For the Oxford-born, Nigeria-raised David Oyelowo, the last few years have been a profoundly deep — and sometimes harrowing — dive into the African American experience.
The actor has played a Tuskegee airman in George Lucas’ “Red Tails,” a U.S. cavalryman in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” and a Southern preacher in “The Help.” But things really got intense when he had to endure abuse at a segregated lunch counter and mobs of Klansmen for his part as a civil rights activist in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”
“It was horrible. It’s one thing to read about it, to even talk to people who went through it or see the documentary footage. When you have to spend half a night being spat at, kicked, having milkshake or ketchup or coffee thrown at you — there’s no way to stage that. You had to do it,” said Oyelowo, 37. “Then you think: I can walk away from this. I can wave my hands and cut. These guys couldn’t. .... People lost their lives. Or they went back to work and back to school and had to face the kind of prejudice that is indicative of the kind of behavior we’re depicting in the film.”
In “The Butler,” Oyelowo plays Louis Gaines, the son of a White House staffer portrayed by Forest Whitaker, and their contentious relationship serves as the primary source of tension in the film. Though the film is inspired by the real-life story of butler Eugene Allen, Louis is an invented, almost Zelig-like figure who turns up at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C., on Freedom Rider buses and in meetings with Martin Luther King Jr.
While some critics have bemoaned the character as an overly simplistic device to give the film heft, Oyelowo’s performance has been lauded as “masterful” and “impressive throughout” by reviewers for USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. Having lived only six years in the United States, Oyelowo delves deeply into research for his roles.
He spent months studying the Civil Rights movement, pulling particular inspiration from the life of Rep. John Lewis, now 73, the onetime chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who spoke alongside King at the 1963 March on Washington. Oyelowo’s character was born in Georgia in 1940 and, like Lewis, attended Fisk University in Nashville.
“My character is the love child of John Lewis and Stokely Carmichael,” said Oyelowo. “The only part of what I represent in ‘The Butler’ that John Lewis didn’t do is become a Black Panther. And people who were in the SNCC did go on, or become affiliated with, the Panthers. It’s not inconceivable. But John Lewis was a big inspiration.”
Daniels didn’t make playing such a character easy for Oyelowo. During the film, Louis ages 40 years from a teenager to a middle-aged man, but the director was reluctant to rely on makeup to show the passage of time. Instead, Oyelowo said, Daniels pushed the actor to use more naturalistic means.
When playing Louis at 17, Oyelowo was sure to sleep 10 hours a night and drink large quantities of water; he cut back on both as his character aged. To attain a puffier look for his scenes with King (Nelsan Ellis), Oyelowo ate salty foods. As his character became more militant, he spent a lot of time in the gym.
“That was all Lee. Trust me, I wasn’t looking for that, but we had to try and make it work,” said Oyelowo. “There are all sorts of tricks and combined with the body, combined with the attitude, it works. Literally, the first time I wear makeup in the film is when you see me at the South African embassy” late in the movie.
But the physical transformation for Oyelowo — who has played Henry VI on the British stage, morphing from 14 to 60 over the course of the day — was nothing compared with enduring some of the most racially charged scenes. The most difficult, he said, was the one in which Ku Klux Klansmen attack a Freedom Riders bus.
“With all those people in the KKK outfits, the noise got so loud that they couldn’t hear cut when Lee called it. The bus was been shoved. They had the torches and these extras had to be whipped into such a frenzy for it to play that there was no amount of screaming you could do for ‘cut’ to register,” he said. “In the moment, it got very real.”
Daniels, too, found the bus scene the hardest part of the production.
“I’m laying on the floor of the bus and yelling action — trying to get reaction shots of the fear,” he said. “And then they start coming, you see the flames, I’m seeing the KKK and the swastikas and the N-word being hurled and it’s terrifying. And I could see the terror — at some point I don’t think David and those guys were acting anymore. I stopped them and told them ‘cut.’ They can’t hear me. I go to the window and yell ‘cut,’ and they still don’t hear me. I’m trying to get off the bus.”
It was, the director said, “one of those Oprah Winfrey, aha! moments. Those kids were heroes. There was no one to yell ‘cut.’ They are heroes in a way I will never understand.”
Finding his place
While Oyelowo did his formal drama training in London, he spent seven years of his childhood living in western Nigeria, his parents’ homeland. Living in a country where he was part of the racial majority, he says, had a major effect on his outlook on life, and his career. It’s an upbringing similar to that of his idol, Sidney Poitier, who grew up in the Bahamas. (Ironically, in “The Butler,” Oyelowo, as Louis, has to disparage the Oscar-winning actor in one affecting moment.)
“I literally think [Poitier] achieving what he achieved when he did is because his childhood was in a country other than America, where everyone around him looked like him,” said Oyelowo. “He didn’t carry himself with any notion of inferiority, or a self-fulfilling prophecy that he’s not going to be given the opportunities. He made decisions on that basis, which is essentially the idea that I’m not going to take anything that is beneath what I see myself as.”
It’s a philosophy that Oyelowo subscribes to himself. In Hollywood some say he is as well known for the parts he’s turned down as the ones he’s taken.
“He gets offered everything. The guy is the go-to guy at this point,” says writer-director Ava DuVernay, who worked with Oyelowo on her 2012 film “Middle of Nowhere” and will partner with him again when he plays MLK in “Selma,” which DuVernay is to direct. “He can play 19. He can give you earnest. He can give you sexy. He can do it all.”
Though Oyelowo wouldn’t go into detail about the specific roles he’s declined, he said they were parts that, in his mind, “kept black actors in their place.”
“If you perpetually play the sidekick, the best friend, or the token person of color in a film, well it allays any guilt some of these decision-makers have about how few of us are given a platform to display our talent,” he said. “And again, it perpetuates the myth that we are an afterthought, a sidebar. That people aren’t interested in seeing our interior lives.”
Added Daniels: “He understands that he has to represent us in the right way. And I think he’s done so. He’s very smart about the roles he’s chosen. He’s very ambitious, but not in a bad way.”
One unforeseen result of starring in “The Butler,” Oyelowo said, is the relationship he’s formed with Oprah Winfrey, who plays his mom in the film. He calls her his “American mother” and he looks to her for career advice.
“I felt a deep connection to him because I can see the ride he is on and I can feel it — it’s something you feel when you are around that person who has that thing,” said Winfrey. “He has it — a sense of humility, just enough ego to do the job. But most of all, balance. He knows the difference between his art and his life.”
Part of that sense of balance, he said, stems from his 15-year marriage to his wife, Jessica. The couple has four children, ages 21 months to 11 years.
DuVernay is hoping to shoot “Selma” later this year, and Winfrey thinks it will make Oyelowo a household name.
“I’ve seen tapes of him as Dr. King. I’ve seen him practicing. The resemblance is stunning,” Winfrey said. “I thought, ‘Whoa, he’s going to blow that out.’ ... That’s my prediction.”