David Oyelowo: “I don’t want to be a cog in a wheel… I’d rather own the whole bicycle”

With new film 'Come Away' out this week, the 'Selma' and 'Spooks' actor discusses the changes needed in Hollywood, working with George Clooney, and much more

In the Before Times, when you could meet an interviewee in real life without worrying about deadly diseases, an interviewer could extrapolate a lot from the surroundings and the subject’s interaction with them. You could decide their character by the way they spoke to a waiter. Make vast assumptions from the way they entered a room. Turn their outfit into a kind of sartorial Rorschach test. Not now though. Now everybody’s a head on a Zoom call, not quite looking at the camera and in front of a beige wall.

On today’s Zoom call, David Oyelowo has done us the great service of sitting in front of an enormous world map in his LA home. It is the ideal backdrop, because it provides the opportunity to bestow it with great symbolism. It’s fitting because Oyelowo is an actor with the whole world on his mind. In his 20 years on screen he has conquered the film industry in both the US and the UK, and his every career choice is focused on making the world a better, fairer place. It’s almost like he sat there deliberately.

Oyelewo has had one of those careers where he’s never really been the It guy – the sort of actor who is suddenly everywhere and touted for everything – but has instead quietly got on with working with most of the biggest names in the industry. Since he came to fame in Spooks in 2002, he’s checked off working with Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Christopher Nolan, George Lucas, Ava Du Vernay (three times). He’s been nominated for Emmy’s, Golden Globes, a BAFTA. He should have been nominated for an Oscar, but more on that later.

He has never seemed to slow down, even this year, when almost the entire film industry has been in stasis. In 2020 alone, he has completed a film with George Clooney; finished off his directing debut, while in lockdown; and shot, and produced, another film in its entirety, under social distancing restrictions. Putting it very mildly, Oyelowo says, “I like to keep myself busy.”

That 2020 to-do list actually sums up his career approach rather well. He doesn’t waste any opportunity or any time. He is always creating. “I like to stay busy,” he reiterates, “and that’s partly why I produce and I’m now directing. I just love storytelling, and as an actor, you can often feel like a cog in a wheel. I don’t want to be a cog in a wheel. I want to be the wheel. In fact, I’d rather own the whole bicycle.”

David Oyelowo in ‘Come Away’. Credit: Hilary B. Gayle/SMPSP / © Maginot Line, LLC 2020

Everything Oyelewo does is considered. Even the film he’s promoting today, which sounds like a breezy children’s story, is a strategic choice. Come Away is a sweet fantasy that turns Alice, from Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan into siblings trying to keep their family together after a tragedy. It’s set in Victorian England and sees Oyelowo play the children’s father, with Angelina Jolie as their mother. Multi-racial families are vanishingly rare in period drama.

“The surprising fact that I was asked to play their father obviously meant they were going to cast kids who look like me and look like my kids,” says Oyelowo. “Even though I loved these stories growing up, I didn’t necessarily see myself reflected in them. So that became an added reason to [want to do it].”

He’s spent his whole career trying to improve representation, even when that was made particularly difficult for him. “I very ardently run away from anything that feels caricature or stereotypical when it comes to someone who looks like me or where I’m from…It’s rare still to see a heroic, aspirational, inspirational Black character, as opposed to a brow-beaten, criminalised or suffering Black character.”

“It’s rare still to see a heroic, aspirational, inspirational Black character”

Minds were a lot less open at the start of Oyelowo’s career. Though he lives in America now, Oyelowo spent his childhood moving between London and Nigeria, where his parents were born. He studied at LAMDA and had a pretty successful stage career, before his big break came when he was 26, playing the role of Danny Hunter in the BBC drama Spooks.

The series was a huge hit and made Oyelewo famous, but immediately after he left the show he got a reminder of how non-progressive the industry was. “I remember pitching a show for which I would be the protagonist and being told, ‘The audience isn’t ready for… a black protagonist’,” he says. “Spooks had done really well in the UK and you think, ‘OK, here we go!’ But, alas, no.”

Like a lot of Black actors of his generation – Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Naomie Harris – Oyelowo had to go to America for more interesting roles. “Unfortunately, I had to leave in order to be able [get projects made]. I do think it’s changing [in the UK]. I think if you have grit and stamina you can, as a Black or brown person, still forge a meaningful career, but the truth of the matter is whatever colour you are… Hollywood is still the epicentre of movies.”

David Oyelowo in ‘Come Away’. Credit: Press/Signature Entertainment

Even Hollywood in the early 2000s was low on opportunities for actors of colour. It’s only in the last two years that we’ve seen a major Black-led superhero film, in Black Panther. Oyelowo doesn’t credit the industry for the change. “It’s being led more by the audience than the industry,” he says. “At the end of the day, if the people speak and they’re the ones you’re trying to sell a product to, you ignore them at your peril.”

The part of the industry he will credit with change is streaming platforms, which have hard data on who their audiences are and what they are choosing to watch. In the old days, the studios would decide, largely on anecdotal evidence and guesswork, what the audience wanted. “It was weaponised against women and people of colour, against marginalised groups. ‘People don’t want to see a chick flick’, as they’d disparagingly call it. ‘Black doesn’t travel’.”

There are not many actors who speak out as confidently and with such commitment as Oyelowo. He could never be accused of talking the talk but not walking the walk. Even where he chooses to live his life is, to a degree, political. After living in America for several years, in 2016, Oyelowo and his wife, Jessica, became American citizens so they could vote. It was a decision he made after playing Dr. Martin Luther King in Ava Du Vernay’s Selma. “Having done a film about voting rights, in the form of Selma, it was starting to feel a little disingenuous doing interviews and talking to people about the importance of voting rights.”

Selma was a vital movie for Oyelowo for several reasons. Primarily, it was his first really big starring movie role. He was superb, playing one of the most famous and politically vital men of the 20th century. He was nominated for a slew of critics’ awards, an Independent Spirit Award and a Golden Globe. He probably should have been nominated for an Oscar, but that ties into the second major impact Selma had on him. It made him aware of his political power as a prominent Black actor.

David Oyelowo in ‘Selma’. Credit: Alamy / Moviestore Collection Ltd

Selma came out, in December 2014, a few months after the death of Eric Garner, who was killed by a police officer who held him in a choke hold while arresting him. His pleas of, “I can’t breathe” were captured on video and led to international outcry. At the New York premiere of Selma, Ava DuVernay, Oyelowo and the rest of the film’s cast wore “I can’t breathe” t-shirts in protest at the city’s failure to hold Garner’s killer accountable.

In a recent interview with Screen Daily, Oyelowo said members of the Oscar voting body contacted the film’s producers to express their displeasure at the protest and to say, “We are not going to vote for that film because we do not think it is their place to be doing that’.” Selma got two Oscar nominations, winning for Best Song. DuVernay was left off the Best Director list, which somehow found room for the director of The Intimidation Game (remember that?). Every single nominee in the acting categories that year was white.

“I wasn’t making assumptions [about Academy members not voting for Selma],” Oyelowo says. “There were articles where people were quoted saying they took offence at us protesting.” He doesn’t think that would happen now, but not because the industry has changed its stance.

“Again, I attribute this to audience rather than industry,” he says. “The Black Lives Matter movement and how it caught fire around the world was a people-led movement. It didn’t have anything to do with a pre-fabricated organisation. A lot of industries were having to play catch-up, issuing statements of solidarity – which to me rang quite hollow, unless they were chased by actions…It was pressure from people, not institutions.”

He does not believe Selma would face the same snubbing now, at least not overtly. “If you are an organisation like The Academy and you openly [object to that protest]…you would be on the wrong side of the argument, from a public point of view.”

“A lot of industries issuing statements of solidarity rang quite hollow”

As a US citizen, Oyelowo has just watched a major change in the country, as Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in the 2020 election. To a lot of people – if we’re honest, to a lot of white people – this marked a moment of relief, the closing of four years of lies, harsh division and corruption. However, 2020 is another year marked by the police killing of a Black man in plain sight. The murder of George Floyd sparked protests across the world. It showed some things don’t change. As a Black man in the US, does Oyelowo feel like we’re at a bright new moment for the country, or just putting a kinder face on the same deep-seated issues?

“I think what’s happened is there’s now a pin-prick of light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “Just by virtue of the fact we’re going to have a new narrative, a new approach…I mean, the most immediate and overt [change in approach] is going to be the virus. I think that’s going to be a big initial test for the new administration…I think there’s a communal hope that the approach that’s about to be adopted will be toward something good. If it is, there will be a groundswell of hope, which let’s be honest, we all need a bit of that right now.”

David Oyelowo in ‘The Midnight Sky’ Credit: Netflix/Entertainment Pictures

Even before the virus is sent on its merry way, Oyelowo’s own future is looking good. Later this month will see the release of The Midnight Sky, the previously mentioned George Clooney movie. He plays one member of a crew of astronauts returning to Earth, unaware that a global catastrophe has rendered the planet virtually uninhabitable. Ever ambitious, Oyelowo used the opportunity to study how Clooney balanced being actor and director.

“Having just directed a film that I also acted in, it was great to work with a guy who has done it prolifically,” he says. “My film school has been working with great directors, and I would definitely put George up there… And I got to play an astronaut, which is never a bad thing.”

It’s not certain what his next shooting project will be, but he hopes it will be Sweet Thunder, a long-gestating biopic of Sugar Ray Robinson, not least because he’s been physically training for it since before the pandemic. Sweet Thunder will be his second film in a row directed by Nate Parker. The first was Solitary, the film they shot during the pandemic, in which Oyelowo plays a man released from solitary confinement after seven years. Parker became a hot name in Hollywood in 2016, when his film Birth of a Nation started building awards buzz. The significant attention on him resurfaced rape allegations from 1999.

David Oyelowo at the 91st Annual Academy Awards in 2019. Credit: Getty

He and Birth of a Nation co-writer, John McGianni Celestin, were accused of the rape of a fellow student when they attended Penn State University. Celestin was found guilty, then his conviction was overturned on appeal. Parker was acquitted. Their accuser died by suicide in 2012. Though he was cleared, Parker’s handling of the controversy, including hostile reaction in media interviews, quickly tarnished his golden boy status in the industry. It was compounded when homophobic quotes from a 2014 interview resurfaced, when Parker declared he, “would never play a gay man.” Parker effectively left the industry for three years. Oyelowo thinks his new regular collaborator deserves another chance.

“I would just say, be open to hear what he has to say, which [you] will hear soon,” he says. “I think he’s made the right choice to sort of lay low and do some learning and do some reflection, and do some maturing… Hopefully, people will have an openness to hear who he actually is, as opposed to what their perception is.”

“I would definitely put George Clooney up there with the great directors”

Sugar Ray Robinson would be a huge role for Oyelowo. It would likely be his most talked about since Selma, playing one of the most famous boxers ever. He wants to play him because he says Robinson is in large part responsible for turning sportspeople into media personalities.

“He was an innovator,” he says. “He was a brilliant boxer but hated boxing. He wanted to be an entertainer… Muhammad Ali would not be Muhammad Ali without Sugar Ray Robinson, in terms of his style, but also so many boxers would not have the business acumen. He was the first boxer who kind of owned himself and was business savvy…The irony is that even though he was business savvy, he wasn’t very good at surrounding himself with the right people.”

David Oyelowo. Credit: Austin Hargrave

The film will be a rags to riches to nearly rags story. It won’t be possible to make it until social distancing ends, because it’s a little hard to shoot a boxing match without anybody touching one another. Nevertheless, Oyelowo is keeping himself in fighting form until it’s time to go. It’s hard to tell from the head and shoulders visible on Zoom, but Instagram confirms that the 44-year-old is absolutely ripped. He’s spent lockdown running on the treadmill, sparring and lifting heavy stuff.

“You know, I think a lot of people are going to re-emerge quite a bit larger than they were before this began,” he says, in a way that frankly seems a little pointed. “This is a nice professional excuse to not have to deal with that.” Of course while the rest of us have spent lockdown emptying the fridge and using exercise bikes to dry our washing, David Oyelowo has been using it to get in the shape of his life. The man has too many things left to do. He’s making sure he’s ready to come out fighting the second the world is ready for him again.

‘Come Away’ is in UK cinemas from December 18