ESQ&A: 'Selma' Star David Oyelowo: "The Oscar Snub Bothered Me"

The actor on awards, playing Martin Luther King and having dinner at the White House

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British actor David Oyelowo is currently winning rave reviews for his performance of Martin Luther King in new film, Selma.

Having starred in films ranging from Lincoln through to Interstellar, Oyelowo's time in the spotlight has arrived – despite being controversially absent from this year's Oscar and BAFTA nominations.

We sat down with the actor, in town following the European launch of Selma in London on Tuesday evening, to speak about playing Dr King, cheating death and having dinner with the President.

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How was it as a British actor taking on such a huge figure from American history?
If I’d engaged with how significant he is to Americans specifically, maybe I would have been more intimidated. But I felt my job was not to engage with Dr King, the historical figure or the icon, but the man. I think that was an easier thing to do for me because I’m not American – and because he didn’t walk this earth thinking of himself as an icon. 

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What was it like recreating the violent protest scenes?
To be in Atlanta in front of 500 extras in the place Dr King was from – and to be afforded the opportunity to say words which I really believe in – was extraordinary. We’re actors, it’s a movie, we’re reconstructing what happened, but the power of those moments are very real. I’d always been sure as to why we were making this movie, but I couldn’t have anticipated the sheer power of it – to feel the blast of that was quite something.

How did this role come about?
I read the script in 2007 and felt a deep spiritual calling that I was going to play this role. Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, Philomena), who was attached as director at the time, didn’t agree. It wasn’t until 2010 that I got cast by Lee Daniels (Precious) and, after starring in his film The Butler in 2013, I put forward Ava Duvernay who I’d worked with on a small film called Middle of Nowhere. So to go from being rejected by the original director to advocating the director who ended up doing it, was a heady – but gratifying – journey.

I bet Stephen Frears feels a bit silly now…
I don’t know that I disagree with him not thinking I was right. I’m a very different man and actor now than I was seven years ago. Dr King is 36 in the film, so I do think I’m better equipped to play him at the age [38] I am now.

Does the Best Actor Oscar snub bother you?
Yeah, it bothers me. It bothers me because it’s the best reviewed film of the year. It’s a film that doesn’t direct or act itself. It bothers me because it’s Dr King – one of the most significant human beings in American life and I want him celebrated. Whether we like it or not, these accolades feed into that legacy. The great thing is that the film is transcending all of that in terms of its notoriety and people loving the film, but that situation is representative of the demographic that votes for these things and hopefully that’s going to change going forward. So yeah, it’s not something I saw and then did cartwheels over going “Woohoo, I didn’t get nominated”, but we did our bit and that I can say for sure.

What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?
Be patient. Frustration is an emotion which doesn’t lend itself to creativity, so I would urge myself to be patient and tell myself that sometimes things taking longer is a good thing. Because you’re more equipped and ready. With what I do for a living, early success can be destructive.

What’s your favourite city in the world?
Los Angeles. I live there now. Everything you could want from an outdoors point of view is there: you can ski, you can hit the beach, you can hike, you can drive – it’s so varied and the weather is unmatched. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

What’s your desert island book, film and album?
My favourite book is the Bible. Film? It’s split between The Color Purple and Raging Bull. Album has to be The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

Where’s your favourite place to eat and what’s your order?
I love a restaurant in LA called Hugo’s and I have the Cuban Sandwich, which is chicken, plantain, avocado – it’s making my mouth water just thinking about it.

Have you ever cheated death?
I had typhoid fever once and that was pretty serious. It was when I was still living in Nigeria and I remember being hooked up to a drip for several days coming in and out of consciousness. That was a bad one.

Have you got any hidden talents?
I’m very good at making the sound of an elephant. I have to do it now, don’t I…

Have you ever been starstruck?
Yes. Sidney Poitier – I’ve met him a few times – but every time, he doesn’t disappoint. What you imagine meeting Sidney Poitier feels like is what it feels like. All that bearing and dignity, it’s right there.

What’s next?
I’m going to be doing a film called The Queen of Katwe with Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave). It’s about a young girl who lives in the slums of Kampala, Uganda and is discovered to be a chess prodigy. She eventually becomes a grandmaster.

Who’s the closest you’ve had to a mentor?
Oprah Winfrey. She has helped me with navigating success, money, family, fame and people. She’s like a mother to me; it’s extraordinary to have her as a voice in my life. 

What’s the best night out you’ve ever had?
I had a pretty great one the other night. We showed the film at the White House and ended up having dinner. Around the dining table was myself, Ava, my wife, President Obama, Michelle Obama, Oprah and Gayle King. I mean, that’s a pretty good dinner.

The Selma post premiere event was hosted by Stella Artois as part of its bursaries programme, which supports the release of standout independent films. Selma is released on 6 February.

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MORE ESQ&A:

Idris Elba
Paul Bettany
Oscar Isaac
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