David Oyelowo did not hold back at a recent press luncheon, where ESSENCE and a group of reporters got to discuss the actor’s latest film, Gringo.
In the film, Oyelowo plays a hapless businessman named Harold, who finds himself mixed up with a drug cartel and his life in shambles.
Originally written for a white man, Oyelowo brought a bit of himself and his Nigerian background to the role, convincing director Nash Edgerton to let him play Harold as a Nigerian immigrant.
“The name of the character was originally Harold Salinger and he was a white character living in Chicago with his wife,” Oyelowo said at a press luncheon in New York. “Every now and again, I’ll read something and the way I know that it’s getting under my skin is I start picturing myself in the movie. I just started picturing myself in it and I thought, ‘Wow, I wonder if the filmmaker would picture me in it.'”
Needless to say, Edgerton was clearly impressed with Oyelowo’s take on Harold.
The actor’s decision to play Harold as a Nigerian immigrant was partially inspired by seeing his father work so hard to give his family a better life.
“There was something about the situations he finds himself in–my dad would hate me saying this—that reminds me of my dad. The reason I say that is because my parents were immigrants to the UK and when you are a fish out of water, when you are new to a place, you trust people maybe more than you should.”
He adds, “If someone says you’re getting a promotion, you’re like, ‘I’m gonna work really hard.’ I saw my parents do that and I said [to Edgerton], ‘What do you think about me making him Nigerian, a Nigerian immigrant?’ And he went, ‘Oh! Okay, I never really thought of it.’ I started doing the lines as a Nigerian. I grew up, well, I was in the UK, but I lived in Nigeria for seven years, from the age of six to13. I just did some of the lines as I saw it and he went ‘Oh my goodness.'”
Oyelowo’s decision to play Harold as a Nigerian immigrant was also a way to bring a different depiction of Black characters to the screen.
“The beautiful thing is that my character Harold can’t be written off as someone who’s not bright or someone that can be dismissed. With the choices I make I’m determined as an actor to bring complexity to what it is to be a black person on planet earth in everything I do. I can’t afford to play caricatures or stereotypes.”
And, Oyelowo is a master at bringing complexity to the screen as evidenced in Selma, where he plays Civil Rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The film received tons of praise from critics and fans in 2014. However, despite all of the positive reactions, it only received two Oscar nominations.
Oyelowo revealed that the film was essentially shut out after a negative campaign brought on by a rival studio.
“The attacks we faced were real. It was a rival studio who planted stories about how we had marginalized Dr. King in our film. That narrative took over the period of voting from the Academy and the moment the voting stopped, the story disappeared.”
He adds that Selma director, Ava DuVernay, whose lack of nomination for Best Director stunned many, had to step in to stop demonstrations. “The protests…people were going to go into the theater. People had bought tickets to go into the Oscars and they were going to hold placards up during the telecasts.”
Selma went on to win Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song at the 2015 Academy Awards, but lost Best Motion Picture of the Year to Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
Now, after #OscarSoWhite and recent nominations and wins at the 2018 Academy Awards, Oyelowo seems optimistic about the possibilities ahead for Black filmmakers, especially considering that new companies are willing to take risks.
“Now, isn’t it amazing? Disney is behind Black Panther. Disney is behind A Wrinkle in Time. Disney is behind Queen of Katwe. I’m very aware that we are in a moment right now that is going to be written about. That my role in Gringo, a studio would not have sanctioned that. The difference? You have companies like Netflix and Amazon who are not as tied to the traditional way of thinking as the big studios that are prepared to take a risk.”
Catch Gringo in theaters now.