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David Oyelowo on How Late-Breaking ‘Selma’ Found Its Time

David Oyelowo on How Late-Breaking 'Selma' Found Its Time

David Oyelowo knew seven years ago that he was destined to play Martin Luther King. How? God told him.

In our telephone interview, 38-year-old Oyelowo unpacks his road to “Selma.” 

Back in May, 2007, the British stage actor moved to L.A. from London to boost his movie career. Two months later, he first read the script for “Selma.” “I was a British actor who hadn’t done any Hollywood movies,” he says. “Playing Dr. King, a role of that size or that nature, was by no means on my mind. I’m realistic, but when I first read the ‘Selma’ script, I had this deep-seated spiritual knowing that I was going to play this role. God told me I would. I’m a Christian. I know that voice, it told me to marry my wife, gave me the names of all my children. That voice was in my life at pivotal moments, so I was shocked by this statement, and trying to explain it is a bit like trying to explain what it feels like to fall in love.”

At the time, Oyelowo’s belief was immediately challenged when the director on the project didn’t want to cast him. Michael Mann and Stephen Frears preceded Lee Daniels, who did ask him to lead “Selma,” and after Daniels moved on to “The Butler,” and director Ava DuVernay, who had worked with Oyelowo on “Middle of Nowhere,” finally came on board, “I knew that both God and myself were right,” he says. 

Oyelowo looks back at the roles he played in the intervening years as perfect preparation. With actor Colman Domingo he stood before Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln in 1865, asking, “When are we going to get the vote?” Then in “Selma,” set in 1965, he sat next to Domingo in a prison cell asking the same question. Between those films he played an African-American pilot in “Red Tales,” a preacher in “The Help,” and a freedom rider campaigning to free Nelson Mandela in “The Butler.”

“Then I go on to play this role,” he says. “Those parts were not sought out, they came to me. Lee Daniels cast me as King but couldn’t get ‘Selma’ off the ground. Tate Taylor heard I was cast in ‘Selma’ and needed a preacher for ‘The Help.’ How couldn’t that be more right? It was in part that seven-year journey that led to this beautiful thing, that both the director and one of the main producers [Oprah Winfrey] are black women. That to me is a chunk of Dr. King’s dream right there. Within the Civil Rights moment sexism is rife. Women who were brilliant and passionate, showing bravery and courage, were marginalized because of their sex within the movement against inequality and justice.”

Oyelowo knew DuVernay could handle “Selma” after “Middle of Nowhere,” which won Best Director at Sundance 2012. “What I loved about working with her,” he says, “is that she’s one of the only writer-directors whose black characters on the page transcend race. There’s no denial that they are black characters but they’re also enduring and going through universal human conflict and challenges. For me, so often, when I read black characters in movies, it’s always though the lens of being black. I do not wake up every morning –I am a human being, father, husband, first all, all informed by the color of my skin, but that’s not the prism through which I live my life. When I did ‘Middle of Nowhere’ with her it was so gratifying to be in a love story with a protagonist anyone could relate to. It was not relegated to a niche of a particular audience, her film permeated color lines. I knew ‘Selma’ needed someone great at giving complexity to human characters, which she does beautifully.”

So Owelowo asked “Selma” financier Pathé to look at DuVernay. She wanted to reshape the script, which had President Lyndon Baines Johnson as a primary character, focused on passing the Civil Rights act and being gently cajoled by King to pass the Voting Rights act, while King was relegated to a more of a supporting role. “He was not the driving force of the movie,” says Oyelowo.

Plan B executives Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner kept faith in the project and when DuVernay came in, realized it might actually get made–partly because hits like “The Butler” and their own Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” made the indie-financed studio pick-up possible. “‘Selma’ is the beneficiary of ’12 Years’ and ‘Butler’ doing so well at the box office despite black protagonists and being made on a budget,” says Oyelowo. “Hollywood ran out out of excuses. Paramount distributing broke the deadlock, gives it the platform it now has. Combined with the power of Oprah, we got to make it.”

DuVernay carefully overhauled the screenplay–although she gets no credit for doing so. She had to abide by Paul Webb’s contractual right to take sole credit. “In truth, with several directors coming and going, there was no green light till Ava came along and rewrote the script,” says Oyelowo. “The sole reason it got made was the humility of that woman, who knew she might not get the credit she was due, but did it anyway. She saw the story as more important and bigger than her. On the faith side of things I am a big believer that the spirit in which you do something dictates how it comes back to you. What she has done here will be reverberating through her for a long time.”
Interestingly, no one opted to retroactively seek a WGA arbitration. The film is not WGA signatory. It’s too bad, because DuVernay’s presence on the script would have given it a boost in the Oscar race. 
Oyelowo is well aware that “one of the bittersweet things about both being a pioneer and being a minority as a woman in this industry at this time –not just people of color– you are aware that even though you are part of a subjective artistic endeavor, you are not afforded the same opportunities at failure as other people might be. The door starts shutting. You fulfill the self-fulfilling prophecy: no black protagonist, no overseas travel, low budget level, audiences don’t want to see A, B and C. That’s always a byproduct of that pressure, and you do work harder as a result.”
Oyelowo, now 38, gained 30 pounds and shaved his hairline to play King at age 36 in 1965, three years ahead of his untimely assassination. As for his performance with all its eloquent oratory in front of large groups of people–“How long? Not long! Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”– Oyelowo thanks his Shakespeare theater training. “Generally I was talking to hundreds if not thousands of people every night since the early part of my career, so that was not intimidating,” he says. In order to find King’s specific rhythms and oratorical style, he worked with coach Elizabeth Himmelstein. “I have a good ear,” he says. “More challenging for me was finding the man behind all of that, there’s less footage of that, it’s less known, but I wanted it to ring true. Andrew Young was invaluable talking about his friend, what he was like, and shared some unseen footage from Dr. King at home with his kids, and hanging out on the road talking with his comrades. That’s a different King than the one in the pulpit or talking to press.”
Showing the real King warts, womanizer and all was “an absolute necessity,” says Oyelowo. “One thing biopics do when done well is to further advance what we already know. Not only do we touch on some of his indiscretions, it’s a look at a marriage, which not unlike most marriages, has challenges and bumpy moments, and how he got through them privately and publicly. Everyone can relate to that. What would we do in that situation? It makes him touchable and more heroic, to be flawed and human. And still he did what he did anyway.”

Most moving for Oyelowo has been watching the film with responsive audiences, from Los Angeles to a Santa Barbara special screening with Oprah Winfrey and the people who lived the Selma campaign and march in the film: Andrew Young, Diane Nash, Julian Bond and the King family. “It was a very intense, meaningful, and emotional way to see the film, to watch it with Martin Luther King III and Bernice, his youngest daughter  “They were highly complimentary and deeply moved. That was tough.” 

Next up are a bunch of new projects. With “Interstellar,” “Captive” and “A Most Violent Year” behind him, he is planning to star with Lupita Nyong’o in drama “Americanah,” which is based on the novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi about a young Nigerian couple who struggle when they come to this country. “Selma” producer Brad Pitt is producing through Plan B along with Nyong’o and Andrea Calderwood.

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