The Light in Dark Places David Oyelowo
You may know him as Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma, but British-born actor David Oyelowo has taken on inspiring, complex and dark characters his entire career. Working in a variety of films ranging from Lincoln to Interstellar, The Help to Jack Reacher, The Paperboy to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Butler to A Most Violent Year and the list continues. With his most current film, Captive, based on the real life events that occurred in March of 2005, Oyelowo plays convicted killer Brian Nichols who escaped an Atlanta courthouse where he was on trial after killing the judge presiding over his case as well as others. He then went on to kidnap Ashley Smith and take her hostage. Smith read Pastor Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life, while Nichols searched for redemption. The role may seem like an interesting choice for this devout Christian who has been outspoken about his faith throughout his career. But for Oyelowo, telling the redemptive story of the convict was too powerful not to tell. Risen caught up with this talented star to learn more about his faith, picking characters, second chances and living life by conviction.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: You have worked on some incredible films with the best of the best when it comes to fellow actors and directors. I’m sure it was always a hope to work with Steven Speilberg, like you were able to for Lincoln, or Christopher Nolan, like you did for Interstellar, so when did you feel acting was your calling?
David Oyelowo: It came later for me than for most people. I come from a Nigerian family and my parents are very much the kind that celebrated academia over any kind of artistic endeavor and being a good son. Even though I had done youth theater when I was younger it never registered as a “proper” job for me. It wasn’t until I took drama in high school. I remember very clearly having a teacher that approached me and said, “David, I wouldn’t say this to everyone, but I truly believe that you could make a living out of doing this. I believe that you are good enough.” She helped me with my application to drama schools and I received a scholarship to go to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. That was really the point at which I decided that this is what I am going to do with my life. It wasn’t giving a particular performance when I was young because like I said, it was something I thought was just fun and I had an aptitude for. Once I went to drama school and learned acting as a craft, then it became my passion.
RM: It’s refreshing to see someone with your platform talk about their faith and live authentically. What has your spiritual journey looked like?
DO: I was brought up in a Christian home. My parents are Baptists. That was very much my experience growing up. I got to the age of 15 and realized I was piggybacking on my parent’s faith. It didn’t really register or ring true for me. At the age of 16, I made this naïve deal as it were, with God, whoever he may be and said, “If you are real, I am going to a different church.” I was bored at my parent’s church. “If you don’t show up for me in three months, I am out. I am going to go off and do whatever I want to do.” God appeared to me. There is no other way of rephrasing it. I heard a discernible voice say to me, “David there is nothing you can do to make me love you less.” It was so unexpected. It came out of nowhere. It was outside my experience of the Bible or my religious upbringing. It rang very true for me and it was the reason I was looking for. It became the point on which I couldn’t shake the reality of God. As the Bible says, “you go from faith to faith.” That moment was a feat of faith that then got nourished by the Word and my experiences. I have just grown in my faith ever since.
But in the midst of it there is redemption and sometimes it is linked to people who don’t necessarily have it all together.
RM: You gave an amazing performance last year as Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, and you also play a minister in The Help, but you’ve also had to go to dark places like in Nightingale and Rise of the Planet Apes and in your current role in Captive you play a real-life convicted murderer… so how does faith impact the choices you make when it comes to picking characters to portray onscreen?DO: My feeling is that anyone who has read the Bible, that if it is indeed the Word of God, they can see that God himself does not shy away from darkness in the terms of portraying and showing all sides of who we are as people. Also the Bible doesn’t glamourize darkness or immorality, it shows it. For me, light shines brightest in the darkness. I am not one to discriminate playing a role like Dr. King or Brian Nichols just because one is a man of God who fights for justice, and the other one is a murderer. The thing for me is at the end of the day, what does the film leave you with? If it is hope, if it is the truth of redemption, if it is like Captive with the miracle of being given a second chance, then that is a story I want to be a part of telling, because it very much resonates with my moral compass which is shaped by Christian beliefs. That’s where I land on it. I don’t shy away from playing dark characters as long as ultimately what is being pointed to is the light.
RM: In becoming Brian Nichols, the man who kills four people and takes Ashley Smith hostage in Captive, what was it like to play a character that contradicts your beliefs?
DO: It was very difficult, if I am honest. Playing Brian Nichols was one of the least attractive propositions in both acting and producing Captive. I was almost more inspired and drawn to Ashley Smith’s story and her life beyond these events. I’m not saying that because it wasn’t creatively rewarding to play Brian Nichols. It was. For me, I can’t play a role unless I truly immerse myself in whom that person is and part of that is getting into their headspace to understand why they did what they did, or do what they do. As you can imagine, in the case of Brian Nichols, who killed four people in one morning, he had to be in a very dark place and you have to inhabit that and study that as an actor. I did the best I could to do that, but it was not a comfortable place to be.
RM: For the hostage, Ashley, her life is transformed by the bestselling Christian book, The Purpose Drive Life. What do you feel like your purpose is in life?
DO: I had read The Purpose Driven Life before I encountered Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols’ story. When I read it, my takeaway from it was that God’s purpose for my life is always going to be bigger than any kind of purpose that I can hope for in my life. God always sees us bigger and with more grace and unmerited favor than we even see for ourselves. But with that, anything that God does, in my experience, is generational. It transcends the individual. Anyone you see in the Bible who God really used, it wasn’t just for that individual’s purposes. You only have to read the parable of the talents to see that God gives us gifts to invest and redouble. He doesn’t want us to come back with what we were given. For me, that book is really about the fact that we are blessed and nourished in order to bless and nourish others. That is what the story of Captive is about really.
Ashley Smith had hit rock bottom. She was living a life devoid of purpose in many ways. She had lost custody of her daughter. She was a meth addict and her husband had even died in a drug-related incident. Everything around her suggested she was in a downward spiral that she needed to pull herself out of, but she couldn’t. It took Brian Nichols invading her apartment at gunpoint for her to refuse to take meth. That, in and of itself, was a miraculous circumstance for her to turn away from the very thing that had held her captive.
That night, she regained her life. It benefited and blessed so many people beyond herself. She got custody of her daughter back. She married a man who she now has two children with. She has spent the last ten years speaking to thousands of people who are also captive to drug addiction, and that, to me, is what a life of purpose means. It is when God blesses you that there is an overflow that affects the lives of those around you. That’s the thing that is so extraordinary to me. I have never touched a drug in my life. If a guy I knew killed four people that very day, had a gun to my head forcing me to take drugs, I can’t promise you I wouldn’t take it to save my life. That was the moment where she refused to take it. By Ashley’s own admission, she felt that in that moment that God took over Brian’s body and said, “How far are you going to go with this thing? Do you want to live? Are you going to turn away from this thing that is killing you?” And that was the point where she turned away from drugs. The intensity of that scene was very real. Even though I was a part of reenacting it, it was still an extraordinary thing.
RM: What do you hope people will take away from Captive?
DO: I hope that like in the case of me when I was sixteen and God told me, “David there is nothing you can do to make me love you less,” I hope that rings true for others too. Especially in the case of Ashley Smith, there is no sin that is too big for the blood of Jesus to cover. There is nothing we can do in this life that make us completely irredeemable. There are things we can do that mean, like Brian Nichols, you end up paying a price. Brian is serving multiple life-sentences for what he did. But I am a believer in life after this life. There is a second chance for Brian as well. The second chance for Ashley was afforded here on this earth as well as beyond this life. We all have that at our disposal if we are prepared to step into it. We have all done things that we would like to have second chance. We have all done things we have regretted and are not particularly proud of. None of us are beyond redemption. For me, the movie is about the miracle of the second chance. I think anyone and everyone walking the earth knows what it is like to desire that or to experience that.
RM: I like that perspective that they both had a second chance. It isn’t the fairy tale ending that everyone wants. But Brian does have to pay the consequences for his choices but there is a second chance for him in that as well.
DO: That is why I wanted to tell the story. Sometimes in films that have a faith element, I think that things can be rose tinted and portray a world that doesn’t exist for your average person. Life is hard and things happen that you can’t fully understand. But in the midst of it there is redemption and sometimes it is linked to people who don’t necessarily have it all together. Not every situation has a Christian on hand walking you through what is going on. Sometimes God simply infiltrates the situation because He can. That to me is what happened with this particular incident. That’s the power of it. I hope that people who are on the fence or don’t have a faith at all are able to watch this film and walk away with something.
RM: For your most recent roles it seems that you have adopted the “method” style of acting. Why the switch, and how has it changed your process and the overall end result? Is it something you will continue or only for specific projects?
DO: It is certainly far more exhausting. I don’t think it is something I will apply to every role I play. I don’t think every role requires it. I adopted it when I played Dr. King and when I did Nightingale and also when I was playing Brian Nichols. I think playing Peter Snowden in Nightingale, I was the only character in that film, and we were shooting it for three weeks. He also had multiple personality disorder. There were seven different voices bouncing around in his head. I felt to add my own would be a little bit too much. I shelved myself for three weeks.
Then you’re playing Dr. King as a British actor in Atlanta, and in Selma, both where he is from and where these events took place. I felt like to give myself a chance at getting this right I had to put myself aside. I’m sure I will do it again. I saw it work so effectively with the actors I worked with. I saw Daniel Day Lewis in character the whole time playing Lincoln and Forest Whitaker who I played opposite in The Last King of Scotland. Each role requires something different and that’s what I love about being an actor. The one thing I look for in the roles I play is for the opportunity to challenge myself and therefore the audience.
RM: You recently shared that you want to get behind stories that you want to be told. If you could tell any story or be any character, what is the next role you would like to play?
DO: The next character I am going to play is a man by the name of Seretse Khama. It is another true story. He was the prince and heir to the throne of Botswana. Before becoming king, he married a white lady in the United Kingdom while studying law there just after WWII. Their interracial marriage caused a lot of problems for the government of South Africa, the royal family of Botswana and the U.K., all of which resisted the idea of an interracial marriage. Their love changed the nation of Botswana forever for the better and they fought an injustice that looked to destroy their love. I’m behind a story like Selma and to a certain degree like Captive and now this one; it is about light shining through in a dark place.
RM: Whether it’s talking about Oscar controversy, or race-relations, even a stance where your faith contradicts mainstream, you have the courage to speak truth in love, what advice could you share with our readers about how to live their life by conviction?
DO: I have found that in the world today, which hasn’t always been the case, but more now than ever, where there is so much noise and everyone has a voice, whether it is social media or whatever it is, the thing that makes the difference is not what you say but what you do. As believers, as Christians, words are cheap. They have always been cheap, but now more ever. If you truly love, I try to let my work do the talking in many ways, in the films I do, the life I lead, the father and husband that I am. At the end of the day, faith without works is dead.
I truly believe that actions speak louder than words. So whatever your spiritual conviction is, let it play out in your life. Don’t let it be something you just pay lip service to. I think people really respect it. It is what Jesus did. He would often perform miracles. He would sometimes even say, “Don’t go around telling everyone.” I think the reason He did that is because He knows that words are cheap and what really matters is what happens on an interpersonal level. I’m inspired by that, to let your life do the talking.
RM: I understand you met your wife as a teen during National Youth Musical Theatre. How has sharing that background set a foundation for marital success and raising kids together?
DO: My wife and I got married very young. She was 20 and I was 22. One of the jewels in our relationship and marriage is that everything we have, we have built together. Sometimes, it is a challenge for newlyweds if they have lived a long time as singles before they get married; you have to spend more time piquing your independence. My wife and I grew up interdependent and for us, that’s been a beautiful thing. We were virgins when we were got married and that is something that only the two of us share. Most people don’t have that, but it is one of the reasons I love my wife even more. We are about to celebrate our 17th wedding anniversary and those things are an enhancement to our marriage.
RM: You were honored for your non-profit work promoting educational opportunities for youngsters in Nigeria. How did you become involved with that cause?
DO: The world knows about what is happening in northern Nigeria with the girls that were kidnapped. A lot of what surrounds that situation is a desire to keep these girls from being educated, marginalized and subjugated. For myself and also [fellow actor] Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is also of Nigerian descent, even though we grew up in the U.K., what we are doing with Geanco [a foundation that saves and transforms the lives of the poor and vulnerable in Africa] is to raise money for girls to be educated in both northern Nigeria and in eastern Nigeria to make a statement that the education of girls is something we value and we are going to help facilitate. Even though there are elements that don’t want to see that happen, we will use any platform we have to see that injustice turned around as much as we can.