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Born in Britain, part of a royal Nigerian family, raised there and in England, 36-year-old actor David Oyelowo is enjoying a remarkable run -- garnering more prominent roles and rising billing in films with bigger and bigger actors. This increasingly favorable career surge doesn’t seem like it's going to abate any time soon.
Within this last month, two of his recent efforts have come out either theatrically or on DVD -- the high-profile Lucas-Film produced WW 2 flying airmen story, Red Tails, and the indie-edgy inner city drama, 96 Minutes.
In this drama about a car-jacking gone wrong, Oyelowo play a small but crucial role. Though his appearance is limited, this skilled and committed actor has to drive the momentum in two pivitol scenes. A film about the good and bad decisions one can make in a split second, his character survives with dignity intact though it takes quite a bruising in this one scene.
<p >Though his name is hardly a household word yet, this rising star has been getting out this in a diverse and well-received range of films from The Last King of Scotland or The Help to Rise of The Planet of the Apes where he is not just playing the obvious African native but also high flying billionaires. <p >In previous films he has performed critical though secondary roles that have won him this support and growing status as the go-to actor for a strong presence and solid impact. That strategy has been paying off as he has upcoming films with higher-level billing alongside the likes of Tom Cruise and Daniel Day Lewis.
Q: Since 96 Minutes is a very indie, ensemblic film, how was your collaboration with director Aimee Lagos?
DO: I love working with both male and female directors, but a lot of the time what you get with female director is a quick access to emotional points in a movie. Aimee’s a beautiful, lovely human being, but she’s clear about what she wants, opinionated and strong -- those combinations make a very potent mix for good filmmaking.
We all love action and a kinetic thriller. 96 Minutes is both a sensitive, emotional, lyrical, and poetic treatment as well as a rough-and-ready action thriller.
Q: Have you experienced a situation anything like the one in the film?
DO: I can’t recall a situation directly reminiscent of it. What I related to with regards to my character Duane is that as a father myself, I understood the concern as to whether your kids are going to be okay. So much of what Duane does through the movie is born out of the fact he knows he’s in a dangerous environment for young people whether it’s protecting his nephew or reaching out to Brittany Snow’s character, or if it’s him being not so pleased with this unsavory element around his neighborhood. That I can definitely relate to.
Q: The film is ironically timely in that it addresses some of the issues that informed the Treyvon Martin murder and the underlying effects of racial profiling. How would you counsel someone in a situation like this?
DO: Well it’s difficult, isn’t it? That’s why I love the juxtaposition between Evan Ross' and Michael Scialabba’s characters. Michael’s character seems hell bent on going on this “dark path” and you see a little glimpse into his home life which may be the reason for that, but then you also see Evan’s character, an intelligent kid that’s just been handed a ticket out of his situation, getting to further his education, and, just as he’s reaching the light at the end of the tunnel, he gets caught in this awful situation [out of misplaced loyalty].
That’s one reason I wanted to do 96 Minutes, I felt that the film looked at the obstacles facing young people today --especially in these inner-city areas -- without putting them in these cookie-cutter stereotypical situations that are so often depicted in movies.
You are not only battling a system where, even if you get all the education you can, there might not be a job at the end of it. You’re also battling all these other elements that are trying to pull you down, to be perfectly frank. Whether they’re socio-economic or peer pressure, there’s so much facing these kids.
Q: There are the class and race issues that come up as well, like during the interrogation scene where the police question your character even though you have obviously rescued Brittany's Snow's character -- one of the twists in the film that adds to it.
DO: One thing the film does is plays with our perception. My character is a guy that looks a certain way and talks a certain way so it’s very easy for him to be dismissed as being a criminal element, but he actually ends up being the only parental guidance in the movie.
As you see with that scene with the police, that’s where the perception is shown. It becomes like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re constantly being seen as a criminal or accused of being one, then what often happens is you decide, “screw it, I’ll be what they see me to be.” That’s why Evan [Ross’] line is such a powerful one, where he says, “look at us, we’ve become exactly what they thought we would be.”
That’s a great moment because his character represents the desire to get out of this socio-economic position he finds himself in. He tries through education, but the environment he’s been brought up in drags him back down. I’m sure that happens day in and day out in cities across America and the world.
Q: How did it feel to be maybe the oldest guy on the set?
DO: That’s a new thing for me, but I liked it [chuckles]. I enjoyed seeing these younger actors bringing it, in a sense. And then by being there, hopefully, [I was] as an example and point of reference from having a bit more experience [than they do]. That was a new one for me that I see happening more and more now.
Q: You didn’t have to slap anyone around, did you?
DO: No, these guys showed up and saw it as an opportunity that they, as actors of their age, don’t often get. It had to do with the nature of the material as well.
I imagine that a lot of stuff crossing their desks is very trite, one-dimensional, fluffy stuff. This is real drama and they really rose to the occasion.
Q: When you saw this movie for the first time did it surprise you?
DO: What surprised me was just how tense the film was. When you’re shooting a movie, of course you’re shooting over a number of weeks, but what happens with this movie is that it all happens within the same day. And that tension is kept all the way through the movie.
Like I said, you’re shooting a film over a number of weeks, so you don’t necessarily feel that tension as you’re shooting it. So that’s what I was most surprised about, was how intense the film was.
Q: The ending was so sad. Did you ever envision a scenario where Evan's character would gets on with his life on through prison?
DO: My nephew, Raymond, played by Justin Martin who you see in the barbecue, is there to symbolize what could happen to someone because he could end up becoming like Dre [Ross] without the right guidance.
When you see Evan’s character, there’s no parental figure, there’s no one guiding him, all he has is his teachers. But with my nephew, I’m guiding him, so in a sense, that’s one of the rays of hope within the film. But in terms of Evan’s ending, that’s one of the things we could’ve given a “happier” ending, but that wouldn’t be real. That’s not the reality of millions of young people across this country day in and day out.
When you look at the makeup of prisons in this country and the disproportionate amount of African Americans there -- something like over half the prison population is black men -- that’s a huge amount of black people in prison relative to the population.
It would be patronizing to the audience to not go there in terms of the reality of the world we live in. But in a sense, what lesson I hope people take away from the movie is from my nephew, because I’m there for him, hopefully he won’t have to suffer the same fate.
Q: Did you eat much barbecue while doing this film?
DO: I dealt with so much raw meat it put me off barbecue for a while [laughs]. So no, I didn’t do too much barbecue even though I play a barbecue guy.
Q: Did your international experience and British training come in handy to do the role?
DO: I’ve lived in America for five years and that helps with the kind of career I have aspired to, one where I can defy both the audience’s and the industry’s expectations.
I can play a guy from Africa, Europe, America, the West Indies and that is a huge advantage of having lived a lot of my life on three different continents.
I was born in the UK and we moved back to Nigeria when I was about six. I lived in Nigeria seven years -- from the age of six to 13. Then we moved back to the UK when I was 13 and then I moved here with my family about five years ago.
Q: Was it a big leap, a culture shock, to see how African Americans live as opposed to British black people?
DO: It has been, and continues to be because that’s been one of the things [I have come to know] whether it’s Lincoln, Red Tails, even 96 Minutes, or The Paperboy -- which I just did with producer/director Lee Daniels [who did Precious] -- and especially The Butler, which I’m about to do with Lee as well. It charts the birth of the civil rights movement in this country.
I’ve had a lot of opportunity to look at American culture and history and specifically African American culture and history and it’s very, very different to what it is to be black in Britain.
I’m almost at a stage now where I know more about African American culture than I do about black British culture now. But it’s very different in that here there’s an undeniable claim black people have to American history because of slavery and the civil rights movement.
Because there’s now a black President, black people are indelibly ingrained into the social consciousness. It’s not the same in the UK. We don’t have any great, big, landmark moments for black people in Great Britain that mean we’re woven into the fabric the same way African Americans are and that in and of itself is quite a difference.
Q: Did you find 96 Minutes insightful for you since it's about the American cultural situation and not the one you had come from?
DO: The situation you see in 96 Minutes is akin to situations in a city like London. I went to a fairly rough school in London, though I don’t sound like it - being at the Royal Shakespeare Company will knock that out of you -- but I could still very much relate to the story.
Even though it’s in Atlanta, it could be any inner-city in the States or Europe. Anywhere you have poverty and wealth close together, anywhere where you have privileged kids whose futures are almost assured and kids that are trying to get out of their situation.
Some kids are trying, some have succumbed to it and it’s often the kids trying to get out of the inner city or out of their low income circumstances -- they’re caught in the middle.
The kids that need scholarships, that need to find a way out. Any given day it’s about which way are they going to go? Are they going to get pulled back in or are they going to continue to aspire. That is very much life on the street of the London I came from.
Q: Whether a big budget or low budget film do your roles tend to deal with these issues of race and class?
DO: It’s part of being alive and black in America today. For me, as a black person living in America, I don’t spend my day to day “fighting” racism. But the fact of racism’s existence does impact my life every day. It affects me in terms of my profession. I’ve chosen the opportunities I’ve been afforded as opposed to my white counterparts.
It’s not something I carry as a boulder or a burden day to day, that way madness lays. Often when you’re dealing with films, drama is conflict, and of course, if you’re playing a Tuskegee Airman it’s going to be an intrinsic part of what that character faces.
But if I’m in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, playing a billionaire who’s investing in science and he’s very intelligent, I don’t have to deal with those issues with that particular character.
That’s what you want to do, mix it up. That’s what I’m looking for as an actor. It’s a bit like getting to play Duane, who defies expectations. As an actor, I’m always looking for opportunities to defy expectations.
Q: Rise of the Planet of the Apes offered an opportunity to play a race-neutral character.
DO: I don’t know if it meant I’m being perceived differently, but I do know I am just simply not going to take a role that I perceive as stereotypical or caricature. I just can’t do it. I’d rather be poor and work in a supermarket than do that, it’s just demeaning. It’s an anathema.
But the opportunities are arising at a more frequent rate for me now, probably on the basis of work like in Rise... where that is the case. I just finished One Shot, this thriller with Tom Cruise, and again, it was a very non race-specific role.
It's about a sniper attack in Pittsburgh and I play the lead detective investigating this attack. It soon becomes apparent that the sniper has a military background and Tom’s character is an ex-military investigator. He is a perfect person to bring this guy down, so we team up to hunt down this sniper. It’s from Chris McQuarrie who wrote The Usual Suspects. [Chris] wrote a brilliant script and directed this.
<p >I really look for those [parts] because my genuine belief is that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem and if I want to see a world in which African American or black are afforded opportunities not entirely due to race, then I got to try to move that forward. I go in and fight for those roles, and it is working.
Q: Your character in Red Tails was so convincing I didn’t realize it was you playing that character at first.
DO: Thank you for saying that. For me, that’s exactly what I look for. I don’t feel like it’s my job as an actor for the public to know who I am. The more they get to know who I am, the less they get invested in the characters I play. For as long as I can that’s something I try to hold on to because that’s the joy of it.
I’m not David when I’m playing Lightning in Red Tails, Duane in 96 Minutes, or Jacob in Rise.... I want you to completely think I am that guy. That’s also why I try to find characters that are as different as possible.
If I’m playing a fighter pilot, I will do everything in my power to not play another fighter pilot for 10 years because I truly believe that longevity for an actor is linked to defying the audience’s expectations and keeping both the audience and the industry guessing.
That’s how you get to be Meryl Streep, Daniel Day Lewis or Sean Penn, that’s how you get to be that kind of actor, by constantly defying expectations.
Q: Did you learn about flying from doing Red Tails?
DO: Yes, we did go up. Quite rightly the producers thought it was very important for us to feel what that feels like. Because we have to look like we’re flying these planes even though were not, the common wisdom was that we should feel what it does feel like so we can depict it realistically.
Having some of the Tuskegee Airmen on set also went a long way in ensuring our performance was realistic.
Q: James Franco once played a WWI flying ace in Flyboys. Did you two talk about that on the set of Rise...?
DO: It’s a bit of a blur, but I think we did communicate about that. I worked with James, who did Flyboys, and of course, Tom Cruise, who did Top Gun. He is really into planes. He owns a piece of one.
When we got to talking about that the room would just clear and we would go. All I need to do now is work with Ben Affleck who did Pearl Harbor.
Q: You’ve worked with Cuba Gooding Jr. in Red Tails, who also worked with Lee Daniels. You worked with Lee after you worked with Cuba, right?
DO: Yes, I did. What actually happened is I had done Red Tails with Cuba and Lee was going to do this movie called Selma where he cast me as Martin Luther King and for all sorts of reasons, that film never came up, but we formed a true friendship and mutual respect.
He was very keen to work with me, so he re-wrote this role as an African American character for me in The Paperboy, which in the novel is actually a white character. He wanted to make good on his promise to work with me and now we’re about to embark on The Butler as well, so he’s a man of his word.
<p >Q: Given Lee Daniels’ mixed Caribbean and African American heritage, he has some strong feelings. You must have had a good conversation with him? <p >DO: I have great conversations with him; he’s one of the most interesting people I know, especially when it comes to this subject matter. As you can imagine, he’s very opinionated and that’s reflected in his work.<p >But he has always been one of my greatest educators when it comes to what it is to be African American in this country and that’s why I love working with him. It’s not only a creatively satisfying experience; I learn a huge amount as well.
Q: You’ve worked with some great actors that you contrast with well and shine, like Franco.
DO: I have this rule for myself; it’s the Three P’s: Plot, Project, and the People. Those Three P’s guide me about what films I do and don’t do and for the people. I’m always looking for people from whom I can learn, so I am always seeking and fighting to work with a George Lucas, a Steven Spielberg, or a Daniel Day Lewis, my favorite actor of all time.
These are opportunities I relish, pursue and fight for because I know that’s how you become a better actor, by being around people that are better than you.
I worked with Daniel Day-Lewis, and ticked off one of my wish list items by working with Steven Spielberg in Lincoln. That film basically charts Lincoln’s big effort to get the Emancipation Proclamation passed in the House of Representatives during the Civil War. That was an incredible experience as well.
Q: What did you learn about American history working on Lincoln?
DO: I didn’t realize that basically Lincoln was lobbying in the House of Representatives for the Emancipation Proclamation to be passed was the beginning of what we now know to be lobbyists in American politics.
They didn’t exist at that particular time in American history. There’s a lot of the bargaining and middle men in American politics now -- they were born out of that particular situation. That was an interesting thing to learn from doing that movie.
The history in and of itself, there’s this one dimensional version of what happened, but when you start digging into things in terms of slavery, in terms of the Civil War, the Gettysburg Address, it’s incredibly dense and interesting and new to me.
Q: What was your most memorable Civil War experience?
DO: After watching copious amounts of documentaries, particularly the Ken Burns' ones, I literally felt like I had been transported back to 1865. It was just unbelievable, the attention to detail -- the landscape, costumes, horses and sets.
We shot in Richmond, Virginia, and it was so right, historically speaking. That is something I will take to my grave. It felt like I had entered a time machine, it was incredible.
Q: Except for Daniel Day Lewis, almost all the actors you’ve worked with have been trained in the American style of acting. Did you notice anything interesting about that?
DO: A primary difference between American actors in cinema now and British actors. If you’re a British actor trained in the UK, you’re largely being raised on the theatrical tradition. The conservatories there, the one I went to was Lambda, you’re trained in the classics, it’s very much like theater training, and that segues into film.
Whereas here, I think from an aspiration point of view it seems largely that there is far more concentration from actors in film acting.
But what actors like me bring to the table is that when you have day in and day out had to give a three-dimensional performance in front of an audience who will let you know if you’re not telling the truth to them on any given night, when you’ve had to do that day in and day out
it just means the very, very technical world of film making, it’s something that it lends itself to in the sense of you know what it feels like in your body to be given a three-dimensional character in spite all the kerfuffle of life and technology, especially in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
This became very clear to me. Andy Serkis, who plays the main ape even though he’s covered with all these cameras and this weird suit, when he embodied that ape, he was entirely that ape.
I first encountered Andy in the theater in the UK and he brought that kind of commitment to it and I really feel that is a very potent mix, the commitment theater requires and the eye of the camera being very grueling. That camera picks up anything that isn’t true. So that’s what I feel like I bring as a British actor, that pursuit of truth which is very much in the theater.
Q: What did you get from working with Cruise and Franco versus these younger actors?
DO: For me the delight of working with Tom Cruise is his work ethic. He has been at the top of his game for 30 years and his excitement, and commitment, and studiousness about what it takes to make a good film has not waned in the slightest.
From an exemplary point of view, that was incredible to me. He is an intensely hard working actor and that was a huge inspiration to me.
And then there’s someone like Daniel Day Lewis who stays in character the whole time and that has its own commitment which is exemplary. Working with these guys, what it brings to me as a younger actor is the fact that to attain greatness in anything, but especially in film making, you have to be ready to work harder than anyone.
I think that perfection is that with film it’s easy. You’re just going on there and playing a version of yourself and I think a lot of young actors I’ve come across they’re pretty to look at and got a modicum of talent, but what they often don’t realize is how much of yourself you have to give in order to scale the heady heights of what we do.
The commitment level needed is kind of the standing and it’s not until you work with these guys that you realize that’s why they’ve been doing this at the level they’ve been doing it for so long and that was an inspiration to me.
Q: Especially James.
DO: There you have this multi-hyphenate, he’s consumed in every aspect of storytelling whether it’s novels, or films, or plays, or writing. And again, with James you have someone that takes this craft very, very seriously.
What you get from these actors is that they are studies of humanity and that is why you can get multiple performances out of them. They don’t run out of steam after two or three outings because you have to be a study of humanity to portray these different personalities and be true.
Q: Thought of making your own film?
DO: Absolutely, that’s a great ambition of mine because one of the great things about being afforded opportunities and getting to work with great people is that people get more interested in the kind of things you want to do.
I’m building up a slate of projects with writers and directors and there’s a synergy about the kind of stories we want to tell. I have a slate of 10 films I’m working on right now that appeal to my sensibilities.
Directing is definitely an ambition of mine, but I want to get the acting more right. To be a voice in the story I tell is something I want to tell.
Q: Do you want to do a film about Africa itself or your English experience?
DO: Oh absolutely. I had an amazing time doing The Last King of Scotland. Even though I’m Nigerian, I love telling African stories and that is a huge vision of mine to get to do more of that because there are so many incredible untold stories.
Unlike The Last King of Scotland, Constant Gardener or Blood Diamond, my desire is to get to tell these stories and have the protagonist be a black character instead of telling the story through the eyes of a white character. That, for me, would be moving things forward.
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