A lot of what you need to know about David Oyelowo can be gleaned from a brief, viral, almost instantly GIF-able clip from the 2015 Academy Awards.
On the heels of John Legend and Common’s rousing, staggering performance of Selma’s “Glory,” the cameras panned the Oscar crowd, who had leapt to their feet as one in spontaneous, rapturous applause.
The adulation was richly deserved, but one man stuck out in particular: Oyelowo, who starred in Selma as Martin Luther King Jr. He was seated near the front, suited in a smartly tailored, Cabernet-red tuxedo (which would land him at the top of Esquire’s list of best-dressed men of the Oscars the following morning), applauding while tears ran freely down his cheeks.
Even in our age of 24/7 celebrity coverage, in which a Google image search can turn up photos of Gwyneth Paltrow expressing every candid emotion known to man, the moment seemed purely human and vulnerable. The Oscars almost didn’t deserve it.
The reason the moment was so indicative of Oyelowo (pronunciation: O-yellow-wo), is that, in person, it is exactly how he comes across. He is put together, but authentic—impeccably collected and utterly personable.
Oyelowo is becoming well-known for his ability to play other people, but it’s almost as astonishing just how easily he inhabits his own skin.
Parting the Red Carpet
Oyelowo’s presence at the Oscars was notable for another reason. For most of the awards season, his blistering Selma performance was widely expected to net him the Oscar for Best Actor, so it was a bit of a scandal when he wasn’t even nominated (Neil Patrick Harris even mocked the Academy for the snub during his hosting gig).
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t disappointing,” Oyelowo says, with refreshing candor. “Not least because it’s Dr. King, and I personally just want to see him celebrated in every way possible, and, of course, the film is an extension of that. You could argue that all the noise around not getting nominated actually gave the film more of a profile and more of a presence than if it had gotten nominations.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he continues. “I would have no problem being an Oscar nominee or winner, and that’s something I hope is part of my future. But for right now, I feel the film did everything it was supposed to do.”
If you’re the betting sort, put money on an Oscar nomination being part of Oyelowo’s future. Rarely has an actor seemed to come so out of nowhere and yet simultaneously seemed so destined for greatness. After Selma, it became clear that Oyelowo belongs among our finest talents—a commanding, charismatic, magnetic force on screen and in person.
Although it seems like Oyelowo burst into fame overnight, nothing could be further from the truth.
“We all know from a biblical point of view of what God does in the secret place before you’re then put out in public,” he says. “We see that with Moses, we see that with David, we see that with Joseph, and with Jesus Himself. I feel that’s been my journey as an actor.”
Something else you need to know about Oyelowo: He is wildly, plainly, unapologetically Christian. He’s obsessed with Jesus. You can hardly get him to talk about anything else.
“I’m definitely an example of God using the foolish things of this world to confound the wise,” he says. “I know I’ve been given these opportunities for a reason. I’ve been given a degree of notoriety. I can now try to marry Hollywood’s desire to get to a faith-based audience, and try to get us as people of faith wanting to have films made that have broader reach and have high production value.”
This is something Oyelowo is passionate about: raising the standard for faith-based movies. Not that he even wants to call them that.
“We’ve had so many faith-based movies that I think are sub-par, I almost want a new phrase for them,” he says.
He believes the market is ready for a new kind of film in which the production quality is high, the stories are compelling and the message is forceful.
“Hollywood has done some of these films and some of them are ginormous biblical movies, but you can tell the people making these are not invested in the truth of what those stories are biblically,” he says. “It shows in the work. It shows that they’ve just basically treated it as, ‘OK, millions of people believe in this certain Old Testament story. It has action elements, it has epic elements, it has murder, it has this that and the other. Let’s go make a movie, and at the very least, all the Christians will come and we’ll break even and if we go beyond that, great.’
“I’m definitely an example of God using the foolish things of this world to confound the wise. I know I’ve been given these opportunities for a reason.”
“The Bible I read, it doesn’t really correlate with those films.”
But he says, before Christians get too judgmental of Hollywood, they need to consider the plank in their own eye.
“Then, on the other side, you have films being made that are basically preaching to the choir,” Oyelowo says. “They are an extension of what you sometimes get in a church service, which is that the youth group put together a play to illustrate a biblical story or a biblical scene.
“Everyone goes. And isn’t that wonderful because we are people of grace and we are people who love the message. So as long as that’s coming through, we’re very forgiving of the fact that it’s not well acted, it’s not well written and really no one outside of this church would be interested in it.
“I think that there are films that are basically extensions of what you get in any given church on a Sunday morning.”
Oyelowo wants to reach a point where people who believe the Gospel, who believe in miracles and believe in the power of salvation are also “fantastically good artistically, creatively and have a vision beyond a core Christian audience.” Then, he says, Christians will start producing great faith-based movies.
Setting the Captive Free
To that end, Oyelowo not only stars in but actually produced this fall’s Captive, co-starring House of Cards’ Kate Mara.
The film centers around the insane true story of Brian Nichols’ 2005 prison escape and killing spree, which eventually ended when he took a hostage by the name of Ashley Smith who read him excerpts of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life. It ended up being a very moving, life-changing experience for both of them: He surrendered to the police. She kicked her meth habit and reunited with her daughter.
The film had been languishing in post-production purgatory for a few years until Oyelowo’s sudden stardom gave studio executives the motivation to release it.
Their hesitation was understandable. On the one hand, a powerful, true story with a happy ending is to Hollywood what Corn Flakes is to Kelloggs. On the other hand, the particulars of the story—the almost too redemptive to be believed inclusion of The Purpose Driven Life, the fact that both Nichols and Smith did meth while reading it—made the movie a tough one to peg.
It was in the unenviable position of being too Christian for mainstream audiences and too mainstream for the crowd that made God’s Not Dead such a hit.
But for Oyelowo, that very dichotomy is what piqued his interest.
“The thing that drew me to it is the realness of it,” he says. “You have a murderer and a meth addict, but it’s completely reframed. Those two kinds of characters in a lot of movies would be the heroes of the piece. It would be Bonnie and Clyde. It would be the guys who are really cool.
“But it was the opposite in this, and it was the truth. Not only was it the truth of what being a meth addict and a murderer means, but it was a true story. So it means you couldn’t be accused of being preachy if you’re telling the story in an artistically creative and integrous way, because this is what happened.”
It’s clear Oyelowo went to great pains to retain this honesty. It’s a bit shocking, on the heels of his Selma performance, to see him portray a ruthless killer with such unfeeling ease. In Captive, he’s lean and muscular, having shed the extra weight he put on to play MLK. He speaks in a chilling monotone. When he’s on screen, you’re never quite sure what he’s going to do next. It’s a great performance.
“I turn down a lot of movies because sometimes they glamorize violence or the darker side of sex or criminality,” he says. “I don’t shy away from the darkness, and anyone who has read the Bible knows that God does not shy away from the darkness, as well. The Bible, in some ways, is an R-rated book when you look at the content of it.
“But the Bible is undeniably a book of light,” he says, “it does not hold up darkness as the path to follow but it shows darkness and shows how light overwhelms the darkness. And so that’s what I look for in pieces.
“For instance, in Captive, we had to fight against every instinct to make it feel cool. Nothing should be glamorous about it. That’s what dictates my choices, is basically telling that truth. These things are not edifying to anyone, whether it be the perpetrators or the victims. For me, I don’t mind showing those things as long as they are being shown for what they actually are. That’s what governs the choices I make.”
“There’s no truth to it. It’s a lie that the devil is having a field day with,” Oyelowo responds to a question about the temptations of Hollywood, and whether Christians should keep themselves from delving too deeply in its purported culture of greed.
“If we are not part of an industry that is arguably the most influential on the planet, then how can we get annoyed or frustrated when what Hollywood is putting out into the world is basically sending the world into moral decline? We only have to look to the Bible and how effective parables were for Jesus to convey His message,” he says.
“the Bible is undeniably a book of light. it does not hold up darkness as the path to follow, but it shows how light overwhelms the darkness. so that’s what I look for in pieces.”
“He was with the sinners. He was with the broken. He was with those who He was criticized by the religious establishment for hanging out with, so I don’t know why we should think it should be any different now.”
This is not necessarily a new thought regarding faith and film. Christians have been trying to elevate the quality of their movies for almost as long as the medium has existed. But having someone of Oyelowo’s caliber is a potential game-changer. He’s aware of that, and it weighs on him. He’s not taking anything for granted yet.
“You look at the parable of the talents: God wants us to take our talents and increase them and make good on the investment He has made in us, and I take that very seriously.
“I know that I am not owed the right to make movies. I know God has given me this privileged position and I have to work dog-hard as an actor to make the films the best they can be. I think that if you’re doing that, then you can really start doing some damage.”