“Great art is always speaking to the time it’s in,” David Oyelowo tells ET. The actor, previously seen in Selma and HBO’s Nightingale, is currently starring opposite Daniel Craig in New York Theater Workshop’s sold out, limited engagement of Othello. In the wake of the presidential election, #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the Black Lives Matter movement, William Shakespeare’s play feels as relevant as ever -- especially considering it was written over 400 years ago.
“No writer has so beautifully and consistently and in such a complex way understood the human experience like Shakespeare. Othello is hitting people square between the eyes,” the actor says. The play’s core theme of racial prejudice is magnified by the “political climate we are in, the gender climate we are in, the relational climate we are in.”
In the play directed by Sam Gold, Oyelowo plays the titular character, who upon falling in love with Desdemona (House of Cards’ Rachel Brosnahan) is plagued by rage and jealousy when he is manipulated by his trusted and traitorous friend Iago (Craig). Not interested in doing anything “pedestrian or obvious,” the actor told The New York Times he eventually warmed up to playing Othello when he realized he could explore “what it means to be celebrated on the basis of your talent but to be derided on the basis of your color.”
That same issue has plagued the Academy Awards, which has failed to nominate a person of color for any acting honors two years in a row. “The Academy has a problem. It’s a problem that needs to be solved,” Oyelowo said in January at the King Legacy Awards, where Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs was being honored. “A year ago, I did a film called Selma, and after the Academy Awards, Cheryl invited me to her office to talk about what went wrong then. We had a deep and meaningful [conversation]. For 20 opportunities to celebrate actors of color, actresses of color, to be missed last year is one thing; for that to happen again this year is unforgivable.”
But admittedly, Oyelowo is not consumed by politics -- in Hollywood or on a national level -- when onstage. “I don't think there is an actor that can be on stage and thinking about the political relevance of what they’re doing, but I think if it resonates with people’s lives, their politics, their families, what they are thinking about then is necessitous,” he says, reflecting upon the news that Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr in Hamilton, recently used the show’s curtain call to read an open letter to Vice President-elect Mike Pence. In the impromptu address, he implored Pence to consider a “diverse America” for fear that his administration will not represent people of color or the LGBT community.
If anything, Oyelowo is focused on perfection. He, like Craig, is really hard on himself. “I don’t mean in terms of feeling like we’re not getting it right,” Oyelowo says. “Just the work -- the work to get it right. And more often than not, I find myself in situations where I am the most obsessed one on that set or in the play.”
Now, he’s found an “equally obsessive workaholic nutter” in Craig. “The rigor he places on himself and the text and the desire and need to pursue the truth is really amazing and is what I like to think I have as well,” he says as the two perform for a packed house night after night.
And that drive to get it right has bigger, political ramifications. “You have to tell the truth,” Oyelowo says. “And that is hopefully what good plays do.”
--Additional reporting by Darla Murray