‘No’: This Compton cowboy taught Daniel Kaluuya to play a horse trainer
Randy Savvy tells IndieWire how he taught the Oscar winner “about the energy and synergy between man and horse.”
When equestrian Randy Savvy saw “No”, he was impressed by Daniel Kaluuya’s ease with horses. Savvy knew it was a sign the actor process was coming to fruition: To prepare for his role as Hollywood horse trainer OJ Haywood, Kaluuya contacted the Compton Cowboys co-founder for riding lessons. It paid off. “In order for him to perform his role fully and authentically, he wanted to be able to gain experience and ideas from guys who are already essentially living that role. Like we do, we’re black men, we work with horses in Hollywood “, Savvy told IndieWire. “So for him, connecting that link was important. And he ended up getting some good food out of it. I saw stuff on the screen like, okay bro, I see you.
Jordan Peele’s alien thriller has a rare relationship with animals on screen. Not only is it a quasi-western, featuring Kaluuya riding a steed named Lucky, but it’s also about the people who put horses in the movies, giving the whole operation a meta quality. OJ and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) are the current owners of Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, a business founded by their father (Keith David), who claims the family is descended from the black jockey in Eadweard’s ‘The Horse in Motion’ Muybridge. The Haywoods’ equestrian knowledge quickly becomes more than just backstory as the plot unfolds, giving them an advantage against the UFO circling above their Agua Dulce ranch.
As the horses on set were handled by veteran wrangler Bobby Lovgren (“War Horse”, “Seabiscuit”), Kaluuya, through his manager, reached out to Savvy to glean the lived experience of a black rider. They spent a few sessions at the Compton Cowboys ranch, where Savvy showed off Kaluuya’s basic skills and answered the British actor’s questions. “Most of the time I talked to him about the energy and the synergy between man and horse,” says Savvy. For Savvy, some horse training in Hollywood and cowboy culture can rely on submission and fear. “And our way of doing it is always to love the horse and ask it instead of telling it what to do,” he said.
All Savvy knew of the plot of “No” when Kaluuya arrived was that he was playing a cowboy; the rest of Peele’s bizarre plans were kept under wraps. But Savvy, too, has a vested interest in portraying the Black Riders onscreen. Describing themselves as “a collective of lifelong friends on a mission to uplift their community through horseback riding and the farming lifestyle, while highlighting the rich heritage of African Americans in equine and Western heritage”, the Compton Cowboys should be their own movie. They gained national attention when they led a protest against police brutality in their Los Angeles neighborhood following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, and also ran a youth program called Compton Jr. Equestrians. (Universal is donating a portion of the proceeds from a collection of “No” merchandise to the organization.)
Savvy worked with Kaluuya on how to mount, tack, and fight a horse in an arena. They also worked on just being comfortable with animals. “I remember one of the first things we did was practice being cowards,” he says. “Because what happens is people get anxious around horses because they have this preconceived notion that horses are dangerous animals, right? So people naturally have anxiety because of that. And so it takes turns when they’re dealing with the horse, you feel a kind of tension, and their body language seems stiff and tense.
When Savvy finally saw the film, he saw his teachings manifest in Kaluuya’s performance. The actor plays OJ with an unflappable quality that extends into even the most high-energy sequences. “There were certain scenes where he was galloping, and he looked very loose on the horse, and looked cool and cold, and he didn’t seem stiff,” Savvy said. “Or there was a part where he was dusting off the saddle and putting the girth on the hook, and I just remember looking at that and saying, ‘Oh, that was a very natural way of doing that’ , you know, instead of looking like a rookie or something.
Photo credit: Universal Pictures
Although Savvy admitted he thought the film was “strange”, he found his description of working with horses on sets to be accurate, particularly in a scene early in the film where a horse is spooked after the crew pays no attention to Haywood’s safety warnings. He also appreciated that the filmmakers didn’t try to anthropomorphize the equine characters. “A lot of people don’t have the right consulting horse on the project,” he said. “It could easily look fake, corny or inauthentic. And so I think they’ve done a good job overall of letting authenticity do the talking.
As OJ, Kaluuya is intentionally taken out, but there are times when you see his connection to the animals, like when he tenderly reassures Lucky that he’ll be safe in the final showdown. These are the lessons of Savvy and the Compton Cowboys. “What we do is we put a very respectful face on the horse, being grateful, expressing our gratitude, always saying thank you,” Savvy said. “He was really touched by that, and I think that was really reflected in the way he portrayed his role in the movie.”