Over the past twenty years David Oyelowo has set about making himself one of the most in demand actors in the world. From his time on long running drama series Spooks to turns in blockbuster movies like Rise of the Planet of the Apes to his Golden Globe nominated performance as Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Ava Duvernay’s moving Selma. Oyelowo hasn’t stopped the momentum of mixing big budget affairs with intimate dramas each with something to say about race, identity or culture. His latest film, Come Away, sees him and Angelina Jolie as parents grieving the loss of one of their children, while the other two attempt to help them cope with the pain by creating magical worlds that might eventually lead them to becoming Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.
Come Away is your film, being a fantasy film set in the past, it kind of feels revolutionary in its depiction of a mixed race family. Was that something you were conscious of as an actor and producer?
Yeah, it was of course something I was conscious of, and it was also one of the reasons I was very keen to do it. You know, I was pleasantly surprised to be approached to play the father of Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Peter from Peter Pan. First thing to say is that concept really grabbed me. I of course know the story like most people separately and individually, but I also thought there was something revolutionary about putting them together as brother and sister. Then of course approaching me would mean they were Black, or at least, mixed race in relation to the family dynamic. I remember loving those stories growing up but, not that it was on my mind at the time, but I was never reflected in them. So, to afford that to a new generation is something that I find quite meaningful.
As you say about being reflected, there’s an element in mainstream media that even by acknowledging Black people existed in the past, people consider it controversial, and they bridle against it. Was this a concern for you, that you were taking on these iconic characters from people’s childhoods but daring to say Black people existed at this time as well?
It wasn’t a concern for me only because I had encountered it before. I played Henry VI at the Royal Shakespeare Company and we faced that kind of thinking then. I recently played Javert for the BBC in Les Miserables and there were those rumblings as well. I think the way to combat it is to normalise it. People, no matter who you are or where you’re from, bridle at things that are new and are outside of their experience. It’s just human nature that we tend to react, or recoil, at things we don’t understand. But, as you say, the nature of the family we show in Come Away is absolutely historically accurate, not necessarily pervasive, there weren’t tons of mixed race couples but there certain were mixed race couples. There were people who could have held the station Javert holds in France at the time of that story being told. The ironic thing is that people have less of a problem with Les Miserables which is clearly set in Paris, and in France, and that being transposed onto English life. Which I would argue is a far more radical change to what was originally written, and you think about Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan, we have talking rabbits, we have mad hatters, we have boys who can fly, we have fairies. So, again, to allow that and accept that fairytale fantasy element and to get upset when you have those kids being Black doesn’t really make sense.
And in terms of the actual content of the film, it’s dealing with grief and with loss are ones that sadly a lot of parents can relate to. Despite it being aimed at a wide family audience it doesn’t shy away from the pain that losing a child can have, was it important to you to stay true to what it would be like to lose a child even though it’s a “family” film?
It did feel important, and look, not everyone will agree, but that’s the art form. That’s what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to push it. At the end of the day kids do encounter these kinds of things, especially now. You know, we made this film before the pandemic, but we now live in a world where we simply cannot protect our kids from the reality of loss, of ill health, of the kind of challenges that render parents reeling. So, when I was younger one of my favourite films was Stand by Me, and I really appreciated that it was showcasing young people and I didn’t feel patronised as a young person. You know, they’re hunting for a dead body. That’s intense! But I’ve shown it to my kids, they loved it, I love it, and Come Away is not as intense in terms of language, that’s an R rated film. But, I lost my parents over the last couple of years and my kids were a big part of that circumstance and I had to watch them get through it. What I love about Come Away is that usually you’d have the parents helping the kids through this challenging time, you see the kids helping the parents through it, through fantasy and magic, and their useful exuberance. They actually have a better handle on how the handle their grief, more so than the parents that choose some dark means.
It certainly takes some dark turns.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about the role of women directors and directors of colour and putting them behind big fantasy films. Obviously this is a film directed by a woman [Brenda Chapman], looking back at your filmography you’ve been directed by a lot of women, a lot of people of colour, does that have a baring on the projects you choose or is that a circumstance of great scripts come to you and they happen to be directed by those people?
No, it’s very intentional. I know what it’s like to be marginalised. I know what it’s like to have an ambition, and a desire, to tell stories that colour outside of the lines that have been created for you. So, as I have gained in any notoriety or platform, I hesitate to say fame as I’m still very British, it has afford me the opportunity to advocate for others. So some of those ladies who I have been directed by I have had to fight for. Some of them it’s because I have benefitted from being directed by them, and they bring something special. Men and women are different. I don’t want to generalise, but generally speaking, I have found that women are far more apt to go straight for the jugular when it comes to the emotional complexity of the character and story. I believe that’s the actors job, to mine the emotional and really plunge the depths of humanity to hold a mirror up to the audience. I have found women to be generally speaking far more keen to do that than men. The point being you need a balance, we have a world where pretty amazingly we’re about 50/50 in terms of the split between men and women. So, if stories are meant to be reflecting humanity than at the very least women should be telling half those stories and that’s something I feel very strongly about.
About reflecting, given the events of this year in the US and in the UK, with regards to race and prejudice, your role as Martin Luther King in the brilliant Selma feels every bit as urgent now as it did when it came out a few years ago. Is there a desire in you to play more roles like King, important figures from history that represent you and your culture and the culture of Black people at large?
Well, as you can imagine, after I played Dr King, virtually every Civil Rights leader who ever lived was offered to me. That’s not to disparage that, but part of what you want to do as an actor is bring changes and keep the audience guessing, and keep yourself challenged. Of course there are roles, there are historical figures, there are historical incidents that warrant being told and are fascinating and would appeal to me. But, I’m also very mindful that I don’t want to typecast myself as the Civil Rights leader actor. So, the answer being yes and no. I think Selma was six years ago now and so maybe it’s time to, if the right roles comes along. But the point, for me, is not so much the character, but the story and what it’s trying to say. What I love about having done Selma and the resonance it still has now is that right here in America we still have elections at a local level. Voter suppression, voting rights, the importance of voting, its rights here with us. There is no point making a historical film if it doesn’t speak to the moment we’re in, is my belief. That tends to be what guides my choices, so boy that was one of those and I would certainly do others that did the same thing.
On a slightly lighter note than the heavier questions I’ve asked, do you yourself ever get star struck? You’ve been opposite Oprah Winfrey, Sir Michael Caine in Come Away, do you ever find yourself going “That’s Sir Michael Caine!”?
Absolutely. Michael Caine was an extreme version of that because of his iconic status, and his iconic voice. It really threw me to do a scene with him because I couldn’t get out of my head that it sounded like he was doing an impersonation of Michael Caine.
As everyone does.
As everyone does! And mostly badly, so to have him talking to me in that voice, I kept on thinking to myself “Stop it! Stop doing the voice, you don’t really sound like that.” And he does, he absolutely does, so it was an interesting thing to encounter. So, yeah, I absolutely do. I wouldn’t say I’m star struck by Angelina Jolie because she’s become a very good friend.
I remember shooting Spooks in the UK, back what was it? Nearly twenty years ago now. We were shooting at Pinewood Studios and they were also shooting Tomb Raider there, and I remember on a lunch break her being surrounded by bodyguards, being walked back to the soundstage. I was on my own, having stepped of my trailer and thinking “oh my goodness, it’s Angelina Jolie!” And here we are playing husband and wife to Alice and Peter Pan. So, that’s the craziness of my business and you get to know people and find out they’re normal. But, Michael Caine will never be normal to me.
Finally, as the world begins to move on from whatever this year has been, are you confident to go back on to film sets or are you more wary and picky about what you’re willing to jump into?
That has always been the case for me, pandemic or not. Films, for better or for worse, stick around for a long time and they don’t always work to the degree that you hope. But, certainly not for a lack of trying, so you try to think long and hard about anything you’re doing. But yes right now there are still a lot of unknowns attached to a vaccine and what all of this means. I actually just finished a film that I produced and starred in that we shot in British Columbia, during the pandemic. It’s set in New York but we chose to shoot Vancouver because they much lower numbers, and they had really got it down to shoot during a pandemic. It’s like shooting a film in a science lab. It’s not as much fun as it used to be, and hopefully we won’t get stuck here for a long time. There were literally people I did an entire film with that I can’t tell you what they look like. They were wearing masks the whole time, and that’s not ideal. The thing about actors and storytellers, we’re incredibly resourceful, you only have to do a few plays to know that you’ll make something out of nothing, and that spirit will continue, and we’ll continue to tell stories. So, hopefully the pandemic will ease up, and we can carry on.
Signature Entertainment presents Come Away on Digital Platforms 5th February and DVD 12th April