Interview: Actor David Oyelowo Presides Over ‘A United Kingdom’

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CHICAGO – Actor David Oyelowo is very familiar with portraying a man of consequence put into a difficult leadership role. In 2014, he took on the role of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma.” Currently, he is in theaters with “A United Kingdom,” which tells the story of an African prince who led his country to a new mindset in the 1950s.

Oyelowo portrays Seretse Khama, the first democratically elected president of the African country of Botswana. To get to that point, he first had to abdicate his right to ascend as king of the country, mostly because he had met and married a white British commoner (Rosamund Pike) while studying in England. Angering both his fellow countryman and the British government (who was the “protectorate” of Botswana), Khama used the exile as a strategy, and inspired his people through his call for acceptance of his situation and autonomy from colonization.

David Oyelowo as Seretse Khama in ‘A United Kingdom’
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

David Oyelowo was born in Oxford, England, to Nigerian parents, and spend part of his childhood in Nigeria. After finishing a three-year acting training in 1998 at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, he began his career with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and was the first black actor to play a Shakespearian English King (Henry VI) on that stage. He made his film debut in 2001 (“Dog Eat Dog”) and had a breakout year in 2012 with roles in “Red Tails,” “The Paperboy,” “Lincoln,” “Jack Reacher” and “Middle of Nowhere.” The last film was directed by Ava DuVernay, who would later direct Oyelowo as Dr. King in “Selma” (2014). sat down with David Oyelowo for a second time, to talk about portraying an African prince and an American King. Again you are portraying a person who in reality seemed more evolved then the time he lived in. As you were putting the character together of Seretse Khama, as you did with Dr. King, how do you best understand the struggle in a person’s soul who is defying their times?

David Oyelowo: I find in a character like Seretse Khama, and of course Dr. King, that the thing that makes them defy their times in is an innate and timeless humanity. That means they have a real sense, not only of who they are, but what justice is and should look like. They are both men who confront prejudice, but truly have a confusion in relationship to it, because they are able to see beyond color, culture, and gender, and as a consequence became the great thinkers of their era, and in retrospect our times. It was an evolved nature in these leaders that set them apart. You had to portray Seretse Khama both historically and romantically. What did you find about him as a husband and lover that you attached to in playing his romantic side?

Oyelowo: This man had a huge capacity for love, not only for his wife, but of his country and culture. We’ve seen films in which a leader fights for his nation, and this man is a passionate person. In many ways, the tenacity of love that he has – especially toward his wife – is the tenacity that allowed his to abdicate his throne in Africa. The emotion he displayed to both his wife and country are very much linked, because along with a capacity for love he had a discernment for what was right and wrong, and he stuck to his guns. Virtually no one outside historians knows this story of Botswana, so in a sense it is an education. What do you think people need to realize about apartheid and British colonization in Africa that is just coming to light?

Oyelowo: Well, first, there needs to be a recognition that we don’t know these stories because they’ve been suppressed, and because of the bad behavior exhibited by Great Britain at the time. Whether it’s a film like ‘Loving’ or ‘Hidden Figures,’ it’s bad behavior that is on display governmentally and within society.

That is why these stories were and are shoved under the carpet. We’re not served by only knowing our finest hours through film or media, or in the history that we are taught. I think the only way we have a chance to not make the same mistakes again, is to historically understand the bad behavior and mistakes we’ve made previously. You have roots in Nigeria, having lived there as a child. In your observation, and within the context of the film, how do you think the continent of Africa has evolved in your lifetime, and where do you think they still need to go?

Oyelowo: In many ways, in doing films like ‘A United Kingdom’ and ‘Queen of Katwe’ – set in Uganda – part of the hope is to show different sides of African life. But the perception of Africa, whether in the U.S. or in Europe, is of a continent that needs help, and cannot pull itself up. That is just not true. What the continent is dealing with is decades of fallout due to colonization, which resulted in a rape and pillage of their resources that has left it debilitated.

Africa is trying to find its way back to a sense of itself, when much of that was lost through colonization. For example, you see that notion beautifully turned around in ‘A United Kingdom.’ Botswana was a success because poachers didn’t find the resource of their diamonds until later on, and by that time the country had been deemed so poor that they weren’t colonized like others on the continent – it was merely a British ‘protectorate.’ When Khama came into power, Botswana made sure they owned the bulk of their resources.

David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike in ‘A United Kingdom’
Photo credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures What do you think still makes people wary of an interracial couple in 2017, and how did you relate to the courage it took in the 1950s, or in the case of LOVING, taking it all the way to a higher court?

Oyelowo: There is still a fundamental misunderstanding, when it comes to observing that when someone is black and someone is white, then that difference is enough to warrant the idea that they shouldn’t be together. We are so much more alike in nature than we are different, and my ambition with the roles I choose to do is to break down that prejudice, by showing how much I – as a man – am just a man. Soretse, yes, he’s an African prince and a leader, but he’s also just a man. That’s what his wife Ruth saw and that’s what she fell in love with, and I think the notion that we are different just because of skin color, and that we should be kept apart or kept from interbreeding, is very hurtful. Have you felt that pain yourself, in your circumstance with your wife Jessica?

Oyelowo: Obviously not to the degree of Soretse and Ruth experienced, but I’m very aware that people find my wife and I’s marriage disagreeable. But all I have to do is look at my four kids, and the love I have in my heart for my wife after 18 years of marriage, and the ugliness does fade. Again, though, it is upsetting that there are people that still learn prejudicial behavior, because we’re certainly not born that way. To break down prejudice is to get to a place of understanding, that can erode the ignorance. When you were on ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,’ you spoke of differing acting techniques, as in staying in character during an entire shoot versus just acting. You’ve done both techniques, what are the advantages of each?

Oyelowo: 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. How about your experience with the differing techniques?

Oyelowo: Well, 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.

David Oyelowo
David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in ‘Selma’
Photo credit: Paramount Pictures When you were doing your own research about Dr. King in preparation for ‘Selma,’ what quirk or personality trait did you find – either in a book or talking to his contemporaries – that you brought into the character that wasn’t necessarily in the script?

Oyelowo: The thing that would probably surprise most people was that Dr. King was a very reluctant leader. He felt very shocked at times that he had been chosen for this path, but he also understood that he was chosen for this path. He had several moments of acute doubt as to if he was up for the task – when people were injured in the protests he took it very personally, let alone when they were killed…which is what happened in Selma, Alabama.

He took it on in a way that was so burdensome, and that was a trait that I tried to consistently have within my performance. He was never a man to say ‘I’ve got this’ as the leader of the movement. He wasn’t always sure that his decisions were correct, because he knew every decision he made was putting lives at risk, including his and his family’s lives. We spoke last time of the sense you discovered about Dr. King when you fully costumed in his persona. What was the oddest event, either on or off set, that occurred while you were dressed inside the persona of Dr. King?

Oyelowo: 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. Do you have a specific path as to the type of roles you want to do going forward, or are you content to have the opportunity to pick up or audition for different things and let the path work itself out?

Oyelowo: 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.

“A United Kingdom” is currently in theaters nationwide. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Tom Felton, Jack Davenport, Laura Carmichael and Jessica Oyelowo. Screenplay by Guy Hibbert. Directed by Amma Asante. Rated “PG-13” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2017 Patrick McDonald,

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