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Playing between light and shade

by
02 October 2015

David Oyelowo’s film roles have switched from a statesman to a killer. He talked to Simon Jones

 

PA

"Authentic": David Oyelowo

"Authentic": David Oyelowo

FOR a Hollywood lead such as David Oyelowo, press days tend to be endured rather than enjoyed. But the movie he’s here to promote — Captive, the true story of a single mother held hostage by a murderer on the run — is not just another job.

Oyelowo plays Brian Nichols, a psychotic killer — which might be a shock to anyone who last saw him play the venerable Martin Luther King Jnr in Selma. Back then, he said he needed to feel God flowing through him to play the role, because King’s anointing was so noticeable. This time, Nichols, whom we see killing three people as he escapes a rape trial, claims to have a demon inside him.

"That’s what gave me pause before taking the role," Oyelowo says, carefully. "I was drawn to the story in its totality, but the prospect of playing this character was not an attractive one to me.

"In order to play these roles, you have to go there. It does mean going to dark places: it is exhausting; it is very uncomfortable. But I’m a great believer in the fact that, ultimately, the light overwhelms the darkness. You have to be able to show darkness in its true form in order to see the light; so it was a sacrifice I was willing to make.’

Nichols’s hostage was Ashley Smith, a young woman who had turned to crystal meth after the murder of her husband. Smith is given a copy of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life at a recovery centre, and it’s the only book in the house when Nichols forces his way in to hide from the police. Warren’s text is crucial to the plot, just as it had been to a younger Oyelowo.

"I had read the book before I knew anything about the Smith story. What I got out of it was that God’s purpose for my life was much greater than anything I could see for myself.

"When I saw this script, it was an illustration of that. Ashley Smith read the book to Brian Nichols out of desperation. She just needed something to try to prolong a situation in which she doesn’t get killed. It just so happened that God used that situation to impact both of them."

 

THE easy use of religious language is unusual in a British actor, particularly in what he acknowledges is now a secular culture. But Oyelowo is steeped in faith, talking freely of how he saw it in his parents before making it his own. Rick Warren’s book was influential, but it was The Pilgrim’s Progress that perhaps goes the deepest.

"It’s a favourite of mine. I think we get more from parables because you’re able to project yourself on to the story: what would I do? How does that speak to my life? I’m not as drawn to books that tell you exactly what to do." But he loves St James’s epistle, too. "It really challenges me. You read it and go, OK, I’ve got to look at that again."

Does this naturalness with Christianity frighten other people in the entertainment industry?

"Perhaps it’s naïvety, but I’ve never had a problem talking about my faith. There are a few people who have spoken a word of caution about it, but anything that’s authentic is undeniable. And I don’t just talk about my faith: I try to live it out — as a father, as a husband, as an actor, as a human being.

"I think that makes it something that you can’t marginalise, you can’t deny. It may not be your thing, it may not be something you particularly like to be around, you may not like to watch my movies, but I think the problem comes when you say one thing and your life is different to that. That’s when I think people become impatient [with me].

"That’s when I think people become impatient with the Church, when hypocrisy is an accusation that can be genuinely and rightly levelled at us. That’s when the problems start."

 

OYELOWO’s approach to faith feeds into the film-making process. His company, Yoruba Saxon, which he runs with his wife and fellow actor, Jessica, who also appears in the film, produced Captive.

The couple understand how cinema’s storytelling shapes culture. "The fact that film impacts culture is just a truism. People don’t read as much any more. I’ve been in parts of Africa where there’s no running water, but there is a satellite dish and people sit around a TV screen. This medium is just so powerful, and so far-reaching.

"But I think less about trying to make the audience think A, B, or C. I just want to tell the truth. Does it feel true? Does it feel authentic? Does it feel like this is what it is to be a human being here on earth? Am I showing you a side of humanity that may not be your experience but is one where you can get something from the characters that makes you look at the world differently, or in a revelatory way."

This means, inevitably, that there are roles that just aren’t for him. You can find the human in a villain, but often, he says, it’s a nuanced distinction.

"I don’t shy away from playing dark roles, but I’m not interested in parts that glamorise or glorify the darkness. For better or worse, heroes are made on screen that people emulate in life. To show the darkness for what it is — and the light as something to aspire to — is to be a responsible citizen, is to be a responsible father as I am to four children, and is to properly harness the power of storytelling on the scale that I’m afforded."

You wouldn’t call this preaching, but it is a message. Captive follows the pattern. It’s difficult to predict whether the film will resonate in secular England, but Oyelowo is worth the watch.

 

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