BEVERLY HILLS – Get ready to hear a lot more about actor David Oyelowo. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay's “Selma,” which sounded a thunder clap upon arrival at this year's AFI Fest, he exhibits a presence and a commitment that is sure to keep him in the thick of the Best Actor Oscar discussion. And according to him, it was sort of pre-ordained.
Oyelowo is a relaxing personality to be around, prim, proper, but thoughtful and inviting. He spoke at length recently about coveting the role of Dr. King and his desire to imbue his own sense of faith with a character, a man, who himself was clearly so driven by a higher power. It was that higher power, Oyelowo says, who told him he would one day take on the role, even when other directors weren't so sure.
The journey of this project has been a long one for him. We talked about sticking with it, finding himself in a position to recommend DuVernay to the producers and learning something about the icon along the way. Check out the back and forth below for all that and more.
“Selma” opens in limited release Dec. 25. It goes wide on Jan. 9.
HitFix: So how did you like the AFI Fest premiere?
David Oyelowo: It was pretty great. I mean it's the combination of a long road so that you finally get to play this part and to share it with an audience and they brought it home, the reality that we actually got it done.
You mentioned during the Q&A that a higher power told you in 2007 that you would play the role of Martin Luther King Jr. Can you tell that story one more time briefly?
Yeah. I read the script for the first time in July of '07 and had this deep spiritual knowing that I was going to play this role. I'm a man of faith. I felt – this always sounds strange and I'm sure it's going to probably sound strange in print – but I felt God say to me, “You are going to play this role.” He didn't tell me it was going to take seven years, but as a result I never relented on both the belief and trying to do everything I could to make sure that that happened.
Did that feeling come out of the blue for you or is it something that, like, you coveted, something you maybe wanted to do so long that it manifested itself in this call?
It came out of the blue. I had been an admirer of Dr. King's but I never looked in the mirror and thought, “Oh, I look a bit like Dr. King. Maybe I can play him.” I never dared to think, “Oh yeah, I'm the guy for that job.” It very much came sort of out of the blue. But once it took root in my spirit, in my soul, and never left me, even when Stephen Frears was going to be directing it at that time and he didn't see me as Dr. King. Though I put myself on tape for him. But I never shook the conviction that this somehow was going to be part of my future. It was five directors deep before I actually got to play it, from the first time I read the script.
And how wonderful that Ava was the one that ended up doing it.
I did a film with her called “Middle of Nowhere” in 2011 and I recommended her to the producers. So in many ways it went from being in the hands of a director who didn't want me to being in the hands of a director I wanted, and it was a very nice 180.
Where did you begin? Obviously you can look at archival footage for mannerisms and to really understand how to outwardly portray the man. And there are things he wrote that you can read and kind of get into his soul. But for you, where did you start as far as building this as a character on screen?
Well I started from the outside in, exactly as you say. The fortunate thing about playing Dr. King is there is so much footage. There's so much that's been written about him. There are some pretty incredible documentaries that have been made about him as well, so that was my starting point. But then a friendship I built with Andrew Young, who was his right hand man while he was alive, led me to be able to view unseen footage of Dr. King, which really showed the man behind the oratory, behind the public persona, and that was invaluable because the only reason to make a film like this is to show what you can't see in a documentary or you can't necessarily read about in books that are almost more like textbooks in a sense. So it started there, and then, as we've talked about already, just this man was driven by his own spiritual conviction. And I felt that somehow I had to try and imbue this role with that. So there was work that, to be perfectly honest, is pretty tough to articulate, but there was sort of a spiritual openness I felt I needed to have in order to be able to channel him, so to speak.
Was there anything else specific that you picked up in your research that you really wanted to carry across in your performance?
Yes. The weight of guilt upon him. I think that's something that you don't necessarily see, of course, when he's giving a speech or an interview, but the opportunity here seeing behind the veil was to see how much responsibility he felt for those who had been put in harm's way. And during the Selma campaign, three people died, and you could argue the success of the Selma campaign was completely reliant on people being harmed. Those pictures of Bloody Sunday. James Reeb dying and Jimmy Lee Jackson dying. In particular those two men brought the nation's attention to the injustices going on both in Selma and the South. And so they were martyrs of the movement, but you could argue that without that campaign happening those lives would have been fully lived. So that was something that really weighed upon him and I felt we needed to see that.
Obviously if you were interested in the project when Stephen Frears was on board and you're aware of the other directors, you've probably been aware of different takes and visions. What did Ava bring to it that you thought was particularly unique or special or important?
Well what I noticed, what I was a beneficiary of on “Middle of Nowhere,” was that this is a director who really knows how to mine humanity for the sake of story. I just felt with “Middle of Nowhere,” a film that could have been very one-dimensional, maybe two-dimensional, became multi-dimensional in her hands. And I had always felt that the danger with telling any historical drama, let alone one with an iconic figure at the center of it, can feel impenetrable for an audience. You get sucked in by the iconography, by the historical element, rather than what makes it truly interesting, which is the human element. So that's why, for me, having worked with her in “Middle of Nowhere,” she felt like a perfect choice for it.
And she put together a great ensemble, too. This isn't a biopic where it's just this one man and everyone just floats in and out. I feel like it's very much a group situation and I imagine that had some effect on your performance as well. A vague question, maybe, but what was the camaraderie like? What was working together as an ensemble like and how did that help your work?
Yeah, it's a very good question because I think certainly one of the things about Dr. King is that he wasn't a dictatorial, megalomaniacal leader. He very much wanted to hear from his cohorts. He was very dependent upon their opinions, and what marked them out as a group – the SCLC – is in their own right they were all leaders. A lot of them were pastors and reverends and bishops and they were leaders of their own churches, their own communities. To see that it was a group effort was very important for me. It was very important for Ava because, you know, history is very kind to the poster boys of these movements, but they couldn't have done it on their own. And so I think that this film very much shows that. And that camaraderie, as you say, was very present on the set. There was a real feeling of service. Everyone was there not for their own gain or for their own aggrandizement. It felt very important to everyone to tell this story and tell it well.
And I imagine being in the South on those locations was important, like Pettus Bridge and the like. What did being in those environments do for you.
Well, you know, you're always looking for situations as an actor where you can dial down the acting, where you can just be. I mean that is truly what the top of what I do is, when you feel like you're just being in a scene. And so to shoot a lot of this film in the actual places where the events took place is just invaluable. I mean we were on that bridge exactly where those events took place with some of the people who were in the march. This is very much in living memory so, you know, we had people in their 60s, 70s who had done the march and very much remember the march. So to feel their spirit, to have their encouragement as to the fact that we were getting it right was huge. The same thing with the speech at the end on the Capitol steps, where I give a speech in Montgomery. That's the exact same spot at the exact same pulpit that Dr. King gave that speech from. We found that pulpit in two days.
It was found in a basement of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church two days before we were going to give the speech. Literally Mark Friedberg, our incredible production designer, had a lectern there. I thought, “This is just not right. It should be a pulpit.” And I went across the road to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. They had found the pulpit there two days before and said, “Use this.” And we went to old pictures and it was the exact same pulpit.
It's amazing that it was still around.
Amazing that was still around. And, you know, you can't give a speech at that very pulpit and it not affect you.
And, I imagine, without making you a bit nervous. Because I have to ask – you're obviously composed and a professional, but the responsibility of a role like this, did you ever have any sort of freak out moments?
You know what? The blessing of the slow burn towards getting it done meant I averted that. I think that if in 2007 I had immediately got cast, the film got greenlit and we were off to the races, probably. But, you know, it was seven years in the making for me and over that time, like I said, because I couldn't shake it, I would always constantly have this thought that I'm going do this one day. So I would be reading, I would be watching, I would be talking to people. It was a very gradual tread toward getting this thing done. So I never really had that moment where I thought, “Oh my goodness. What on Earth do I think I'm doing?” It was a very nice and gradual progression.
What did you learn about Dr. King that maybe was unexpected for you throughout all of this?
I think that the two things that really struck me was, again, there's the weight of this guilt he felt for people who were being harmed. Also just how much he was away from his family. It was a huge sacrifice he and a lot of the leaders of the civil rights movement had to make, because they had to travel to the places where these atrocities were taking place. And that was something for me, as a husband and as a father of four myself, I just thought, “Wow, this must have weighed very heavily on this guy.” But also, you know, what people don't realize is the events that we're depicting in this film took place when he was 36 years old. I mean he was a young man. He had a weight and a gravitas to him that belied that but it's shocking to think that he was that young while this was going on. And that he had the maturity and the conviction to take it on. Those were things that really struck me.
And finally, is it o-YELL-o-wo?
I got it!
Yes you did. You did.
It's basically phonetic, then.
It is, but when you see it on the page, panic sets in.
[Laughs] Indeed. And great work in “A Most Violent Year,” too, by the way.
Oh, thank you.
I'm happy to see J.C. Chandor finding his stride. It was exceptional.
I think he is a phenomenal filmmaker. I just think it's so subversive to make a film called “A Most Violent Year,” where the protagonist is trying to abstain from violence, in the vein of a gangster film. You know, there are just so many things about it that just feel so clever directorially. I really enjoyed doing that film.
Congratulations again on all of this. It was lovely talking to you.
Thank you, sir. Thank you. A real pleasure.