Portraying civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma has been a seven-year journey for British actor David Oyelowo (pronounced “o-yellow-o”). The project famously had been through several directors—Stephen Frears, Paul Haggis, Spike Lee, and Lee Daniels, among them—and after being passed over by everyone but Daniels, Oyelowo and the project finally converged with director Ava DuVernay, who only had two small independent films to her name (one of which was 2012’s Middle of Nowhere, which starred Oyelowo). The resulting collaboration has been a timely and transcendent experience for the actor, one he hopes has universal appeal for audiences when Paramount debuts Selma in limited release on Christmas.
Your casting in the movie was a process that probably used up a lot of reserves of patience. What did you do during that first moment when you hoped you would get this role and the moment you knew for certain that you would?
The Selma script had been, I believe, on the 2006 Blacklist; it was a very highly rated script. I didn’t get to read it until July of 2007, about two months after having moved from the UK to L.A. with my family to pursue a Hollywood career. When I read it I just had this very visceral reaction. The only way I can describe it is that it was deeply spiritual. I really did feel God tell me, “You are going to play this role.” That doesn’t happen to me every day. To be perfectly honest, it was a little bit confusing, because here I am, a British actor only recently moved to America, and I’m feeling very strongly that I’m going to play the most significant African-American figure of the 20th century. So, that was the beginning of it. At the time, my wife helped me put four scenes on tape. It came back that (the original director Stephen Frears) didn’t see me as Dr. King, which was a bit of a head-scratcher. I really felt—was convinced—that this would be mine. And then (the project) fell apart with that director. Paul Haggis came on, as did Spike Lee, and then by 2010 it had gone to Lee Daniels. And to be honest, I kind of let it go. Long story short, Lee Daniels ended up casting me in that role after a round of auditions. I did The Paperboy and The Butler with Lee. Eventually, the project culminated in this weird, full circle of the initial director not wanting me, to me being able to suggest Ava DuVernay to direct it. The process was fraught with many frustrating moments, some of which included gaining 10 to 15 pounds of weight, then having been told “No”—just all sorts of very frustrating episodes into today.
Did you do any preparation in this uncertain time or did you fully let it go and then have to start all over again?
I couldn’t shake him is the truth. Even in those three years between 2007 and 2010—when I certainly wasn’t attached to it in any way—if there was any documentary, any book, anything to do with Dr. King, I just sort of gravitated towards it. This thing had sort of lodged in my spirit. After Lee cast me was when I really sort of dug in, and there was another four years between then and me actually getting to play the role. Every moment of frustration, every prayer that felt unanswered, every bit of research, nothing went to waste. I don’t equate my frustrations as an actor to the Civil Rights movement, but even just the notion of a dream deferred, just having to wait and wait and wait for something you hoped for, and could see in your future happening— this whole story is fraught with waiting, so I guess that became part of my story as well.
Were there any unknown things about Dr. King that you discovered in your preparation that informed how you were going to portray him?
A hundred percent. I mean, I think the thing that I was most surprised to discover, and that helped me the most, was the weight of the guilt he felt in relation to the harm that was being meted out upon people who were protesting and campaigning at his behest. The way the Civil Rights movement worked is that it was a nonviolent movement that depended upon violent acts to illustrate the injustices that were being meted out upon black people. And the fact of the matter is, if you keyed up the press, you chose a location where racism was rife and indisputable, and you basically shook the hornet’s nest, in doing that, people are going to get stung. People are going to get hurt. People are going to get killed. And that happened. It was said of Dr. King that by the time of his death his heart showed signs of a life lived by someone twice his age. When I read that I could understand that in an abstract way, but it wasn’t until really digging in to who he was, the burden he carried, that I could understand exactly why that level of pressure was being put upon his physical body. That was something that I felt a need to try and embody and exhibit.
What was it about Ava’s talents, after having worked with her on Middle of Nowhere, that made you and others rally for her to take over on the film? What was it about her vision that worked so well with this story?
My introduction to Ava was her script for Middle of Nowhere, and I just found it so steeped in humanity that transcends race. What I often find in films that are “black” films, they sort of have this notion of what it is to be black as an overriding theme. They’re sort of coated in that and of course part of who I am as a human being is the color of my skin, but it’s certainly not the first thing I think of when I jump out of bed every morning. So, what I loved about her is that the ethnicity of the people in her script was undeniable, but they were human beings first and often you don’t get that. That, to me, is what Selma needed to be and needs to be, even though it is a film about the quest for justice for people of color. At the end of the day, films should have universal themes. I also adore her as a human being. I think she’s amazing on a set, such a kind person. The fact that she was a publicist for 10 to 15 years means that she comes at films with a very unique point of view. She always has the audience in mind, but she also doesn’t take the fact that she’s been given the opportunity to be a storyteller for granted.
For many, Dr. King’s speeches are the only way we know him. They are iconic in their own right. How did you approach those scenes in this movie?
In many ways the speeches were the easier bit, and in some ways the harder bit. They were easier because, like you say, it’s what everyone knows and so you kind of know exactly what that beat needs to feel like because you have several pieces of footage that show you what he sounded like, the space he was in when he was doing that mentally, physically and spiritually. But the difficult thing was the weight of expectation. I had to do a lot of legwork. One of the things that really helped me was that as a man of faith myself, I know what it is like to be taken up into a part of yourself that isn’t necessarily who you are when you’re walking around day to day eating your cornflakes. There are moments of transcendence that I think he certainly experienced when he was in the pulpit, and I felt I could access that as well. So, it was both easy on the surface and tough just in terms of having the audience in the back of your head.
The audience’s ability to believe you as Dr. King must have weighed on you. What beyond the physical aspects of your transformation do you think work?
I always felt very strongly that if we (used prosthetics) we would be shortchanging exactly what you’re talking about there. The only way this works is if somehow I find myself in a situation whereby I can spiritually align myself to who this man was in this specific moment. And yes, I gained 30 pounds; yes, I shaved my hairline back; yes, I did everything I could to look like him. But more importantly was, how can we get to the point where it feels like what this must’ve been like to be him? The speeches are only ten to 15, maybe 20 percent of our film. The rest of it are sides of Dr. King you haven’t seen before. The short answer is that it was a gamble. I’ve never done it before as an actor, I may never get the opportunity to do it again, but there was a moment, and I haven’t told many people this, but there was a moment where I was in the bathroom getting ready for bed, and I looked in the mirror, and I couldn’t see myself. I kept looking, and I couldn’t see myself, and it was the weirdest thing. All that was looking back at me was this man I was portraying. I just feel like those seven years, combined with who he was, combined with the spirit in which we made this film, allowed for a moment in time where I think we were able to tell the truth on film in a way that I could only have dreamt of. I know now what it feels like to be taken up by something and not really know where it’s going to go, or how it’s going to come across. But I know I went through something that was not of me and so, hopefully that’s what people see when they see the film, and they see me as Dr. King.
When you’re working on a film, oftentimes a year or so before it will be released, you’re probably never wondering what its relevance will be to today, if there is any. But now the protests in Ferguson have happened. We’re still hearing about voting rights being threatened in different parts of the country. Was there any awareness while you were shooting Selma that there were some parallels to current times?
Something that Ava and I talked about a lot at the inception of our collaboration was, how is this film relevant to today? We weren’t interested—neither of us—in doing a kind of film that feels like it’s sort of wrapped in mothballs and would dismissed as a crusty biopic. We wanted it to have energy. We wanted it to feel relevant. We wanted to see behind “I Have a Dream” and all its iconography. The erosion of the Voting Rights Act was very much in play when we were shooting the film, so we were aware of that, but nothing could have prepared us—literally within a month of wrapping the film—for Ferguson happening and us watching on CNN images that we felt we had literally just shot in the film. That was eerie, but also it’s symptomatic of why this film had to be made. It’s actually timelier than we ever could’ve thought.
Photograph of David Oyelowo by J.R. Mankoff