David Oyelowo on 'Les Miserables,' Making Directorial Debut With Oprah Winfrey

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David Oyelowo

The Emmy- and Globe-nominated actor, who directs 'The Water Man' with Winfrey as co-producer, also discusses taking on the most iconic and tragic antagonist in literature and not wanting to be "the token person of color" on the PBS series.

David Oyelowo has always been a fan of the Les Misérables musical, but it wasn't until he picked up Andrew Davies' script that the star — who's been Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated for his work on HBO's Nightingale and in Ava DuVernay's Selma — fully appreciated the villainous Inspector Javert. "There was so much more depth and complexity to this character than I ever realized from any iteration I had seen," he says. Oyelowo, 43, spoke with THR about executive producing and starring on PBS' six-part Les Mis miniseries (which debuted April 14) and developing his directorial debut, The Water Man, a fantasy drama co-produced by Oprah Winfrey — "or Mum O, as I like to call her."

Javert is one of the most iconic and tragic antagonists in literature and theater. How did you key into his psychology?

One couldn't earn the way Javert comes to an end in such a dramatic, violent and self-inflicted way without a very clear runway and emotional, psychological and spiritual journey. The biggest clue to me was that he was born in prison to criminal parents, yet he is now a man who detests criminality to an obsessive degree. You go, "Well, it's fine to hate criminality, but to be so obsessed with Jean Valjean­ — what's going on there?" Victor Hugo actually based Jean Valjean and Javert on the same person, this gentleman he knew who had both sides within himself. To that extent, Javert transposed all the criminality he loathed in his own upbringing onto Valjean, and that justifies his obsessive pursuit of him. But when he recognizes that this man isn't just criminal, he is worthy of redemption, he is someone who somehow has been able to transcend his criminality; he realizes that this pursuit has been futile. The criminality that he loathes is still within himself, which is why he chooses to destroy himself.

Did you and Dominic West know each other before this?

We didn't know each other well. He's such a lovely guy and incredibly funny. I had to do as much as I could to stay away from him while we were shooting. For me, I need to inhabit and feel every tendril of the character, and I couldn't entertain the idea of being jokey-jokey with him and then go into the level of acrimony between us. There's such a cat-and-mouse element to Javert and Valjean's relationship that was so satisfying to play. As an actor, a lot of the time you are trying to find the subtext to a scene, to imbue it with interest. With this, it was absolutely inherent. These characters had so much history that was always present in every scene they had together. But we've become great friends ever since.

Was using the music from the stage adaptation ever a consideration?

It never was, no. We all discussed that if we're going to do this, there has to be a real reason why this should exist so soon after Tom Hooper's [2012] filmic musical. We wanted to make it a much dirtier, grittier, immediate, politically prescient version. Being a producer, I didn't want to be the token person of color within it. I was very clear that we need to have that be something organic and truthful to the time. We've done a terrible job of representing just how many people of color were inhabiting Europe at that time. And not just in subjugated roles. Anyone who's read Tom Reiss' The Black Count will know that Thomas Alexandre Dumas was a general in the French army in the late 1700s [one of the highest-ranking men of African descent ever in a European army]. So, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that Javert was indeed someone like me. You want people to see themselves onscreen.

I've read that you've specifically asked your reps to seek out roles where you might not be first in mind. For this miniseries, did your casting come first or did you initially come on as an executive producer? Did you feel like you had to fight for the role at all?

I signed on as an actor first. They approached me and I was actually the first person to be cast in it. But yes, what you mentioned is absolutely true. Early on in my career I felt the need to say to my representatives, “Put me out for roles that are not race specific.” Because the truth of the matter was, the more interesting roles were inherently going to white actors. I am just so elated to now be going into a phase of my career where I am being approached with those kind of roles. It's not something necessarily I'm going to seek out. So yeah, Les Mis is something I was approached with, and that is incredibly gratifying because a decade ago, 15 years ago, I just don't know if that would have been the case.

As an EP on the series, was there a time where you felt like you had to take off your actor hat and fix a problem? Or did you feel like it was generally smooth sailing throughout the shoot?

It was pretty much smooth sailing. Tom Shankland, our director, had such a handle on the piece. You couldn't ask him a single question that he didn't have an answer for both on the basis of the script and the book itself. I was so impressed by him. Our producer Chris Carey also was just a monster when it came to making everything work in a beautiful way. For me, my primary function was just keeping on it when it came to representation within the piece. I think that is when sometimes things slip within the cracks. We all go to the movies and watch TV in the hope of seeing ourselves represented. We all have bias, we all lean into things that are more akin to our own experience. And of course, I have a bias toward seeing people of color in something like this. So it was very helpful, I think, to have me around to say, "Guys, let's remember the nature of the piece we're doing. We need more extras of color here. Let's not forget what we're trying to do here." Some of the development of the script I was very much a part of, and then a lot of the distribution and the marketing and the release dates and all that kind of stuff. Postproduction is a big side of getting a six-hour piece to be its best self. I got my hands quite dirty with that process as well.

This spring, your slate is pretty packed in addition to Les Mis. You had Relive debut at Sundance, you're in production on Peter Rabbit 2, and you have Come Away and Chaos Walking in post. How are you doing?

It's a very, very good question. I literally was in Sydney doing Peter Rabbit. We then went to London last week, and I'm now here in New York. Then, I leave here to go into preproduction on my directorial debut, The Water Man, in about three days. I have an incredible wife who makes it all work. We actually run our production company together. We have four children and they are with me a lot of the time. We scheduled the shoot for The Water Man over the summer holidays so that they can be with me. I really, really love what I get to do, and I don't take it for granted at all. I'm just trying to have as much fun and tell as many great stories as I can, while I can. But my wife and I have a two-week rule. We're never apart for more than two weeks, and so that means a lot of flying, and a lot of crazy scheduling.

You must have a lot of frequent flyer miles.

I have an enormous amount. So if you ever have any trips that you're planning, please hit me up because I have plenty.

Why did you select The Water Man for your directorial debut?

I was looking for a film that was akin to the ones I loved growing up — E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind or films like The NeverEnding Story, Labyrinth, The Goonies. They don't have to be $200 million extravaganzas, but they can have a fantasy element and be grounded in realism and truth with poignant themes. This script by Emma Needell was on the Black List. I fought hard and thankfully got it, and myself and Oprah Winfrey — or "Mum O," as I like to call her — came on as producers to develop it. Another director was going to direct it, but he fell out. My fellow producers turned to me and said, "Well, you've been working on this passionately for five years. Do you want to do it?" I took two weeks to really mull that over.

What was the deciding factor in those two weeks that made you say, "Yes, I will; I’m ready"?

Realizing that I was passionate enough about the story to dedicate as much time to making a film as is necessary. And the fact that the story is just so moving to me. It's about an 11-year-old boy who's on the hunt for a mythical figure who he believes can save his mother from an illness. I also love the fact that it is an adventure movie. Basically, this boy teams up with this girl and they go into a forest hunting for this mythical figure called “the Water Man.” So it has elements of Stand by Me and Pan's Labyrinth, both films I deeply love. I'm always looking for opportunities to scare myself, and this is the most dramatic example of that I have had in my career thus far. So I jumped in.

Was there ever a seed earlier on where directing first sprouted in your mind?

Very early on. It's something I've always wanted to do. I remember seeing Kenneth Branagh's Henry V and that being one of the earliest moments. I thought, “Whoa. That guy directed that and is in it. How on Earth is that possible?" And then he did it again with Hamlet. I think the seed just kept on being replanted of the idea of doing it one day. So when the opportunity presented itself, it had been long gestating.

A version of this story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.