Cannes Lions: David Oyelowo on Learning From Oprah, Daniel Day Lewis and Tom Cruise

Getty Images
David Oyelowo

The British actor and 'Selma' star turned his session at the Cannes Lions festival into a master class on how to succeed in entertainment.

Fear of public speaking is a major phobia. But actor David Oyelowo, the British-born Nigerian prince, risked that when asking a random audience member to come play Juliet to his Romeo onstage at Cannes Lions.

Would she choke in front of the packed Theater Lumière and embarrass herself and Oyelowo, known for his 2014 tour de force as Martin Luther King in Selma as well as his recent comic turn in Gringo?

The anonymous young woman, who did not appear to be a ringer, was handed a script by Oyelowo and they immediately ran lines. She wasn’t bad, she was actually pretty good — but maybe she was inspired by the sheer force of Oyolowo’s confidence in both of them.

Oyelowo, backed by SunTrust’s Susan Johnson and Strawberry Frog’s Scott Goodson, headlined the corny-sounding "The Strange Power of Confidence," which was one of the most value-packed events at this year’s festival.

Oyelowo in particular gave the crowd a 25-minute master class in how to succeed. His formula was deceptively simple: Prepare, prepare, prepare — and hope you have stellar role models and a fairy godmother named Oprah Winfrey along the way.

Preparation is how he got his first job as an actor in the U.K., even though it was an accident. Oyelowo, who grew up on a council estate, had a crush on the pastor’s daughter. When she invited him to her theater group, he stayed "in the corner like a shy kid" and watched rehearsals of the group’s play. When two of the actors got stuck on the train because of a strike one day, Oyelowo went on for one of them.

“I’d been watching the guys rehearse for months in my head and picturing the way I’d do it," he said.

A week later, Oyelowo was given the lead role. He’s never looked back.

"If you look at the obstacles, you are going to fall down," Oyelowo said. "But if you look out and have done the work and allow the beam to balance you, you have a greater sense of what you’re there for and have a better chance of succeeding."

Once his career took off, he saw how the heavyweight actors he idolized, in particular Daniel Day-Lewis and Tom Cruise, prepared.

"Thirty years as a movie star and no one works harder than that guy," said Oyelowo of Cruise, with whom he worked in Jack Reacher.

During the rehearsals and filming of 2012’s Lincoln, starring Day-Lewis and directed by Steven Spielberg, Oyelowo recalled that the level of preparation was so period-intense that cellphones were banned on set.

Day-Lewis’ performance, and preparation for the role, gave Oyelowo the confidence to play Dr. Martlin Luther King in Selma, he said.

Winfrey also was key. She played Oyelowo’s mother in Lee Daniels’ 2013 film The Butler, and he told her of his dream of playing Dr. King. He even showed her a short demo reel.

"I had no name to speak of, but I felt in my heart it was in my future," said Oyelowo.

Apparently his confidence in himself sold Winfrey.

"She said, 'I believe this is your destiny,'" Oyelowo said. “It was the rocket fuel I needed. So much of what I achieved in that performance was because of her.”