David Oyelowo: “You sort of need to pummel and plow away for longer, as a black actor, to get a degree of fame”

Actor David Oyelowo

“I have concerns, I have hopes, you know, and that’s what you want to see in a character.” – David Oyelowo

Gringo star David Oyelowo might initially seem like an odd choice for the crime comedy considering he’s best known for acclaimed roles in Selma and A United Kingdom. However, as Oyelowo tells The Guardian, part of his goal as an actor is to seek out roles that are not often played by black actors — and he explains why he aspires to play roles that weren’t written for black actors.

Gringo seems to be an out-of-the-box choice for Oyelowo, who is much better known for his dramatic roles. He reveals, “I was looking for something on the lighter side, having done a fair bit of dramatic work. I have a goofy side I realized that the audience hasn’t yet seen. That’s partly why I wanted to do it.”

Oyelowo explains that he turned the director, Nash Edgerton, on to the idea that he could play Harold’s role even though Edgerton didn’t think of it that way. He explains, “He was written as Harold Salinger and he was definitely a white guy living in Chicago. I sat down with him and asked: ‘Have you ever thought of a black person in this role?’ And he said: ‘Actually, I haven’t … I’m ashamed to admit that … It’s because I’m a white guy, so I just saw him as a white guy.’”

In fact, Oyelowo reveals that this isn’t the first instance when he had to point out to a filmmaker that a role that wasn’t intended to be played by a black actor could be portrayed by a black actor. He says, “Because, y’know, when I get out of bed in the morning, my first thought isn’t: ‘I’m black.’ I have concerns, I have hopes, you know, and that’s what you want to see in a character.”

Strides that he and his predecessors have made have given Oyelowo a measure of pride in the variety of roles that younger black actors are currently playing. He explains,

“I’m really, really proud, because they are now doing that which my generation wasn’t afforded. Y’know, the Leonardo DiCaprios and the Ryan Goslings, they get to break earlier than black actors do. You sort of need to pummel and plow away for longer, as a black actor, to get a degree of fame and, more often than not, you have to play a historical figure somewhere; basically a role that a white actor couldn’t play. But John [Boyega] is in his early 20s with Star Wars, Daniel [Kaluuya] is in his 20s with Get Out, and now Black Panther. Getting these opportunities younger means they have a greater length of time to build a body of significant work. If you look at myself, Idris [Elba], Chiwetel [Ejiofor], it’s happened for us a bit later.”

Because of that, Oyelowo feels compelled to keep pushing for better representation for black actors. He says, “I’m still at a place where representation in movies is too important to relax quite yet. Maybe I’ll play the best friend when I’m 80, but until then, there’s work to be done.”

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