David Oyelowo co-stars alongside Forrest Whittaker and Oprah Winferey in director Lee Daniels’ new film “The Butler.” He plays the son of an African-American White House butler who serves through eight tumultuous presidencies, as the American Civil Rights Movement surges around him.
The English actor first made his mark on the Royal Shakespeare stage, has since appeared in films including “The Help” and Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” and owes it all to one manipulative girl with shiny hair.
Rico Gagliano: How much are Brits made aware of American civil-rights history?
David Oyelowo: Well we’re certainly not taught it, but through documentaries and common knowledge you have a sense of it. But I have to say my very peripheral knowledge up until moving to the States in 2007 is very much reflected in a lot of Americans.
For us in the UK, the civil rights movements is kind of boiled down to the line “I have a dream,” Martin Luther King, maybe Malcolm X, and it kind of starts to dry up after that. But unfortunately what I’ve found in doing films like “Lincoln” and “The Help” and “Red Tails” — all films that sort of chronicle African-American life in this country — it’s amazing to me how few people truly know the depth of that history here.
Rico Gagliano: Actually, that hadn’t occurred to me — that you’re in almost a trilogy of films there that are all dealing with this issue. Would you consider yourself a scholar on the civil rights movement?
David Oyelowo: I’m a borderline scholar now, I know more… certainly I know more about American history than I do about British history! Or even Nigerian, which is where my parents are from originally and I lived for 7 years. But it’s an incredibly rich history, so it hasn’t been a bind to research.
Rico Gagliano: I’m sure. What did you learn about that period that you think maybe a lot of people in this country don’t think about?
David Oyelowo: The thing that has leaped out at me the most was… this film is about the faceless and the nameless civil rights activists, and there were thousands if not millions of them, a lot of them incredibly young.Teenagers a lot of them, these kids who engaged in the sit-ins. Which was non-violent protest as well, which is just so incredibly admirable; to be fighting hate with love and to plug into that at that age.
That’s the thing that sort of bowled me over, was just how self-sacrificial they were at the age they were. If you think of what teenagers are preoccupied with these days, it’s quite a marked difference.
Rico Gagliano: Well you play one of these young people. Your character actually starts as a teenager and then we follow him through several decades through his life. And of course makeup helps you age, but how do you manage to play a character that is younger than yourself? How did you go backwards?
David Oyelowo: Yeah, it was really challenging actually. Not least because Lee insisted on no makeup at all for the early years.
Rico Gagliano: What is his justification for no makeup?
David Oyelowo: He just has this fear of anything that feels inauthentic.
Rico Gagliano: Ohhh, I understand.
David Oyelowo: He also was scared that we may look like we’re trying too hard. So we were very careful not to put on a “young voice” so to speak, or acting young. But I ended up having to do crazy thing,s like I would have to have 10 hours of sleep and drink lots of water before all those teenage scenes —
Rico Gagliano: Literally? Drinking water would make you youthful?
David Oyelowo: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It actually helps, it hydrates the skin, and a lot of sleep just gives you that glow.
Rico Gagliano: That’s all we need to do?! All of this time?
David Oyelowo: Well it’s what you need to do when you have to crash-course it! I don’t know how long I would survive with four kids having 10 hours sleep a day, I don’t think my wife would stick around!
But I’d eat a lot of salty food, again drink a lot of water, and what that does is really puff you out as water clings to the salt, and then I’d have to go back in the gym, drop 5 pounds… But that’s what you’re looking for as an actor, you’re looking for that kind of challenge.
Rico Gagliano: Sounds like it. Speaking of challenges, actually I wanted to talk a little bit about your stage background. It’s my understanding you had a pretty historic moment in 2001. You played Henry VI with the Royal Shakespeare Company, which was the first time a black actor had portrayed a king in a major Shakespeare production, is that right?
David Oyelowo: Yes. I didn’t know that when I’d been cast. I was just an actor who was keen to play a very nice role…
Rico Gagliano: Indeed.
David Oyelowo: …but all of that history got poured onto it after the event.
Rico Gagliano: So had this been made a big deal by the time you got on stage?
David Oyelowo: It had, it had. I had got the role and then I had this period where my lunch breaks during rehearsal were just spent talking to the press every day because it just caught the public’s attention in a way that I couldn’t have anticipated. And I literally at some point just go, “Right, enough! I just got to act and focus on the thing that everyone’s talking about.”
Rico Gagliano: “There is this Shakespeare play that I have to ace right now.”
David Oyelowo: Yeah — three Shakespeare plays! There’s Henry VI part 1, 2, and 3.
Rico Gagliano: Sure. Well, we have two questions that we ask everyone on this show. The first one I actually may have just asked you. If we were to meet you at a dinner party what question would you least like to be asked?
David Oyelowo: It’s not actually that I don’t like being asked it, but I have been amazed at how many people have said “What’s it like to be slapped by Oprah?” I don’t know how uninteresting people’s lives are, but I’d have to say I didn’t wake up that morning thinking “Woohoo! She’s gonna slap me in the face.”
Rico Gagliano: We should explain, Oprah Winfrey plays your mother and in one scene she slaps you.
David Oyelowo: And what’s also surprising is how people go, “That must have been so great, to be slapped by Oprah. What an honor.”
Rico Gagliano: That was your moment of greatness.
David Oyelowo: I know, I have arrived!
Rico Gagliano: All right, here’s our second question. Tell us something that we don’t know. And this can be about anything: This can be about yourself, or the world at large. Anything that would kind of blow people’s minds at a dinner party.
David Oyelowo: Well… I don’t know that it would blow people’s minds, but I wasn’t destined to be an actor at all.I was going to go off and be a lawyer really, and what actually happened is I became completely obsessed with my pastor’s daughter.
She used to work the overhead projector at the front of church, and I literally spent about a year just watching her hair cascade over her shoulder as she worked the overhead projector. And one day she turned around to me, came up to me, and said “Do you want to come to the theater with me?”
And I thought this was a date, so all my prayers had been answered. But then it then turned out that she was gaining brownie points with the director, because they were low on boys, and she saw me as an easy target.
Rico Gagliano: She was recruiting you for the company?
David Oyelowo: She was recruiting me. But I really have her to thank, because I really don’t think I would have been an actor otherwise.
Rico Gagliano: And… Is that now your wife?
David Oyelowo: No it’s not my wife, thankfully. Because my wife would never have used me in such a merciless way!