David Oyelowo: An actor's life

David Oyelowo's eventful past and extraordinary family history were the ideal grounding for a career that has seen him play both a monarch and an asylum-seeker. James Rampton hears why
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The Independent Culture

David Oyelowo, one of the UK's leading young actors, has played everything from the King of England to a Nigerian asylum-seeker. But his own life has, if anything, witnessed even more highs and lows. He has been a prince and a pauper.

As we take tea in the bar of a central London hotel, the 30-year-old reflects on a career into which he has already packed more than many actors twice his age. Best known for being the first black actor to play an English monarch at the Royal Shakespeare Company and for his starring role in BBC1's compelling MI5 series, Spooks, Oyelowo has also appeared in such varied dramas as Born Equal, Dominic Savage's harrowing BBC1 film about the life of the London homeless, The Last King of Scotland, Kevin Macdonald's acclaimed biopic of Idi Amin, and Shoot the Messenger, Sharon Foster's controversial BBC2 piece focusing on a black teacher who loses his job and begins to harbour racist feelings. Now he is starring in Five Days, a riveting new BBC1/HBO co-production about the disappearance of a young woman.

He starts, though, by recalling his extraordinary upbringing. His grandfather was king of a state in western Nigeria, and when the Oxford-born Oyelowo was six, his family returned to that country. The young boy was taken aback by the welcome they received. "My dad had often boasted about being royalty, but I hadn't believed him, even though he has the word 'bale' carved into his tummy, which means 'king'," he says. "But when we arrived in Nigeria, we had escort cars that took us to the family compound of three enormous houses on Oyelowo Street. It was very impressive, but I soon discovered that being royalty in Nigeria is not like being a Windsor in England. There are loads of royal families all over Nigeria, and even though we were well known, we weren't fantastically rich."

Following political strife in Nigeria when Oyelowo was 13, his family came back to the rather less regal surroundings of Holloway Road, north London. There - in a situation that eerily prefigured what Oyelowo's character experiences in Born Equal - they were initially forced to live in a distinctly unprepossessing hostel. To make matters worse, Oyelowo had a grim time at school, too. "They called me 'coconut' - white on the inside and black on the outside - simply because I had lots of white friends and wanted to work hard and get on," he says

But the resolutely upbeat young Oyelowo saw only positives in his new life. "We'd had to leave Nigeria in a hurry because a military government had taken over and corruption was rife," remembers the actor, a serious and thoughtful man with a quietly strong Christian faith. "The rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. My dad was being threatened on a daily basis. He worked at the national airline and people were saying to him, 'If you don't let me through, I'll make things difficult for you. I know the President...' We'd come from an intolerable position, so after that London felt fresh and new."

Oyelowo reckons that he drew valuable lessons from the experience of moving back to Britain. "There were four of us living in one room, but we just got on with it," he says. "I learned huge amounts from that time. I'm able to appreciate far more now.

"People here don't realise how privileged our society is. Even if you're wealthy in Nigeria, you're surrounded by grinding poverty. I was also shocked by the lack of respect for education here. In Nigeria, you pay through the nose for a good school. Here, the kids don't take advantage of the good free education."

More than anything, his childhood gave Oyelowo a great desire to make something of his life. "Unlike many black children here, because I'd lived in Nigeria, I didn't have the 'minority mentality'," muses the actor. Shoot the Messenger mirrored some of these issues last year. "A degree of self-fulfilling prophecy comes with being constantly told that there's something problematic about you and your section of society.

"Sometimes there's a sense of, 'You say this is what I am, so that's what I'm going to be.' But during my formative years, that wasn't continually drummed into me, so there were no limits on my expectations. No prejudice has held me back because I haven't let it. There is a monster to be fed, but I've left it safely in its cave."

All of which has endowed Oyelowo with a grounding that few other British actors can claim. It has helped make him one of the most magnetic performers of his generation. "To be crass," the actor smiles, "my upbringing has given me great raw material."

After graduating from Lamda, where he was sponsored by Nick Hytner, now artistic director at the National Theatre, Oyelowo refused to accept clichéd roles. "I turned down a lot of stereotypical black parts," recollects the actor, who is married to fellow performer Jessica Oyelowo and is the father of two children.

"I didn't want to spend my life playing a criminal on The Bill. That's death to an actor because in this career, perception is everything. I asked my agent to put me up for non-race-specific parts. That's naïvely how I started. I had a period where I didn't get much get work because I turned a lot down.

"Penelope Wilton, who plays my mother-in-law in Five Days, recently said to me, 'The only power you have as an actor is to say no.' That's absolutely right, although it means you have to accept that sometimes you will be living on baked beans."

Oyelowo didn't have to stick to the baked-bean diet for long, though. Having previously done just seven lines at the RSC as Decretas in Antony and Cleopatra, at the age of 24 the actor landed the part of Henry VI in the RSC's 2000 production of Shakespeare's three-part history play. His performance was widely acclaimed, and he won the Ian Charleson Award for Best Newcomer in a Classical Role. He is now on the board of directors at the RSC with a brief to "shake things up".

His father, a newsagent in north London, was particularly delighted by his son's success. Oyelowo beams that Henry VI "just blew my dad away, which was fantastic. He'd experienced a lot of racism here in the 1960s, and he felt witness to a great change in his lifetime."

Henry VI led to Oyelowo's break-through TV role as the Boys' Own spy Danny Hunter in Spooks. The actor bowed out in 2004. Oyelowo, who lives in Brighton, has no regrets about leaving Spooks. "I loved my three years there," Oyelowo says, "but I needed to challenge myself."

He is returning to gripping BBC1 drama with Five Days. In Gwyneth Hughes' five-part thriller, the actor plays Matt, a gym instructor who becomes the prime suspect when his pretty, young wife (Christine Tremarco) goes missing. The series will be broadcast on HBO and will raise Oyelowo's profile even higher in the US, where Spooks has made his name. He will soon be seen as Orlando in Kenneth Branagh's big-screen version of As You Like It. The actor is also taking his well-received production of Prometheus Bound to New York in the spring and is shooting a US screen adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's much-lauded play, A Raisin in the Sun.

Oyelowo remains choosy about what he will do and has set up his own production company to try to filter out the rubbish. "A lot of big-budget Hollywood stuff is dross," the actor sighs. "I get meetings with American producers and go, 'Aargh, please, no.' Those sort of movies would pay a lot of money and be full of boysy action sequences. But there have got to be three-dimensional characters, or I'm not interested.

"I want to improve by putting myself in fertile ground. You can become less good by getting involved in Mickey Mouse, circus-extravaganza movies. I don't want to be part of that. I'm determined that I'm never going to whore myself." Even if it means going back to the baked beans.

'Five Days', Tuesday at 9pm on BBC1