The Saturday Interview

David Oyelowo: ‘I just wanted to see an Alice and a Peter who look like me and my kids’

The British-born actor admits he was surprised when he was offered the lead in a new Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan fantasy but, he tells Stephanie Phillips, he’d prefer not to always have to talk about race, especially when ‘actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy get to just talk about their movies’

Saturday 19 December 2020 08:04 GMT
(Austin Hargrave)

Ask David Oyelowo why he wanted to be an actor and he’ll tell you it was simply all about the storytelling. It is an honourable outlook that many actors espouse, but whether due to timing or wider cultural anxieties, too often Oyelowo has found his identity creates its own story too. “So often the films and projects I’m part of become politicised,” he tells me over Zoom, “because they are either the first time something has happened, or I have insisted on playing [a role] that isn’t traditionally afforded to someone like me.”

Calling from the LA home that he shares with his wife, actor Jessica Oyelowo, his four children (whose ages range from nine to 19), and his pet chickens and dogs, the 44-year-old actor is in a reflective mood. He speaks in unhurried, dulcet tones, his stage-crafted London accent still intact despite his many years in America, as he remembers when the Facebook page for true-life romantic drama A United Kingdom was taken down after it was flooded by racists or when his career-defining turn as Martin Luther King in Ava DuVernay’s Selma was the centre of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign after the film was snubbed by the awards ceremony. Even his latest project, the charming live-action fairy tale Come Away, has faced backlash because the film reimagines the beloved characters of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan as mixed race.

He seems a little exhausted – as would be expected when one not only has to navigate the sort of backlash that shows the depths to which modern society can sink, but also spearhead the fight for change. “On the one hand, it's an honour to be part of cultural moments that feel significant beyond the piece and beyond me,” says Oyelowo, gently swaying in his chair as he pauses to choose his words carefully. “And then on the other hand, I look at actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy and they just talk about their movies and move on to the next one.” He laments, “Maybe my kids will have that luxury; I don't know that it will happen for me yet.”

Although he is curious about a life where race does not set the narrative, for now, blessed with an awareness of his own impact, Oyelowo seeks out projects that “have a cultural impact that transcends entertainment”. Oyelowo is serious, without coming across as overly earnest. He has long been an actor who can bring elegance and gravitas to a role, allowing the audience to sympathise with or gain a new understanding of complex characters. He is a man who wakes up and thinks of how he wants to be remembered.

Perhaps the impact of his roles has pushed the narrative further so conversations on race can be had? “Well, who knows, I’ll roll with the punches,” he blushes before suddenly becoming solemn. “The thing that I know to be true is that I want to leave the world different than I found it. I want to leave it better.”

Oyelowo was born in Oxford, and from the age of five he lived in Nigeria where his family is part of a royal Yoruba tribe. Being raised in a majority Black country for much of his youth had a lasting impact on Oyelowo’s sense of self, as he told American public radio station NPR in 2015, “To know you came from a lineage of kings; to know that you came from a place whereby every opportunity afforded within that society is yours for the taking – it makes you get out of your bed a very different way than if you feel like today is yet another fight.” He took that self-belief and love of his Nigerian identity to the UK when he moved back in his teen years. After the promise of a hot date led him to his first performance at the National Youth Theatre as a teenager, Oyelowo was encouraged to pursue acting as a career by his theatre studies teacher. He won a scholarship to the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company.

In 2001, he made history with his performance as King Henry VI at the Swan Theatre in Stratford, becoming the first Black actor to portray a king of England in a major production of Shakespeare. Since then, Oyelowo has relished taking on roles that represent the complexity of people of African descent. This search for complexity has guided Oyelowo’s career, propelling him into blockbuster films like the Tom Cruise action romp Jack Reacher, award-season buzz-worthy dramas like Lee Daniels’s The Butler, and the disturbing one-man psychological drama Nightingale.

It is this pursuit for representation that led Oyelowo to Come Away, in which he stars alongside Angelina Jolie, as the doting but flawed father Jack whose life is upended by a devastating family tragedy. Though the film depicts a multiracial family in Victorian England, race is never explicitly discussed. The family were originally written as white until director Brenda Chapman, the Oscar winning director of Pixar’s Brave, realised Oyelowo would be a perfect choice, though he himself did not see this at first.

“If I’m totally honest, I was really surprised that I’d been approached,” Oyelowo confides. “I’ve loved Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. I watched them, I read them, but I’ve never seen myself reflected in them.” Once he realised his agent hadn’t sent him the wrong script, he was immediately on board. “I just wanted to see an Alice and a Peter who look like me and my kids.”

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Oyelowo in ‘Come Away’ (Signature Entertainment)

The responsibilities of fatherhood play out in his career choices. He is keen to create a body of work that makes his children proud. “I want to be the kind of father who doesn't just talk the talk but walks the walk. I want to reflect those values I'm trying to teach.” Where does his drive to stay true to his values and push for better representation come from? “It comes from being aware that the opportunities I've been afforded are not to be taken for granted and are not purely built on talent.

“I went to drama school with some phenomenally talented actors, a lot of whom are no longer doing it, and that’s to do with providence. That’s to do with sometimes being in the right place at the right time, or not.”

When talking to Oyelowo about the many accomplishments he’s made since his early days at drama school – the award nominations, the fame, the fact he’s so close to Oprah, he calls her “Mummo” – I have a sense that he doesn’t take anything for granted. This isn’t to say Oyelowo doesn’t deserve his many good fortunes. His stage-honed craft has seen him go toe to toe in a scene with Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln, bring a new sense of emotional depth to the iconic villain Javert in Les Misérables, and depict the dignity of the Windrush generation in Small Island. But still Oyelowo can’t believe he gets to do this for a living.

“I have been afforded a trajectory that has led me to places I couldn’t have imagined. I mean, Come Away and I'm doing a scene with Michael Caine, that’s insane.” He laughs to himself, thinking back to the early days in his career when he was star-struck by another current co-star while they were filming in the same studio. “I remember seeing Angelina Jolie a couple of paces ahead of me surrounded by bodyguards being taken to set, thinking ‘Oh my goodness, that's Angelina Jolie,’ and here I am, we’re playing parents in this film.”

He takes a moment to soak in this reality, “I sit before you as a Black Brit who grew up on a council estate in Islington having played Dr King in a film. These are not opportunities that I think I was owed, but they've come my way and so therefore I must make the most of this platform I’ve been given.”

David Oyelowo as Dr Martin Luther King in ‘Selma’ (Rex Features)

Oyelowo has reached heights most actors could only dream of, but as the story goes for so many Black British actors, he was only able to get so far in the UK before sensing something was up. Back in 2002, Oyelowo was certain the success of the BBC spy series Spooks, in which he played agent Danny Hunter, would lead to more opportunities. “There were several instances where I met with content creators in the UK and met opposition. I felt the glass ceiling that was lowering above my head,” he recalls. “I could feel resistance to someone like me continuing on that trajectory in a way that I might if I were white.”

Burned by the UK, Oyelowo moved to LA in 2007 and quickly found places that would accept him. His experience coming against industry gatekeepers made him realise he needed to wield the same level of power as those who previously denied him, so he set up Yoruba Saxon, a production company he owns with his wife. “Each of these people I was having these conversations with had been afforded a certain level of power,” explains Oyelowo, “and that power translated into their curation of culture. It's very difficult to be the wheel when you are a cog in the wheel, so I realised not only do I need to be the wheel, I need to own my own bike.”

According to Oyelowo, change is coming not just from inside the industry but from audiences too, and he believes an unlikely third party plays a crucial role; streaming services. “One of the amazing things about [streaming platforms] is that they are global channels that operate under a different model and are able to discern who is watching what. That data is reflecting the fact that Hollywood has been purveying a lie for a long time.

“The things that people are actually gravitating towards look very different than what, over the decades gone by, has been created. The people who are making them, the people who are reflected in them, what they are about, where they are set, are all quite different. There is a huge restructuring of power when it comes to media at the moment.”

David Oyelowo has a close friendship with Oprah Winfrey (Getty Images for AFI)

He even cites the focus on audience demands as the reason why he is always asked if he’d be the next James Bond. “We now realise the audience have a real say and they vote with their money. If you don’t give them what they want, they’re just not going to go.” As to whether he would actually take the role, Oyelowo jokes that after working alongside Daniel Craig in Othello at The New York Theatre Workshop in 2016, the situation feels a little awkward. “It’s like saying you want to marry someone’s wife before they’re divorced from them,” he laughs before adding, “they know where to find me if they want.”

They certainly do know where to find him and that place is the box office. For the next year, Oyelowo’s schedule is packed. The UK release of his directorial debut The Water Man is due to hit cinemas, along with his performance in the family friendly Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway. He is also currently preparing to portray the legendary boxer Sugar Ray Robinson in an upcoming biopic, directed by Nate Parker, the once-lauded filmmaker who was embroiled in controversy about his acquittal in a rape case in his student years during the release of his film The Birth of a Nation. On Parker, Oyelowo told Shadow and Act, “He is a good person beyond his fallibility, beyond the mistakes he made. And I believe in redemption. I believe in forgiveness and he is someone I have been around enough to know that in my opinion he is worthy of that.”

Behind the scenes, Oyelowo wants to direct more, advocate for people of colour, but generally, he wants to change the conversation for good. “I want to not have to talk about [race] in terms that still feel new and different, and ground-breaking. I just…” he pauses, before levelling with me. “Being Black is normal for me, I’m sure it is for you too, so I just want it to feel like that for the world.”

Come Away is on Digital now and DVD & Blu-ray on 5 April

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