Author Topic: David Oyelowo: 'No one says to Oliver Stone: white characters AGAIN?'  (Read 1433 times)

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David Oyelowo: 'No one says to Oliver Stone: white characters AGAIN?'
The star of new Martin Luther King movie Selma speaks out about insulting roles for black actors – and defends his friend Benedict Cumberbatch

Sunday 1 February 2015 13.00 EST

Arriving in the designated hotel suite ahead of David Oyelowo, I plonk myself down in an armchair, leaving a second one free for him, and practise rolling his surname around on my tongue. (The standard advice – say “yellow” but with an “o” at either end – is as good as any.) Five minutes later, the 38-year-old actor strolls in, looking spiffy in gleaming tan brogues, a mushroom-coloured rollneck and a grey tweed suit with red-and-blue stitching. Sewn on to each elbow is a garish ketchup patch which makes it look as though he has come hotfoot from a food fight. Once we have been introduced, Oyelowo ignores the seat I have left him and makes a beeline for the chaise longue instead. Interesting, I point out, that he would opt for the psychiatrist’s couch over the chair. Should I take it that he is in a confessional mood? He locks eyes with me. “I’m going to give you absolutely everything,” he simpers theatrically.

This dash of comical campness banishes for a moment all memory of his portrayal of Dr Martin Luther King in the new civil rights drama Selma. The movie, which documents the campaign in 1965 to register black voters, presents Oyelowo with some necessarily grandstanding moments. But his performance is characterised most strongly by stillness and composure, along with the sort of details that a less watchful director than Ava DuVernay might have consigned to the cutting-room floor. This is an everyday King: we see him lounging around in his dressing gown working on a speech, or being cornered by his wife over infidelities so common she doesn’t bother to itemise them. He is even shown putting out the bins, for goodness sake. To those who might ask if this is any way to treat an icon, Oyelowo’s response would be: it’s the only way.

“If all we showed was Dr King giving speeches and leading marches, we would basically be making a case for going to watch a good documentary,” he explains. “Those other elements you mention are revelatory. What we usually do to great men and women is relegate them to homogenised heroism. Their words and actions become soundbites and images in a way that gives us an excuse not to act bravely in our own lives. We might look at King and think, ‘Well, I’m not him. I didn’t say ‘I have a dream.’ But to see yourself in them makes it possible that you’ll be stirred towards becoming the greatest version of yourself. We all take out the bins or sit around in our dressing gowns. To put someone on a pedestal renders them untouchable – and subhuman. It gives us an excuse not to act as they did.”

Oyelowo’s voice is deep and steady but with jaunty, playful high notes; the word choices are unequivocal. It would be hard to find a man less likely to plug his conversation with “um”s and “ah”s and “sort of”s. There is nothing “sort of” about him. That is one of the qualities that serve him so well in Selma. Right from the first shot, an intense closeup which he correctly calls “a real buckle-up-for-the-ride moment”, he wills himself into King’s skin. “I’d never looked at Dr King and thought, ‘Oh yes, that’s someone I should play one day,’” he says. That was before he had gained weight for the part. Late-night pasta dinners did the trick. They made his angular face soft and boxy. They also built up around his neck the thin collar of fat that is visible whenever the camera in Selma is positioned behind him, looking out at his followers. “Even I can see now when I watch the film: that’s not me.”

Eight or so years ago, when the screenplay was first doing the rounds, he admits that even he wouldn’t have hired himself. Various directors came to the project, then left. Some, such as Lee Daniels (who later directed Oyelowo in the sprawling historical drama The Butler and the overripe, oversexed thriller The Paperboy), were receptive to casting him. Others (Stephen Frears, Michael Mann) were less so. Don’t judge them too harshly. Today, Oyelowo’s absence from the best actor Oscar nominations has caused a justifiable outcry. Back then, he was a little-known Brit, newly arrived in Los Angeles, whose fame didn’t extend far beyond the BBC (he was one of the leads in the first three series of Spooks) and the theatrical community, where he had made his mark at the age of 24 by taking the lead in the Henry VI trilogy. He became in the process the first black actor to play a Shakespearean monarch for the RSC.

That wasn’t his first experience of royalty. Born in Oxford and raised in south London, he moved with his parents at the age of six to Nigeria, where he discovered that his father’s claims to a royal lineage were authentic. They lived a comfortable, though not lavish, life; Oyelowo was packed off to a harshly disciplinarian boarding school. After seven years, the family fled the country, then in the grip of a military government, and returned to inauspicious lodgings in a hostel near Holloway Road, north London. Forming school friendships not defined by ethnicity, Oyelowo was teased for being a “coconut” (white on the inside). He found some solace in religion, from which his interest in acting emerged indirectly: he had been making goo-goo eyes at the pastor’s daughter, who invited him to join her drama group.

Almost as soon as Oyelowo knew he wanted to be an actor, he realised the ways in which he could use his career for more than just getting the best restaurant tables. To this end, he claims never to have accepted a role for the remuneration. “I’m in this for the long haul. I truly believe in cinema’s potential for cultural impact. I have a clear idea what I want to do – to enrich people’s lives.” Perhaps aware that it sounds more like he’s running for office than plugging a movie, he steps in before I can. “Now I know not everything is the same as playing Dr King. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not a film I walk away from thinking, ‘OK, that’s fundamentally about the enrichment of people’s lives.’ But it is thought-provoking. And the fact that it smuggles elements of the civil rights movement into the story of an ape uprising — well, that has value. For me, it’s a very conscious decision to follow my heart rather than the dollar.”

When Oyelowo graduated from the Lamda in 1998, he told his agent to find him scripts intended for white actors. “When I looked to heroes I wanted to emulate, I constantly found myself mentally jumping over the pond. I had read that Denzel Washington had told his agent early on: ‘Give me everything that Harrison Ford is turning down.’ That stuck with me.” His CV is laced with colourblind casting, from dashing Danny in Spooks to a detective in the Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher and the dogged district attorney in the recent thriller A Most Violent Year. “I hunt those kinds of roles down.” But he knows there is still some distance to go. “The only way I get a leading role in a studio picture is if Ryan Gosling can’t play it, which is clearly the case with Selma. If this was a non-colour-specific character, it wouldn’t be me. It just wouldn’t.”

This stings when it influences his children’s perception of themselves and of him. (He has four children, aged between two and 12, with the actor Jessica Oyelowo.) He recently told his son about The Queen of Katwe, a new film in which he will play a man who inspires a boy to become a chess grandmaster. “I’m the lead but my son actually asked me: ‘Are you going to be the main character’s friend?’ I went, ‘Wow. That’s the world Hollywood shows him.’ So I was very happy to tell him: ‘No. The other actor plays my friend. I’m the centre of the story.’ That felt powerful to me.” He also recalls taking his daughter to see Annie, which stars the African American child actor Quvenzhané Wallis and includes a kiss between Jamie Foxx and Rose Byrne, highly unusual by Hollywood standards. “I saw the effect it had on my daughter,” he beams. “It showed her that she can be the centre of her own narrative. Which she is – but it’s easy for movies to make her feel she can’t be. And that kiss! I mean, I’m married to a white woman, I have been for 16 years. But even I thought to myself: ‘They really went there! They did it! Phenomenal!” He clears his throat in mock embarrassment. “Moving on …”

The hazard of discussing these issues, as Oyelowo understands only too well, is that it risks undercutting his efforts not to be defined by race. “It’s because films like Selma are so rarely made that we end up putting them under the microscope. One, maybe two, a year. As a white person, you don’t have that. You have the gamut. No one says to Oliver Stone: ‘Another film about Vietnam? White characters again?’ Benedict Cumberbatch is never asked, ‘What, you’re playing another historical character?’”

Since we meet only a few days after Cumberbatch has used the word “coloured” in a US TV discussion about opportunities for black British actors, it is striking that Oyelowo should cite him as an example. In fact, he considers the whole miniature controversy a distraction from the subject of inequality. “Everyone has ended up ignoring the issue Benedict was talking about and focusing on that one word. It’s actually stopped us talking about race. Look, Benedict is a good friend. He was simply expressing, as someone who has no dog in the fight, that his friends are getting better opportunities in the US than here. That’s something worth examining. Instead, we get hung up on terminology.” Oyelowo isn’t immune to it himself. He recently experienced internal panic after referring to his children in an interview as “biracial.” “I thought, ‘Is that what we’re saying? Is it ‘biracial’ or ‘mixed race’? Do I love my kids any less if I use one or the other?’”

But language is charged, I insist. The words we use about one another cannot be divorced from their meaning. “Sure. And I must say I hate the N-word, particularly when black people use it about themselves. It’s like chitlins: the offal that was a delicacy for slaves. It’s the small intestine of a pig. People get so used to eating something substandard that in order to survive they have to take ownership of it. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still the most disgusting part of the animal!” He’s raising his voice now for the first time during our conversation. “Just because you’ve reappropriated it, that doesn’t detoxify it. That’s how I feel about the N-word.”

It is unlikely that there is any subject on which Oyelowo would be hushed. But I wonder if anyone has tried. After all, you can complain all you want about the insulting roles for black actors. You can rage against demeaning language. But it’s another thing entirely to proclaim your religious faith openly in interviews – even to say, as Oyelowo has done without encouragement, that God told him he would star in Selma. Has he ever been advised to save that stuff for church? I remind him of Alastair Campbell’s comment about Tony Blair’s faith – “We don’t do God” – and he laughs merrily.

“Well, I do do God,” he says. “One of the best things about success coming 16 years into being an actor is that you know yourself. And yes, people have said, ‘Erm, you may want to to slow down on that. Ease up.’ But if you’re just a talker not a doer, then don’t expect to effect real change. My faith is something that’s efficacious. It turns out God has really great taste. When I pray to him about which roles I should do, it’s a great guide. When I first read Selma, he told me I was going to play that part. And having been told by him that it was going to happen, I knew it would.”

I wonder if faith also shapes the work itself. I’m thinking specifically of Danny’s death scene in Spooks, where he goads a terrorist into killing him so that his colleague will be spared. For a brief instant, it seemed the M in MI5 stood for martyr. Was this intentional? “One hundred per cent!” he says emphatically. “Self-sacrifice is the most transcendent thing we can do as human beings. I think that’s what love is – putting yourself on the line without getting or wanting or expecting anything back. That’s the best of us. I’m not saying literally giving your life, but the idea of that selflessness. It’s the attribute I most admire.” He gives an elated sigh. “When a role comes along that exhibits that quality, I’m all over it.”


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Re: David Oyelowo: 'No one says to Oliver Stone: white characters AGAIN?'
« Reply #1 on: February 09, 2015, 04:40:34 pm »
Nice Interview. Great that Oyelowo is secure within himself and is a pious individual, family man with four children. Funny that even brothers and sisters from the old country by way of England are also having emotional displacement with their children who are fullly acculturated to western mentality. Also explained why so many (ALL RACES) actors are bombarding Hollyhood for jobs.. not that there seems to be a shortage (9999) cable channels and all.
Carles CJ Juzang