The actors tell THR of recounting the groundbreaking romance amidst Brexit and Trump: "The truth of the matter is that prejudice keeps on bouncing back, but in different packaging."
The 1940s marriage of African king Seretse Khama to British woman Ruth Williams caused an international uproar, but ultimately altered the political landscape of their respective countries. These events are recounted in Fox Searchlight's drama A United Kingdom, out Friday, with David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike portraying the peacefully political pair.
The two actors spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about receiving surprises from Botswana locals, being critical of historical British rule, and learning activism lessons for the era of Brexit and Donald Trump.
How did you come to this project?
DAVID OYELOWO In 2010, I was doing 96 Minutes with producer Justin Moore-Lewy, who had the rights to a book called Colour Bar. The image on the cover arrested me: this very self-possessed guy in a trench coat and in arm with this beautiful woman — they seem so together, but it’s clearly the '40s. I read it and just couldn’t believe I didn’t know the story. Like Justin, I became determined to make it into a film; anyone who’d listen, I'd tell them this story.
I was struck by how epic of a love story it was. Yes, the politics they had to deal with were dense and very real, but to me, this was a story of love truly overcoming insurmountable odds. And I have never seen a film like that: a black male protagonist who is a prince and marries a white woman and has to go up against familial, societal and political oppositions. There was so much about it that I knew to be true — as a person of African descent, and from stories I've heard or even in my own royal family — but I’ve never seen in a movie.
ROSAMUND PIKE David emailed me in April 2015 and pitched it as arguably the greatest love story of the 20th century. A big claim, but a good hook. He also sent photographs of Ruth and Seretse, and I felt indescribably moved while looking at these faces. Then I read the screenplay, and once I knew what they went through and what they fought for, my thought was, "That's what I saw in those faces."
Before we started shooting in October, I had the British library pull all the newspapers from that time. They were front-page news for all the weeks surrounding their wedding and first leave to Africa; they had press sneaking in and taking pictures of them on their wedding night! But it's a relentlessly hopeful and empowering story about love conquering prejudice and bigotry.
What was it like to shoot in Botswana?
OYELOWO There was a huge temptation to shoot in South Africa because there’s better tax breaks and a more robust filmmaking infrastructure, but it’d be a bit of an insult to Botswana, considering the role South Africa played [in the events]. Also I’ve been a big beneficiary of shooting films where the events being depicted took place. We refurbished and shot in the house they actually lived in; the hospital where you see Ruth giving birth is where Seretse was born. And there’s a moment when I give a speech to thousands of people, appealing to them about my wife and myself as their incoming king — to do that to people from that place is invaluable. Having them there elevated everything we were doing, which was trying to tell the truth.
PIKE There’s so much that’s done for you by just being in Botswana: The heat is real, that flat and reddish landscape is real. And the light is its own beautiful thing. It’s a very sparsely populated country and certain townships live very traditionally in these round mud houses that, interestingly, are all built by the women. Once Amma [Asante, the director] found that out, she goes, “We have to include that in the movie,” as part of Ruth's acclimatization with the country. And then there’s a scene where all the women of the village sing to me — that was an astonishing thing to shoot because I didn’t know it was going to happen. All I knew was that we were gonna hear voices as a final gesture of acceptance, but not the song. I was in pieces; it just floored me. It was the most spontaneous gift of pure emotion I've ever received.
OYELOWO A memorable day was the day that the current president, who happens to be the son of Ruth and Seretse, visited set. He came unannounced — his helicopter blew our shot — and he sat down next to me behind the monitor. Rosamund was depicting his mother in a take, and his demeanor completely changed. He turned to me and said, “I never thought I would see my parents again.”
How would you describe your character’s activism style?
OYELOWO Seretse was an activist who was primarily governed by love, for his wife and for his people. His love from Ruth was a gift to define his activism as hell-bent against racism, and [fighting for] the fact that racism doesn’t make sense, and bringing people together is more effective than keeping them apart. Nelson Mandela found them to be a huge inspiration, and they built a nation that now defines itself as post-racial. They don’t recognize race.
PIKE Just by wanting to be together, they ended up changing the course of history. For me, that’s almost the most convincing way history can be changed. Ruth had to develop a language of political activism as she grew up with Seretse; she found a confidence and built a public persona so she could discuss issues, and she continued to campaign for women’s rights and the Red Cross through the end of her days.
Were you nervous to be part of a film that’s quite critical of this period of British rule?
PIKE No, I was thrilled. I knew people would be astonished and think, “Why do we not know this story?” I hadn’t realized quite how embedded the relationship between Britain and South Africa was, that [Britain] would prioritize that relationship at the expense of doing what would appear to be morally the right thing. I think that’s pretty shameful.
OYELOWO I wasn’t nervous. I’m drawn to films that, in their own way, give voice to the voiceless, to stories that have been buried by those who are only interested in a certain narrative that supports the status quo and perpetuation of its own image. With the films I make, the idea is not to shove spinach down people’s throats, but to entertain and edify and help people see themselves. Yet a byproduct of these films is that, in their own way, they’re a cry for justice.
How do you feel about this film’s release, amidst Brexit in Europe and Trump’s divisive policies in America?
OYELOWO This film has an African prince who is banned from going back to his own nation because of who he chose to marry. That’s a confluence of several elements we’re dealing with in society today. I don’t think, in the post-Obama years, we can be as disingenuous to say that we haven’t made progress, but we hadn’t made as much progress as we’d like to think. The truth of the matter is that prejudice keeps on bouncing back, but in different packaging.
PIKE I really think it’s a good time for it to be released. We seem to be being asked to mistrust people and to greet those of difference with suspicion. This is a film about inclusion and the power of trust. Huge bridges are built if we can choose to let ourselves trust people, and they’re really dismantled in a really terrifying way if we lose that trust.
OYELOWO But, as with these two people, I do believe that in these turbulent times, it is going to be love that is going to help us get through. That may sound corny, but it’s just the truth. Undeniably, their love won out against nations that were against them. We are looking down the barrel of not dissimilar circumstances now, and I do believe love in the face of the desire to keep people apart is what’s going to help us get through this.
After playing these characters, what activism advice can you share?
PIKE I think you have to come by your politics honestly. You have to live them; I don’t think you can try and harness yourself to a cause; otherwise, it’s empty and the message is lost. And when the moment comes to speak, you find your voice.
OYELOWO Peaceful protest is one of the most effective means of letting the government and others know that there is a degree of disquiet and unhappiness about what is going on. Yes, it’s tiring and yes, it’s debilitating — I’ve been part of telling stories that have shown how effective protests can be, and I’m sure there were moments when people wanted to give up. But I think that we have to [keep going], especially considering we’re in a country where protest is within the Constitution as something that is permissible, so not to exercise that privilege would be wrong. It’s relentless, tenacious protest that brings about change.