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“I know, for a fact, that there is no film out there in the current season that is as unusual, in terms of how it came to be and what it actually is,” the actor David Oyelowo says of his most recent big-screen project, Queen of Katwe, as we sit down at New York’s Empire Hotel to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. In Katwe, Disney’s first live-action film made with an all-black cast and set and shot in Africa, Oyelowo, under the direction of Mira Nair, plays Robert Katende, a Christian outreach worker in Uganda who mentors a young chess prodigy.
The 40-year-old British actor of Nigerian descent, who is best known for his Golden Globe-nominated portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2014’s Selma, currently is in the Big Apple starring opposite Daniel Craig in a critically acclaimed off-Broadway production of Othello. But he gave up some of his limited free-time to talk about how immensely proud he is of Katwe, which hit theaters in September, for “showing black life in a context that we don’t usually get to see.” He adds, “Having an 11-year-old girl from the slums of Katwe as the protagonist in a film made by the largest media company in the world is pretty significant, in my opinion.”
(Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our 100+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Amy Schumer, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Sally Field, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Tyler Perry, Kate Winslet, Michael Moore, Helen Mirren, J.J. Abrams, Taraji P. Henson, Warren Beatty, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Eisner, Brie Larson, RuPaul, Natalie Portman, Sting and Sheila Nevins.)
Oyelowo was born in England to Nigerian immigrants, but was raised in Nigeria between the ages of 6 and 13. “It was amazing to grow up in a culture where I wasn’t a minority, where most of the people around me looked like me,” he says. His subsequent return to the U.K., however, was “traumatic” and “really confusing,” as he found himself caught between cultures and bullied by his peers as a “coconut,” meaning “black on the outside, white on the inside.” His salvation came in two forms: First, at the age of 14, his pastor’s daughter, on whom he had a crush, recruited him to join a youth theater group, where he soon began to shine; and at 16, he became a born-again Christian, “the point beyond which my life changed forever,” he says.
As the time neared for him to go to university, Oyelowo, at the urging of his teacher Jill Foster, applied to drama schools, and landed the Nicholas Hytner Scholarship to LAMDA. His father had dreamed that his three sons would become a lawyer, a doctor and an engineer, respectively, so, Oyelowo recalls, “I had to have the big chat with my dad about this, and basically what swung it was the scholarship.” Three years later, following his graduation, Oyelowo was performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company, in an epic production of Henry VI, as the first black RSC member ever to portray a king, and his father came to see him. “He’s been my biggest fan ever since.”
Between 2002 and 2004, Oyelowo starred as an MI5 officer on the British TV series Spooks, but then began to realize that “the kind of opportunities that would and should be being offered to someone who was doing the kind of work that I was doing at that time were going to start drying out for a black actor because of how prevalent period dramas are for us in the U.K.” His experience playing a small supporting role in the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland “whetted my appetite” to work in film, he says, so he and his family decided to move to the U.S., where he assumed opportunities would be greater. They arrived in 2007, just before the writers’ strike and the global economic collapse.
For a few years, things were slow, but they took off when George Lucas cast Oyelowo as one of the Tuskegee Airmen in 2012’s Red Tails, which Lucas subsequently screened for Steven Spielberg, who in turn cast the actor as a union soldier in a key scene in that same year’s Lincoln. That year also marked Oyelowo’s first collaborations with two filmmakers he would work with multiple times, Lee Daniels and Ava DuVernay. He and Daniels first met shortly after Oyelowo’s arrival in America, when Daniels was attached to direct Selma and considered Oyelowo for the part of Dr. King; Oyelowo read the script on July 24, 2007, and “felt God tell me that I would play that role,” but financing for that project proved elusive, so he and Daniels didn’t actually work together until 2012’s The Paperboy and 2013’s The Butler. (In the latter, Oyelowo plays a Civil Rights-era Zelig who ages from 17 to 57 without the use of makeup.)
As for DuVernay, Oyelowo first connected with her when a person beside whom he was seated on a plane showed him the script for a movie called Middle of Nowhere, about the impact on a family of a black man’s incarceration, prompting Oyelowo to reach out to DuVernay, who had doubted that an actor of his stature would be interested in such an inexpensive movie. That indie, and DuVernay’s demonstration of “her understanding of the human condition” through it, prompted him to go to bat for her as he fought with financiers to revive Selma. By that point, he had been on a cinematic journey through the African-American experience (“I truly believe that those opportunities were given to me in preparation for playing Dr. King,” he says), and DuVernay had shown that she could make a good film on a budget and they eventually got their greenlight.
Making Selma was a life-changing, almost religious experience for Oyelowo, who gained 30 pounds to more convincingly resemble Dr. King (“I had to come away from the mirror because I could no longer see myself, I could only see him,” he says) and remained in character for three months. For his performance he received widespread critical acclaim, as well as a best actor in a drama Golden Globe nomination, and Selma was nominated for the best picture and best original song Oscars (it eventually won the latter) — but he was not nominated for the best actor Oscar in the first of two consecutive years in which none of the 20 acting noms went to a person of color, which provoked a massive controversy that came to be known by the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
“Of course it was disappointing, very disappointing,” Oyelowo says of not being Oscar-nominated, “not least because in the intervening days the constant refrain to my ears was ‘You were robbed,’ ‘You were snubbed.'” But the actor declines to ascribe reasons for his exclusion, and has come to feel that the root of Hollywood’s issues with race are less with the Academy than with the industry that produces the films that Academy members are asked to consider and the way the media covers them. “The films I do very quickly get politicized and called ‘black movies,’ and the minute that happens to them they feel niche,” he says. “There is a degree of normalization that needs to take place.”
Over the two years since Selma, Oyelowo has earned a best actor in a limited series or TV movie Emmy nomination for his performance in the one-man film turned HBO TV movie Nightingale, in which he plays a man battling mental illness. And he made two films for female directors that deal with race-related matters and that premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival: Queen of Katwe and Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom, in which he plays the first president of Botswana, who married a white woman. (The latter will be released theatrically on Feb. 17.)
Oyelowo recalls, “When I told my son I was going to do Queen of Katwe, a Disney movie, he immediately said, ‘Are you going to be playing the best friend?’ That was his instant reaction to me telling him I was doing a Disney movie. That’s a byproduct of what he has seen — not who he sees in life, in terms of his dad, and not in terms of who he thinks of himself to be, but that’s how the culture of film has influenced the culture of life, in a sense.” Therefore, he continues, “This is just a good movie to make. And I have been on three continents with that film now and seen the effect of that film in America, in Europe and in Africa — in Uganda itself. And even though the world was not set alight by the box office [the $15 million film grossed less than $10 million worldwide], there are few films I’ve done that are as important as that film for holding a mirror up to societies that feel like no mirror is ever held up to them, that no one knows who they are or what they’re doing, and that what they are and who they are isn’t of any value whatsoever.”
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