David Oyelowo is a devout Christian, and his faith plays a pivotal part in every decision he makes as an actor. Before agreeing to take on a role, he takes time to pray, and considers a potential project in light of how it reflects or comments on his beliefs. It was through this process that he decided to play Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” as well as a minister in “The Help.”
And through the very same process, he signed on to play an Oedipally warped psychopath in HBO’s “Nightingale,” a Machiavellian industrialist in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” and a real-life convicted murderer in the upcoming “Captive.”
Rare among actors of his stature for his openness about his religion, Oyelowo, keynote speaker at Variety’s “Purpose: The Family Entertainment & Faith-Based Summit,” held June 25 at the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, is a believer in films that engage more directly with darkness and doubt than many of the current crop of faith-based films. The work should also speak for itself, he says.
“For better or for worse, in my industry what you do means that people pay attention to what you say, and I think a lot of people use that platform to talk a lot of nonsense,” Oyelowo says. “So I’m not interested in Bible-thumping or beating anyone over the head with the Gospel. But what I am interested in is talking about love, talking about goodness, talking about light in spite of a dark world, and letting that be reflected in my work. And if someone asks me, I will tell them who I am and what I believe, but the work is where I do my real talking.”
With “Selma” having given him, as he puts it, “a degree of notoriety,” Oyelowo is keen to use his leverage to push through films like “Captive,” which he says is “100% what I want to do with this platform I have.”
Directed by Jerry Jameson, and set for release by Paramount in September, “Captive” tells the true story of Brian Nichols, who escaped an Atlanta courtroom in 2005 while awaiting trial for rape, killing four people in the process. He took a hostage named Ashley Smith (Kate Mara), a struggling meth addict who had recently lost custody of her child. After seven hours, Smith was able to use Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life” to convince Nichols to surrender peacefully to the police. She went on to become a celebrated addiction counselor.
For Oyelowo, despite the overwhelming bleakness of the story — after all, its eventual uplifting ending hardly negates the four murders it took to get there — it nonetheless represents an example of “an event that no one would ever want to be a part of, that ends up being infiltrated by God,” and one that is all the more powerful for not offering easy answers or reassuring bromides.
“It’s not about someone who has it all together coming along saying, ‘This is the way to go. Give yourself to Jesus and your life is going to be fine,’” Oyelowo says. “This is an undeniable miraculous circumstance where you scratch your head and go, ‘OK, I don’t know how any goodness could have possibly come out of that situation.’ But it’s undeniable that it did, and the woman who is now living a life that is beautiful is evidence of that fact. That, to me, is the beauty of what God does.”
Oyelowo is aware that his faith makes him something of an anomaly in Hollywood, and admits that there have been “people who have said to me, ‘Hmm, you might want to slow your roll on that a bit,’” he says. “But it’s just who I am, and I refuse to censor myself or marginalize something that I believe to be a force for good.”