Following his notorious Oscar snub earlier this year, David Oyelowo is coming out fighting with a dramatically different project: Nightingale. As the film’s sole cast member, Oyelowo plays Peter Snowden, a sexually-repressed war vet suffering from PTSD and agoraphobia. He also happens to have murdered his mother and is living with her corpse. (That’s not a spoiler; we learn it in the opening monologue.) Tough sell, right? Apparently, HBO didn’t think so. Directed by Elliott Lester and scripted by first-time screenwriter Frederick Mensch, Nightingale is set to premiere on HBO on May 29th. The film was rejected by several film festivals, perhaps due to its off-putting premise. Then Plan B’s Dede Gardner saw it while working with Oyelowo on Selma. She showed it to Brad Pitt, who, Oyelowo says, “flipped for it.” 

What attracted you to this project? A one-man film seems a terrifying prospect for an actor and a director. 
ELLIOTT LESTER: Ultimately, the challenge was, can we actually pull it off? It was quite terrifying material. But what I found was that the thread of the character was so engrossing that I felt like there’s something here. It’s just camera, actor, script. That’s it. Egotistically, it was a selfish challenge. That’s how it started. I just became obsessed with the script and the idea of it, and we began the journey almost instantly. I read the script Wednesday and we optioned it on Monday.

“I was compelled by it. I knew that it worked as a film, because I blazed through it as a read. I found the character absolutely fascinating…I made the decision to stay in character for the duration of the shoot,” says David Oyelowo.

DAVID OYELOWO: I read a lot of scripts and more often than not there is a degree of familiarity about them — that I’ve read that, seen that, or I’ve been in it before. But there was none of that with this. Everything about it just felt audacious. It’s just like, how is this executable? I was compelled by it. I knew that it worked as a film because I blazed through it as a read. I found the character absolutely fascinating and challenging and someone who I liked at points, didn’t like at points, understood at points, completely didn’t understand at other points. I think we all felt, yes, it’s an unknown. It’s an experiment, really, but is it one we want to dive in on.

David Oyelowo, Elliot Lester
“This film of ours is on HBO. There’s not a single award on the planet that can out-do that for me,” says Oyelowo.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz

You did a 16-day shoot about one man’s intense slide into madness — how did that affect you?
LESTER: For me, it was a joy to watch a phenomenal performance. We didn’t rehearse in the traditional way. We had lots of conversations about specificity and things that Peter would like. The technical side of it, that was very well prepped. I was anxious about making sure that I wasn’t repeating shots and repeating ideas and that the ideas were translating. So seeing that come to life was great.
OYELOWO: Well, I made the decision to stay in character for the duration of the shoot. I think that helped a lot because it would have been more exhausting to be going in and out, to have a day of shooting, go home to my wife and kids and then the next day feel like I’ve got to go back. So I moved out of my home and into a friend’s apartment for three weeks. On the set I was Peter. So I put David Oyelowo on the back burner and crept into the head of this guy. It meant that I just didn’t second-guess any of the decisions I made as him. What was exhausting was finishing the shoot and then still having voices swirling around in your head. That was weird.

How long did that last?
OYELOWO: Not too long, because I have four kids and a wife who’s not particularly interested in living with Peter Snowden. That helps.

David, what did you do physically and mentally to prepare?
OYELOWO: It was more mental really. I mean, he’s not the guy who sits in the corner staring at the wallpaper. He talks. It was talking to a psychiatrist and really engaging with the fact that this guy has PTSD, the fact that he’s sexually repressed and confused, the fact that he’s dealing with a heavy-handed mother who has subjected him to a kind of religious oppression as well, that is also manifesting in some ways. There was just so much in the blender already with this guy before the opening monologue where we realize what he’s done. The one thing I didn’t want is for it to sort of feel like a generalized weird dude in a house. It’s got to feel at every moment like we are telling the truth.

What’s the story of how the film came to HBO?

OYELOWO: If you’d told me that, driving here to talk to you today I’d be looking at gigantic billboards of my great big head with the letters HBO? The journey towards this moment is so completely surreal. A film like this, at best, you make it, a kind of cool distributor comes along, says they’ll take it, it does a couple of weeks in New York and L.A. and ends up streaming on Netflix or Apple TV, and a couple of people watch it every now and again. That’s what this kind of film classically is designed to do. We made the film and we were perpetually turned down by festivals because they just didn’t get it. (They said), “What do we do with this?” I’ve got to give props to the L.A. Film Festival and Stephanie Allain, who was the one person who saw it and got it and gave it a platform, which meant that we got these wonderful reviews, which meant that I was able to show that to Dede Gardner while I was shooting Selma. She said, “I’ve got to see this movie!” She saw it, showed it to Brad Pitt. He flipped for it. That was more from an actor point of view. He was just on me saying, “How? How did you?” So they became the advocates towards HBO and the champions for it.

Considering what happened with you and Selma at the Oscars, how are you feeling going into this awards season?
OYELOWO: Look, for me to have a film like Nightingale come out so quickly after playing an iconic role like Dr. King is the win for me. As fantastic as it is and as proud as I am of doing Selma and playing Dr. King, what I don’t want is for the rest of my life to be Dr. King in people’s eyes. I think the way you do that is to very quickly shift gears and for people to see you as someone else. All the rest of it is gravy really. I mean like I say, this film of ours is on HBO. There’s not a single award on the planet that can outdo that in terms of for me as an actor.