You may not know actor David Oyelowo by name yet, but you’re about to get very familiar with his work.
The 36-year-old, British-born actor has snared a slew of roles in high-profile films directed by legendary filmmakers and sharing scenes with some of the world’s biggest movie stars. Now he's on the verge of becoming an A-list Hollywood player. As his stint in the provocative indie “96 Minutes” makes its bow in theaters, Oyelowo tells PopcornBiz what it’s like to be at the brink of something big.
It’s been a very significant year for you, career wise.
Yeah, there's no doubt about that. Being in both 'The Help' and 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' – films that did very, very well was obviously a very nice moment for me. But then going into this year with '96 Minutes' coming out in April and then 'Middle of Nowhere', another independent film I did last year – our director won Best Director at Sundance, and that film now comes out October 12th. And then 'The Paperboy' that I also did with Lee Daniels, starring Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey – we just got into competition with Cannes with that. And then 'One Shot', the film I did with Tom Cruise comes out Christmas of this year, as well as 'Lincoln' that I did with Spielberg. So there's no question that it's a banner year, so to speak. But it feels like the culmination – I've been an actor for 14 years. As they say, behind every overnight success is ten years of hard work. It sort of feels like that for me right now.
Give me a little back-story on how ’96 Minutes’ came to you and what intrigued you about the material.
I'm pretty harsh when it comes to material. I have to kind of believe in it for me to want to have anything to do with it, and it was just one of those scripts that when I read it, I believed the characters and, most importantly, I gravitated towards this character of Duane. Duane is the kind of character who on the surface of it he looks a certain way, he talks a certain way. And he's easily- you can construe who he is. And I also like the fact that in a story where a lot of the young people seem to be lacking a sort of parental guide, a parental voice, Duane represents that for his nephew, as seen in the movie.
What did you like about the overall message of ’96 Minutes’ and what was the thing that you thought was important for an audience to connect with?
So often with films that are depicting young people in that sort of late teens, early twenties age range, it can be treated very lazily. 'The Social Network' is one of the few films in the last few years that I can think of that didn't sort of patronize young characters on film, and this film feels in that vein. It sort of deals with issues that they are going through, through a very complex lens. It doesn't sort of cipher them into cookie-cutter kind of characters. And in the four main characters that we follow, they're all very different. Some of them are from different sides of the tracks when it comes to wealth, when it comes to socioeconomic and just in terms of cultural upbringing. But they're all thrown together in what ends up being this quite tragic circumstance. And I just like all of those ingredients – It just felt very real to me.
Tell me a little bit about what I'm sure is every actor's dream: working with Steven Spielberg.
Yeah. I mean that was pretty extraordinary. I have to say it was one of those experiences that all of the expectations were met by the reality of the experience. Not only was it Steven Spielberg, but it was Daniel Day-Lewis who is my favorite actor of all time, so getting to work with him in a film centered around the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War. And just all of that history and, of course, because it's Spielberg, the attention to detail. I felt like I'd gone back in a time machine to 1865 and it was a very, very special experience.
What was the coolest moment you spent on set filming ‘Lincoln?’
The most extraordinary moment for me shooting was opposite Daniel Day-Lewis and feeling unequivocally like I was looking at Abraham Lincoln. He never breaks out of character. He is a consummate actor in that his immersion in his characters is second to none, so there was no acting required, really, in terms of my interaction with him playing Abraham Lincoln. You literally felt that you had gone in a time machine and you were looking at the very dude himself. And that was a pretty extraordinary feeling that I haven't felt before: just the sheer power of an actor's performance can transport me to another time and place. I think people are going to be blown away by what he achieves in that film.
Before working with Spielberg, how much interaction did you get directly with George Lucas when you were working on 'Red Tails'?
Oh, quite a lot, because we shot the film in 2009 and then our director had to go and do this series for HBO called 'Treme’ and George wanted some reshoots to take place so he directed those. I actually had quite a bit of interaction with George and through the postproduction process, as well. I kind of felt like I got to have my cake and eat it, too, because not only did I get to work with Anthony Hemingway who is fantastic but also I got to be directed by George, as well. So that was pretty great, to work with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in the same year.
Tell me about your relationship as an actor to director with Lee Daniels.
Our relationship began when he took a big chance on me and cast me as Martin Luther King in a film he was going to do called 'Selma'. And for a number of reasons that film didn't come to fruition. But he was pretty determined to work with me. And when he signed on to do 'The Paperboy' there was this role of Yardley Acherman that actually in the books and the scripts was written as a white character, but Lee rewrote it as an African-American character and cast me in that role. So he's a man of his word. And now in about a month or two we're going to go off and do a film called 'The Butler' together. So our first attempt at working together didn't quite come off but we've got one down and another one on the way.
And what can you say about your experience on 'One Shot'?
'One Shot' centers around a sniper attack in Pittsburgh, and I play the lead detective on the case. And it soon becomes apparent that this sniper was a military sniper. And Tom's character was an ex-military investigator. So he's perfectly placed to hunt this sniper down. So we team up to kind of get our man, so to speak. What was both surprising and very inspiring for me is that Tom hasn't lost any of his enthusiasm for telling stories. He's been at the top of this industry for 30 years, and just his energy and his work ethic was just absolutely exemplary. And I like to think of myself as a hard-working actor, but he's up there as just a complete and utter example of what it takes to stay at the top for as long as he has. And he's a really, really lovely human being.
After this stretch of working with so many world-class filmmakers and actors, what are your goals? You're on everybody's radar right now. What's the next level you want to push things to?
It's all about material. I think death for an actor is to in any way pigeonhole yourself. Because the industry is very desirous to do that to you, so I always hesitate to say, 'Oh, I want to do this, that, or the other.' But the thing I am pretty determined to do is to use these opportunities I'm being given to start to create opportunities for myself. One of the pleasures about working with these people is you can then start developing projects with them, so that's the thing I really want to start doing now is forging strong relationships with writers and producers and studios and independent producers as well, so that the kind of films I want to be in and I would like to see are films that I can help bring to fruition.