David Oyelowo hasn’t been shy about discussing how God spoke to him in 2007 and said the actor would eventually play Martin Luther King Jr. in what would become “Selma.” “The reason I’m talking about that is because I’m as shocked as anyone else may be that this British guy is playing Martin Luther King,” Oyelowo, who was born in England, said during a recent interview. “Certainly back then, in 2007, I had done none of the movies people have now seen me do now.” At the time, Oyelowo — who has since starred in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Jack Reacher,” “The Help” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” — was a relative unknown. But it…
“The reason I’m talking about that is because I’m as shocked as anyone else may be that this British guy is playing Martin Luther King,” Oyelowo, who was born in England, said during a recent interview. “Certainly back then, in 2007, I had done none of the movies people have now seen me do now.”
At the time, Oyelowo — who has since starred in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Jack Reacher,” “The Help” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” — was a relative unknown. But it was another obstacle separating him from King that proved more difficult to overcome: Stephen Frears. Back then, the director was attached to “Selma” and didn’t think Oyelowo was right for the part. In the ensuing seven years, however, Frears left and multiple directors nearly stepped into his place (including Spike Lee and Paul Haggis). In 2010, Lee Daniels came onboard and, after working with Oyelowo on”Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” cast the actor as King. The tumultuous development process didn’t end there: Daniels dropped out because of scheduling conflicts. That’s when Oyelowo suggested another former collaborator: Ava DuVernay, with whom Oyelowo had made the 2012 indie film “Middle of Nowhere.”
“There was so much faith that had to be employed that this thing was going to happen,” Oyelowo said. “Virtually every day between that moment [when God spoke] to me and now, I did everything I could to make this thing happen.”
Now that it has, Oyelowo has received the best reviews of his career for playing King. The performance earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama, and it has Oyelowo in the middle of a crowded group of contenders vying for an Oscar nomination. “Selma,” meanwhile, stands as one of the year’s best films, a timely and insightful drama that says as much about Martin Luther King’s struggle to get equal voting rights in 1965 as it does about the Millions March in 2014.
Oyelowo spoke to HuffPost Entertainment about “Selma,” working with DuVernay and what it was like to meet King’s children.
You’ve talked about hearing a higher calling to play this role all the way back in 2007. Does that kind of connection with God extend through the production as well?
What I couldn’t have anticipated is how much I needed, to be perfectly frank, God’s help in the playing of it. Not least because this was a man of God. This was someone, if you’ve seen him giving those speeches, there is something flowing through him other than himself. He is flowing in his anointing. I needed that. I like to think of myself as a good actor, but Martin Luther King, I ain’t! If you’re going to go and shoot in Atlanta, in a historical church, with 500 people who are from Atlanta, you need a little help from above. So I definitely felt I had that.
Watch Oyelowo in an exclusive clip from “Selma”
During that seven year period from when you first read the script and now, was playing Dr. King something you thought about every day, or is that impossible?
The first thing I can say to you is that it’s very possible to think about playing Martin Luther King every single day for seven years. I’m living evidence of that. There is never going to be a time in your life as an actor where you’re going to go, “Oh yeah, I’m ready to play Dr. King now.” But between doing the work in quiet and then, the films that presented themselves to me, I prepared. Playing a Union solider in “Lincoln,” playing a preacher in “The Help,” playing a black fighter pilot in “Red Tails,” playing the son of a butler in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” who is in the Freedom Riders and becomes a Black Panther: these were all films in which I had to go study the history. Inevitably they were part of what informed playing Dr. King. Now, were they opportunities that were divinely presented to me or was I just continually drawn to that material because of what was going on in my head? That I can’t really say. But I do know that so many different aspects of my life went into what you see in the film. Plus, I was now the age Dr. King was when these things happened in his life. When I first read the script, I had two kids; when we shot it, I had four kids, like he did. There were so many things I matured into by the time I played the role.
Dr. King is, relatively speaking, a young man during the events of “Selma,” but he looks 10-15 years older than his actual age. How did you manage the physical transformation this role required?
Again, we’re back to the spiritual side of things. People like to talk about the weight gain and the voice, but that’s what we do as actors; that’s the first rung of what you need to do if you’re going to play someone like this. But it was the emotional and spiritual weight of what this man did and had to go through that was tough. At that stage in his life, to have spent 10 years under threat — and not only his life, but his kids’ lives, his wife’s life. Having all these people depend on him. Being a voice for the voiceless. Being someone who has seen people die because of this cause. And not just because racist people have killed them, but because he went to places where he tried to have racists act out in front of the cameras, and then people get hurt. In Selma, people died. That weighs on you. If you’re mentally placing yourself in that space, it does something to you physically. When I watch him, you can see there is a burden. You can see that he looks and feels older than he was. He was 36 at this stage. That is crazy. That had to be one of the things I tried to bring to it.
You recommended Ava to direct this film. Having worked with her on “Middle of Nowhere,” what surprised you about her transition to this kind of bigger material?
When we worked together on “Middle Of Nowhere” I saw her talent is undeniable. One of the privileges I’ve had in doing some of those films I mentioned is working with Steven Spielberg and other incredible directors. I was on the set with Ava, and she is just as good. I think the unique thing about her — and what she brought to “Selma” that was so incredible — was the ease with which she went into a film that was 100 times the budget of the last thing she had done. There were so many more people, so many more elements, it was much bigger in size, but she never panicked. She never shouted. She never threw a chair. She never compromised her vision. That went through the post-production side of things as well. To be a visionary, you have to be single minded. She has that without being, to be perfectly honest, an unpleasant person. That’s very rare! Often being single-minded is combined with being a bit of a nightmare to be around. She’s just not that.
It’s impossible to discuss “Selma” without mentioning how timely it is in its scenes of protest and police brutality. How do you think “Selma” fits in with the events that have occurred over the last month?
Well, we’re back to the divide, aren’t we? If you were ever going to have a moment in time when this film should come out in the 50 years since these events happened, it would be now. Not only would it be now, it would be now now. It would be this month. We would be having this conversation today. You can’t tell me between everything we’ve discussed already to when the film is being released to the fact that it’s a black woman who has made this — just in terms of where we are in history and how beautiful a thing that is — that it’s not divine timing. Whether you believe in that stuff or not, I truly believe the reason why this film is so pertinent for right now is that it shows this isn’t the first time. It shows that we are not a new generation for this and also how it was successfully dealt with. Peaceful protest. Strategy. Using the power of the image to bring the world together. That’s what happened in a sense.
Ferguson, I feel, was deemed a “black problem.” Eric Garner became an American problem. That’s the power of the image. Seeing him murdered onscreen has been the thing that has brought America and the world together to protest. Seeing Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge is what brought the nation together, black and white, in 1965. The difference is that was about voting rights, and this is about police reform. There had to be federal intervention with voting rights; the federal government is stalling on intervening on this, to bring in independent bodies to police the police. It’s just clear that’s what is needed. No matter what they say about how difficult that is because it’s states’ rights. It was states’ rights with voting. It’s crazy how similar it is.
“Selma” cast wears “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts to protest the death of Eric Garner at the New York Public Library on Dec. 14, 2014
Did you get to meet anyone close to Dr. King in preparation for the role?
I met every one of his children and spoke with them. I actually became quite friendly with Dexter Scott King, his second son. I met Martin Luther King III. I actually didn’t meet Bernice King until the Friday before we were going to start shooting. I bumped into her at the King Center, if you would believe it — again, the divine! I was with a group of the actors who were going to be in the film, and she went up to everyone, deliberately leaving me to last. “So, who you playing?” she said. I was like, “Oh. My. Lord.” Dr. King’s voice is pretty deep, but I was like, in a high-pitched voice, “I’m going to be playing your daddy.” It was as bad as it could be. But by the time we finished our conversation, she ended up praying with me and giving me her blessing to play her dad. She and her elder brother saw the film recently and were very complimentary about it. She said mine is the best interpretation of her dad she’s seen. I will take it.
After seven years of having this role in your life, did you feel any letdown or hangover after you moved on to the next job?
There was no letdown. I was very happy to let this guy go. I wouldn’t say it was a burden, because I felt so privileged to do it, but there were moments where it was a real crossover. I stayed in character for the three months we were doing this. I, for one second, wouldn’t say I was him for that time, but I felt a little bit of what it may have been like. Just because you have to take it on. He lived through 13 years of that. I was very happy to walk away. I tell you that much.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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