by Jay S. Jacobs
David Oyelowo has been making movies for a little over a decade now, and he seems to have carved out a special niche in Hollywood. The actor, who was born in Oxford and lived several years in Nigeria as a boy, has become Hollywood’s go-to choice for historical bio-dramas.
Oyelowo is probably best known for his riveting, Oscar-nominated turn as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. That film made Oyelowo a full-fledged star, but he had been building up to that status with turns in as a pioneering airman in Red Tails, a soldier watching the Gettysburg address in Lincoln, a real-life Ugandan soccer coach and chess master in Queen of Katwe, and jazz chanteuse Nina Simone’s manager in Nina.
Even when his characters are not necessarily historical, often they are surrounded by famous men of history, like the role he played as the son of the long-time White House worker in The Butler. Of course, some of his films have been completely fictional, like Jack Reacher, Interstellar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Help.
Oyelowo’s latest historical drama is a labor of love for the actor. A United Kingdom is the story of Seretse Khama, the crown prince and heir to the throne of the African country of Bechuanaland, whose reign was endangered in the 1940s when he fell in love with and married a white British secretary. Due to societal norms, political pressure and family disapproval, the couple had to fight to retain power of the country and the sovereignty of his people, eventually becoming President of the newly democratized country, which was renamed Botswana.
Actress Rosamund Pike, who played his wife Ruth Williams Khama in the film (and had previously worked with Oyelowo in Jack Reacher), said that working with Oyelowo made the role clear. “My performance is all about David really, if I’m truthful. I didn’t create it in isolation. I created it looking at him.”
We sat down with Oyelowo and some other media outlets soon before the film was released. “I feel like the President, with all these mics in front of me,” Oyelowo said good naturedly as he walked in to the recent press day for A United Kingdom at the Peninsula in New York. President? Yeah, it seems only a matter of time before Oyelowo plays another one of those.
You’ve played some very iconic characters, obviously Khama, King and even in Red Tails. When you’re doing true stories about people who have had such important lives, how much responsibility do you feel to get their points across and be true to their character?
It’s quite hazardous playing real people, especially when they are people of historical significance. So many people have a strong opinion as to if they’re going to be in a film, how they should be portrayed. What it is that they did. What it is they didn’t do. It’s not like playing a fictional character, where you’re allowed the creative license to just [let] there be a convergence between yourself and the character. [In] this you have to very much go to the character. What I have found to be true is that at a certain point, having been given the opportunity, you just have to accept that this is your interpretation of this historical figure. If you keep on thinking about those other people, you’re going to be paralyzed and not be able to do your job. For me playing Seretse Khama, it was about doing all the research I could. Talking to as many people as I could. Then at some point, you’ve got to trust that that’s in there and then go in and play the truth of given situations. What does this person I have put together in me do when he is confronted with Rosamund Pike’s Ruth? Or is confronted with 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 extras and has to talk about his wife? You’ve just at some point have to let it go and trust that you will be able to tell the truth.
How would you compare and contrast playing these two leaders in Selma and in this film?
I think the primary difference, the starkest difference, is Selma indisputably is a more political film, which also looks at the movement and the man. Whereas this is a love story. The politics is the backdrop in this particular film. This is more intimate. It’s more of a character-driven narrative I would say. I love that about it. I love that you’re getting to see the machinations between these three nations from a political point of view, but at the end of the day it’s about these two people who fell in love and wanted to stay together and fight for that right.
You look so incredibly fit in this movie. Did you go and train before you did this?
That’s a very good and unexpected question. Well, as you see at the beginning of the film, he’s an athlete. He boxes. Boxing was something I was doing as we were about to prepare to do the film. But I like to stay fit. Most people became aware of me when I played Dr. King in Selma. I gained 30, 40 pounds for that. So a lot of people, when they see me slimmer they think, “Oh, wow, you dropped some weight.” Actually this is what I like to think I look like most of the time. Anyway, yes he was a fit guy, so I thought I’d better do that.
Is it a lot less pressure, somebody so well known as Martin Luther King versus like Queen of Katwe, you were also playing a real person there and now here where it’s not so familiar I mean at the pictures at the end I thought wow Rosamund doesn’t look anything like Ruth.
It’s less pressure from the public. I don’t subject myself to any less pressure at all. For me whenever I take on a role like this, I do anything and everything I can to do the best job I can to tell the truth of them. At the end of the day, the pressure I put on myself far outweighs the pressure anyone outside of me can put on me. It doesn’t feel that different, but I remember with Selma, it wasn’t until after the film was out they were like: “Oh my goodness. I was crazy. What was I thinking?” Look at the amount of people who have an opinion on this film and on this particular individual. I’m sure I won’t experience that with this [character], but it doesn’t mean I put myself under any less pressure.
Rosamund just said that you contacted her and you said, “Do you want to hear about the greatest love story of all time?” First of all, how did you find out about the love story? And why did you think that she would be ideal to play Ruth?
I found out about it while doing a film in Atlanta called 96 Minutes. A producer called Justin Moore-Lewy, who is also a producer on our film, had the rights to this book Colour Bar that was written by Susan Williams. I remember I was stepping into my trailer and he presented me with this book. I just couldn’t believe this image; this guy with a trilby and a trench coat arm and arm with this woman. They just seemed very in love. There was just something so intoxicating about the two of them together. When I then read the book, I just couldn’t believe I didn’t know of this story, especially as a person of African descent myself. In terms of Rosamund, we had done Jack Reacher together, but I had been a fan of hers for a while. I just feel like with her you can never really predict what a Rosamund Pike performance is going to be. There are other actresses who you would picture them as Ruth and you go: Okay, I can see what their Ruth would be. I couldn’t necessarily go: That’s what her Ruth would be, but I knew it would be good. I feel that about any and every one of her performances. For me, I wanted it to be someone enigmatic. Someone who you can believe why a man like Seretse would fall in love with her without necessarily getting to know her that well. She has that enigmatic quality that draws you in, so those were the reasons for which I thought she would be fantastic.
Could you talk about the collaboration and working with [director] Amma Asante? You worked also with Ava DuVernay in Selma, both female directors in historic films. What made them stand out for you as you’re compared to male directors that you had worked with before?
Both with Selma and A United Kingdom, I had a hand in those wonderful ladies directing those movies. With Ava, I had worked with her on a film called Middle of Nowhere. Regardless of whether she’s female, I just thought she’s an amazing director, and therefore someone who I was very keen to see direct Selma. What I learned with her directing Selma is how important the perspective of the person who is directing is. Her perspective enabled the women in Selma to become more three dimensional. My interaction with Coretta Scott King in the film, before Ava came on board, was only a phone call. I never actually was in a scene with her. The characters that Oprah Winfrey, Tessa Thompson and Lorraine Toussaint played all were marginal, nigh on extra roles. Supporting roles. Not even supporting roles, just extra roles. Because she is a black woman who recognizes how pivotal the role of women was in the civil rights movement, she wanted to see that. What that gave my character was more dimension, because not only saw Dr. King that political mind, we got to see the father, the husband, the friend. So much of that was Ava’s perspective. When we were putting A United Kingdom together, I knew that I wanted this film to be a love story, first and foremost. I didn’t want it to just feel like a political film. A lot of the men we sat down with were more interested in the politics. Or they were interested in this young white girl that left England and went to this hot country. Oh my goodness, it was so hot. Wow, how hot it was. So hot. I was like: guys, this prince is giving up his kingdom for this woman. And London’s quite cold actually. So their perspective was very much what we’ve seen in films so often, which is to marginalize the black characters and probably focus more on the politics than the emotional side. Having Amma direct it just felt it was what I always hoped it would be, which is a love story.
What do you think the purpose is to struggle in life? You’ve played a lot of characters who struggle, could you imagine life without struggle? Why do we struggle?
I think life would go by a different name if there wasn’t struggle as a part of it. That’s part of the definition of what it is to be human. Overcoming our fallibility is dependent upon how we deal with struggle. I believe that resistance is what builds muscle. With Ruth and Seretse, if they didn’t face the opposition that they faced, I don’t know that their love would’ve been as strong. I don’t know that Botswana would have gone on to be one of the success stories of Africa, in that they own the bulk of their mineral resources. The lessons Seretse learned before he then went on to become president of Botswana is that – to be perfectly frank – the west couldn’t be trusted. We have discovered diamonds here. I’m not just going to sell out my people and let you have all our resources. We’re going to own the bulk of it. We’re going to be the driving seed of our own destiny. I don’t know that that would’ve necessarily been the case if it had been: “Oh yeah, get married. It’s fine. Whatever.” So I do believe struggle can be redemptive, depending on how you deal with it. These two people let love be their guide, let love be the driver of everything they did going forward. That helped them overcome their obstacles.
The story behind A United Kingdom took place over 50 years ago, but sadly politically it’s still very relevant. What do you think that this story can tell people in this crazy political world now? What kind of warnings can it give them?
I think anyone watching the news now, it’s a very complicated time. It’s overwhelming is the truth of the matter. But I do truly believe the antidote to all of this is quite simple; it’s love. That can sound a bit corny, but when you watch a film like A United Kingdom you literally see love in action. You see that it does have the power to overcome political obstacles and tribal obstacles and familial obstacles. If we as a people can basically decide that regardless of political agendas, religious agendas – whatever else is out there that is trying to divide us – if love is what we will lead with, I don’t think any government, any insidious agenda can overcome that, can overwhelm that. Prejudice is born out of fear. Fear of that which is other to you is what we are dealing with. Everything that we’re dealing with, from the rise of nationalism to this incredibly contentious election we’ve just had. The byproduct of it is all to do with: I’m right. You’re wrong. You’re different to me and my perspective and my color and my religion and my whatever is more important, is more right, than yours. If you are coming from a place of sacrificial love – of what can I do for you? How can I help you? How can I be gracious in the face of your seeming hate? – then I think that we stand a chance.
You just did a fantastic off-Broadway performance of Othello with Daniel Craig and Finn Wittrock. It was one of the hottest tickets in New York. It’s in this tiny little off-Broadway theater. Why didn’t you do that on Broadway? These two movie titans coming to the stage and people said it was one of the best Othello’s ever seen.
Well, anyone who came to see the show, the few who got to see it, if you got to see it in that 200 seat theater you’d understand why. Part of why it’s been deemed a good production is that experience, the fact that 200 people were locked into a wooden box. Rather than just observing this play, they become part of this play. They are the court. They are the observers. They are those who Iago is colluding with against Othello. They are those who at the end of the play I appeal to, saying: you saw what just happened. Surely you can understand why I did what I just did. Regardless of their actual opinion, they are part of the play. That’s a very difficult thing to do in a great big tundra of a theater. That has its place and I’m sure that we would’ve had a nice production there. But that’s what made it, I think, special, the intimacy of that particular production. You had just the best time doing it as a result, because you could see the whites of the audience’s eyes. For me, I hadn’t done a play for about ten years. What I was missing was that connection with an audience. With film, there are so many layers between you and the audience. With this, I could literally talk to one person while everyone else is observing. There’s something very pure about that from a storytelling point of view.
Will there be a film of it?
Oh gosh, I don’t know. (laughs) For me it was like a perfect meal, where you just go: Okay, I don’t need any more. I don’t need any less. Done, moving on. So we’ll see, I did love doing it, so you never know. Barbara Broccoli is a very persuasive and inventive lady.
Do you think something would be lost by seeing this film on the small screen?
No, I don’t think anything would be lost. Look. let’s be honest; a lot of people, their first introduction to A United Kingdom will be on the small screen. [I] hope that we have made an epic movie. The English Patient was my model for the kind of film I wanted A United Kingdom to feel like. But you hope [when] you make a film that anyone watching it anywhere will get something from it.
Which films do you think would make an interesting double feature with A United Kingdom?
A film that it should be a good double feature with… Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, maybe. I only say that because it’s the 50th anniversary of that film. It’s one of the rare times since that film that I can think of an interracial love story of what I like to think is of scope and scale. And because I just love Sidney Poitier. I want to be anywhere around him. So, yeah, maybe…
What’s the process of watching yourself on the screen? Are you able to get into the story or are you still looking at your gestures? We don’t usually get the chance to look at ourselves for a long time.
Yeah, that’s very true. Some actors can’t bear to watch themselves in movies. I’m not one of them. (laughs) I actually find that I learn quite a bit from watching myself in movies, watching how I interact with other people. It’s a craft you’re never going to master, unless you’re Daniel Day Lewis. For me, when I’m doing a scene there are times where what I am trying to project, what I am trying to evoke, isn’t necessarily how it comes off on the big screen. Sometimes it’s more potent. Sometimes it’s less. Sometimes it’s completely other than I thought it would be. That to me is an interesting thing to take into my next opportunity to be on film. But it is odd. There’s no getting away from it. Seeing yourself projected the size of a house on a big screen can be at times quite traumatic. But I just love the movies. I love the fact that it’s one of the only opportunities in modern day life where you have hopefully in any way people’s attention for about two hours. Hopefully you can say something meaningful.
Right wing politician Tony Benn, was actually a significant key figure in the Prince’s liberation. I was curious that obviously because this film focuses on the relationship with Ruth and the Prince. But, talk about the relationship with the Prince and Tony Benn.
Yeah, Tony Benn did play a huge part in their story, and was a big part in the ultimate victory that they had. You also have significant characters, like Clement Attlee, the prime minister and Winston Churchill. When you’re making a film, when you only have two hours to tell a story, you have to be very judicious with where you put the camera and who you’re focusing on. There’s a version of the film and to be perfectly frank if it wasn’t Amma Asante, a black British woman making this film, there is a different kind of director who this film would be about Tony Benn and how he helped this couple to get back to their country and be happy. That’s not our film.
What do you look for to say yes to a role? Is it immediate often or are you very hard to commit?
I say no a lot, much to the chagrin of my agents and maybe some other directors who approach me. (chuckles) Anything that’s going to take me away from my kids for two seconds better be something that makes sense to me. I have this rule which is the three P’s: the part, the project and the people. If the part’s great that’s great. If the project has something to say as well, that’s what I’m looking for. But really it’s about the people. I am on a quest to become a better actor. I think the best way to do that is to surround yourself [with] people who are better at this thing we do than you are. Those tend to be my guides as to the kind of films I want to be part of.
Copyright ©2017 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: February 17, 2017.
Photos 1-2 © 2017 Jay S. Jacobs. All rights reserved.
Photo 3 © 2017 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.
Photos 4-8 © 2017. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.