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David Oyelowo Is Enjoying a Championship Season

David Oyelowo at New York press day for "96 Minutes."

David Oyelowo at New York press day for “96 Minutes.”

David Oyelowo

Is Enjoying a Championship Season

by Brad Balfour

Born in Britain, part of a royal Nigerian family, raised there and in England, 36-year-old actor David Oyelowo is enjoying a remarkable run – garnering more prominent roles and rising billing in films with bigger and bigger actors. This increasingly favorable career surge doesn’t seem like it’s going to abate any time soon.

Within this last month, two of his recent efforts have come out either theatrically or on DVD – the high-profile 20th Century Fox. produced WWII flying airmen story, Red Tails, and the indie-edgy inner city drama, 96 Minutes.

In this drama about a car-jacking gone wrong, Oyelowo plays a small but crucial role. Though his appearance is limited, this skilled and committed actor has to drive the momentum in two pivotal scenes. A film about the good and bad decisions one can make in a split second, his character survives with dignity intact though it takes quite a bruising in this one scene.

Though his name is hardly a household word yet, this rising star has been getting out this in a diverse and well-received range of films from The Last King of Scotland or The Help to Rise of the Planet of the Apes where he is not just playing the obvious African native but also high flying billionaires.

In previous films he has performed critical though secondary roles that have won him this support and growing status as the go-to actor for a strong presence and solid impact. That strategy has been paying off as he has upcoming films with higher-level billing alongside the likes of Tom Cruise and Daniel Day Lewis.

Since 96 Minutes is a very indie, ensemble film, how was your collaboration with director Aimee Lagos?

I love working with both male and female directors, but a lot of the time what you get with female director is a quick access to emotional points in a movie. Aimee’s a beautiful, lovely human being, but she’s clear about what she wants, opinionated and strong – those combinations make a very potent mix for good filmmaking.

We all love action and a kinetic thriller. 96 Minutes is both a sensitive, emotional, lyrical, and poetic treatment as well as a rough-and-ready action thriller.

Brittany Snow and David Oyelowo in "96 Minutes."

Brittany Snow and David Oyelowo in “96 Minutes.”

Have you experienced a situation anything like the one in the film?

I can’t recall a situation directly reminiscent of it. What I related to with regards to my character Duane is that as a father myself, I understood the concern as to whether your kids are going to be okay. So much of what Duane does through the movie is born out of the fact he knows he’s in a dangerous environment for young people whether it’s protecting his nephew or reaching out to Brittany Snow’s character, or if it’s him being not so pleased with this unsavory element around his neighborhood. That I can definitely relate to.

The film is ironically timely in that it addresses some of the issues that informed the Treyvon Martin murder and the underlying effects of racial profiling. How would you counsel someone in a situation like this?

Well it’s difficult, isn’t it? That’s why I love the juxtaposition between Evan Ross’ and Michael Scialabba’s characters. Michael’s character seems hell bent on going on this “dark path” and you see a little glimpse into his home life which may be the reason for that, but then you also see Evan’s character, an intelligent kid that’s just been handed a ticket out of his situation, getting to further his education, and, just as he’s reaching the light at the end of the tunnel, he gets caught in this awful situation [out of misplaced loyalty].

That’s one reason I wanted to do 96 Minutes, I felt that the film looked at the obstacles facing young people today – especially in these inner-city areas – without putting them in these cookie-cutter stereotypical situations that are so often depicted in movies.

You are not only battling a system where, even if you get all the education you can, there might not be a job at the end of it. You’re also battling all these other elements that are trying to pull you down, to be perfectly frank. Whether they’re socio-economic or peer pressure, there’s so much facing these kids.

Juatin Martin and David Oyelowo in "96 Minutes."

Juatin Martin and David Oyelowo in “96 Minutes.”

There are the class and race issues that come up as well, like during the interrogation scene where the police question your character even though you have obviously rescued Brittany’s Snow’s character – one of the twists in the film that adds to it.

One thing the film does is plays with our perception. My character is a guy that looks a certain way and talks a certain way so it’s very easy for him to be dismissed as being a criminal element, but he actually ends up being the only parental guidance in the movie.

As you see with that scene with the police, that’s where the perception is shown. It becomes like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re constantly being seen as a criminal or accused of being one, then what often happens is you decide, “screw it, I’ll be what they see me to be.” That’s why Evan [Ross’] line is such a powerful one, where he says, “look at us, we’ve become exactly what they thought we would be.”

That’s a great moment because his character represents the desire to get out of this socio-economic position he finds himself in. He tries through education, but the environment he’s been brought up in drags him back down. I’m sure that happens day in and day out in cities across America and the world.

How did it feel to be maybe the oldest guy on the set?

That’s a new thing for me, but I liked it [chuckles]. I enjoyed seeing these younger actors bringing it, in a sense. And then by being there, hopefully, [I was] as an example and point of reference from having a bit more experience [than they do]. That was a new one for me that I see happening more and more now.

You didn’t have to slap anyone around, did you?

No, these guys showed up and saw it as an opportunity that they, as actors of their age, don’t often get. It had to do with the nature of the material as well.

I imagine that a lot of stuff crossing their desks is very trite, one-dimensional, fluffy stuff. This is real drama and they really rose to the occasion.

David Oyelowo

David Oyelowo

When you saw this movie for the first time did it surprise you?

What surprised me was just how tense the film was. When you’re shooting a movie, of course you’re shooting over a number of weeks, but what happens with this movie is that it all happens within the same day. And that tension is kept all the way through the movie.

Like I said, you’re shooting a film over a number of weeks, so you don’t necessarily feel that tension as you’re shooting it. So that’s what I was most surprised about, was how intense the film was.

The ending was so sad. Did you ever envision a scenario where Evan’s character would gets on with his life on through prison?

My nephew, Raymond, played by Justin Martin who you see in the barbecue, is there to symbolize what could happen to someone because he could end up becoming like Dre [Ross] without the right guidance.

When you see Evan’s character, there’s no parental figure, there’s no one guiding him, all he has is his teachers. But with my nephew, I’m guiding him, so in a sense, that’s one of the rays of hope within the film. But in terms of Evan’s ending, that’s one of the things we could’ve given a “happier” ending, but that wouldn’t be real. That’s not the reality of millions of young people across this country day in and day out.

When you look at the makeup of prisons in this country and the disproportionate amount of African Americans there – something like over half the prison population is black men – that’s a huge amount of black people in prison relative to the population.

It would be patronizing to the audience to not go there in terms of the reality of the world we live in. But in a sense, what lesson I hope people take away from the movie is from my nephew, because I’m there for him, hopefully he won’t have to suffer the same fate.

Did you eat much barbecue while doing this film?

I dealt with so much raw meat it put me off barbecue for a while [laughs]. So no, I didn’t do too much barbecue even though I play a barbecue guy.

David Oyelowo in "Red Tails."

David Oyelowo in “Red Tails.”

Did your international experience and British training come in handy to do the role?

I’ve lived in America for five years and that helps with the kind of career I have aspired to, one where I can defy both the audience’s and the industry’s expectations.

I can play a guy from Africa, Europe, America, the West Indies and that is a huge advantage of having lived a lot of my life on three different continents.

I was born in the UK and we moved back to Nigeria when I was about six. I lived in Nigeria seven years – from the age of six to 13. Then we moved back to the UK when I was 13 and then I moved here with my family about five years ago.

Was it a big leap, a culture shock, to see how African Americans live as opposed to British black people?

It has been, and continues to be because that’s been one of the things [I have come to know] whether it’s LincolnRed Tails, even 96 Minutes, or The Paperboy – which I just did with producer/director Lee Daniels [who did Precious] – and especially The Butler, which I’m about to do with Lee as well. It charts the birth of the civil rights movement in this country.

I’ve had a lot of opportunity to look at American culture and history and specifically African American culture and history and it’s very, very different to what it is to be black in Britain.

I’m almost at a stage now where I know more about African American culture than I do about black British culture now. But it’s very different in that here there’s an undeniable claim black people have to American history because of slavery and the civil rights movement.

Because there’s now a black President, black people are indelibly ingrained into the social consciousness. It’s not the same in the UK. We don’t have any great, big, landmark moments for black people in Great Britain that mean we’re woven into the fabric the same way African Americans are and that in and of itself is quite a difference.

Nate Parker, Michael B. Jordan, Tristan Mack Wilds, Ne-Yo and David Oyelowo in "Red Tails."

Nate Parker, Michael B. Jordan, Tristan Mack Wilds, Ne-Yo and David Oyelowo in “Red Tails.”

Did you find 96 Minutes insightful for you since it’s about the American cultural situation and not the one you had come from?

The situation you see in 96 Minutes is akin to situations in a city like London. I went to a fairly rough school in London, though I don’t sound like it – being at the Royal Shakespeare Company will knock that out of you – but I could still very much relate to the story.

Even though it’s in Atlanta, it could be any inner-city in the States or Europe. Anywhere you have poverty and wealth close together, anywhere where you have privileged kids whose futures are almost assured and kids that are trying to get out of their situation.

Some kids are trying, some have succumbed to it and it’s often the kids trying to get out of the inner city or out of their low income circumstances – they’re caught in the middle.

The kids that need scholarships, that need to find a way out. Any given day it’s about which way are they going to go? Are they going to get pulled back in or are they going to continue to aspire. That is very much life on the street of the London I came from.

Whether a big budget or low budget film do your roles tend to deal with these issues of race and class?

It’s part of being alive and black in America today. For me, as a black person living in America, I don’t spend my day to day “fighting” racism. But the fact of racism’s existence does impact my life every day. It affects me in terms of my profession. I’ve chosen the opportunities I’ve been afforded as opposed to my white counterparts.

It’s not something I carry as a boulder or a burden day to day, that way madness lays. Often when you’re dealing with films, drama is conflict, and of course, if you’re playing a Tuskegee Airman it’s going to be an intrinsic part of what that character faces.

David Oyelowo and James Franco in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

David Oyelowo and James Franco in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

But if I’m in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, playing a billionaire who’s investing in science and he’s very intelligent, I don’t have to deal with those issues with that particular character.

That’s what you want to do, mix it up. That’s what I’m looking for as an actor. It’s a bit like getting to play Duane, who defies expectations. As an actor, I’m always looking for opportunities to defy expectations.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes offered an opportunity to play a race-neutral character.

I don’t know if it meant I’m being perceived differently, but I do know I am just simply not going to take a role that I perceive as stereotypical or caricature. I just can’t do it. I’d rather be poor and work in a supermarket than do that, it’s just demeaning. It’s an anathema.

But the opportunities are arising at a more frequent rate for me now, probably on the basis of work like in Rise… where that is the case. I just finished One Shot, this thriller with Tom Cruise, and again, it was a very non race-specific role.

It’s about a