David Oyelowo's focus is on the craft first. Hence he's taken the lead (and earned executive producer stripes) for the HBO drama Nightingale (which premiered in May).
"I was drawn to this project because of the audacity of the script," he says of breathing life into Peter Snowden, an ever-tortured war veteran in a fierce battle with his demons. "Peter goes through every kind of emotion, and although some of his actions make him a hard person to empathize with, there's a humanity within him that is undeniable."
Shot in 2013 inside a modest house in Los Angeles (and before its star filmed the Oscar-nominated epic Selma), Nightingale showcases Oyelowo's ability to keep all eyes on him. He carries the 82-minute film alone, literally, and even moved out of his home for the entire three-week shoot to fully immerse himself in the story.
"I snuck away for half a day to see my wife and four kids," he remembers, "and while I can imagine that it was traumatic for them to see me as Peter, this was the first time I felt that a role warranted staying in character the whole time."
Armed with credits including Lee Daniels' The Butler, Middle of Nowhere and Red Tails, the 39-year-old was thrust squarely into the mainstream spotlight with his Golden Globe-nominated performance in Selma. Along with fame came that controversy about awards season snubs, but he took it in stride. "When the noise dies down, all that's left is the work," he says. "With Nightingale, I feel blessed to have a piece that is so diametrically opposite of Selma because it speaks to what I feel I'm here to do, which is to constantly challenge myself and challenge the audience."
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.