Daniel Kaluuya

“It’s funny that there’s similarities [with The Kitchen‘s plot],” says Tavares when we point this out, a sly grin stealing across his face. “I watched it recently and was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to come out at similar times and I guess there’s crossover.’ It wasn’t intentional, but these ideas aren’t pulled out of thin air.” Instead, the coincidence just serves to prove how pervasive these themes of gentrification and cultural disintegration currently are. What Tavares and Kaluuya have created here isn’t another piece of throwaway streaming ‘content’, more fuel for Netflix’s ravenous algorithm. It’s a document of what London was and is – and a warning of what it could become.

Top Boy was allowed five seasons and 32 episodes to explore all of London’s side streets and back alleys – something The Kitchen could never hope to match in just 107 minutes. Looking ahead, have Tavares and Kaluuya thought about carrying on their tale in a TV series?

“I do see the potential in that because there’s so many other characters you could follow,” says Tavares. “But at the moment, it’s taken such a long time to create this film that we want to just celebrate it. We both feel quite proud.” Kaluuya seems confident they’ll do something again soon though. “We’ve learned quite a lot from each other. I know a lot about VFX and architectural render now. Kibwe’s learned a lot about working with actors and how to craft a story.” He pauses. “So yeah, let me see what we got next.”

‘The Kitchen’ is in UK cinemas from January 12 and on Netflix from January 19

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