David Oyelowo Variety Portrait
JOSÉ MANDOJANA for Variety

Over lunch at a posh Beverly Hills osteria, David Oyelowo considers the steak. He’s meant to be bulking up at the moment. Just ahead of a promotional tour for his new films “Queen of Katwe” and “A United Kingdom,” both of which premiered this month at the Toronto Film Festival, he’s preparing to grace the stage as Othello opposite Daniel Craig for the New York Theatre Workshop. Director Sam Gold (the Tony-winning “Fun Home”) will place Shakespeare’s play in a military setting, so the cast is putting on extra muscle to look the part.

It’s not the first time the British-Nigerian Oyelowo has taken part in a production that notably altered the Bard’s characterizations. Fifteen years ago he became the first black actor to play an English king in a major Shakespeare production when he starred as Henry VI for the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was exactly the opposite of the kind of work he was used to being offered, and thus was a seminal moment.

“The roles that were race-specific, that were listed as black, were not especially interesting,” Oyelowo recalls. “It was all petty criminals, or at best you were playing a doctor somewhere, but always on the periphery of the story. So I wanted to play characters that were written for white actors, because they just have more complexity. I thought, that’s the only way I’m going to get to play characters that are truly interesting to me.”

JOSÉ MANDOJANA for Variety

Shifting his perspective on his own potential has allowed him to create similar opportunities not just for himself, but for other artists as well. At a time when diversity is a buzzword, and many are speaking to the importance of broadening the variety of voices that are allowed to break through, Oyelowo isn’t just talking the talk — as both an actor and a producer, he’s walking the walk.

Of the recent films in which he starred (and, in some cases, produced), five — Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” Maris Curran’s “Five Nights in Maine,” Cynthia Mort’s “Nina,” Amma Asante’s “A United Kingdom,” and Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe” — were directed by women. It was a conscious decision, he stresses.

“The kinds of stories I want to be a part of telling are about delving into what it is to be a human being,” he says. “This is a generalization, but often, male directors — especially in the climate we’re in in Hollywood right now — are more interested in action-oriented films or franchise movies, films that are about this notion of the path you need to tread in order to continue to up your value as a director.”

DuVernay, he says, is different. Oyelowo was cast in “Selma” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. early on; several male directors were attached along the way, and he was the only element still standing when DuVernay joined the project. The actor found her take on the material to be strikingly original.

“It was just more comprehensive,” Oyelowo says. “It was less interested in purely the politics, purely the men. Carmen Ejogo’s character, Coretta Scott King, gained so much dimension, and by virtue of that, so did Dr. King. He was allowed to not just be the orator, but the husband, the father, the man who loses words in relation to his wife, as opposed to just being a man of words.” As producer of “A United Kingdom,” which tells the story of Botswana President Seretse Khama’s scandalous marriage to a white woman in 1948, Oyelowo saw a similar divide. Many of the male directors with whom he met gravitated to the political elements of the tale, but Oyelowo saw more depth in Asante’s “unashamed” romanticism.

“What is really transcendent about the story is that these two people fell in love, and there were political ramifications,” he notes. “Everyone around them seems to have a problem with it, and then they have to sort of react to that. That’s just a great story. Drama is conflict. You have two people who literally go, ‘It’s us against the world, babe.’”

Nair’s “Queen of Katwe,” another true-life tale, recounts the story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi. Oyelowo plays her coach, Robert Katende. The actor surmises that, had there been a male director,  Katende might have been the central focus.

“And if [the director] were not just a male, but a white male, there may have even been a temptation to make my character white,” he says. “That has been done before, where you have these great stories and you transpose them with the excuse that they need to be palatable to a Western audience. ‘Queen of Katwe’ wouldn’t be what I believe to be its best version without Mira directing that film. I would say the same of Ava. I would say the same of Amma. That’s just trying to get the best version of those films made.”

As an actor, he has gotten to the essence of his characters much more quickly under the guidance of women, he adds.

“I find that male directors are more interested in what the film looks like as opposed to what the film is about emotionally. My job is not to make the film look pretty, and I don’t feel drawn to making myself look pretty within the film. I just want to tell the emotional truth, and I have found that the women directors I’ve worked with — there’s no pussyfooting around it or navigating around it. There’s no playing off talking about emotion as something that’s uncomfortable, and that’s of value when you’re barreling through a shooting day, and it’s a love story or it’s about an 11-year-old girl or it’s about how Dr. King’s marriage is functioning or not functioning, or, in the case of ‘Five Nights in Maine,’ you’re a bereaved husband who’s having a very difficult time with
his mother-in-law.”

“I just want to tell the emotional truth, and I have found that the women directors I’ve worked with — there’s no pussyfooting around it or navigating around it.”
David Oyelowo

As a producer, the mandate Oyelowo has set for himself — and the mandate he thinks Hollywood has to set itself — is that 50% of the names on any list of potential directors belong to women.

“You’re not going to bring about change if it’s not intentional,” he says. “We all have cultural bias, racial bias. One of the difficult things around this subject matter is to deny that we have places we go to subconsciously, and unless you consciously decide that that’s wrong and you’ve got to do something about it, especially if you’re in a position of power, it won’t change.”

The spark to create diverse opportunities in the industry was ignited in Oyelowo in part by DuVernay, who spoke to him of situations she had encountered.

“It’s a form of dissent and protest in some ways,” DuVernay says. “The ways in which we can push change in our everyday lives are not always grand proclamations, but in the actual doing.”

As the creative force behind the Oprah Winfrey Network’s “Queen Sugar,” DuVernay has hired female directors on each episode. Oyelowo says such roles can be catalysts for significant change.

“When you have a female director crewing up, they’re consciously looking for a female DP, editor, costume designer, production designer, because they know this is a challenge,” he says. “The constant excuse is, ‘They’re not experienced enough.’ But there’s a catch-22. If they don’t get to do it, they don’t get to do it. You’ve just got to stick your neck out.”

These issues were on Oyelowo’s mind when, through a relationship with The Geanco Foundation, he helped establish a scholarship for girls in Nigeria, where he spent seven years as a child. The move was a response to the violence and abduction of young girls there at the hands of Islamic extremist group Boko Haram and their ilk.

“We’ve talked about it in relation to female directors, but in a lot of African cultures, sexism, gender inequality, and cultural bias in relation to women exists as well,” he says. “But again, like the
marginalization of female directors, we all lose if 50% of the population aren’t being allowed to take flight. This scholarship is basically to combat what seems to be a concerted effort to keep these girls uneducated and therefore keep them away from their destiny.”

In Hollywood, one major step forward, Oyelowo says, has been recent action by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He has been critical of the organization in the past, but earlier this year, the Academy announced a record number of new invitees, emphasizing international names, people of color, and, particularly throughout the craft branches, women. Some viewed the strategy as a panicked reaction to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. But Oyelowo sees it as an industry leader cleaning its own house.

“It sends a message, to say that we recognize there is underrepresentation, and we’re going to do something about it,” he says. “So I think the Academy has upped its legitimacy by doing what it’s done. If you’re someone within the industry who has a voice, whether an individual or an institution, if you are able to lead by example, you should take that opportunity.”

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