TV Interview - Selma' star opens up about playing MLK
Golden Globe nominee David Oyelowo on losing himself in the role and fearing for his life
Major motion pictures have struggled to bring Martin Luther King Jr.'s story to life. Although there have been television movies like HBO's noteworthy Boycott, which featured Oscar-nominated actor Jeffrey Wright as King, Hollywood has elected to work around the icon, opting to make films like The Long Walk Home, a story centered around the Montgomery Bus Boycott that starred Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek.
"It's ridiculous that it has taken nearly 50 years to have a film where Dr. King is the protagonist in his own film," David Oyelowo says, practically shaking his head in disbelief during an interview in the Wine Room of the St. Regis. "We had a J. Edgar Hoover movie before a King movie. We have a Jimmy Hoffa movie before a King movie."
In Selma, the acclaimed film about the historic civil rights campaign led by King (Oyelowo) that resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to end state disenfranchisement of black voters, the British-born actor rights that wrong. It is not lost on Oyelowo how truly unlikely it was that he would play one of history's most iconic figures.
"I first read the script in 2007 and that was only two months having moved here to the U.S., and when I read it, I just knew that I was going to play Dr. King in this film ... God told me I would," says Oyelowo, whose performance in Selma earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor.
"That was such a weird thought," he admits, "because I'd never seen Dr. King and thought, 'Oh yeah, I favor him. One day maybe I could play him.' ... I am a British actor and I hadn't done any sort of American films really at that stage, so it was just a bizarre thought. So I wrote it down July '07 because it was that strange."
After seeing Oyelowo's inspired performance, the words "strange" or "bizarre" never come to mind. Reviewing the film after its first full screening in Los Angeles back in November, Variety's Scott Foundas marveled that Oyelowo's King is "played with none of the self-important airs that can sometimes afflict actors cast as secular saints."
Oyelowo has very much been the glue that got Selma made. It was Oyelowo who brought on director Ava DuVernay, with whom he worked with for her indie film Middle of Nowhere, and star producer Oprah Winfrey, who played his mother in The Butler. The latter was directed by Lee Daniels, Selma's original director who actually cast Oyelowo.
"The film had to be revelatory," says Oyelowo, who praises DuVernay's stunning yet un-credited rewrite for that achievement. "I always knew that I live and die in terms of playing this role by how much humanity I can bring to King. If I'm portraying just a historical figure, an icon, a speech, no one is going to walk away with more than they would see in a documentary."
Oyelowo did additional work as well, gaining 30 pounds for the role. He also buried his accent so deeply that, reportedly, some production members didn't know he was British until the filming wrapped. "In all honesty, I really felt I had to shelve myself," Oyelowo says. "I left myself behind, not least because, you know, shooting in Atlanta, I couldn't come here and say in a British accent, 'Yes, I'm David Oyelowo (pronounced "oh-yellow-oh"), I'm playing Dr. King.'"
Oyelowo got so deep that, by film's end, he was completely gone. "I lost bits of myself during the course of shooting," he admits. That became most apparent to him when they shot King's last speech on the capitol steps in Montgomery. Even though it was an open area almost impossible to secure, King decided to speak anyway.
"In the two days run-up to giving that speech, I really feared for my life," Oyelowo says. "It was a weird thing because, rationally speaking, I was shooting a movie but I think, by that point, I had so entrenched myself in his thought life, in the emotions he must have been feeling, that I genuinely, by the time we got to the end of that day of shooting, was surprised I was still alive."
For Oyelowo, "the cost of self-sacrifice" is the greatest lesson he's learned from playing King. "I have four kids myself and a wife I love very much," he says. "It's one thing for me to get my head around my life being under threat, but their lives — I mean the cost was so high. And, in the Bible, it says, 'Greater love hath no man than to lay his life down for his friend.' It's one thing to say that. It's another thing to live that. So that was the thing that I walked away with is that there's a difference between the talkers and the doers."