David Oyelowo on Staying in Character During Filmming: “Different roles require different things”

Actor David Oyelowo

“My ambition is to keep the audience guessing…that is my path to a long career.” – David Oyelowo

David Oyelowo might be one of the most critically-acclaimed actors working today to never have been nominated for an Oscar — and many considered the fact that he wasn’t nominated for playing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2014’s Selma as a major oversight. Many were captivated by Oyelowo’s performance as the Civil Rights leader. In a conversation with Hollywood Chicago, Oyelowo spoke about different approaches required by roles, and what he hopes to accomplish now that he has developed such a strong reputation as an actor.

While Oyelowo says some roles require on and off-set immersion, it depends on the actor and the character. He uses Forrest Whitaker as an example of an actor who approaches his performances in different ways, explaining, “Different roles require different things. For instance, when I was on the set of The Last King of Scotland, Forrest Whitaker found it necessary to be in character [as Idi Amin] the whole time. But once you get to know him, you start to understand his ways – he’s a very self-effacing, quiet individual. Idi Amin was a real departure for him, so I understand why he had to stay in that space the entire time. Conversely, when I was on set with him in The Butler, where he portrayed my father, I was on the set with Forrest rather than his character. That’s because I think that character was closer to him, and more accessible to him.”

Oyelowo reveals that he often uses a mix of approaches when acting. He says, “With Dr. King in Selma I had to ‘go over there’ to fully get to him. Another film I did called Nightingale was another performance in which I couldn’t be me. For A United Kingdom, I felt more access to it. Yes, I had to build his accent and physicality, but it was accessible enough to feel I didn’t need to be in his persona moment to moment.”

Staying in character can sometimes place an actor in curious situations. Oyelowo brings up an example from when he was shooting Selma. He recalls, “The weirdest thing, because I stayed in character for the three month shoot, that it got to the point where one night I was doing something simple like brushing my teeth and looking in the mirror – and I couldn’t see myself. It was very freaky experience, to the point in which I had to leave the bathroom. Who I am had dissipated in a disturbing way. It’s amazing what the human mind can do, when inhabiting a certain place for long enough.”

Having appeared in a number of critically acclaimed roles has open doors for Oyelowo, and he hopes to use his position in the industry to pay it forward. He reflects, “The wonderful situation that I find myself in now, is that choosing the roles I want is more of a reality for me. As a result, I take it very seriously, because I find this opportunity in film to be a very powerful and influential medium. My ambition is to keep the audience guessing…that is my path to a long career. What is it going to be next? I certainly don’t want to portray a guy who gives speeches anytime soon. [laughs] But I also want to use the platform to help people who otherwise wouldn’t get an opportunity to tell their stories. Female directors, directors of color are a big thing for me, which are both important voices and potent voices that need to be heard. That’s how I want to engage myself as an actor going forward.”

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