How David Oyelowo Is Challenging Himself and the Status Quo


The Golden Globe-nominated actor talks to ETonline about his new HBO film, 'Nightingale,' and fighting for diversity on screen.

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.

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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.’ ” 


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.”

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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: