by Elle Morris
photography by Patrick Fraser
David Oyelowo, starring in The Butler; Nina; and Default, started on the stage. Shortly out of drama school in the UK, he became the first black actor ever to play a Shakespearean monarch, portraying Henry VI in all three parts. This accomplishment is noted repeatedly in his press.
“At the time… I have to admit to feeling a little bit of the pressure of that moniker [First Black Royal] placed upon me,” he says of the role. “Ten years on… something I’m very proud of is that I’ve now met several actors, several people who saw the show for whom it was very significant for them to see and to know that a black man could do that.”
There’s a more personal meaning to the experience as well: “…[It] takes you from being an actor who thinks they can do certain things to an actor who almost feels like they can do anything. Because if you can play Henry VI in parts one, two and three, and do all three plays on a Saturday… that just gives you a confidence as an actor that you can’t buy.”
He could have stayed in the UK and reveled in acclaim, but there was more to be done. David moved with his family to Hollywood in 2007, looking to expand his career, though it certainly wasn’t easy.
“2008, that famous economic meltdown took place and it was coupled with a terrible writer’s strike,” David recalls. “And so the American Dream that we had come to pursue was looking like it had just flitted off into the wind because everything had drawn to a standstill.” They were prepared, though, and I think we can agree that Hollywood is thankful that he and his wife were so determined.
It’s been a good few years for David, stealing hearts with his performances in The Help, Lincoln, and Jack Reacher. It’s about to get better. In The Butler he’ll portray Louis Gaines, son of Forest Whitaker’s character; in Nina he’ll help tell the story of Nina Simone, playing her manager and lover Clifton Henderson; and in Default he’ll give us an action flick centered around a plane hijacking. It’s a bit of a mix, sure, but they have one thing in common: A great story.
“… That’s what I look for, almost above and beyond the part that I get to play within it; I just really want to be part of incredible stories… stories that need to be told.”
The Butler, the story of Eugene Allen, the White House butler who served eight presidents before his death in 2010. The film is, at its heart, a story of change.
“From day one, I just loved about The Butler that it was the story of America through the eyes of the most unassuming individual within that historical context. And we’re talking about the 20th century which was such a bustling and vibrant time in this country’s genesis… But also I think the 20th century is the century within which this country underwent its most amount of change. Forest Whitaker’s character starts in the 1920s as a sharecropper’s son and by 2008 he’s being honored by Barack Obama. For that to happen within 100 years, I would love to see another country be able to claim that level of change in that amount of time.”
In anybody’s book, the story of that kind of change happening around a humble butler – who saw JFK assassinated and the signing of the Civil Rights Act – should qualify it for a story that needs to be told. So is it being told because of our own more recent troubles and political climate?
“It’s amazing that this film got made, period… It ended up with something crazy – like 28 investors to cobble this thing together. So I really don’t think there’s any notion of ‘Okay, we’re in a moment now we’re quick! Let’s get The Butler going’.”
Even so, the Supreme Court recently struck down the Voting Rights Act; one of the key pieces of legislation to come from the civil rights movement 50 years ago – to little protest. This is probably because voting is a right we take for granted. David hopes that this film will help remind people that it shouldn’t be.
“I think one of the values of films like this, is that, especially for young people, it reminds them of how freedoms that we take for granted today, how hard-fought they were. People died. Not just the JFKs and the Martin Luther Kings, but people whose names you will never hear of died in order for us to be able to vote. When you think about the seismic achievement it was to get LBJ to sign that act… and that this [Supreme Court decision] can happen and people aren’t up in the streets about it… [it’s] indicative of the fact that we make the same mistakes, time and again. And that is one of the reasons I think that films like The Butler, they aren’t just pieces of entertainment; they remind us of who we are and where we’ve come from.”
In other words: “You kind of forgive people for forgetting, but it doesn’t mean it’s okay.”
Practically a day later, the Supreme Court decided that DOMA wasn’t okay. David’s not sure that’s just America being ADD, though.
“I think what it speaks to is that we are a culture of the now. The marriage equality agenda is very much at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds; it’s the zeitgeist of the day. To me, the fact that while that’s happening, another hard-fought freedom is being curtailed, suggests that we don’t learn the lesson. America can be very proud of itself in terms of being progressive, but to be regressive at the same time.”
Yeah, the short attention span can be a little frightening.
But David’s not all about sweeping American change and reminding the young folk about where they come from; it can be anything from a love story to a hijacking. He came across Nina in 2010, though it’s taken three years to get the film through production. “I just felt it was a very unconventional love story. Nina Simone, of course, was a force of nature as a musician and she was the same way as a person… It was an opportunity to tell a complicated love story, which all the best love stories are.”
And Default – a plane hijacking that will be as violent as any thriller must be. Don’t let that fool you into thinking there won’t be a real story behind it, or that the violence will be gratuitous. “I love a good action-thriller, but what I don’t enjoy is when violence is inconsequential, when it’s just there as entertainment.”
As much as some may put the onus on films and video games for the violence that pervades our nation, there are some who scoff at the idea. They pack in another explosion to distract people from the fact that they don’t really have anything to say. David’s not one of them.
“I’m not one of these filmmakers who is of the mind that it doesn’t matter what we put out, [that] it has no affect on the audience; I think that’s naive and irresponsible and just frankly untrue. Movies are one of the most influential things on planet earth. Otherwise, what’s the point? What’s the point of killing yourself to get a movie done if you’re not gonna tell a story that is evocative of who we are as human beings? So I think it’s just a lie and it’s an excuse to put out bad material that you don’t want to take responsibility for.”
It’s not entirely lack of story that causes the excess of violence in movies these days. CGI is a huge factor in making the sheer visual spectacle of a modern movie. It’s also a huge factor in making death caused by huge fights seem entirely non-existent, so it gets brushed off.
“We are in an age where apparently bigger is better. And we’re also in an age where if you’re gonna make films at a hundred million dollars, two hundred million dollars… Effectively it’s the equivalent of July 4th fireworks.” David chuckles. “And every year, I know for a fact as I get older, the fireworks get mmmmmmm leeeeeess impressive and more ‘hmmmm, yeah…’ And I think filmmakers feel a pressure and a need to give us more and more fireworks to keep on getting us to the theater. I think that’s it, basically, and let’s face it – it seems to be working.”
There may be a pushback to it eventually, but we have a calendar that allows for this kind of explosion-ridden movie to stay alive and kicking in the summer; while fall movies are more artsy. David’s not worried about a lack of ‘fall movie’ material being created to help oxidize the summer explosion movie, mostly because for the next phase of his career he’s intending to start being one of the creators. In part we can thank Tom Cruise for that.
“… After we did Jack Reacher I sat [Tom Cruise] down and I said, ‘Look, how have you done it? How have you managed to be this movie star for 30 years?’ And he said to me, ‘From Taps on, there’s not a single project I’ve done that I didn’t have a hand in creating.’ And he said: ‘David, create. Don’t wait for anyone. Never wait for anyone.’ The next phase of my career I want to be not just me joining films that are already going, but I want to be films that I have been part of either conceiving or bringing to fruition. Because I think that’s how – you can’t just carp about material out there not being good if you’re not gonna… if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
With the talent at his finger tips and three great movies just waiting to hit the screens this fall, the next phase of David’s career may be on him sooner than he thinks. And that’s a great thing.