David Oyelowo, a Golden Globe and likely Oscar nominee for his performance as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma,” already has won the less-official contest that happens each awards season.
It’s the one that determines who worked hardest to embody a real-life character. It entails gaunt McConaugheys, gritty Therons and other transformation tales that inform the Oscar narrative.
Eddie Redmayne’s manipulation of his body to play physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” and Steve Carell’s donning of a prosthetic nose as chemical heir John du Pont in “Foxcatcher” thus far have won the most attention.
But those guys did not spend seven years pursuing the same project as Oyelowo did with “Selma,” which covers the months leading up to the historic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. The march and the events surrounding it led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act granting federal protection to black voters who had been kept from voting at the local level.
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Oyelowo (pronounced “O-yellow-o”) – a 38-year-old English actor best known for playing the activist son in last year’s “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” – persevered despite being rejected by Stephen Frears, the initial director attached to the project. Other directors came and went before Oyelowo made the film with Ava DuVernay.
A devout Christian, Oyelowo said he felt divine intervention when he read the script in 2007, after having just moved from England to Los Angeles in search of better roles.
“I had the kind of reaction I never had before when reading a script,” he said. “I felt very clearly that God said to me, ‘You are going to play this role in this film.’”
“It was kind of a bizarre thought,” Oyelowo continued. “But it lodged in my spirit in a way I just couldn’t shake, even though I wanted to, to be perfectly honest. Even telling you now is a little strange.”
In person, Oyelowo is 30 pounds thinner and far more youthful-looking than he is on screen in “Selma” (King was just 35 during the period the film covers, but his mature bearing always belied his youth.) The actor still speaks – in a lilting accent and minus the depth and resonance he adopted as King – with great awe about the role he feels was his calling. He’s also relieved that calling was realized.
“I thank God I have a poster to look at to show that it actually happened,” he said, pointing to the “Selma” poster in the San Francisco hotel room in which he’s being interviewed.
That interview occurred in mid-November, so Oyelowo could not foresee how “Selma,” always relevant as a cinematic telling of a key piece of U.S. history, would, after his seven-year journey with it, be released at a particularly timely moment.
Grand jury decisions in late November and early December not to indict officers in the the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner sparked waves of protests and have kept the topic of police treatment of black suspects atop the national discussion ever since.
Within this context, the “Selma” scenes of Alabama police tear-gassing and beating nonviolent activists in 1965 assume greater immediacy. Oyelowo discussed parallels between current and past events recently in Essence magazine.
“Back then, the issue was voting rights, now it is police reform,” he told Essence. “And I truly believe the same way Dr. King was asking the president for federal intervention, to stop the game being rigged against black people, we have to do the same thing in terms of asking (for) federal intervention of the police.”
Oyelowo had a big hand in “Selma” being made, and by extension, being released now. Lee Daniels, who would become his “Butler” director, cast Oyelowo as King after he took over the project in 2010. But “we still struggled to get it made,” Oyelowo said.
The actor, meanwhile, built a fine reputation as a supporting player, winning good notices for his work in “The Butler” and in “Middle of Nowhere,” a low-budget 2012 drama directed by DuVernay. Oyelowo also plays a key role as an investigator in the highly anticipated crime thriller “A Most Violent Year,” out Jan. 30.
After Daniels exited “Selma,” Oyelowo suggested DuVernay, a film publicist turned director. DuVernay, 42, had won the Sundance Film Festival directing award for “Nowhere,” in which Oyelowo plays a man romantically pursuing a woman whose husband is in prison. (The film had a limited theatrical release and will be available for home viewing Jan. 13.)
DuVernay, who impressed Oyelowo during the “Middle” shoot with “her ability to mine human characters for truth,” now is up for best director at Sunday’s Golden Globes for “Selma.” She is the first black woman nominated in that category. She is poised to make history again when Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 15.
Oyelowo also recruited his friend and “Butler” co-star Oprah Winfrey to help produce “Selma” – an act tantamount to pushing the green light himself. (Winfrey’s Harpo Films and Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment are among the production companies behind the Paramount Pictures release.) Winfrey also appears in the film as civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper.
“We developed a very close relationship having played mother and son (in ‘The Butler’),” Oyelowo said of Winfrey. “I think we see each other as kindred spirits.”
In November, Oyelowo joined Winfrey and DuVernay for a post-screening discussion about “Selma” at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. Winfrey recalled Oyelowo showing her his video audition for “Selma” while the pair shot “The Butler.” She wanted to help.
“I had never taken on anything like this before, as a producer,” Winfrey said. “I did it because David asked me to, so I was really happy just to be a part of it.”
Oyelowo, who lives with his wife, Jessica, and their four children in Los Angeles, watched every piece of video of King he could find, read books and talked to people who had known the preacher and civil rights leader. (“Selma” was shot in King’s hometown of Atlanta, and in Selma and Montgomery, and features participants from the actual march.)
“One of the blessings of it taking so long, is that I had a long period to really imbibe anything and everything out there with regards to him,” Oyelowo said. “Thankfully, his life was in living memory, so I had a different challenge than say, Daniel Day-Lewis did for ‘Lincoln.’ Our task was to get behind the man in the pulpit, and the iconography of the historical figure. So it was hugely helpful to talk to people.”
During the shoot, Oyelowo, who shared a scene with Day-Lewis in “Lincoln” as a Union soldier who recites part of the Gettysburg Address to the president, almost went full DDL-immersion to play MLK. He maintained King’s Southern accent between takes.
“He did not present himself as the posh British gentleman you see before you,” DuVernay said of Oyelowo during the Castro talk. “He was wall-to-wall King.”
He stopped short of having people address him as “Dr. King,” Oyelowo said. But staying “in the zone” was vital.
“In playing, let’s be honest, a fairly intimidating character, I can’t afford to second-guess myself at any point,” he said. “But also, we shot a lot of it in Atlanta, and with Atlantans as extras, as crew. I am not going to go around going (affecting an exaggerated English accent), ‘I am here to play Dr. King.’”
The main way he related to King was through his Christianity.
“There is this synergy between his faith system and mine,” Oyelowo said. “It was a huge engine for him, and it was a source of his conviction to do what he did, to operate through nonviolence, as a man of God. It certainly is the biggest engine in what motivates me in my life.”
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.