“You can’t afford for there to be gaps in your pool of knowledge when it comes to a character, otherwise what ends up onscreen is generalized and unspecific” – David Oyelowo
David Oyelowo is a method actor. He didn’t always approach his roles that way, but when he landed the part in the new HBO one-man drama, Nightingale, he decided his character needed such an in-depth approach that only the method approach would do.
“In the past, the notion of method has felt a little on the pretentious side, a little self-indulgent,” he explains. “I had done films like The Last King of Scotland and Lincoln, in which both Forest Whitaker and Daniel Day Lewis, respectively, had employed that technique, and I think everyone will agree the results are undeniable. But for me, a role hadn’t come along that warranted that. The main reason I did it is that I didn’t know how to play someone who is so in their own head, so adept at creating a world within which they can survive in order to deal with what they’ve done. If ever there was a role that you would want to make that choice with, it was Peter Snowden.”
Peter Snowden, Oyelowo’s character in Nightingale, is a veteran who is described as “living, literally, with skeletons in his closet.” Over the course of 90 minutes, the audience watches as Snowden slowly unravels after revealing the unspeakable act he has committed. The drama was filmed with no other actors, and the set consists of only a few rooms in a small house.
“You can’t afford for there to be gaps in your pool of knowledge when it comes to a character, otherwise what ends up onscreen is generalized and unspecific,” Oyelowo says of going method for the part. “Whether the audience knows where he went to high school or not, it’s something you have to have a notion of because it all works itself into the truthfulness of a portrayal.”
Interestingly, using the method for Nightingale also led Oyelowo to go method for Selma, meaning his wife effectively lived with Martin Luther King Jr for the duration of filming. Oyelowo explains that he feels it brings him closer to the truth as an actor.
“In employing it both in Nightingale and then eventually with Selma, which we ended up shooting after Nightingale—and I don’t think I would have employed it [in Selma] if I hadn’t experienced its benefits doing Nightingale—the idea is to put yourself to the side enough whereby you are in the habitual mental, emotional and spiritual state of the character, so that when the cameras roll you are closer to the truth. You are making choices that the character would make because you are developing a muscle memory as to how they behave.”