How I'm Living Now: David Oyelowo, Actor-Producer

David Oyelowo-Getty - H 2020
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The married father of four (who has six chickens at home in Tarzana) talks about finishing his directorial debut, staying away from tiramisu and working with his best friend Nate Parker on two projects.

With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense of how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood's writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.

Actor, producer and budding director David Oyelowo is anything but bored. He's been spending this period of self-isolation at home in Tarzana, with a very full house — four kids, three dogs, six chickens — and a full slate of projects. Oyelowo, who had been training to play boxer Sugar Ray Robinson onscreen, opens up about maintaining that routine, the challenges of finishing up his directorial debut remotely and his commitment to helping best friend Nate Parker reestablish his filmmaking career. 

Let's start easy: How are you?

I'm very well, thankfully, and sheltering in place with my wife, four kids, three dogs and six chickens. And my dad, who is on the older side. He would kill me if I told you his age. (Laughs.) We are very much having him top of mind as we do everything we can to stay healthy. He's one of those candidates for the bad stuff, if he were to get this virus, so he can actually really help my children, who range from the ages of 8 to 18, be less self-absorbed about the fact that they can't leave the house. The fact that we're doing it for Grandpa really helps them get their heads around it.

How is he adjusting? 

Like most people — seven weeks of staying home is not something that you're happy about. My dad is very caught in his routine. He likes going to the bank. He likes seeing a film every Tuesday with his friends. He’s not able to do any of those things at the moment. About four weeks in, he just couldn't get his head around me saying, "You cannot go to the bank." He said, "But I want to hold the money in my hand." 

So, what does a typical day look like now?

As a father of four, the kids somehow enforce a routine. They are all doing online schooling at the moment, but we're very fortunate in that we actually homeschooled our kids for about five years when they were younger, so the transition hasn't been as tough for us as it has been for others. I wake up every morning at around 6 o'clock. I'm in the gym, still doing my boxing training. Then the kids are up, and we get them breakfast. We’re very fortunate to have a separate building on our property that my wife and I run our production company out of and that has become ground zero for the kids’ school, too. So, we all leave the house and go to another building. The kids are in school from about 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. and my wife and I stay here until around 5 p.m. Then we all go back to the other house. It has given us a degree of structure, and it's also been key to having some demarcation between our weekends and weekdays. 

I believe you are prepping your directorial debut, The Water Man. Where are you on that project, and what has the adjustment entailed?

It’s been remarkable actually, you'd think things would have really slowed down. Our production company is called Yoruba Saxon and The Water Man, which is the film I directed, is one of our projects, but there are also so many others in TV and film, all of which we are closing deals on or in development on or have to keep on the boil while everything is shut down. Thankfully, we had finished shooting and most of the editing on The Water Man. I was doing a film in London, George Clooney’s new film, The Midnight Sky, so I was already editing remotely while shooting that. The things we had left to do were ADR, VFX and one of the trickiest things, the score. The reason I was a bit late on this call is that Rosario Dawson is at her home in L.A. and a sound recording kit was taken to her house. I was set up here in Tarzana and my sound crew, I think, was on the Sony lot. We all patched in and together we did the ADR. I’m not going to say it was easy, but it’s good to know it’s possible. Recording individual musicians one by one and then layering all those tracks onto each other in order for it to sound like an orchestra is a tricky thing. That’s something we are currently doing in Belgium.

Has that been the biggest challenge?

Logistically, the score is the one we've had to really wrap our heads around because so many productions that are in a similar situation as us haven't had time to figure it out. We tried an orchestra in Macedonia, one in Holland, and the goalpost is moving depending on what’s happening in those countries that week in terms of the virus. Some countries, the number [of deaths] are going up, other countries, the numbers are going down. So, maybe they’ll allow nine people in a room together to do the score. But then, unfortunately, the numbers go up and they shut things down. It’s a moving target. ADR you can do at home but having someone with a cello in one house, a violin in another, an oboe in another, that’s just not going to work. You need a common environment with all of the technology to capture the music properly in order to have a world-class quality. It's been tricky.

So, what's the next step for The Water Man?

We are finishing up the VFX, which we've been doing remotely as well. Thank the Lord for FaceTime, Skype, BlueJeans and WebEx. I am a complete Luddite, but I've had to learn very, very quickly. We are on track to pretty much finish by the end of the month, so we find ourselves as one of those films that's going to be completed during quarantine at a time when buyers are really ravenous for new content. 

How do you tend to handle screenings?

Normally as a filmmaker you really don't want to be sending links to have your film viewed by an exec who's probably distracted and, you know, sending emails whilst they're watching on a phone or something heinous like that. But our business has had to fully adjust and accept that the world has now changed, probably irrevocably. We're in a world now where big films are going straight to VOD and already audiences [are responding]. So, you just got to be happy for the fact that people want to watch your content, period. And, increasingly, I have become platform agnostic — you make the best content and hope it is so gripping that [people have to stop what they're doing and watch it]. But the short answer is we're going to be sending links to all these execs because we can't expect them to go watch it in a communal setting. They will also be getting a very stern email from me, saying, "Please put the phone down." That's the best I can do.

Let's talk about another project. I hear you've been training to play boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and that you were in the unique position of getting your body ready when the pandemic hit. How will you adjust training to make sure you stay in shape?

Yeah, that was pretty painful, I must say. Sweet Thunder, a film we're doing based on Wil Haygood's book [Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson], has been a long-gestating project that Danny Strong, Rachael Horovitz and myself have been pushing up the hill for a number of years. In the last few months, Nate Parker has come on board to direct the film and rewrite the script that Ed Ricourt and I wrote. Bron Studios is going to be producing it with us and financing the film. We were all set to go in August, and I was meant to be full-on training with Darrell Foster as of April 6, some weeks after we'd all been told to stay at home. I was in the middle of training at home [when this started]. I'm blessed enough to have a gym here and I've become pretty obsessed.

So, you're still training?

I've been continuing my training, but as Nate and I have been talking about the film we're realizing that, realistically, to do a big period biopic boxing movie in August or September is looking very unlikely so we actually dusted off a script of Nate's called Solitary. It's a far more contained film that we could still do if and when things open and do it in a way that is safe and follows guidelines. So, we're looking to do that this summer. It's about a guy who has been in solitary confinement for seven years and he then comes out into a world where people have been self-isolating because of this virus. It's a psychological thriller where you see someone who already is in a very odd headspace, having spent 22 and a half hours every day in a 10x8 cell, having to now deal with a society that is also coming to terms with isolation while dealing with the paranoia that comes from that and reuniting with his girlfriend and son. That’s something we’re currently planning to shoot in Vancouver and Bron Studios is also going to do that. I'm a big fan of having a plan B.

May I ask you about the process of deciding to work with Nate Parker?

Well, firstly, thank you for asking the question. Nate Parker is one of my best friends in the world. He and I met doing Red Tails together. I know him very well. Some of what happened to Nate was, in my opinion, done to him. Some of it was done to himself. He made some bad decisions as certain things were happening. But also some of what happened to him happened for him. Since all of that controversy, I have watched him become a transcendent human being over the last four years. He has learned valuable lessons. He takes full ownership of the mistakes he made.

Some of what happened with The Birth of a Nation is an example of some of the nasty stuff that goes on in our business when a film is gaining traction and notoriety. I would never ally myself with someone who I personally felt was fundamentally questionable. There is so much of what happened to him that I have walked through with him. We have prayed about it. We have cried about it. We have gone to sit down with other actresses and women in our industry who were opinionated about Nate in order to learn and in order to educate.

He is someone I consider to be a brother to me, and I mean that in a very true sense. He's a brilliant, transcendent artist. I watched The Birth of a Nation again, funnily enough, yesterday. The magnificence of that film floors me. I've seen his more recent film, American Skin, which I'm glad to say has just gotten distribution. It's another brain-blistering piece of work, in my opinion. Very selfishly, I'm looking to work with the best filmmakers on the planet and I consider Nate to be A-list — between what he means to me as a person, what I think he is as an artist, and the journey of both healing and learning.

You're not going to win everyone back and you can't please all the people all the time, but he is someone I believe in. I'm really hopeful that people can open their hearts to him because not only do I believe in him, but also I believe in redemption and I do believe he's worthy of it.  

Let's switch gears here. What have you learned about yourself during this period?

I always knew this about myself, but it's a really wonderful surprise: I am completely obsessed with my family. People who know me know that I have a two-week rule baked into every contract, so I'm never apart from my wife and family for more than 14 days. We've been married for 21 years and I've managed to keep that going the entire time. I have that in place because I think this industry is very challenging for families in terms of staying together, functioning well and for kids to feel like their parents are present. Having pretty much been in the same environment with my wife and kids for seven to eight weeks straight, I'm not bored with it. We really love each other. We have three boys and a lovely girl and we really like being in each other’s company. I am genuinely surprised there haven't been crazy arguments — it's something I'm really proud of.

What's the best advice you've given or received about how to stay sane as a filmmaker during this time?

We're all still in shock, but the best advice I got happened before I started shooting. I'm very fortunate to have worked with some really extraordinary filmmakers over the years, and I asked all of them, "What's the one piece of advice you would give me going into this process?" The most common answer was this: "Know what your vision is and find a succinct way to communicate it to people who are better at their job than you are and if you do that, you're going to be OK." I have found that to be something that has served me well, even during this traumatic process of trying to figure out how to finish a film during quarantine. Be able to communicate very clearly your intent and your vision. Lack of clarity is where the wheels really fall off.
What are you watching, reading or listening to as a reprieve?

I was so behind on a few things that people had been recommending to me for months. The two things I was elated to catch up on — shows that everyone has seen at this point — were Succession and Ozark. Both are just astounding pieces of filmmaking, ensemble acting and storytelling. The intrigue, the levels of jonesing I felt to get to the next episode is unlike anything I had experienced before. Really world-class television.

What or who is your trusted news source in this period?

I have found that engaging with the news in any way — as I'm sure a lot of people are feeling — is tantamount to ruining your day. It's just so consistently bad and anxiety-inducing. My dad is obsessed with CNN and has it on in a loop. Every time I go and see him, it's on and so I cannot help but catch up on what's happening thanks to whomever happens to be on: Chris Cuomo, Jake Tapper, Wolf Blitzer, Don Lemon. CNN tends to be the soundtrack to my dad's day. So, that is my news source, albeit reluctantly. 

Discovered any comfort foods?

The only good piece of timing with preparing to play Sugar Ray Robinson has been the fact that I am still training during the quarantine. Otherwise, I would be quite a larger version of myself at this point. When we were gearing up to do Selma, the film fell apart twice over several years, and twice I put on about 10 to 12 pounds of extra weight before the plug was pulled and I had to drop all the weight. It's the most painful thing to have to do it all over again. Boxing training is so brutal, but it means my eating habits are annoyingly healthy.

There's not a guilty pleasure?

There is not a tiramisu that crosses my path that doesn't get eaten. My wife knows she cannot have that anywhere near me. No matter how disciplined I'm being, I have to inhale that thing whole.

Is there a cause that's particularly important to you right now?

I'm heavily involved with a foundation called Geanco that operates in Nigeria, which is my country of heritage. We have the David Oyelowo Leadership Scholarship, and we have about 32 girls that we are putting through their entire education at this time. It's for underprivileged girls who are being marginalized on the basis of their sex and are not getting the education they deserve. We've been raising money to get them a tablet, so then they can keep their education. Geanco also works a lot with health care providers who, of course more than ever, need resources like masks, any of those resources that underprivileged areas in Nigeria don't have access to. We've been raising money to provide for both the health and education sectors that the virus hit pretty badly over there.

What are you most looking forward to doing once this is all over?

I think it'll be to go to a movie theater and inappropriately hug as many strangers as I can as they return back to the movie theatergoing experience. To combine those two loves of mine — hugging and communal movie watching — that's the thing I most look forward to.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.