If there’s a Hollywood corollary to the Martin Luther King Jr. quote that says, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” then the film Selma will one day simply be recognized as one of the Best Films of 2014 and not one of the Best Snubbed Films of 2014.
Of course, there’s no denying it was both. Critics embraced Ava DuVernay’s film about King’s 1965 civil-rights march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama that had a galvanizing effect on the hearts and minds of Americans who watched TV in horror as Alabama police troopers attacked peaceful demonstrators standing up for their right to vote. But the wounds on the American psyche were still raw 50 years later, and after the film opened in theaters in December, old debates erupted over the legacies of King and president Lyndon B. Johnson as the film’s facts and emphasis became a contentious topic.
Selma, which had a bumpy awards-season rollout, was nominated for two Academy Awards, including a nod for Best Picture, and it took home the prize for Best Original Song. But British actor David Oyelowo, who portrayed King, and director Ava DuVernay, however, were among those overlooked.
Playing King was a huge part of Oyelowo’s life and career—a seven-year odyssey that began on July 24, 2007 when he heard a voice tell him that playing King was his destiny. He auditioned for Stephen Frears, who was then attached to direct… and he was rejected. But he never gave up, and he eventually convinced Lee Daniels, who’d taken over the project at one point, that he was the right man to portray Dr. King in the first theatrical movie featuring the slain civil-rights leader as the main protagonist.
With the film’s home-video release scheduled for May 5, Oyelowo checked in from Uganda, where’s he’s filming his next movie (which also stars Lupita Nyong’o). He reflected on the controversies that swirled around Selma, described his emotional final day on the set of the film and contemplated the possibility of playing King again in a different Hollywood film.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I was moved just from watching the clip of your emotional reaction after delivering the speech at the Nobel ceremony—your final scene as Martin Luther King. Can you put into words what was going through your head at that moment?
David Oyelowo: That moment was literally the culmination of a dream that had been held closely to my heart for over seven years. It’s a journey that started with me reading the script and being rejected by the initial director. And seven years later, I got to play the role with [Ava DuVernay] the director I love the most on the planet, both as a creative individual and as a person. I had given it my all, really. I left nothing behind. So to literally hear the words, “That’s a wrap on David Oyelowo on the film Selma,” was surreal. Many a time I thought [playing him] was a ridiculous dream, so to have a moment where you are literally stepping into a daydream, a dream, a hope, an ambition that you’ve held for so long, and it’s more than you ever imagined it to be, that’s what that emotion was showing.
You’ve spoken about how this role sort of whispered into your ear a long time ago, how you felt destined to play Dr. King. But when you did finally get the call to play it, did sheer terror take over?
No, there was no kind of a sheer terror for me, because it was such a slow burn towards getting to do the film. I had been cast in 2010 by Lee Daniels, and then the film didn’t happen. And I was the one who fought very hard for Ava to be the one to direct it after having done Middle of Nowhere with her. And then Oprah was the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of the film actually getting made. So there were so many baby steps towards the moment where we actually got green-lit, that I never sort of had a moment of, “Oh my goodness, what on Earth was I thinking? I’m about to play Dr. King.” Because at every moment, I was fighting to get this boulder up the hill, so I didn’t really have time to think about how much of a terrifying prospect it was. It actually wasn’t until after we had done the film and people started seeing it, and I could see the sheer impact, seeing Dr. King humanized the way I believe we did with Selma. It wasn’t until I saw that that I got a bit nervous and realized just how much he means to so many people and really started hoping that I’d done it right. But the run up to it, I felt nothing but determination. And as you say, that whisper that you spoke of—it did come to me from God. I truly believe that. I would never cast myself as Martin Luther King, and it was on that fateful day in July of ‘07 that I heard that whisper and I knew it would be so.
Has that voice ever whispered in your ear about other roles, before or since? Because it sounds like a wise voice.
It’s the only time. It’s the same voice that told me to marry my wife, the same voice that gave me all of the names of my children before they were conceived. But God hasn’t been too preoccupied with picking the roles that I play, apart from this one. So going back to that moment, when I sort of broke down when Ava said, “It’s a wrap,” it was that as well. It was the first time as an actor that I truly gave myself over to something entirely, to the point where I stayed as Dr. King as much as I could for the three months. And to let go of that is a very odd feeling, you know, after holding on to what felt like the spirit of such an incredible individual, a man who gave so much to such an important cause. I’m not by any means saying I became Dr. King, but I certainly felt some of the burden that he must have felt. [That moment at the end] was a huge shedding of a mighty weight.
When the film came in theaters, was it surprising to you that the main conversation seemed to be sidetracked by a lot of political agendas from 40 and 50 years ago?
It did surprise me, but I guess with hindsight, it shouldn’t have. A lot of those conversations were instigated by people who were intimidated by how well our film was being received. There was definitely a smear campaign. I know that for a fact. One of the main reasons I was so determined to see this film made, is that so often, these kind of films aren’t made because they have black protagonists in a leadership role, as opposed to a browbeaten sort of role. There are just too few [movies] that show the transcendence of who black people are, both men and women. And I have to say, I feel like some of the attacks were linked with that. I feel there are just some people who could not stomach the idea of a movie centered around Selma that was not centered around Lyndon B. Johnson. That’s an unfortunate fact, but it’s one that is still with us. And with hindsight, I’m glad that not only did the film shed a light on injustices that took place 50 years ago but also injustices that are still taking place today and injustices that are taking place within the entertainment industry, the inequities. So all of those conversations, even though they were unexpected, I think they were ultimately nourishing to have because hopefully we will continue to move forward from them.
The film captures Dr. King at a very specific time and a very specific place in his public life. Is there any part of you that’s tempted to play him again at a different stage of his life, whether it’s 1968 or 1955?
It’s funny you should say that. I met Steven Spielberg during awards season. And as a lot of people know, he also was gearing up to [produce] his Martin Luther King movie. Wonderfully, he came up to me and literally said, “That was one of the best things I think I’ve seen,” which was very nice to hear from Steven Spielberg himself. He actually said, “You’ve inspired me to really take another look at doing my own.” And then he said, “You’d reprise the role, right? You’d do it again.” [Laughs] My stomach just fell out from under me. Just thinking of the sheer rigmarole I’d have to put myself through to do it again—I don’t know. Never say never, as they say.
I’m slightly obsessed with this recent surge in British actors playing prominent American characters in Hollywood films. Selma is a prime example. Is there something about the education and training of the British actors that is making them very versatile and very attractive to studios?
Well, I think the word you used is the key: versatility. If, in the beginning of your career, you have the opportunity to do a lot of theater and specifically classical theater, it enables you to play roles that you would never or rarely get to play in film. When I was in drama school for three years, I got to play men three times my age, I got to play children, I got to play comedy, Shakespeare, Greek tragedy. I got to do the gamut, and what that does is it instills you with so much confidence—you feel like you can do anything. So much of acting is confidence, so much of it is about fearlessness, about making brave choices. Because at the end of the day, that’s what we find interesting to watch: seeing humanity laid bare in all of its complexity. And I think theater gives you that. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s a British thing; it’s more of a training thing. I mean, you see great actors like Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac, who I worked with on A Most Violent Year. Those guys went to Juilliard and they’ve done a bunch of theater. That’s why they are some of the best young actors working today. So I think it’s more rooted in what the tradition is when it comes to actors’ training in the U.K. as opposed to what I think tends to happen in America, which is that you just fall into it. Maybe because you’ve done some things at your school or you’re very good looking, you know. You don’t really have many opportunities to fail before people move on. Whereas, you’ve done a lot of failing in the theater before you get an opportunity to be in a film.
You’re in Uganda right now, making a movie with Lupita Nyong’o. How is it going so far?
We’re having a great time. It’s a film called the The Queen of Katwe that Mira Nair is directing. And we are about three weeks in to our two and half month shoot. The story’s centered on a 9-year-old chess prodigy (Charity Rose Pimer) who’s discovered in the slums of Kampala, a slum called Katwe. A lot of the tension in the movie is between myself, as her aspiration coach, and her mother, played by Lupita, who just kind of feels like life is what it is, and that’s the way it’s likely to stay. So this young girl finds herself between those a rock and hard place, in terms of which way she should go in life.