Britain, part of a royal
family, raised there and in
Oyelowo is enjoying a remarkable run Ė garnering
more prominent roles and rising billing in films with bigger and
bigger actors. This increasingly favorable career surge doesnít seem
like it's going to abate any time soon.
last month, two of his recent efforts have come out either
theatrically or on DVD Ė the high-profile
produced WWII flying airmen story,
and the indie-edgy inner city drama,
In this drama
about a car-jacking gone wrong, Oyelowo plays a small but crucial
role. Though his appearance is limited, this skilled and committed
actor has to drive the momentum in two pivotal 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.
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
Rise of the
Planet of the Apes where he is not just playing
native but also high flying billionaires.
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
is a very indie, ensemble film, how was your collaboration with
director Aimee Lagos?
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
a beautiful, lovely human being, but sheís clear about what she
wants, opinionated and strong Ė 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.
you experienced a situation anything like the one in the film?
I canít recall
a situation directly reminiscent of it. What I related to with
regards to my character
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 heís in a dangerous
environment for young people whether itís protecting his nephew or
reaching out to
Snowís character, or if itís him being not so
pleased with this unsavory element around his neighborhood. That I
can definitely relate to.
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?
difficult, isnít it? Thatís why I love the juxtaposition between
Scialabbaís characters. Michaelís character seems
hell bent on going on this ďdark pathĒ and you see a little glimpse
into his home life which may be the reason for that, but then you
also see Evanís character, an intelligent kid thatís just been
handed a ticket out of
his situation, getting to further his education, and, just as heís
reaching the light at the end of the tunnel, he gets caught in this
awful situation [out of misplaced loyalty].
reason I wanted to do 96
Minutes, I felt that the film looked at the obstacles
facing young people today Ė especially in these inner-city areas Ė
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. Youíre also battling
all these other elements that are trying to pull you down, to be
perfectly frank. Whether theyíre socio-economic or peer pressure,
thereís so much facing these kids.
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 Ė one
of the twists in the film that adds to it.
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 itís 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, thatís where the perception is
shown. It becomes like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If youíre
constantly being seen as a criminal or accused of being one, then
what often happens is you decide, ďscrew it, Iíll be what they see
me to be.Ē Thatís why Evan [Rossí] line is such a powerful one,
where he says, ďlook at us, weíve become exactly what they thought
we would be.Ē
Thatís 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 heís been brought up in drags him
back down. Iím sure that happens day in and day out in cities across
America and the world.
How did it feel to be maybe the oldest guy on the set?
Thatís 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.
You didnít have to slap anyone around, did you?
No, these guys
showed up and saw it as an opportunity that they, as actors of their
age, donít often get. It had to do with the nature of the material
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
you saw this movie for the first time did it surprise you?
me was just how tense the film was. When youíre shooting a movie, of
course youíre 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,
youíre shooting a film over a number of weeks, so you donít
necessarily feel that tension as youíre shooting it. So thatís what
I was most surprised about, was how intense the film was.
The ending was so sad. Did you ever envision a scenario where Evan's
character would gets on with his life on through prison?
Raymond, played by
Martin who you see in the barbecue, is there to
symbolize what could happen to someone because he could end up
without the right guidance.
When you see
Evanís character, thereís no parental figure, thereís no one guiding
him, all he has is his teachers. But with my nephew, Iím guiding
him, so in a sense, thatís one of the rays of hope within the film.
But in terms of Evanís ending, thatís one of the things we couldíve
given a ďhappierĒ ending, but that wouldnít be real. Thatís not the
reality of millions of young people across this country day in and
When you look
at the makeup of prisons in this country and the disproportionate
amount of African Americans there Ė something like over half the
prison population is black men Ė thatís 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 Iím there for
him, hopefully he wonít have to suffer the same fate.
Did you eat much barbecue while doing this film?
I dealt with
so much raw meat it put me off barbecue for a while [laughs].
So no, I didnít do too much barbecue even though I play a barbecue
your international experience and British training come in handy to
do the role?
Iíve 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
audienceís and the industryís expectations.
I can play a
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
UK and we moved back to
when I was about six. I lived in Nigeria seven years Ė 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.
Was it a big leap, a culture shock, to see how African Americans
live as opposed to British black people?
It has been,
and continues to be because thatís been one of the things [I have
come to know] whether itís
Red Tails, even
Ė which I just did with producer/director
Ė and especially
which Iím about to do with Lee as well. It charts the birth of the
civil rights movement in this country.
Iíve had a lot
of opportunity to look at American culture and history and
specifically African American culture and history and itís very,
very different to what it is to be black in Britain.
Iím almost at
a stage now where I know more about African American culture than I
do about black British culture now. But itís very different in that
here thereís an undeniable claim black people have to American
history because of slavery and the civil rights movement.
thereís now a black President, black people are indelibly ingrained
into the social consciousness. Itís not the same in the UK. We donít
have any great, big, landmark moments for black people in
Britain that mean weíre woven into the fabric the
same way African Americans are and that in and of itself is quite a
insightful for you since it's about the American cultural situation
and not the one you had come from?
you see in 96 Minutes
is akin to situations in a city like London. I went to a fairly
rough school in
though I donít sound like it - being at
Shakespeare Company will knock that out of you Ė but
I could still very much relate to the story.
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 itís often the kids trying to
get out of the inner city or out of their low income circumstances Ė
theyíre caught in the middle.
The kids that
need scholarships, that need to find a way out. Any given day itís
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.
Whether a big budget or low budget film do your roles tend to deal
with these issues of race and class?
Itís part of
being alive and black in America today. For me, as a black person
living in America, I donít spend my day to day ďfightingĒ racism.
But the fact of racismís existence does impact my life every day. It
affects me in terms of my profession. Iíve chosen the opportunities
Iíve been afforded as opposed to my white counterparts.
something I carry as a boulder or a burden day to day, that way
madness lays. Often when youíre dealing with films, drama is
conflict, and of course, if youíre playing a Tuskegee Airman itís
going to be an intrinsic part of what that character faces.
if Iím in
Rise of the
Planet of the Apes, playing a billionaire whoís
investing in science and heís very intelligent, I donít have to deal
with those issues with that particular character.
you want to do, mix it up. Thatís what Iím looking for as an actor.
Itís a bit like getting to play Duane, who defies expectations. As
an actor, Iím always looking for opportunities to defy expectations.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
offered an opportunity to play a race-neutral character.
I donít know
if it meant Iím 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 canít do it. Iíd rather be poor and work in a
supermarket than do that, itís just demeaning. Itís an anathema.
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
this thriller with Tom Cruise, and again, it was a very non
It's about a
sniper attack in
and I play the lead detective investigating this attack. It soon
becomes apparent that the sniper has a military background and Tomís
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. Itís
McQuarrie, who wrote
[Chris] wrote a brilliant script and directed this.
I really look
for those [parts] because my genuine belief is that if youíre not
part of the solution, youíre 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.
Your character in
was so convincing I didnít realize it was you playing that character
Thank you for
saying that. For me, thatís exactly what I look for. I donít feel
like itís 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 thatís something I try to
hold on to because thatís the joy of it.
not David when Iím playing
in Red Tails,
Duane in 96 Minutes,
Jacob in Rise....
I want you to completely think I am that guy. Thatís also why I try
to find characters that are as different as possible.
If Iím 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 audienceís
expectations and keeping both the audience and the industry
Thatís how you
get to be
Daniel Day Lewis
thatís how you get to be that kind of actor, by constantly defying
Did you learn about flying from doing
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 weíre
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
Having some of
on set also went a long way in ensuring our performance was
James Franco once played a WWI flying ace in
Did you two talk about that on the set of
Itís 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
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
worked with Cuba Gooding Jr. in
who also worked with Lee Daniels. You worked with Lee after you
worked with Cuba, right?
Yes, I did.
What actually happened is I had done
Red Tails with
and Lee was going to do this movie called
Selma where he cast
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 weíre about to embark on
The Butler as well, so heís a man of his word.
Given Lee Danielsí mixed Caribbean and African American heritage, he
has some strong feelings. You must have had a good conversation with
I have great
conversations with him; heís one of the most interesting people I
know, especially when it comes to this subject matter. As you can
imagine, heís very opinionated and thatís reflected in his work.
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 thatís why I love working
with him. Itís not only a creatively satisfying experience; I learn
a huge amount as well.
Youíve worked with some great actors that you contrast with well and
shine, like Franco.
I have this
rule for myself; itís the Three Pís: Plot, Project, and the People.
Those Three Pís guide me about what films I do and donít do and for
the people. Iím always looking for people from whom I can learn, so
I am always seeking and fighting to work with a
Steven Spielberg, or a Daniel Day Lewis, my favorite
actor of all time.
opportunities I relish, pursue and fight for because I know thatís
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 Lincolnís big effort to get the Emancipation
Proclamation passed in the House of Representatives during
War. That was an incredible experience as well.
What did you learn about American history working on
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
exist at that particular time in American history. Thereís a lot of
the bargaining and middle men in American politics now Ė 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, thereís this one dimensional version of what
happened, but when you start digging into things in terms of
slavery, in terms of the Civil War,
Gettysburg Address, itís incredibly dense and
interesting and new to me.
What was your most memorable Civil War experience?
copious amounts of documentaries, particularly the
ones, I literally felt like I had been transported back to 1865. It
was just unbelievable, the attention to detail Ė the landscape,
costumes, horses and sets.
We shot in
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
Except for Daniel Day Lewis, almost all the actors youíve worked
with have been trained in the American style of acting. Did you
notice anything interesting about that?
difference between American actors in cinema now and British actors.
If youíre a British actor trained in the UK, youíre largely being
raised on the theatrical tradition. The conservatories there, the
one I went to was Lambda, youíre trained in the classics, itís very
much like theater training, and that segues into film.
I think from an aspiration point of view it seems largely that there
is far more concentration from actors in film acting.
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 youíre not telling the truth to
them on any given night, when youíve had to do that day in and day
it just means
the very, very technical world of film making, itís 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.
very clear to me.
who plays the main ape even though heís covered with all these
cameras and this weird suit, when he embodied that ape, he was
entirely that ape.
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 isnít true. So thatís
what I feel like I bring as a British actor, that pursuit of truth
which is very much in the theater.
What did you get from working with Cruise and Franco versus these
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.
exemplary point of view, that was incredible to me. He is an
intensely hard working actor and that was a huge inspiration to me.
thereís 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 itís easy. Youíre just going on there
and playing a version of yourself and I think a lot of young actors
Iíve come across theyíre pretty to look at and got a modicum of
talent, but what they often donít realize is how much of yourself
you have to give in order to scale the heady heights of what we do.
level needed is kind of the standing and itís not until you work
with these guys that you realize thatís why theyíve been doing this
at the level theyíve been doing it for so long and that was an
inspiration to me.
There you have
this multi-hyphenate, heís consumed in every aspect of storytelling
whether itís 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 donít 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
Thought of making your own film?
thatís 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.
up a slate of projects with writers and directors and thereís a
synergy about the kind of stories we want to tell. I have a slate of
10 films Iím working on right now that appeal to my sensibilities.
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
Do you want to do a film about Africa itself or your English
I had an amazing time doing
The Last King of Scotland. Even though Iím 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
Last King of Scotland,
Constant Gardener or
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.