This is part 2 of a three part discussion. Read part 1 of the conversation here.
David Oyelowo is currently one of Hollywood’s most sought-after leading men, and an “Officer of the Order of the British Empire” whose background in theater gives his acting a depth that outpaces all but a few of his contemporaries. We loved him last year as Phiona Mutesi’s big-hearted chess coach in Queen of Katwe and for his career-defining role in Ava Duvernay’s 2014 film “Selma” for which he won a Golden Globe and an NAACP Image Award.
In this dialogue, he connects with our CEO and Publisher Abiola Oke, speaking candidly about film, family and being a proud Nigerian. Part 1 focussed on his scholarship with GEANCO for girls affected by conflict in northern Nigeria. Part 2 gets to the heart of what it means to be black, British and Nigerian in Hollywood and Oyelowo’s creative plans.
How would you say your world view has impacted the approach that you take towards your work? Especially since you grew up between Nigeria and England.
Well I think that it’s a by-product of having an international upbringing. I was born in the UK but formative years were spent in Nigeria, Lagos particularly, but my dad worked for Nigerian Airways so we would fly all over Nigeria. And so you know, I traveled—Europe, Nigeria—and now living in America. Parts of my identity have been crafted by each and every one of those places, you know. I identify as British, I identify as Nigerian, I now hold an American passport. I’m officially an American citizen.
Yeah, yeah. I feel an attachment to each and every one of those places, unashamedly. And so that absolutely informs the way I think about Nigeria specifically, because, like I said, I am a product of it and I love what Nigeria has given me. Nigeria has given me my self-esteem. Nigeria has given me my sense of self as a black person operating on the globe. You know, Nigeria gave me the gift of knowing what it is to live in a culture where you are the majority, not a minority, and that is something that has stayed with me, no matter where I am. And so I am just deeply thankful to my cultural country for that and it’s something that I think the world should know about. There is a such a misguided notion of what Africa generally, but Nigeria specifically, actually is.
And who we are.
And so any opportunity I can have to bring some context is an opportunity I like to take.
That’s phenomenal. Being someone who has diverse range and has played very interesting characters along the black narrative, how do you feel about the exchange that’s happening between black British actors and actors in the U.S.? Now that you’re actually an American citizen, you probably have a better seat at the table to have that conversation. Where do you fit into all of this, and how do you feel about that?
I think it’s a conversation, for me, that is not worthy of energy. I think there are so many challenges we face as black people generally, people of color generally, and certainly within my industry there is so much we’re trying to achieve that will not be achieved unless we do it together.
One hundred percent.
You know, I have no interest in giving voice to or putting energy in something that flies in the opposite direction to that. Everything I try to do as an actor and a filmmaker, is to try to bring context to what it is to be black on planet Earth. And I don’t mean that exclusively for black people, I mean that you know, we are still misunderstood. Certainly in Western culture, and the only way to bring understanding is to paint as many different colors, variations, to promote understanding through eroding ignorance.
And whether, for me anyway, it’s supporting female directors of color because they are fifty percent of who we are as people of color, and their voice needs to be heard. Whether it’s trying to make people aware of just how long black people have been in British society, with the work I do and what I’m able to give voice to. Or whether, in the American work I’ve done—whether it’s doing films that were set in the 1800s with a film like Lincoln, to a film like Red Tails in the 40s—from like The Help in the 50s, to a film like “Selma” in the 60s. You know? All the way to Butler, that spans the whole of the twentieth century.
The reason I’m interested in doing those films is because, again, it’s about contextualization. You know, when I’m in the southern states of North America, I can hear the West African rhythm in the African-American accent. You know, we are so intertwined. There is so much of what I experience here as an African who is now steeped in the African-American culture that I can see the connective tissue. And so for me, I’m not really interested in talking about how we are—who’s getting what and who’s different. To me it’s about how we can come together to get our communal stories told.
I’m so glad that we are aligned ideologically on that front. How do you feel that the black creative community can tell more diverse black experiences with authenticity? You know, what you’re speaking about in terms of this multifaceted story that really is more common and connected. What would be your advice to black creators to be able to tell more of those kind of stories?
My advice to black creators would be to create. You know, the thing you cannot do is wait for anyone. No one owes you anything, and no one is going to be as passionate about telling your story as you are. And you know, a lot of this divisive talk around who gets to be in what is because of a dearth of opportunity. I can guarantee you no white, high-profile actor is begrudging Daniel Day-Lewis the fact that he played Lincoln.
You know, that’s because the opportunities are innumerable. And so I think the thing you have to do is to create your own opportunity. The best people I’ve worked with have all been content creators. When I worked with Tom Cruise on a film called Jack Reacher, I literally sat him down and I said, “Tell me how you’ve done it. How you’ve been an A-lister star for thirty years?” And he said, “David, create, create, create. Every movie I’ve done, since the first movie I did, I’ve had a hand in its creation.”
You look at Ava DuVernay, who I did “Selma” with. You know, before I was able to go and fight for her to direct that film, she had directed a film called I Will Follow for fifty thousand dollars of her own money. Then I worked with her on a film called Middle of Nowhere, where we made it for two hundred thousand dollars. And the notoriety she gained from doing that film, it’s what enabled us to go off and do “Selma” for twenty million and now, the notoriety of that film, “Selma,” has earned her the opportunity to be making a film for Disney to the tune of a hundred and twenty million dollars.
The highest budget ever given to any woman, anywhere. You know? And that’s within four films. That’s because she got off her backside and decided to bet on herself instead of bemoan what opportunities are being denied her. And so we live in a world now where it has been so much more cost-effective to create. You can literally shoot a film on your phone. And if it’s well-crafted, people will pay attention to it because we have distribution platforms that are free. You can just dump that thing on YouTube, and if it’s good enough, trust me, people will put apples on it. So that’s it. If you’re creative, create. Erode all your excuses for not creating and if you’re good, eventually your voice will find its audience.
And speaking of creating, one thing that I’ve noticed about you is that you’ve produced a number of projects, most recently A United Kingdom, and you are also starring in Blumhouse’s thriller Only You, where you’re also an executive producer. Now, how will you be able to continue to balance the important roles of filmmaking and acting at once? How challenging is that going to be for you, and what are your experiences wearing those multiple hats?
Well, producing has become a necessity for me because I’m very, very invested in the nature of the stories I tell. I don’t want to be just a gun for hire. I don’t just want to be someone waiting by the phone because someone, somewhere has decided to tell some story and I’ve now got to go and serve their vision. You know, there are times where that’s going to happen, and their vision is synonymous with my vision and we want to go create something together.
But by and large, I feel a real passion about certain stories being told. And at the end of the day, you can’t make everyone happy, but if I am in a capacity within the crafting of a story whereby I have a voice at the table, then I would rather that than be at the behest of people whose agenda may run very contrary to mine. You know, the producing is also incredibly creative. I love the process of crafting a script, bringing on directors, producers, writers, actors, who I love and admire their work. There’s something really satisfying about sitting in a movie theater and watching A United Kingdom, and you know, everyone or pretty much everyone who came on board of that film are people I’ve worked with before and really admire. And you know, we created absolutely the film that we set out to create. There’s something really, really satisfying about that.
And in terms of doing Only You, with Blumhouse, you know, they came to me with a truly phenomenal script and a great, great role, and thankfully Jason Blum who I’ve been talking with, is respectful, I should say, of the producing I’ve done in the past, and he invited me to be a producer on this because he appreciates what I’ve been able to bring to other projects I’ve done. And so that’s what you want, you want to get to the point where people of that notoriety are keen to have your voice at the table because they appreciate what you bring. So yeah, I’m really, really looking forward to diving into that.
This is the end of Part 2. Part 1 of the conversation can be read here and part 3 will go live in the following weeks.