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.
“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.”
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.