David Oyelowo on How 'Don't Let Go' Evolved After Sundance

David Oyelowo - Getty - H 2019
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The actor, who stars as an uncle who receives a phone call from his deceased niece, notes the script changed dramatically from its early days: "The ending is completely different."

For David Oyelowo, Don't Let Go has been a study in how to refine a project. The actor — also a producer on the project — plays Det. Jack Radcliff, a man who receives a phone call from his recently deceased niece (Storm Reid) and investigates why the calls are happening in the first place as he seeks to prevent her murder.

To prepare for the role in the Blumhouse film from writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes, Oyelowo shadowed an LAPD detective who worked in South Los Angeles, where the film is set. Oyelowo notes the original script was set in Ohio and was not written for a person of color. The project was reworked for him and continued to evolve even after premiering at Sundance in January under the name Relive.

"We never stopped challenging ourselves in terms of what the story could be, even since the cut of the film that you saw at Sundance," Oyelowo tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The ending is completely different. We changed a few things about the film because we felt we learned a few things even out of Sundance."

The Selma actor has been keeping busy with projects both in front of and behind the camera. In March, it was revealed he would be making his directorial debut with The Water Man, from a 2015 Blacklist script. Next year, he will be seen in Doug Liman's Chaos Walking and animated sequel Peter Rabbit 2.

In a conversation with THR, Oyelowo discusses working with Reid again, reflects on his collaborations with Ava DuVernay and confirms that the Sugar Ray Robinson project (announced in 2012) is still in the works.

What was it about the script that made you say yes? And what was your first reaction reading it?

The interesting thing is that [the story] was actually set on a farm in Ohio when I first read it. It was not written as a person of color. And so when they approached me with it, it became clear very quickly that the setting didn't feel completely right to me, to them. And that there were probably real opportunities by continuing to develop the script and thinking of it beyond the parameters of where it was set and with whom it was set.

And that was the thing I really loved about working with Blumhouse, is that we never stopped challenging ourselves in terms of what the story could be, even since the cut of the film that you saw at Sundance. The ending is completely different. We changed a few things about the film because we felt we learned a few things even out of Sundance. There aren't a ton of companies who will allow you to reopen the film in order to continue to make it better. From the first script I read to the film that people are now going to see as of Aug. 30, it has just continued to grow and in my opinion get more strong. And that was one of the things as well that I recognized very early on that made me want to jump on board.

You had an opportunity to be in a film with your co-star Storm Reid. How was it working with her again?

Well, unfortunately for me, I didn't get screen time with Storm in A Wrinkle in Time. I played "The It" in that, so I only oppressed her with my voice work. But it was wonderful to have a much deeper dive with her in this. I actually went to visit the set [of A Wrinkle in Time] and saw her working, and that was the moment I really knew that she was a very real candidate for Don't Let Go, and that has proved to be true. She's a very, very special actress, and getting to work with her was definitely one of the highlights of doing the film.

You're also a producer on Don't Let Go. How did you get into the producer space, and what other projects are you interested in producing? How did you balance toggling between being lead actor and being producer on a set?

I love getting my hands dirty in development, as was the case of Don't Let Go. Keeping your business going is about making sure that the films you do are fiscally responsible, come in on budget, so that you get to do it again and again.  I intend to stick around for a while, and so how well a production is run I think also adds to your ability to continue doing this very expensive endeavor. Even a smaller film is still millions of dollars. That's an exorbitant amount of money. … And when it comes to being both an actor and a producer and things, obviously a lot of the heavy lifting happens in development. When you're in production I have to selfishly pivot a little bit more toward performance, but I keep an eye out for anything and everything that means doing producorially also. But where I really then get stuck in again is in postproduction and like I say the marketing and then the release.

In the film, Jack is trying to suspend his disbelief because he knows something is off, but it feels like no one else around him is really reacting to it. When in your life did you know in your gut that something was either right or wrong but the people around you weren't on the same page as you?

I lost my own mother about two years ago. Where I really relate to what's going on with Jack is you find yourself wishing when something like that [time travel] happens. "I wish I had the time back. I wish I could see my mom again. I wish I could have one more conversation with her. I wish I could have done something to prevent the illness that befell her." It's all of those things that in reality you can't change.

You have a varied portfolio of films, mostly smaller scale. Does the larger blockbuster, comic book properties pique your interest?  

Yeah, I mean, I have an interest in any and every genre as long as there's a character in there that's going to challenge me. I'm always looking to do things that are different than what I've done before. What I try to avoid is anything that sort of feels middle of the road or stereotypical, like caricature, or something that is just one-dimensional and therefore not compelling.

I've seen great superhero movies that afford actors the opportunity to really play very nuanced characters. And I've seen superhero movies that are instantly forgettable. No matter the genre, I'm just always looking for something that is going to be challenging, compelling, entertaining, thought-provoking.

What comes to mind when you think of your time working with powerhouse directors, like Ava DuVernay or Christopher Nolan? 

Some of the best creative relationships I've had have been with directors because you place so much trust in them as an actor. And the good ones, in my experience, have gotten things out of me that I didn't know were within me, Ava being a prime example of that.

And you want to keep going to the well. You want to keep going back to those individuals who are brilliant at getting great performances out of actors because, trust me, not every director has that ability. And so whether it's a [Steven] Spielberg or an Ava or Christopher Nolan or Rupert Wyatt or an Anthony Minghella, these are all people I've worked with and just had formative experiences with. That's what you're looking for all the time. And it really is where growth lies for an actor.

Looking to 2020 and beyond, if you could name your dream role or project, what would it be?

I'm developing a Sugar Ray Robinson movie. One of my favorite films is Raging Bull. I loved the film The Fighter as well. I think watching films — the great ones transcend that term — they are more than about boxing. I think boxing can, when it's done brilliantly, cinematically be a metaphor for life. And Sugar Ray Robinson was an incredibly interesting guy. You couldn't fully call him a hero; you definitely couldn't call him a villain. He was a very complicated human being who achieved incredible things at a time where it was almost impossible to do what he did. So that's a character and a project I'm really passionate about.

Any more details about the Sugar Ray Robinson project? Is the plan still for you to play him?

The idea is for me to play him. But it's been a long-gestating project, a passion project. Not unlike SelmaSelma was a seven-year journey, United Kingdom was a six to seven-year journey. The film I just directed, actually, The Water Man was a four- to five-year journey. The really good ones take some time, but they can really be worth it.