Q&A: David Oyelowo, Sarah Paulson on Emmy Nominations and Unique Roles

David Oyelowo and Sarah Paulson Talk
Courtesy of FX/HBO

David Oyelowo and Sarah Paulson faced two of the most challenging roles of any of this year’s Emmy nominees. In HBO’s “Nightingale,” Oyelowo’s mentally unstable character Peter Snowden commands the screen solo for 80 minutes. In FX’s “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” Paulson plays conjoined twins — Bette and Dot Tattler — acting opposite herself in every scene. Although the two thesps had never met, Variety brought them together by phone to discuss these idiosyncratic parts and discovered they have even more in common than fearless performances.

VARIETY: When you find roles that are this unique are they a dream to play or a little bit terrifying?
David Oyelowo:
You’re always looking for roles and other creatives who are going to be challenging to you, because you’re always a better actor after the experience. As an artist you want to push it. When I read the script for “Nightingale” my first thought was, “I’m not entirely sure that this can be done.” One guy in a house on his own talking to himself and people who may or may not be out there — can that be compelling for an hour and a half? The honest answer is I didn’t know, and that very fact is one of the reasons I jumped in. It was a dare to myself. To expose myself in this way and see if a piece that felt this truly unique could be executed.
Sarah Paulson: I have to say with a resounding “bravo” that you were completely and utterly successful. I had a very similar experience in that I don’t think it had been done before — this idea of one actor playing a two-headed person sharing a body. I know people have played twins and you can do split-screen work, but save from tying another actor to me to get that effect it was not really an option. So I had a similar thought: “I don’t know how this is going to work. I don’t know if it can work. I don’t know if the technology mixed with whatever my limited abilities may be (can) pull off both of those girls trapped in one body with incredibly different personalities.” I also think some of this acting on your own thing is really for the birds. There’s a beautiful part of it but there’s such an incredible lifeboat reality to looking into another actor’s face and seeing emotion across their face and in their eyes. The change of another actor’s breathing in a scene can affect you in a particular way. When you don’t have any of those things at your disposal and you’re only using your own imagination — the world you’ve created internally and the world those around you have created — it’s both a liberating and lonely experience.
Oyelowo: That’s what’s so satisfying about acting. You can come as prepared as you like, but there’s no accounting for what’s going to come at you from the other actor. That’s part of the joy and the play of it. If you don’t have that it’s a different kind of performance.
Paulson: (Playing the twins) was so internalized and therefore very scary. Some of it ended up being a wonderful lesson in going with my animal instincts, and taking some of my overthinking, which is somewhat my way as a person, off the table. I didn’t have time. I was too busy thinking about using my left hand, even though I’m not left-handed, and sitting on my right hand — all different kinds of funny physical things. It was technically very hard but also mentally challenging because of the physical cues to remind myself who I was playing.
Oyelowo: Did you get neck aches?
Paulson: When we started I thought, “There is no way I’m going to make it through this season without having a serious neck injury.” But sometimes your body finds a way to support the thing you’re doing and I ended up being OK. The only thing that would happen is I would forget I didn’t have to keep my neck like that all the time. I would go to change my costume and the very wonderful wardrobe woman would tap me on the shoulder and say, “Sarah, you can straighten your head out.”
Oyelowo: Your chiropractor must have loved that role.

How did you grow as actors with these roles?
Oyelowo: For me, “Nightingale” was the very first time when a piece came along where I felt I had to stay in character the whole time. I’ve never thought of myself as a Method actor and I’ve never done that before. Similar to what Sarah does on “American Horror Story,” my (character) had voices in his head. He has dissociative identity disorder. To have all of that going on and then have me as an actor, it felt like too much. I made “Nightingale” before “Selma” and it gave me the balls to do the same thing with Dr. King. I think if I hadn’t done “Nightingale” first I would’ve felt a little pretentious to be on set, staying in character, being Dr. King all the time — but I had felt the benefits of it on “Nightingale.”
Paulson: I’ve never considered myself a Method person either, and I didn’t do that with Bette and Dot, but what did occur to me, that never had before, was my physical life. I had to figure out a way to drop into each girl quite quickly. We didn’t have the luxury of time. I thought I’d be able to shoot all of Bette first and then move over and play all of Dot’s scenes. But because of the nature of the special effects I had to go back and forth every time they changed lens sizes. What I took away that I am now using is the physical way I would drop into them. Bette was a more open, available person, and my face and chest were out more. Dot was more confined and constrained, my brow was more furrowed, I felt smaller. I found a way to put my body in those positions and come up with how to play (each role) in a way I don’t think I could’ve if I was just playing one of the girls. Now that I’m playing Marcia Clark (in FX’s “American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson”) all of my work has been physical — watching so much of her mannerisms and voice that you let seep into you.

Did you hope to find these kinds of parts, that help you learn about yourself, when you got into acting?
Paulson: That’s something I’ve grown into. In the beginning I just wanted to do it. I didn’t even know fully why. There’s something funny about me looking for projects that are going to stimulate me in that way. I’m still at that point in my life and career where I’m just so grateful anyone wants me to show up anywhere at all. I’m not really picking up scripts and throwing them across the room going, “This will never do!” I’m very grateful when something lands in my lap that’s as exciting as this was for me, and something I will carry with me from an artistic standpoint and in a personal way. Any role that you feel truly moved by is bound to permeate beyond your acting self, and you take so much of what you’ve learned into the world with you as a human being. But I can’t say I went into acting hoping those things would be available for me. I was just hoping I could pay the rent and make a living doing what I love to do.
Oyelowo: I do think opportunity breeds bravery. It’s such a competitive profession, no one owes you anything, talent in itself is not enough. I went to drama school with so many great actors who are not doing it anymore and it’s circumstantial. There are many reasons why it’s not the case. But if you’re blessed enough to get these opportunities and to work with people who are better than you, who have done it for longer, and with great material — if you’re prepared to work and learn, you’ll find a muscle that you didn’t even know you had.

You’ve each enjoyed successful and ongoing creative partnerships with filmmakers: Sarah, with “Horror Story” creator Ryan Murphy, and David, with both Lee Daniels and Ava DuVernay. How important is it for an actor to have something like that?
Paulson: To me it’s everything, but I feel like it’s a circumstantial thing. I sometimes think it’s all about the right pair of eyes. Either a person’s looking at you and they see what you’re capable of, or they see something in you you may not even see in yourself. It’s somebody willing to go, “I’m gonna put my money on that one, even though no one else has done so yet.” For some reason, Ryan did that with me. He kept throwing me the ball, throwing it again and throwing bigger balls, more challenging things. There was something about his belief and faith in me that made me want to rise up and meet it to the best of my ability. I have been (acting) long enough that I thought, “If I don’t dive into this, if I stop myself because I’m afraid I can’t pull this off, then I will have missed the opportunity of my life, and I don’t know if it will come again.” I feel like I was a horse at a gate waiting for someone to open it. Ryan came along and lifted the latch and out I went. I feel that way with (“12 Years a Slave” director) Steve McQueen too. I’ve benefitted greatly from other people’s confidence and belief in me, which has borne some greater confidence in myself.
Oyelowo: One of the occupational hazards of being an actor, the reason why so many actors are insecure, is that the only way we know we’re good is when other people tell us. That’s a dangerous way to live your life, especially when it’s something so subjective. But I know for a fact the reason I’m an actor is because one, two, maybe three people when I was younger saw something that I did, in youth theater or some small play somewhere, and said, “You’re good.” And it planted just enough of a seed in me that I said, “I’m gonna keep going with this and see where it leads.” Lee Daniels is one of those people for me. I’d moved here from the U.K. and had done very little work at all and he’s the one who initially cast me as Dr. Martin Luther King, when the project was still his to direct. Even though he didn’t end up directing it, he cast me in both “The Paperboy” and “The Butler,” and through those two experiences my confidence grew exponentially as an actor, not least because someone of his stature believed in me. He saw something in me, exactly as Sarah said, that I hadn’t seen in myself. What’s so beautiful about that is that I took that confidence and had this wonderful experience with Ava DuVernay on a small film called “Middle of Nowhere” and gained such confidence in her ability that I was then able to advocate for her to direct “Selma” in the end. With both those directors there’s now a sixth sense we have between us. With Ava I know whether we’re gonna go again for another take and what I need to do in that other take by the way she says “cut.”

You’re both proof that the old-fashioned distinction between “film actors” and “TV actors” doesn’t work anymore, but do you ever encounter that prejudice in the industry?
Paulson: I certainly don’t feel there’s a distinction to be made between a television and a film actor. I think there’s a distinction between great actors and not so great actors. But I really think if you watch a person working in television give a wonderful performance, that person is f—ing great, because there is no time. You’re doing sometimes upwards of seven or 10 pages a day. It’s tantamount to a smaller-budget movie, but these shows are churned out week after week. You’re getting these performances that are so powerful when everyone has to move so quickly. There’s a nimble quality to the way a television actor can work. When that muscle gets strong it’s a very valuable thing. I’m also one of those actors who says, “Point me toward the work that matters to me and I don’t care where you’re putting it. Television show. Movie. Projected on the back of someone’s garage.” If that’s where the work is that’s exciting to me and moving, I want to be there.
Oyelowo: I also feel television is in a fantastically rich vein of what it’s presenting both by opportunity to actors and to audiences. In the past when television was largely on channels that are commercially driven, they had to hit specific beats for advertisers and corporations. That affects the writing and the actors on TV. But cable has so challenged the status quo, and as the strength of cable has grown, network is having to answer the audience’s appetite for more quality. Actors and the audience are the huge beneficiaries. (Actors) who aren’t necessarily being artistically challenged in film are quite rightly going to television where there’s great writing, directing and characters. “Nightingale” typifies that. It was an independent feature film made specifically for the arthouse film industry. We thought we’d play a couple of weeks in New York and L.A. and end up streaming somewhere. Very few people would see it, but, exactly as Sarah said, if the work is good I’ll be there. But the fact that HBO picked it up is so indicative of what’s going on in TV. We went to so many film distributors with “Nightingale” and all of them said no. They didn’t know what to do with it. And then you have arguably the biggest cable channel in the country not only taking it, but blasting it out to the world. Millions of people have seen the film now, and that never would’ve happened.

Sarah, what advice do you have for David about attending his first Emmys?
Paulson: Bring a snack, it’s a long night. I always like to tuck a little flask in my purse because, unlike the Golden Globes, you don’t get any booze. People like to s— on awards shows, and I know why they do, but there’s something really wonderful about being around your peers and being in a room where you get to tell people whom you’ve never met how much their work has meant to you. It’s a very celebratory thing. And also I’ll get to meet you, which is to me the highlight of the evening quite frankly.
Oyelowo: I absolutely cannot wait to meet you as well, and anyone who’s reading this who feels the need to put myself and Sarah Paulson in something together, please do.
Paulson: Hear, hear.
Oyelowo: I’ll show up for that.