The sun rises for Oyelowo

2011-08-12 11:39

The movie world has young unrequited love to thank for the fact that David Oyelowo is becoming more of a fixture on the big screen.

The actor, whose latest film Rise of the Planet of the Apes swings into cinemas this weekend, began acting because he fell in love with movies. And he fell in love with movies, because he fell in love with a girl.

Oyelowo was born in Oxford, England, but lived in Nigeria ­between the ages of six and 13. His family moved back to the UK, where the pastor’s daughter caught the teenager’s eye.

“I was obsessed with her,” he says over the phone from Los ­Angeles. “She had this long flowing hair and she would always work the projector. One day she invited me to the movie theatre and I thought it was a date!”

If his first teenage crush was the reason for him getting into acting, his wife of 13 years is the reason he has managed to build a steady career of it. Oyelowo first met fellow actress Jessica at the National Youth Music Theatre.

When he was 24, Oyelowo was cast as Henry VI for the Royal Shakespeare Company, becoming the first black actor to play a Shakespearean monarch for the company. “I’m hugely proud of that moment, although at the time I wasn’t aware of the historical ­significance when I was signing up for the role.”

Now 35, Oyelowo is building other moments in his career to be proud of. He attracted positive attention in the TV show Spooks, and also won audiences over in The Last King of Scotland alongside Forest Whitaker.

Now, he can be seen opposite Oscar nominee James Franco and Slumdog Millionaire’s breakout star Freida Pinto in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. “This is a completely fresh look at the story,” he says, describing it as a “plausible beginning as to how the apes gained their intelligence”.

His character, Steve Jacobs, is the business-minded company boss in the film, a foil to Franco’s character, who has more heart than cash. “In the science/medical world, if we could develop a drug that enhanced human intelligence that would be amazing. My character is governed by money, whereas Franco’s wants to improve the human condition.”

While the roles he’s taken on so far may be good ones, it’s his upcoming parts that could really catapult him to the next level. He will play Martin Luther King Junior and also Nina Simone’s assistant, Clifton Henderson. “It’s amazing,” he says, “I get to play these characters that pushed the envelope and opened doors for people. The best part is the research; finding out what happened.”

Oyelowo recalls feeling a similar way when shooting Red Tails, with director George Lucas, about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American pilots to fly in a combat squadron during the second world war.

“This is one of the absolute privileges of acting: stepping into the skin of someone else.

“I do feel the weight of responsibility, taking on a role like this, or also Muddy Waters (in the film Who Do You Love) when I played him. It’s far greater because people have a frame of reference in mind already. In some cases they idolise them. These people represent so much to so many. So you want to present a 3D version of them rather than an impersonation. It’s different with a character like Jacobs, who’s fictional. If the writing is good, you’re able to build someone from the ground up and that’s equally satisfying.”

The idea of moving forward is something Oyelowo thinks is pertinent to the kind of actor he is too.

“There’s so much uncertainty in this job, so to have my faith is very important. I know who and what I believe in.”
Oyelowo has family members in Nigeria and the actor in him is also interested in the blossoming of Nollywood. “I love what’s going on there; something that started out small is now growing in such scope. It’s so forward-thinking.”

The question then to ask, is would he consider starring in a one of those movies? “I would love to do a Nollywood film.

It would have to let me bring some Hollywood to Nollywood, rather than the other way around!” he replies, with a chuckle.

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