David Oyelowo: ‘God Called Me to Play That Role’ in ‘Selma’

David Oyelowo faith
Getty Images for Variety

Actor David Oyelowo spoke candidly on Thursday about his faith, his perception of the faith-based movie market and the role that divine intervention played in setting him on the path to play the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Oscar-nominated “Selma.”

“I won’t engage in any scripts that I don’t feel like is somehow speaking to the truth of what it means to be a human being,” Oyelowo said during the wide-ranging conversation at Variety‘s Purpose summit on faith- and family-friendly entertainment, held at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills. “I try as much as possible not to utter a single line that I don’t believe in.”

The British actor also spoke of his life transformation as a born-again Christian at the age of 16 in the conversation with Variety‘s Justin Chang.

Oyelowo was candid about his process of evaluating projects that he’s offered. And he said he is wary of the focus on “faith-based” films as a marketing element.

“Films that come my way tend to be about someone who has it all together preaching to someone who didn’t, and somehow the person who doesn’t find their way to Jesus, or the promised land, or to the light,” Oyelowo said. “And in my experience, that can happen, sometimes does, but it’s not the life that is generally lived on planet Earth, and certainly not what I see a lot in the Bible. The Bible says, ‘In your weakness, I am strong.’ And what tends to happen is you have a lot of broken people whereby something miraculous undeniably happens, and they turn their eyes to God.

“When you have faith-based movies that are low production value, not very well acted, not very well written and are very much on the nose in terms of their message, in some ways that is as much of a lie, in my opinion, as when a gigantic studio doesn’t really fundamentally believe in some of what is being put onscreen, is cynically hoping that a core audience buys into it, that is also a lie,” he said.

Oyelowo echoed the sentiments of many at the summit who cited the importance of authenticity in material that attempts to tackle spiritual issues.

“What I try to do with my career as an actor is what I’ve learned in the theater: I am rigorous with myself as to whether I’m telling the truth, and I try to surround myself with filmmakers and content creators who are also interested in the pursuit of the truth,” he said. “And I think that if that fundamentally is at the forefront, you can’t go too far wrong. Because ultimately even if the film isn’t a commercial success instantaneously, ultimately, with time, that truth remains.

“If you don’t tell the truth when you are engaged with a film like that, you’re in trouble. You’re not going to get either of your audience. We live in a cynical age, and the secular market, even though phrases and terminology are a tricky thing when we’re talking about this subject matter. But there is an audience where as soon as they feel like they’re being preached to, they shut down. They are predisposed not to want to watch that movie. But if there is a modicum of truth in there, you will win them over.”

Oyelowo also noted that faith-based material does not necessarily mean G-rated material in every scene. He cited an example from his upcoming thriller “Captive.”

“In our film, Kate Mara isn’t wearing a bra in a scene,” Oyelowo said. “And so someone said to me, ‘And it looks like she’s cold.’ I mean, come on. If that’s the reason why you have a problem with the film, then you need to get in your prayer closet and really go to god about your own objectification of the female body. Women have nipples, people. And so that, for me, is the kind of thing where I go, well OK, if this film isn’t for you, that’s fine. I want to talk to that gigantic audience who are human beings and who accept the flaws that we all have, and are interested in a way out.”

Oyelowo also captivated the crowd with this story of how he came to play King in “Selma.” It was nothing less than a calling, he said, and it started in 2007. At the time, he was rejected for the role by the director who had been shepherding the pic.

“I felt God called me to play that role,” Oyelowo said.

“Selma” stayed in development for years, and by the time it was ready to go before the cameras, Oyelowo’s career had advanced to the point where he was in a position to approve Ava DuVernay as the director. That trajectory shows the work of a higher power in his life, Oyelowo said.

“That film, for me, started as a whisper from God. If God is interested enough to take a British dude who had done no American movies, and say that to him and then it manifests into that, the Lord is interested in that, in my opinion. But it would have been a mistake, I think, to market that film as ‘the best Christian film of 2014’ — I think that would have marginalized its potential in the marketplace.

“And that’s one of the challenges I think that face us as content creators as it pertains to faith-based movies. That’s why I balk at that phrase, because it immediately conjures up something that isn’t for me. It’s the same thing with black cinema. It subliminally says to a white person, oh, well that’s not for me. That’s for them which, of course, is not the case.”