[Editor’s Note: This interview originally ran in June 2015 as part of an Emmys push for select candidates the Indiewire editorial team found deserving. It has since been lightly edited to focus on pertinent issues.]
When David Oyelowo took on the role of Peter Snowden, he was accepting more challenges than typically are associated with a one-man movie. Snowden’s complexities are plentiful, but never explicitly addressed in the screenplay, so Oyelowo had to find ways to honor those parts of a man many would dismiss from the onset of the film. You see, “Nightingale” opens on Peter having just killed his mother in a fit of rage. Why and how it came about aren’t immediately disclosed. Rather, we watch as Oyelowo draws out each aspect of Peter’s many personalities over the course of a 90-minute film.
Oyelowo took some time from his busy schedule — he’s currently in Johannesburg, South Africa filming Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe” — to discuss his dissection of the character most people came to know through HBO. Below, Oyelowo talks about the pros and cons of various distribution models, what attracted him to the project, what he hopes people take away from the film and why it’s important not to define Peter by his sexuality.
How did you feel when you were first confronted with a movie like “Nightingale,” where you’re pretty much the only person in it — kind of a one man show?
Well, my feeling after I read the script for the first time was that I had never read anything like it, seen anything like it, definitely never even considered anything like it, and Peter Snowden was a character the likes of which I personally didn’t feel I had ever seen on screen. Now, every single one of those things, it almost never happens, let alone all of them happening within one script. So, you know, as you can imagine, it really, really caught my attention. And, honestly, when I read it for the first time, I wasn’t really struck by the fact that it was a one-man film, because there were so many voices in a sense — in terms of what’s going on in this man’s head, the way he’s communicating, who he is, what he’s done. It wasn’t until I finished reading it, I went, “Hold on! This is one guy, it’s really just one guy, there’s no one else. We don’t even hear another voice!” And for me, that was just a challenge I couldn’t walk away from.
How long was the shoot and how hard was the shoot itself, compared to projects where you have other people in the cast, giving you a break between scenes?
Well, it was one of the shortest shoots I’ve ever done, but it was also one of the longest and loneliest because it’s just you in the movie. You’re on every single day, no respite whatsoever, and you have no other actors to communicate with, to break things up. The responsibility of making the film work tends to be spread, so when you have that kind of — pressure isn’t the right word — but when you have that kind of responsibility, you can’t relax, basically. It was a three-week shoot, which amounts to 15 days — we shot five-day weeks — and the feeling of weight and length of time was exacerbated by the fact that I stayed in character for the whole time and kept myself away from people, because the role was of a very isolated guy. So that all made for a fairly intense shoot, even though it was a relatively short period.
Can you talk a little bit about the decision to stay in character the whole time? Is that something that you always do when you approach roles or is that something unique to this, and how does that help you as an actor to portray this person?
It’s something I had never done before this role, and “Nightingale” presented the perfect opportunity because I had never really thought of myself as a method actor. To be perfectly honest, I thought of it is as a bit of a pretentious methodology, but having said that, I’ve seen it work to great effect having done films like “Lincoln” and “The Last King of Scotland,” in which they — Daniel Day-Lewis and Forest Whitaker — had employed that methodology. And, being around those actors, I mean, it’s really incredible to see what that level of immersion creates when it comes to truth-telling. And I also feel like I had never been offered the opportunity of a character that was worth that level of immersion up until doing “Nightingale,” because “Nightingale” I actually did before “Selma,” which was another opportunity that then, post-“Nightingale” also presented itself as an opportunity for full immersion. So I stayed as Dr. King for the nearly three months that we shot that film. The headspace which I inhabit made me feel like it would just be too much to be coming in and out of character. But also as an experiment, I wanted to see what going full-time could do.
So what was it that first hooked you about Peter Snowden? What about this specific person really got you into the role and made you feel like it was an important story to tell?
Well, to be honest, the thing that really nabbed my attention, of course, was the character, but it was also what [screenwriter] Frederick Mensch had done by way of a challenge to both the actor, the director and the audience when it came to his piece. Because what he does is he breaks a cardinal rule of filmmaking: You don’t start a film where you are asking the audience to stick with the protagonist for 90 minutes by having them do one of the most unthinkable things imaginable. You know, that’s a big arc, to literally have the first speech be someone admitting to matricide and then to, with time, expose the character’s humanity, seek the audience’s empathy. Because I think, as an actor, no matter the nature of the character you’re playing, you have to get to the point where you don’t judge them in order to be able to play them.
So that was a big challenge for me as well, I mean, I guess I just can’t imagine what makes you do something like Peter Snowden does, but as the film progresses, you are invited into his mind and his world enough that you don’t exonerate what he does, but you understand him as a human being more. You know, you’re really doing something there as a storyteller if you can bring him that level of complexity and pull the audience’s attention. So, to be honest, for me, “Nightingale” was one big acting experiment. It wasn’t that I felt drawn to Peter Snowden’s character. I was drawn to the challenge of telling the story.
I’m glad you touched on the difficulty and the challenging aspects of it from a screenwriter’s standpoint, as well, because I feel like there’s so many characteristics and so much background built into Peter that obviously both you and the writer helped display. Were there any discussions about specific pieces of his identity that were never explicitly mentioned in the film, but that you understood as an actor?
Well, one of the things that gives you a job as an actor is you can’t afford to play a generalized character. You always have to go towards the specificity, otherwise the audience are lost. So, okay: This guy is clearly mentally unstable. He’s exhibiting behavior that is not normal. So what’s up with him? Why is he the way he is? And so I spent some time with a clinical psychologist, and he broke it down for me. He said […] to be psychotic, you have to do these awful things with no remorse. What [Peter] has is something called dissociative identity disorder (DID), which is what we used to multiple personality disorder (MPD). Basically, it’s when traumas of the past mean that you have developed what they call “alters,” these versions of yourself that can deal with difficult situations that arise.
And so, once I had that as a key into what was going on with Peter, I was able to break down that there were about seven personalities that could emerge at any given time to deal with whatever was going on. So that became the challenge: Which version of Peter is dealing with whichever situation? And that’s something that Elliot Lester (the director) and I talked about a lot. And we literally went through the script and mapped [out each personality]. We didn’t want the script to be wooden, but it was something we really had to know in order to go on this mental roller coaster with this character.
Did you notice any sort of difference in the response to this film, specifically to the fact that it aired on television rather than getting a theatrical release?
Yes, absolutely! Millions of people saw it instead of a couple hundred in New York and LA [both laugh], which is what it would have been if the film did what we probably thought it would — which is, you know, hopefully we would get a night where it could get a limited run in New York, LA, maybe a couple of other major cities at which it would only be on for a while, because, to be perfectly frank, the film is not a film that is designed as a theatrical experience. It’s a very insular, claustrophobic film. In a way, it’s one of those rare instances where the film was made and afterward found its perfect home. I mean, I literally cannot think of a single better place in terms of exposure, in terms of prestige, in terms of support, that a film of this nature could end up.
And we tried all the other avenues. Several film festivals turned it down. I think they just didn’t know quite what to make of it. I wasn’t a “name” at the time, and I think, to be perfectly frank, that was a factor as well. […] I think post-“Selma” and the film still being what it is, it found a home and a platform. It’s a huge example for me, and I hope filmmakers are encouraged by the fact that, you know— Make your film. Don’t lose heart or belief just because an industry that is riddled with and run by fear doesn’t get what you’re trying to do. I’m not saying that every film like “Nightingale” is going to find a home at HBO, but, you know, the film didn’t radically change between us getting all those rejections and now, having this incredible debut on HBO. So, you know, tell the truth, and hopefully things will align.
Do you have a strong preference how your work is seen, or would you rather just have more people see it? Or maybe it’s something you don’t think about it until after it’s done, to go along with getting it made and trusting that it’ll come out the right way?
I don’t think there’s a single actor on planet Earth who’s hellbent on the minimum amount of people possible seeing their work. You do this in order for — and especially when you’re proud of it — for the most people possible to see it. Now, whether it’s a theater piece, TV or film — and the nature of the piece — that will also determine how big, far, wide the audience is. But I really don’t discriminate when it comes to different platforms that one can have one’s work aired. The things that discriminate are the platforms, really. In movies — partly because it’s the big screen, and, of course, it’s a money-making business — a lot of the time, if you make something more cerebral, you make something more meaningful, you have a bigger challenge putting it in that ultra-commercial space of the cinema. But the amazing thing about television, especially in the United States over the last five years or decade, is that I think the explosion of cable and how that is really— I wouldn’t even say giving network a run for its money. I think that, you know, the networks are now having to really take their cues from what’s going on in cable.
So for actors like me, for artists generally who have something to say that is beyond homogenized, middle-of-the-world types of material, there are now gigantic platforms to tell their stories, and the audience is telling us they want that stuff because they are subscribing to channels. They are paying the money to see it. And so you are cutting out the middleman, in a sense, because in many ways, studios, studio bosses, people who have green-light ability are curating what people get to see. When the audience — like with Netflix — are able to say, “Today, I want to watch that, I want to watch it all in one go, and I want it now,” then the supply and demand are fair. And I think it’s empowering the audience, and they are certainly empowering artists, so I think it’s an incredible time for television, but [also] just being a content creator generally.
Well, speaking of the importance of that larger audience, I was curious just what would you hope that people would walk away from after seeing “Nightingale” — the larger takeaway from that film?
Well, I personally think one of the subtle — and I’m glad it’s subtle, but it’s there — one of the subtle themes of “Nightingale” is loneliness. And I think loneliness is a thing that is very prevalent within modern day society; that is steeped in shame. It is something we don’t like to admit, but, like I say, it is very much with us. And, you know, Peter Snowden, to me, feels like the loneliest man on Earth. And we see Peter Snowden at the early going. We see him at the supermarket buying his groceries, and there’s something just a little bit off about him, you take it in, and then you get on with your day. And every time we watch the news and someone has done something terrible — some murder, some awful thing — you know, so often, the neighbors who are interviewed, they say, “Oh, they seemed like such a quiet, nice person…never got in anyone’s way. A little bit quiet, but I never would’ve thought this could’ve happened.”
And I think, living in a society where we are all very self-involved, and we are all navel-gazing for something to do, I think it creates an environment where Peter Snowdens are allowed to fester. Like I said, there’s no exonerating what Peter Snowden does, but a society that cares for its citizens a bit more may mean that Peter Snowdens have less room to grow. And I don’t mean that as in Peter Snowden the awful person. I mean Peter Snowden the guy who is mentally ill; who has been bullied; who has been marginalized; which allows the situation that he’s in to grow, and grow to the point where something truly awful happens. So, you know, that, I think, is a takeaway from it: that we live in a society where ignoring those around us is problematic and becomes something to examine.
There’s been — at least in the Indiewire community — a debate over Peter’s sexuality and kind of how that motivated his actions in the movie. What was the discussion on set between you, the director and the writer, and what kind of understanding do you have about his relationship with his friend who he was trying to invite over for dinner?
Well, my view about that is that I don’t think we would be having that conversation if Peter’s obsession was a woman. And I actually feel like, you know, one has to examine the fact that because Peter’s sexual orientation places him in a minority group, that becomes something to really focus in on. For me, this is a guy suffering from PTSD; this is a guy who’s been brought up in a very heavy-handed, religious home; this is a guy who clearly has been bullied. Back in the military, I would argue that his father, who is now absent, probably saw him as someone who wasn’t manly enough, and therefore that played into his world that he shuttered. And in me playing him, he’s African American as well, so you have all of that going on coupled with being black in America.
There are so many things going on with this guy, he’s on a pressure cooker, whether he snaps. Anyone who suggests to me that what Peter Snowden does is linked to his sexuality, as a man who may be gay, because I would argue that, too. He’s in denial about that fact. He’s probably sexually confused — that’s the obvious take on that. But that is just the half of it! I mean, this guy has so much going on, that’s just one of the factors. And to be honest, a world in which an arguably gay character has this degree of complexity going on as opposed to the film being purely about his sexuality is something I welcome, because, you know, gay people have a lot more going on, as people, than [just their sexuality].