Breakout Year

David Oyelowo on Playing Martin Luther King Jr., Ebola Fears, and Race in Hollywood

The talented British actor discusses playing a complex terrorist in the new film Default, his awards bait turn as MLK in the upcoming biopic Selma, and his long road to the top.

No disrespect to Ben Affleck, but 2014 is the year of David Oyelowo. After years of cutting his teeth on the British stage and small screen, the 38-year-old actor has reached the Hollywood summit, starring in five films released during the packed awards season months.

There’s his secretive role as an astronaut in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi blockbuster Interstellar; his turn in J.C. Chandor’s New York crime drama A Most Violent Year; as Nina Simone’s manager, Clifton Henderson, in the biopic Nina; and, of course, his portrayal of the late, great Martin Luther King, Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s MLK biopic Selma, which traces the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by Dr. King.

The first film to feature Oyelowo is Simon Brand’s thriller Default, in theaters Oct. 17. He stars as Atlas, the purported leader of a group of Somali terrorists who hijack a plane and take the news crew onboard hostage as it departs from the Seychelles. What follows is a battle of wits between the so-called “pirates” and journalists onboard, and we soon learn that Atlas isn’t at all what he seems. The movie is shot found-footage-style, a la The Blair Witch Project, was filmed in just three weeks in a studio-warehouse outside of L.A., and tackles the very relevant theme of the convoluted relationship between terrorists and the media.

In a wide-ranging conversation, The Daily Beast spoke to Oyelowo about his myriad projects, the media’s perception of terrorists, preparing for the role of his life in Dr. King, and why black actors are rewarded for playing the victim.

With Default, what drew you to the character of Atlas? We tend to lazily label these characters “terrorists,” but he is more complex than that.

That’s exactly it, isn’t it? For me, personally, having lived in Africa for a good portion of my life—my parents are from Nigeria, and I lived there from the age of 6-13—and having lived most of my life in the West, I’m very aware that in the U.K. and in America the view of Africa is very one-sided, and very small, and largely transmitted into people’s minds by news outlets. And often, news outlets have their own agenda, or their sensationalist, or they’re one-sided, or they’re just not painting the full picture.

When it comes to Somalia, the full story of why these so-called “pirates” began isn’t out there. They lost their government, the world decided to use that as an advantageous moment to dump all their waste on their shores, which killed all their fish, and they lost their livelihood. So, the only way they felt they could survive was to literally hijack Western ships off their coast. That’s what gave birth to the so-called “Somali pirates.” I took the film because I’m aware that it’s a more complex issue than just labeling someone a “terrorist,” and I felt this film did that effectively.

The film also touches on the way modern-day terrorists handle the media. Parallels will inevitably be made to the current situation with ISIS, but it does seem like there’s this generation of terrorists now who were raised on both reality television and the horrific saga of Daniel Pearl, and have learned how to manipulate new media to their own evil ends.

Yes, I think you’re absolutely right about that. There’s an element of “you live by the sword, you die by the sword.” The very means by which a lot of these nations—especially Third World nations—have been vilified, marginalized, and taken advantage of—i.e. the news—and especially here in America where politicians as well as news outlets generally use fear and sensationalism as a way to keep the audience captivated, the people who have been subjected to this have been shown the potency of it by the media, so they’re using the media. I’m not for one second condoning the actions of terrorists at all, but I do think there’s a kind of terrorism that the media carries out on its own citizens, certainly in this country—and it’s fear. You cannot watch the news without feeling terrorized. You feel like you need to bunker up, hide away, and arm yourself. We have also been groomed to watch the news a certain way, and people know the world is watching and use it for their evil intent.

Fox News does seem to be one of the bigger perpetuators of this news culture of “fear” you speak of.

The thing I will say about that is it’s supply-and-demand. If there wasn’t a section of society that was lapping this up, and to be perfectly honest agreeing with bigotry, then that channel would go out of business right away—or any channel that was perpetrating what I would call one-sided journalism. So we’re all to blame, in a sense. And that’s the point my character Atlas is making. He’s saying, “You think you know who I am based on a couple of soundbites or a couple of one-sided pieces of journalism, but let me show you who I am, and then let’s let the world decide once they’ve had a more comprehensive and contextual view.” I think that any channel, whether it’s Fox, CNN, or whatever, if they were truly giving a 360-view of what’s going on, we would be better equipped to not slap judgments on people we really don’t understand.

Speaking of Africa and “fear” in the news, there’s this Ebola scare going on now. A lot of the news coverage in the States strikes me as pretty xenophobic—this fear of Africa as the “Dark Continent” that spreads disease.

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It’s fear, but it’s a potent mix, isn’t it? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Of course it came from Africa! Of course the ‘Dark Continent’ is to blame for Ebola!” It plays on that prejudice, and that fear. Then, what it also does is it preys on our worst fears. You see this in movies all the time—they’re constantly showing Armageddon, and the world ending. The reason those films do so well is because they’re pushing this potent button within us that makes us panic and think, “The world is going to end tomorrow… how would I react? How would it affect my family, and my circumstances?” I’m as guilty as anyone else as a father and as a husband of thinking, “How will this affect me?” But if you get this 24-hour, ‘round-the-clock reporting that is perpetuating fear, before you know it you’re glued to it. When I first read the script for Default, I thought it was so compelling that the very weapon this terrorist is going to use is the media. That’s the means by which he’ll get his message out, as opposed to an act of terrorism in terms of killing people, and blowing things up. I find it to be a very interesting concept—turning the weapons on who he perceives to be the perpetrators.

You had to deal with the ugly side of the media early on in your career, when you portrayed King Henry VI on the stage in London. You were the first black actor to play an English king in a major Shakespeare production, and the media treated it bizarrely.

They treated it oddly in that it was a big deal. To a certain degree, I’ve made peace with the fact that it was a big deal because I’ve seen it open doors for a lot of actors who came after me and have seen things change as a result. But at the time, I genuinely didn’t think about race when I auditioned for the role, or even when I got cast for the role. It wasn’t until we were rehearsing that this big hullabaloo built up about the fact that it was the first time this opportunity had been afforded to someone. But like I always say: when you’re a minority or something new, the onus is on you to be even better than what people are expecting, because it’s the only way they’re not going to crucify you, and the only way that the door doesn’t slam on everyone trying to come in after you. It was fuel for me to do as good a job as possible for that role, and thankfully when the play opened, it went from being “suspect” to “the show is great!”

Selma is going to be a big deal. This is the first major film biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr., and you’re playing him. It’s crazy that there hasn’t been a biopic on him made yet.

It’s absolutely bizarre! The world in which a J. Edgar Hoover movie exists before an MLK movie is utterly bizarre to me. He’s never been in a feature film as the main protagonist. He’s been a peripheral character in feature films and been in TV movies, but you think: the only human being to have their own holiday named after them in the 20th century and in the canon of cinema there isn’t a movie? Even Hoffa has his own movie! It’s ridiculous. So yes, it’s bizarre, but I’m not complaining seeing as if it had happened before, I might not get the chance to do it now.

Lee Daniels was originally signed on to direct. Did he cast you? I read that he left to do The Butler, and then you convinced the powers that be to hire the brilliant Ava DuVernay to direct Selma.

That’s right. I first read the script in 2007 when Stephen Frears was going to direct it, and this might sound a little strange, but I prayed to God having read the script and I genuinely felt God say to me, “You are going to play Martin Luther King in the film Selma,” and that happened to me on July 24, 2007. Unfortunately for me, Stephen Frears didn’t cast me after I auditioned for him, but several directors hovered around it in the interim, and Lee signed on to direct after the big noise that Precious made. I auditioned for Lee and thankfully he awarded me the part, and then we just struggled to get this film off the ground. Part of it was budgetary, part of it was anxiety around the family and what they’d think of the film. So, Lee and I went off and did The Paperboy and The Butler in the meantime, and Lee had felt he’d already done his Civil Rights film, so to speak. I went and did a small film called Middle of Nowhere with this phenomenal director, and I just felt that Ava would tear this material up. I went to the producers with her name and with the film, and thankfully they agreed with me.

What sort of preparation did you do to play MLK? Did you speak to the family? There must be a lot of responsibility here as the first person to star as MLK in a studio biopic.

Definitely. Early on, there was understandable suspicion on the part of the family about anyone making a film about their beloved, so early on the person I spoke with was Andrew Young, who was basically King’s right-hand man while he was alive, and an incredible source of information—the kind of source you can’t get from watching footage or reading books. I could ask him direct questions about the man and his day-to-day personality. With time, I became friends with Dexter King, Dr. King’s son, and a degree of trust was built. I’ve also been in contact with Bernice King, Dr. King’s daughter, and strangely enough, I bumped into her the Friday before the Monday we were going to start shooting Selma at The King Center. She ended up praying with me and giving me her blessing to portray her Dad. That was a very significant moment for me, and we’ve been in contact ever since. It was huge for me to bridge that gap between the production and the family.

Did you have to put on weight, or wear any prosthetics?

There was a conversation about prosthetics, but I just feel they get in the way.

Speaking of J. Edgar

[Laughs] Right. Exactly. They get in the way, they’re distracting, and you’re already fighting an uphill battle playing a real-life person. It has to be an embodiment and an inhabitation rather than a projection of the person, so if you’re not able to spiritually depict the person, there’s nothing you’ll be able to do by way of prosthetics that’s going to convince the audience you’re doing a good job of that. I felt very strongly that I didn’t want to use prosthetics and I put on thirty pounds—maybe a bit more—because he was rounder in the face and in the body than I certainly am normally. I shaved my hairline back to approximate his. The rest of it was about internalizing who this man was from what I know, what I read, and what I heard, and then positioning myself in the circumstances that he was in. That’s a better way of getting to the truth, in my opinion.

Were Oprah and Brad Pitt on the set at all? I know they both came on as producers, which helped Selma, get made.

Oprah was on set a lot—she plays Annie Lee Cooper in the film, and she felt very strongly about the film. She and I became great friends after we did The Butler together, and she became a huge champion of mine which led to me asking her to come onboard as a producer, because even though Ava was onboard and doing brilliant work with the rewriting of Paul Webb’s script, I could just feel the same kind of thing starting to happen that happened with Lee when he was on the film. So, we were huge beneficiaries of Oprah coming onboard, and this wonderful happenstance of The Butler and 12 Years A Slave both doing over $200 million worldwide, so for a company like Paramount, it began to make business sense to take on a movie like Selma. Between these powerhouse producers and the perceived changing climate in terms of what audiences are prepared to watch, we were off to the races. Oprah was a huge part of getting this film to go, and to Brad’s credit—and the rest of his company—he’s using his power to make films that otherwise wouldn’t get made, which is of course the case with 12 Years A Slave and Selma.

With 12 Years A Slave, it’s great progress that it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but when it comes to the Oscars and films that feature casts of color—in particular African-Americans—they’re usually portraying the subjugated victim. It’s things like 12 Years A Slave and The Help, but not the noble hero, in the case of something like The Butler, which was shut out at the Oscars.

The victim, criminals, or the dregs of society. Yes.

And with this year’s Oscars, people are already looking at the calendar and postulating that this year’s Oscars will be very white—and that Selma is really one of the only hopes when it comes to injecting some much-needed color into this year’s Academy Awards.

I think we’re in the middle of a sea change. What happened last year is it was the very first time where you had four films that had genuine notoriety with phenomenal performances by black actors in the central role in films where they were the driving force—they were the protagonists. That was 12 Years A Slave, The Butler, Fruitvale Station, and Mandela. And two of those films experienced massive financial success. Up until that point, any film with a black subject matter, unless it was Denzel or Will Smith, you had a white character driving the story with black peripheral characters on the sidelines because there was this notion that “black doesn’t travel.” That notion was shattered this year, and I was a big beneficiary of that in Selma getting green-lit. The next step forward will be that there is enough contextualization of the black experience so that we’re not only being celebrated by playing the victim, which again is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There’s a patronizing attitude of, “Oh, these people have struggled and we really must celebrate when they show us their struggle,” as opposed to letting us be heroes.

Right. There also isn’t much diversity either when it comes to superheroes.

I read a ridiculous article in The Hollywood Reporter recently that asked, “Who’s the New Denzel?” The reason why this article is ridiculous is because it seemed to blame the actors that had come up in the wake of Denzel, Eddie Murphy, and all that, when it really has to do with opportunity. The only way I get to play a role like Dr. King is because Tom Hardy, Ryan Gosling, and Shia LaBeouf couldn’t play Martin Luther King. If they could, I wouldn’t be. So on top of that, so rarely we’re allowed to play heroes—i.e. the driving force within our own story, and the one who saves the day. Again, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. People always ask me, “Why so many historical dramas?” Because those are the best roles I get to play and I get to play heroes in those roles. The tide is turning, and hopefully those that come after me will get to play heroes that Ryan Gosling could also play. It’s all intertwined.

I also think The Academy is just too old. It’s very old-fashioned, and until there is more diversity, and until there is a more reflective social demographic within not just The Academy but people who make the decisions generally, then we won’t see real change.

This is neither here nor there, but Idris Elba tweeted out a photo of you, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and himself that read, “The Squad… coming soon.” Are you three starring in a badass film together?

[Laughs] That would be great! I love Idris, and Chiwetel and I went to drama school together and were actually in youth theater together as teenagers, so we go way back. I love his work and he’s been a huge beacon for me in terms of what’s achievable, and a positive inspiration for me moving to America and wanting to work in Hollywood. You never know! I can tell you there’s nothing specific brewing, but that would be a very attractive prospect for me.

These are exciting times for you. It took you quite a while to climb the Hollywood mountain, so to speak.

I graduated from drama school 16 years ago, so it has taken a while. Part of that has just been circumstantial and part of that has been by design. I truly think a long career is to keep the audience guessing and not being able to be boxed, and for me, I’m not hell-bent on playing the lead in things as long its an interesting character with phenomenally talented people, and it’s a script that I feel is genuinely innovative, creative, and potentially interesting for an audience. To do that, you’ve got to turn a lot of not-so-good stuff down. I’ve turned some stuff down that probably would have made me more well-known quicker, but I’m in this for the long haul. Like it says in the Bible, “An inheritance gained quickly will not be blessed in the end,” and that’s the pattern that I’ve tried to follow.