British actor David Oyelowo became a household name as MI5 officer Danny Brooks in the TV series Spooks. He went on to play supporting roles in many box office films, such as Red Tails (2012), Middle of Nowhere (2012) Lincoln (2012) and The Butler (2013) to name but a few. His role as Martin Luther King, Jr in the biographical drama film Selma, which was released in the US in December 2014, earned him a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Actor (Drama)
A devout Christian, Oyelowo believes God called him to play Rev. Martin Luther King. Keep The Faith spoke with him about his role in Selma, working with Oprah Winfrey and his faith . . .
Tobi Akingbade (TA): What was your first response when you were first asked to play Dr Martin Luther King?
David Oyelowo (DO): Well, I read the script in 2007, about two months after my wife and I had moved to America to pursue our acting careers, and I felt God tell me that I was going to play Dr King in this film. I put myself on tape for the director at the time, but the director didn’t agree that I was right to play him. But, having felt like this was a call from God to do it, I basically just decided “OK … let’s see what God does”.
That director moved on and two other directors came and went. In 2010 when Lee Daniels became attached I was cast in the film. I had worked with Lee Daniels on ‘The Butler’, but we still couldn’t get the film off the ground. Then Lee felt it was time for him to move on from ‘Selma’.
I had worked with Ava DuVernay on a much smaller film called ‘The Middle Of Nowhere’, and I recommended her for ‘Selma’, and so she was brought on as director. It was a very unorthodox path: from God telling me I was going to do it; to a director telling me I shouldn’t do it; to me recommending a director that did do it!
TA: You mentioned that God told you that one day you would play Martin Luther King. What tips would you give our readers on hearing and recognising God’s voice?
DO: I think God speaks to everyone differently. I have four children, and the way I talk to one doesn’t work for the other; it all depends on the relationship. Hearing the voice of God is very much incumbent upon your relationship with Him. Like any relationship, you are able to hear someone far more if you relate to them daily. At the time that I heard God tell me about ‘Selma’, I had been praying and fasting, so my ears were far more attuned to Him speaking and cutting out the white noise of life. The way I hear Him tends to be a voice that crosses my own will; I want to go one way and He comes along and says, “This is the way to go”.
TA: Along the way, did you ever doubt that what you heard was actually true?
DO: There were definitely very challenging moments, but it has all been divine timing. I’ve felt God say, “In My divine time … this will happen”, and what has been so encouraging is that the notion of ‘divine timing’ was given to me in my prayer life. Now I’m doing interviews with people, or people are talking about the film, and they are using that phrase ‘divine timing’. In relation to some of what’s going on racially in America right now – like the murders of unarmed Black men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner- it’s like this private notion is now a publicly accepted truth, and that’s also indicative to me of God’s faithfulness in finishing what He started.
TA: You kept the faith, you believed in what God had told you. How did you prepare yourself for the role?
DO: I started right there and then. If there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s to work hard. What I couldn’t have anticipated is that I would be afforded the opportunity to do four films in particular, all of which touched upon the Civil Rights movement. I played a Unionist soldier in ‘Lincoln’ (set in 1865), an African American fighter pilot in ‘Red Tails’, a preacher in ‘The Help’, and the son of the butler in ‘The Butler’ (set in 2008). I had an education into what it is to be an African American over a 150-year period, which I needed as a Brit.
I noticed that when Dr King was giving his speeches, he was flowing in an anointing that was outside himself. I just watched him and I’m like “Wow, this is God plus man”. I think the seven years it took to get the film made actually helped me as an actor to be able to play Dr King.
TA: What did you learn from Martin Luther King whilst doing the role, as a Christian?
DO: I learned the difference between talking the Word and doing the Word. What really struck me was that for 13 years he did it: he walked it, he lived it; not only his life, but his children’s lives were under threat; death threats every day. He still chose to go out there and submit to the call of God upon his life till the day he died. To me, that’s where the rubber hits the road as a Christian, and certainly as a leader.
TA: You played him in an era of his life that was quite intense. What was your most memorable scene to act out, the one that had the most impact?
DO: One scene in particular was the speeches I give in the church. We had 500 extras in the church, and I had the opportunity to pray with everyone before we shot the scene. Just as I had finished praying, Ava DuVernay (the director) was just about to say “Action” when all the lights went out, and an unforecasted thunderstorm started, so we couldn’t shoot. We went outside and the sky was pink and blue with a double rainbow. The people basically said they had never seen anything like it. When the storm passed, we all felt that we had seen something supernatural. It was extraordinary. It was almost as if God stopped everything and showed up for everyone. It was really a remarkable day for me.
TA: What was it like acting with Oprah Winfrey again, after starring alongside her in ‘The Butler’?
DO: What I admire so much about her is the fact that, even though she is who she is, she never projects that. A bit like Dr King, he never thought of himself as an icon, and that’s what I admire about Oprah. I asked her to be a producer in the film, because you want that truthful energy around you, and I adore her as a person.
TA: How would you like ‘Selma’ to impact your audience?
DO: I think the power of non-violent protest; of love in the face of hatred, and of solidarity (between all races and different faiths) brings about change, and that’s a very potent message today, certainly in America and what’s going on in Paris with the hideous terrorist attacks. Love will win out. The light will always obliterate the darkness.
TA: Do you think, with what’s going on in the UK and the US regarding police and race issues, that this is an ideology that can still be held, like it was in the 60s?
DO: I think if you’re referring to ideology of non-violence, love and social responsibility, I think absolutely, because there is no alternative. You can’t fight fire with fire. Well, you can, but it just burns everyone to the ground. I absolutely believe that even though it tends to be the longer road, it forces the perpetrators to look in the mirror. You can’t change people just by talking at them or shooting at them, but you can change some of them by your disposition, and by loving them because it pours hot coal on their heads, just like it says in the Bible.
TA: What advice would you give to people of faith, who are in an industry that may encourage them to compromise their faith?
DO: Be the head and not the tail. You’ve got to know what God wants, not just biblically but personally. There are times when God wants you to go to a dark place in order to be the light in that place … but that’s not for everyone! Then there are non-negotiables, like anything that encourages darkness.
TA: Aside from ‘Selma’ and starring in ‘Americanah’ alongside Lupita Nyong’o, what other projects do you have set for 2015?
DO: I’m doing another film, again with Lupita, called the ‘Queen of Katwe’. It’s a true story about a girl in Uganda, who is plucked out of obscurity by my character, who inspires her to play chess, and she becomes a grandmaster despite her not being able to read. It’s a triumph of the human spirit, and we are going to start shooting that in the next few months.
“SELMA” is the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic struggle to secure voting rights for all people – a dangerous and terrifying campaign that culminated with the epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and led to President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is on general release from February.