How David Oyelowo Is Challenging Himself and the Status Quo

by Stacy Lambe 9:55 AM PDT, May 29, 2015
Photo: HBO

David Oyelowo is not done fighting.

In fact, the 39-year-old English actor will not stop advocating for more diversity on screen until films like Selma and his new HBO project, Nightingale, about a repressed military veteran isolated by his own mental disorder and personal shame, are part of the norm -- offering audiences the chance to see “more than just white, male, young, good-looking characters in their movies.”

“The one thing I can say about Selma is that even though it was such a hard fight to get that film made, the reaction to the film and the effect that the film is having is absolutely indicative to the fact that there is an audience and there is a desire and a thirst for these films,” Oyelowo tells ETonline ahead of the Nightingale’s HBO premiere on Friday, May 28 at 9 p.m.

WATCH: Common and John Legend Perform 'Glory' During Emotional Concert in Selma

Oyelowo, who is the only actor on screen for most of the film’s 83 minutes, admittedly is challenged with realizing a full spectrum of shifting emotions while maintaining the audience’s full attention.

“As an actor, you never really know until you do it as to whether you’re going to have enough going on in yourself to engage an audience for an entire movie,” he explains. “I don’t even mean in a film like Nightingale, I just mean generally. You’re the protagonist in a film; you have to be the actor who an audience can go on a journey with. They can’t teach you that. You can’t learn that in drama school. It’s just something that is or isn’t. Up until doing Nightingale, I largely played supporting roles in movies. I was aware it was very exposing, but it’s also a small film. So I thought, ‘OK, if there’s going to be an opportunity to find out it’s definitely this.’ [Laughs.] But it’s small enough that can I say, ‘If I fail, hopefully I fail in a quiet way, and if I succeed, at least I know it’s something I can do.’ ” 

Photo: HBO

Ultimately, it’s a riveting performance that sees his character, Peter Snowden, crumble as he deals with his mother’s murder and faces his true emotions for a longtime (and off-screen) friend, Edward. The role can also be seen as an unexpected move for Oyelowo, who garnered critical acclaim portraying Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma -- a role he filmed after Nightingale -- and is in talks to portray Seretse Khama, an exiled royal, in the upcoming biopic, A United Kingdom.

But that was also the attraction. The character in Nightingale is “a human being.”

“One of the main reasons I wanted to play Peter Snowden in this film is because he is an African American but he’s not a musician, he’s not a sportsman, he has nothing to do with civil rights, it’s not a racial drama, it’s not a comedy geared specifically at the black audience,” Oyelowo says of tackling the role that, while not written as black or white, was initially pursued by white actors. “It’s none of these things we normally by and large see when it involves African Americans in movies.”

NEWS: 'Dear White People' Producer Calls Out 'Deadline' Casting Story

Nightingale can also be celebrated in the same way that HBO's BessieDear White People or the upcoming teen comedy, Dope, challenge expectations of what’s seen of black or LGBT roles on screen. “[Those films] tend to be championed by people who want to see these films out in the world,” he says, adding, “The more underrepresented characters in film, the more we will see what the audience really wants to see.”

Watch a trailer for Nightingale below: