EXCLUSIVE: David Oyelowo on Daniel Craig's Rigor and Why 'Othello' Is Still as Relevant as Ever

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“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.”

MORE: How David Oyelowo Is Challenging Himself and the Status Quo

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.”

Matthew Murphy

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.

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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