David Oyelowo is one of those actors who has had a very, very good year. He started off 2012 by being a part of George Lucas‘ World War II epic “Red Tails,” made a splash with the Cannes debut of Lee Daniels‘ pulpy “The Paperboy,” and is closing out the year with two high-profile performances – he can be seen briefly at the start of Steven Spielberg‘s beloved “Lincoln” and stars as one of the heavies in the hotly anticipated “Jack Reacher,” where he stars alongside Tom Cruise in the first adaptation of Lee Child‘s wildly popular book series.
We recently got to talk to Oyelowo about what it was like making “Jack Reacher” (including shooting that bad-ass car chase), being a part of “Lincoln,” what his favorite movie of the year was, whether or not he’d be in the next “Mission: Impossible” and what we can expect from Lee Daniels‘ upcoming historical drama “The Butler.”
How were you approached for “Jack Reacher?”
My first encounter with it was the script. I knew that it had been written by Chris McQuarrie, who had written “The Usual Suspects,” which is one of my favorite films. And to my mind anyway, this was every bit as full of intrigue and the McQuarrie-isms I loved so much from “The Usual Suspects” were all present. Then you factor in Tom Cruise and you factor in these best-selling novels. And you factor in that the character of Emerson, who I play in the film, is cut from the same cloth as Jack Reacher; another very intense investigator who is very single-minded. It literally ticks all of my boxes, really.
What did you think about the casting uproar around Tom?
In all honesty, I never really pay attention to that. If you’re going to watch the film of a book, you have to either get on board or get on the train, that it’s going to be very, very different. They’re just different mediums. And of course what you’re wanting is a film that does as much justice to a great book as possible. For me, how many 6’5″, 250 pound actors with the amount of intelligence that Jack Reacher exhibits in the book and yet the ability to drive a car the way that we have in the movie, the ability to do those action scenes in a wide shot? How many actors, truly, on planet Earth, can do that? And how many movie stars can get a film of this size green lit? The list becomes miniscule. In fact, it boils down to one individual, who is playing Jack Reacher in the movie. I would rather the 90% of people who appreciate the film excusive to the book. But the Reacher Creatures are welcome to the book.
What was it like working with Chris McQuarrie?
We talked a lot. That’s one of the things I loved about the film – the collaborative element of it. I talked about the car chase. We referenced films like “The French Connection,” “Bullitt,” “Seven-Ups.” In the relationship between Tom and Rosamund Pike, we referenced “Notorious,” “North by Northwest.” There’s a little bit of “All the President’s Men” in there. We talked about the tone, the look, the films from the seventies. We wanted, for instance, in the car chase, that it not be very cutty, where you can’t tell what is going on but it’s somehow exciting. The narrative is still being driven forward in that eight minutes of car chase, and that’s very old school. We didn’t want to patronize the audience. We wanted them to feel like they were right alongside Jack Reacher trying to figure the whole thing out.
Was there anything you referenced specifically in your performance?
“All the President’s Men” is a favorite film of mine anyway. In Redford and Hoffman, they’re not detectives but they are on a trail, they are fastidious, they are on a hunt for information. That was a film that I certainly referenced. The thing about our film is that Chris so got the tone of the book right. This isn’t usually the case – usually the book is so different from the film that it becomes counterproductive to read the book. But in this, the book became a very good resource for me in terms of film.
Was there anything about “Jack Reacher” that surprised you?
You know, what surprised me was, you hear all these rumors and legends of Tom Cruise doing his own stunts. And in the past I was always like, “Yeah right that’s a publicity stunt.” But anybody who sees this film and sees this car chase – he is in every frame of any driving and he is driving that car. And because he is driving that car it meant that I had to be driving my car chasing him. We wanted to shoot it in a way that didn’t feel cutty and made you feel like you were right there in the car with us. Audiences are very savvy these days, they can tell when we do a cut, because they will notice it’s a stunt driver. But we are doing all the driving in that scene and that really surprised me. I did not think that, when I saw it on the page, I anticipated a lot more time with me sitting in the trailer while my stunt driver did the driving. But I was there the whole time. That was a pleasant surprise.
Switching greats, what was the experience of working with Steven Spielberg on “Lincoln” like?
It was incredible, really. And I really mean that. Not least because it was Steven Spielberg but also the thing with him is that he has the resources at his disposal to recreate 1865. There were no blue screens up; it was all there. So as an actor you’re constantly having to fake or creep into a fake environment and make it feel real. This was the opposite, it was a very real environment that you had to assimilate and live and breathe within. Then you have an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis who just embodies Lincoln in such a complete way. It was the equivalent, to me, of stepping into a time machine. It was so exciting.
What were your favorite movies from this year?
“Argo” is a big favorite of mine. I thought Ben Affleck did a stupendous job of doing a film that was thought provoking, funny, full of suspense. I thought it was a very complete movie. And you factor in these performances that range from the intensely dramatic to the very, very funny. I thought the marriage of all of those things in a period film was an incredible feat.
You were also in “The Paperboy” this year. Did you know how nuts that was going to be while you were making it?
Well what I’m always looking for as an actor are journeys that are as different from the last one as possible. “The Paperboy” was certainly that. I was being offered the role that I had never been offered before. And Lee Daniels helped craft that role for me. It was a white journalist initially and we made it this thing that was completely other. What I love about Lee is that he will always challenge your preconceptions as an actor and as an audience. I always believe that you need to place yourself in as many scary and unforeseen situations as possible in order to keep pushing the audience. Lee will just not allow you to dwell or sit in your comfort zone. Anyone who watches that film will see those actors play things that we’ve never played before.
You’ve reteamed with him for “The Butler.” What was that like?
It was antithetical to “The Paperboy.” “The Butler” is a love letter to America. It’s sort of “Forrest Gump“-esque in its scale, in the nature of its characters. It’s Lee Daniels doing a PG-13 movie for a start. It was completely different. What was wonderful for me was, alongside Forrest Whitaker I am front and center. Any director who will come along and believe in you enough to continue to work with you and trust you, that is what you are looking for. And he has definitely afforded you that opportunity.
Word on the street is that Christopher McQuarrie will do the next “Mission: Impossible.” Has he talked to you about being a part of that?
I’d go anywhere to work with Chris and or Tom again. It was so amazing. And I truly mean that. It was an education to be around them. Chris’ brain for cinematic storytelling is so vast. That was just amazing to be around. And Tom, as an undoubted movie star but a brilliant actor, is something that I loved being around. If Chris asked me to jump on board, there would be very little thinking time.