It’s been six months since actor David Oyelowo learned he was not nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for his towering performance as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, a performance most critics thought should be a frontrunner to win the trophy.
His exclusion from the race ignited a media firestorm, with critics debating whether possible institutional racism in Hollywood was behind it. The actor’s snub served as the catalyst for a long overdue debate over diversity, representation, opportunity, and recognition in the film industry.
Half a year later, Oyelowo seems rather enlightened about the whole experience. “You could argue that Nightingale is my Oscar,” he laughs during a recent phone interview from South Africa, where he is filming Queen of Kwame, co-starring Lupita Nyong’o and directed by Mira Nair.
Coming so soon after Selma, Nightingale, an HBO TV movie in which he is the only actor on screen for its 90-minute runtime, bookends Oyelowo’s unrivaled year as an actor. The one-man show, a portrait of a war veteran’s self-destruction in the wake of murdering his mother, is already garnering the star awards attention—he won the Critics Choice Award for his performance this month and is pegged by most experts to be a top contender for the Emmy in September.
Oyelowo made the film before Selma, isolating himself from his family and staying in character for the entire shoot, but it was actually the controversy surrounding his Oscar snub for playing Dr. King that helped Nightingale see the light of day.
Nightingale was seeking distribution even after Selma was in theaters. Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment had been sent Nightingale, and it was in his outrage over Oyelowo being passed over by the Academy that Pitt decided to watch the screener and, so impressed, brought it to HBO.
“So Nightingale was a byproduct of that whole awards thing,” he says.
With a trip to the Emmys podium on behalf of Nightingale possibly in the cards to make up for the Selma recognition that eluded him, we talk about “going method” for the two roles, why the Selma snubs can’t be ignored or minimized, and whether the public outcry and the conversation the snubs caused have led to any changes.
I can only imagine how daunting launching into a project like Nightingale could be. Exciting, but also a little scary.
Scary is something I go looking for. I think that’s how you improve as an artist, putting yourself in uncomfortable situations that you have to dig your way out of. What it does is build confidence through having those experiences. You have to remember or realize that what Nightingale has become is not what it was. It was never something that was going to, at least I thought, have the platform that HBO has given it. It was very much a low-budget independent film. It was kind of an experiment for all of us involved. There was a very real chance that people would never see it.
So why did you sign on?
As an actor you do theater and plays to train and grow. Theater is truly where you learn your craft as an actor. Very rarely do opportunities in film come along where you go, “Oh my goodness, I know I’m going to be a better actor beyond this experience, whether the film is good or bad.” I knew that when I read this script. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to become a better actor, basically.
I also read that you originally thought it was something that couldn’t be done.
I did feel it couldn’t be done. It was a risk. Forget about the fact that I’m the only actor in the film, you are starting the film with the only character in the film, who you’re expecting the audience to stick with for an hour and a half, and they’ve done one of the most despicable, unthinkable things a person can do. And then you’re saying, “I’m going to take you on a journey whereby you’re hopefully going to elicit empathy, understanding, drama, probably judgment on this character.” There were just so many demands on the audience, not just the actor.
You’ve spoken a lot about your decision to “go method” for this movie, which required moving away from your family and spending all your time in the character. That’s a really hard decision to make, I’d imagine. Why was this worth that decision, that it made you willing to sacrifice time with your family?
I just couldn’t picture a world in which I was living my normal life and being in the headspace of this character and that being healthy for me and my family, even if I was just doing him by day and then going home. When you’re playing a role, there are elements of that role that stick with you, especially a role of this level of intensity. I had experienced working with actors who had acted with that methodology, specifically Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland and Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and the results are undeniable. For me, I just hadn’t had a role yet that required it. As I dug into who this guy was and why he did what he did and how I’m going to play him, it just became clear that I had to shelve myself as much as possible in order to be able to understand what he does and why he does it, and do it truthfully.
After seeing the results of “going method” for Nightingale, you also did it for Selma. There’s a funny quote that circulated that your wife felt like she was having an affair with Martin Luther King while you were filming Selma. Given the results of these two films, will this be the new normal for your process now? Will your wife have to get used to having affairs with many different characters?
(Laughs) That’s a dangerous question to ask her, by the way. But no. Like I said, every role requires something different. I’m in South Africa to do the film Queen of Katwe, and the guy I play in this is someone who is closer to me in many ways. I share his world view. I share his desire to help others. There are things about them that are more easily acceptable to me. Whereas Peter, I like to think, anyway, is diametrically opposite of me. And Dr. King is such a specific individual to play, partly because everyone knows what he sounded like, what he looked like, how he was perceived. So in order for me to get even close I thought complete immersion was the best course of action.
Also I had done Nightingale before I got to play Dr. King, and the thing I didn’t anticipate was that staying in character all the time, the byproduct was that I never second-guessed my instincts as the character. I never had to think, “What would Peter do?” I was him for so long that I did what Peter does. I really wanted that when playing Dr. King, and it had the same effect. I wasn’t giving a technical performance. I wanted to give an emotional, spiritual performance, and the only way I could do that was to stay in character.
We’re obviously talking about Nightingale because we’re heading into TV awards season. It’s another situation where you’re so clearly deserving of accolades. But having the experience of this awards push so close to the Oscars, is there a little bit of apprehension? “Oh no, not again…could this end the same way…?”
Not apprehension, no, because I think I now have a very healthy attitude towards it. (Laughs) I think having never done that dance before in terms of awards season, you can drink the Kool-Aid, I think. The thing that the aftermath of the drama of it all in relation to awards had on me was to recognize that that attention and those accolades don’t necessarily mean anything one way or another in relation to the work. The work doesn’t change. The effect that Selma is having on an international audience didn’t change. The power of it didn’t change. I’ve always said that it’s all about the work. Now I know it’s all about the work.
Still, it would’ve been nice to get those nods…
Look, don’t get me wrong, it’s very nice to be patted on the back for hard work you’ve done. Mine is a profession in which you only know you’re good by the reaction of others. So I value being encouraged. But I know that I left it all behind during Nightingale. I know that I gave it my all. And the film should have never found its way to HBO. That’s its greatest reward. Nightingale is a wonderful byproduct of that whole awards thing. We had made the film, film festivals weren’t coming running. I had done Selma, and Brad Pitt’s company loved the film, but he’s a busy guy and it took him a while to pop it in. But it turned out that the day the Oscar nominations were announced was the day he watched Nightingale. He wasn’t very happy with the results of the nomination announcement, and so he watched this thing that had been sitting in his inbox for a while. That was the point on which he became an advocate for it for HBO. So you could argue that Nightingale was my Oscar.
What has it been like for you and your Oscar snub to be the catalyst for a larger conversation about race in Hollywood, and to be the subject of a lot of that conversation?
I think another one of the byproducts of that whole conversation around Selma is that as people have now watched the film or are watching it on DVD and streaming it, I meet people every day and their outrage is palpable in relation to that whole thing. When you talk about race in relation to Hollywood or society, generally, you’re often accused of “Why do we need to talk about it again?” Or, “This has nothing to do with race.” They feel like it’s race-baiting, or playing the race card. But this thing is real. What just happened in Charleston is real. What happened in Ferguson is real. It’s not made up. It’s not something that we’re using as excuses for not attaining certain stuff.
It’s a real thing that something like only .4 percent of directors working in Hollywood are black and female. There are institutions that are disproportionately white and male who are in the driver’s seat of content creation and content celebration. Of course it’s going to make things disproportionately placed in terms of how things are made and celebrated. I think the quality of Selma as a film is undeniable. For it to not get everything people thought it should get, it just keeps the conversation going, that things are not as they should be yet.
You’ve been asked questions about this since the Oscar nominations were announced. You’ve been very direct and passionate in your answers. Specifically, I’m thinking of when at the Santa Barbara Festival you talked about how the Oscars have always preferred black performances when they’re subservient characters. It made a lot of headlines. Not many people would’ve had the courage to say that.
I think the only way you can make challenging statements and for it to be heard is if the work is good. If you’re not putting work out there that is challenging to yourself and challenging to the audience, that is hopefully moving the conversation forward in terms of artistic endeavor, then your voice is meaningless. So I try to work harder than anyone I know in order to get the best out of myself in terms of what I do. And I do think that excellence is the best weapon against prejudice. Because if the work is undeniable and the work ethic is undeniable, then at some point you have to accept that something of value is being said.
Have you noticed anything changing?
The truth of the matter is that making those statements and also trying to be challenging to the audience and the industry, it is moving the needle. There are projects I’m doing or that I’m about to do that are absolutely connected with people wanting to engage in moving the conversation forward. One of my next films, a film called United Kingdom, which is about the heir to the throne of Botswana who married a white lady and faced incredible oppression as a result, is something that I’ve tried to get made for five years but nothing was happening. One of the statements I made at the Santa Barbara Film Festival was that we don’t often get to play leaders. We don’t often get to play kings. I’ve now played Dr. King and I am going to play a king, who was a leader.
Before I let you go, I want to ask you about the .GIF that went viral of you crying at the Oscars, with Oprah wiping a tear from your eye. It’s one of my favorite .GIFs ever. What was that moment like for you? Do you ever revisit it?
In many ways that moment embodied what the Selma experience was for me. It had been such a struggle to get that film made. It had been seven and a half years since I first read the script. So many directors had come and gone. The appetite to make the film had been so low for so long and I just didn’t understand it. This was the only American to have a holiday named after him in the 20th century in America. Why had there not been a film that celebrates his achievements, who he was, who the people around him were? John Legend and Common’s song I think so beautifully embodied what that film was and what the movement was and still is, and the solidarity about bringing about change.
What caused the tears?
To be honest, this was a spiritual experience for me, doing this film. It wasn’t just an artistic endeavor. Dr. King was a man of faith, and he was moved by his beliefs as well as his social justice ambition. That moment was a spiritual one for me. Here we are at the Oscars celebrating solidarity on the stage, and it started as a whisper for me seven years ago. And here we are. Oprah had been so instrumental in getting that film made, from the basics of calling me at the end of a day of shooting and asking how I’m doing, being by my side, being a mother to me during that whole process. To have her there by my side this whole journey, along with Ava who I consider to be a sister, it was just one of the most beautiful moments of my life, really.