David Oyelowo On Acting, His Royal Roots And The One Role He Won't Take

May 28, 2015
Originally published on May 29, 2015 10:06 am

If actor David Oyelowo projects a regal air, it's one he comes by naturally. Born in England to Nigerian parents, Oyelowo's father had always told him that theirs was a royal family, a claim the actor initially discounted.

"I was like, 'Yeah, whatever,' " Oyelowo tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. But then the family moved back to Nigeria, where they lived on a street named after his family, and the actor realized that his father had not been joking.

Oyelowo says that his family's royal heritage did not come with financial or "positional" benefits, but it did convey a "sense of self that has enabled me, as I've gone into my life in the West, to carry myself in a way that flies in the face of the world in which I live."

At the age of 24, Oyelowo brought his regal bearing to the stage, where he became the first black actor to portray a king in a Royal Shakespeare Company production. More recently, he has made a name for himself by taking on American film roles. He played Martin Luther King Jr. in the film Selma, a civil rights activist in The Butler and a member of the Tuskeegee Airmen in Red Tails. His most recent film, HBO's Nightingale, is a single-character drama in which Oyelowo portrays an American veteran who is having a mental breakdown.

Oyelowo is open to playing many different types of characters, but he says there are a few roles he will not consider: "Don't send me your script if you want me to play the black best friend. I just won't do that. You can feel when it's literally an afterthought; you can feel when it's like, 'Oh quick, let's get some color in here.' That I won't do because it's disrespectful and, for me, I'm either part of the solution or I'm part of the problem."


Interview Highlights

On his character in Nightingale

The fact of the matter is Peter Snowden [the main character in Nightingale] wasn't written as African-American, but when I read it I felt: Here is an opportunity to play the kind of African-American that I've certainly encountered in having lived here now for eight years, but I very rarely see in cinema. This is a guy who is an introvert. He's a bit of a nerd. He's agoraphobic, doesn't like leaving the house. There's nothing outward about him and I wanted that to be reflected in his voice. He also has an odd relationship with his sexuality. I would argue that he's gay, but he's in denial about that fact — that's to do with repression that comes from having been in the military, a religious upbringing that flies in the face of that. So I wanted a voice that didn't have any lyricism to it; I wanted it to be a little bit whiny, a little bit annoying.

On staying in character while shooting Nightingale and Selma

I stayed in character for the three weeks we shot Nightingale and for the three months we shot Selma. [Selma Director] Ava [DuVernay] would call me out of the blue at times just to check — I think she was shocked that I was going to go through with this. This is how bad it got: I remember, my wife, we were moving house[s] at the time and my wife called me and said, "So what do you think? Should we go for the gray curtains or the brown?" And I literally went, [in the voice of King] "Well, I think we should ..." and she went, "Stop! Stop! I cannot talk curtains with Dr. King, we're going to pick this up afterwards. What on earth are you doing?" So that was the moment I thought, "OK, I'm all the way in, here." But yes, I just felt, for me, personally, I just felt you can't half-do Dr. King.

On evoking King's voice and musical cadence

I studied his cadence to the point whereby you understand that sometimes he used very — to be perfectly frank — bizarre emphasis. ... As someone who has studied his cadence, I know that it's only if I hit some of his idiosyncrasies in terms of the way he spoke that you will overall feel like you are watching Dr. King. And Ava and I broke down every single speech and we put in the rule of three, which he used a lot of the time. He would pause at an idea at the beginning, refer to it in the middle and bring it home at the end. These were all things that we wove into speeches that weren't words that he spoke but are evocative of the speeches he gave because there is a music to the way he gave a speech. ... Like any musician, like any composer, there's a signature style and that signature style can be transposed and that's what we did with the speeches.

On his father coming from a royal Yoruba family

My dad has tribal marks on his cheeks, he has four gashes in each cheek, which is very much part of the Yoruba tribe. ... If anyone messed with me at school, my dad would say, "Tell them — look, see these marks on my face? I fought with a tiger, so they don't want to touch my son." So I believed for years that my dad had wrestled a tiger, which is why he had these marks on his cheeks. So, of course, at some point I realized that that was a load of bologna so when he was then saying that we were from a royal family I was like, "Yeah, whatever." But then we shipped up in Nigeria and we lived on Oyelowo Street, named after my family, and we lived on the Oyelowo Compound. ... It was a very bizarre cultural thing to adapt to, going back.

On how being from a royal family has affected him

There are a lot of challenges I have undeniably faced as a black person both in the U.K. and in the U.S. that contrive to make me feel lesser than what I am, and I can absolutely see that in the African-American experience in this country. If you feel like the beginning of your history is rooted in slavery, that really, I think, messes with your sense of self, your self-esteem and your self-worth. But to know you came from a lineage of kings; to know that you came from a place whereby every opportunity afforded within that society is yours for the taking — it makes you get out of your bed a very different way than if you feel like today is yet another fight. So that is something I carry with me that I know has been of huge benefit as a result of my family and where I'm from.

On being bullied because he refused to take on a "minority mentality" in school in North London

If your notion of what it is to be black has been tarnished by what the culture in which you live in projects onto you, then you have a cankered sense of what that means. In the U.K., the reason I was being called a "coconut" [like the insult "Oreo" in the U.S.] is because to be black in the inner city school that I was going to was to be abusive to the teachers, to be getting as many girls pregnant as you possibly can, to be in trouble with the law — these were all things that were badges of honor where I grew up in North London. So to be a kid who wore his uniform correctly, who was respectful to his teachers, who put his head down and did his work, somehow I was trying to be something other than what I am supposed to be ...

It really confused me because here I am, literally having come back from the so-called motherland, and I had other people who looked like me saying that I was trying to not be what it is to be black, but that's because they had taken on a false notion of what that should mean. ... It was also a notion that was being projected onto them by the society in which they live: criminality is somehow linked to being black; teenage pregnancy is linked to being black; things that are negative are linked to being black. And they were taking it on and I absolutely refused to do that because I knew it not to be true. That's what I would refer to as a "minority mentality." It's a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of being the thing that the larger society says you are.

On being the first black person to play a king [Henry VI] in a Royal Shakespeare Company production

When I was cast I had no idea that I was the first black person to be afforded that opportunity at the R.S.C. and, to be honest, I kind of tried to ignore it but it wouldn't go away. It was constantly in the press. There was one point at which I was rehearsing and I spent all of my lunch breaks fielding questions from the press and at some point we had to shut it down because the director didn't cast me to elicit that kind of reaction. ...

I remember reading an article in the Telegraph newspaper, which is a big newspaper in the U.K., and an Oxford professor said something like, "We open ourselves to ridicule when we allow black people to play English kings who clearly were not of African descent," or something like that, which to my mind is a pretty nonsensical thing to say when I don't know a single Egyptian who has played Cleopatra. And up until not that long ago white actors were playing Othello in Shakespeare plays in the U.K. So it sort of didn't hold any water, really ... but the play very quickly dulled those voices.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, the British actor David Oyelowo, has said he's learned about African-American history from the roles he's played. In the film "Selma," he was Martin Luther King. In "The Butler," he was the son who was active in the civil rights movement and became a Black Panther. In "Red Tales," he was one of the Tuskegee airmen.

His background gives him a very interesting perspective on race. He was born in England to parents who emigrated from Nigeria. After facing racism in England, Oyelowo's parents returned to Nigeria, where Oyelowo lived for several years before moving back to England, where he had to adjust to becoming a member of a minority group again. He found his calling when he discovered acting. When he was 24, he became the first black actor to play a king in a Royal Shakespeare Company production.

On Friday evening, you can see David Oyelowo on HBO in the debut of the film "Nightingale," a single-character drama in which he portrays a veteran living in his mother's home, having a mental breakdown. He records his thoughts on his video blog and occasionally speaks on the phone with others. Let's start with a scene. He wants to invite one of his military friends to dinner. But he's afraid of getting rejected, so he rehearses what he's going to say on the phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NIGHTINGALE")

DAVID OYELOWO: (As Peter Snowden) Pick up the phone, and make the call. Just make the call. It's calling. Hello, Edward. It's Peter. I know, man. It's been too long. It's great to hear your voice. There's been a change of circumstances around here, and I just want to - I'd just love to have you over for dinner. You know, no big deal, just a nice meal and some conversation and - no, you can't bring anything, just yourself. I swear, if you try to bring something, I will kick your a**. I just want you to come over for a nice well-cooked meal for once in your life. Will you do that for me, please? That's too bossy. Hello, Edward. It's Peter Snowden. Hello, Edward. Hello, Edward. It's Peter Snowden. I know. It's been too long. Yeah, I miss you too, man - f***.

GROSS: That's David Oyelowo...

OYELOWO: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...In a scene from "Nightingale," which will be shown on HBO Friday, May 29. Welcome to FRESH AIR.

OYELOWO: Thank you. Thank you - my pleasure.

GROSS: I like that scene because you're testing out different styles of speaking to this man who you really want to get in touch with and who's been trying not to get in touch with you (laughter). So, I mean, here you are as a British actor putting on a different voice for that and then having to go further and testing out different styles of speaking in this scene. So can you talk about the style of speaking the type of American accent you gave this character, if there was anybody in particular or any region in particular that you based it on?

OYELOWO: Well, you know, when I got the script for "Nightingale," I mean, the fact of the matter is that Peter Snowden wasn't written as African-American, but when I read it, I felt, here is an opportunity to play the kind of African-America that I've certainly encountered in having lived here now for eight years but I very rarely see in cinema. And this is a guy who is an introvert. He's a bit of a nerd. He's agoraphobic, doesn't like leaving the house. There's nothing sort of outward - nothing outward about him, and so that's got to be - I wanted that to be reflected in his voice.

He also has - you know, he has an odd relationship with his sexuality. I would argue that he's gay, but he's in denial about that fact. And that's to do with repression that comes from having been in the military, a religious upbringing that flies in the face of that. And so I wanted a voice that didn't sort of have any lyricism to it. I wanted it to be a little bit whiny, a little bit annoying.

GROSS: You're playing somebody in "Nightingale" who's becoming unhinged. And you're doing this after having played Martin Luther King, who was bearing so much weight on his shoulders and has to hold himself and a whole movement together. Did you have some pleasure in (laughter) playing somebody who's becoming unhinged after carrying the burden of playing King?

OYELOWO: Well, funnily enough, I actually shot "Nightingale" before "Selma." I know that "Selma," or the performance I gave in "Selma," was definitely affected by having done something as demanding as "Nightingale." You know, for me, I made the choice, and it was the first time I've done it in my career, whereby I felt that I had to stay in character the whole time. I just felt, you know, a guy who is this in his own head and who is this mentally unstable, I just couldn't see the world in which I was coming in and out of character onset. And so I made that choice, and I think I wouldn't have made the choice to do the same thing in "Selma" if I hadn't gained the confidence having done it in "Nightingale."

I did two films - "The Last King Of Scotland" and "Lincoln," both of which I was acting opposite phenomenal actors who did stay in character the whole time in the shape of Forest Whitaker in "The Last King Of Scotland" and Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln," and the results are undeniable. But you know, personally, I would always feel a bit pretentious about going around, saying, oh, by the way, everyone's got to call me Idi Amin or everyone's got to call me President Lincoln. You know, that's just my own thing for me. But when you're just the only actor in a very small crew in one house, you can kind of do it without feeling too sort of self-conscious. But the benefit of doing it was that I never second-guessed my choices as an actor. I - every decision I make in "Nightingale" felt rooted in who that man is, and I wanted that same element in playing Dr. King.

GROSS: So when you say that you stayed in character for "Nightingale" and "Selma," does that mean when you were on the set, or does that mean, like, you came home and you were still in character or, at the very least, still speaking as an American?

OYELOWO: I stayed in character for the three weeks we shot "Nightingale" and for the three months we shot "Selma." I - you know, Ava (laughter) would call me out of the blue at times just to check 'cause she couldn't believe that...

GROSS: This is Ava DuVernay, the director.

OYELOWO: Yes, Ava DuVernay - just to check that I literally - I think she was shocked that I was going to go through with this. I mean, this is how bad it got, is, I remember - my wife - we were moving house at the time, and my wife called me and said, so what do you think? Should we go for the gray curtains or the brown? And I literally went, well, I think we should - and she went, stop. Stop.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OYELOWO: I cannot talk curtains with Dr. King. We're going to pick this up afterwards. What on earth are you doing? And so that was the moment I thought, oh, OK, I am all the way in here. But yes, you know, I just felt - for me, personally, you know, you can't - I just felt you can't half-do Dr. King. And we were shooting in Atlanta, you know. I'm a British guy. I can't go around talking like this, you know? It's not just about doing a good job. It's about eliciting confidence in people around me that I can take this great man and do him justice.

GROSS: So but when you came home, say, like, when you were doing "Nightingale," which will be shown soon on HBO, and you're playing somebody who's mentally becoming unhinged, you're not going to go home an act that way. Maybe you'll speak with that accent, but, like, tell me you're not going to act that way around your children and your wife.

OYELOWO: Well, I did, which is why I had to move out of my house.

GROSS: Did you really have to move out of your house?

OYELOWO: Yeah, yeah. I...

GROSS: (Laughter).

OYELOWO: Look, it was a 15-day shoot, so it was contained. It was over three weeks, but it was a 15-day shoot. So I moved into a friend's house in Burbank. He was away doing a film elsewhere. And I knew I couldn't have Peter Snowden around my kids or my wife. And I basically was on the set or I went home. This is a guy who was very isolated, who didn't enjoy the company of others.

And also, he has dissociative identity disorder, what we used to call multiple personality disorder. There are seven versions of this guy swirling around within him, and they are all manifesting at different points in the movie in order to combat challenges he's facing. And I also felt that - you know, I just didn't want seven iterations of Peter Snowden mixing with David. You know, I just - I felt like that was just going to be too mind-bending for me, and so I extricated myself from my family and stayed in it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Oyelowo, and he stars in the new one-man film "Nightingale" which premieres on HBO Friday, May 29. And he's most famous in America for playing Dr. Martin Luther King in the movie "Selma." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Oyelowo. He played Martin Luther King in "Selma." He's in a new movie that will be shown on HBO on Friday, May 29, and it's called "Nightingale."

So you became famous in the United States for "Selma." I think you were already well-known in England for your performances. And in "Selma," you didn't do an impersonation of King, but you still had to evoke King. So I want to play a scene from "Selma" in which you, as Martin Luther King, you're speaking at a church in Selma, Ala., talking about the need to organize around the right to vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SELMA")

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King) As long as I am unable to exercise my constitutional right to vote, I do not have command of my own life. I cannot determine my own destiny for it is determined for me by people who would rather see me suffer than succeed.

(APPLAUSE)

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King) Those that have gone before us say no more.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) No more.

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King) No more.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) No more.

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King) That means protest. That means march. That means disturb the peace. That means jail. That means risk, and that is hard.

(APPLAUSE)

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King) We will not wait any longer. Give us the vote.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Give us the vote.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) That's right, no more.

OYELOWO: (As Martin Luther King) We're not asking. We're demanding. Give us the vote.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Give us the vote.

(APPLAUSE)

GROSS: That's my guest, David Oyelowo, as Martin Luther King in a scene from "Selma." So how did you study King's cadences so that without impersonating him you could still get the music of his speech kind of correctly, you know, in an evocative way?

OYELOWO: Yeah.

GROSS: Like, you have a line in there - and it was probably written by Ava DuVernay because - because of rights issues you couldn't actually use King's speeches. So there's a line in there in the scene that we heard where King refers to people who'd rather see me suffer than succeed. Now, if I was saying that I'd probably refer to people who'd rather me suffer than succeed. But the way you say it, it's like people who'd rather me - see me suffer than succeed. And the accent is on the then and so it's a really interesting choice. In my mind I could definitely imagine King saying it that way. So what made you make that choice to put the accent on the than - rather see me suffer than succeed.

OYELOWO: Because that's what he did. I studied his cadence to the point whereby you understand that sometimes he used very - to be perfectly frank - bizarre emphasis because you're right, it's not your normal delivery. And your average person wouldn't necessarily know that, but for me, as someone who studied his cadence, I know that it's only if I hit some of his idiosyncrasies in terms of the way he spoke that you will overall feel like you are watching Dr. King. And, you know, Ava and I broke down every single speech and, you know, we put in the rule of three, which he used a lot of the time. He would posit an idea at the beginning, refer to in the middle and then bring it home at the end. These were all things that we wove into speeches that weren't words that he spoke but are evocative of the speeches he gave because there is a music to the way he gave a speech. If you've listened to every single one of those speeches, which I pretty much have, there is a very clear - like any musician, like any composer, you know, there is a signature style. And that signature style can be transposed and that's what we did with the speeches. And that phrase you referenced there is classic King.

GROSS: Your parents are from Nigeria. You were born in England and spent the first few years of your life there, but then your parents decided to return to Nigeria, taking, of course, you with them. So can you tell us a little bit about why they first came to England and then why they decided to return to Nigeria?

OYELOWO: Well, you know, Nigerians, generally speaking, academia is one of the big aims, is one of the big ambitions you have. And so my dad - and that tends to be something that, certainly for my dad's generation, was something to procure from the West. And so my dad came to the U.K. He was in Oxford wanting to have the sort of highfalutin education. He fell in love with my mom, who was my - my uncle's secretary - his brother's secretary. But she was Igbo and he is Yoruba. He comes from a royal family. She is a pleb, so to speak.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OYELOWO: And so basically they kind of eloped to the U.K. because Yoruba and Igbo marrying was a bit of a taboo, especially as, like I say, he was from a royal family. So they were a number of reasons why they ended up in the U.K. But things just got a little tricky. You know, racism existed and, of course, still exists, but, you know, was more stark back in the '70s and '80s. And my parents just felt we've - I think our opportunities will be better in Nigeria. But we went back to Nigeria and soon afterwards a military government came in that made life even more difficult, so we ended up coming back to the U.K. when I was about 13.

GROSS: Don't you find it really interesting that in England your parents faced racism because they were black and from Africa, but on the other hand, they had to kind of secretly marry because they were of different ethnic groups from Africa and that was, like, an undesirable thing for the families? So, like, there was kind of problems from Africa, problems from England.

OYELOWO: Yeah. I mean, it just bears out the fact that prejudice is rooted in fear, fear of the unknown, fear of what is not you. I mean, it's not...

GROSS: Right, fear of what is not you, right (laughter).

OYELOWO: Yeah, it's not a white disposition or a black disposition. It's a human disposition. And yes, exactly what you say there is proof of that very fact.

GROSS: When you were very young in England, before your family went to Nigeria, your father had told you that he was from a royal family, and you didn't know what to make of that. So when you actually went to Nigeria with them and lived there for several years, what did it mean that your father was from a royal family?

OYELOWO: Well, to be fair, you know, I was a 5-6-year-old kid. My dad has tribal marks on his cheeks. He has four gashes in each cheek, which is very much part of - the Yoruba tribe tends to have that. And, you know, if anyone messed with me at school my dad would say to - look, tell them that, look, can you see these marks on my face? I fought with a tiger. So they do not want to touch my son. So I believed for years that my dad had wrestled a tiger, which is why he had these marks on his cheeks. So, of course, at some point I realized that that was a load of baloney, so when he was then saying that we're from a royal family, I was like, yeah, whatever. But then we shipped up - we shipped up in Nigeria and we lived on Oyelowo Street.

GROSS: Named after your family.

OYELOWO: Named after my family and we lived on the Oyelowo Compound and you know...

GROSS: Let me just stop you. This is great because I think certainly in America people had to - I don't know how to pronounce that name. How do you pronounce that name? And everybody's, like, getting it wrong, you know, and I'm sure it was that way in England too. And then you go to Nigeria and you live on a street that bears your name. Everybody knows how to say it (laughter).

OYELOWO: Yes. Yeah, not only does everyone know how to say it, but they know what it means. I mean, Oyelowo means...

GROSS: What does it mean?

OYELOWO: It means a king deserves respect.

GROSS: Oh (laughter).

OYELOWO: So, you know, it's not - it's not even that - yes, you're right. Everywhere else it's like, David - you know, but there just Oye (ph) alone means king, so it commands a certain kind of reaction in Nigeria. Now, don't get me wrong. You know, royal families are a dime a dozen in Nigeria. It's more like being the king of Sherman Oaks, really.

GROSS: (Laughter).

OYELOWO: But, you know it's - but still, it carries some weight. So yes, it was a very bizarre cultural thing to adapt to going back and - but then, you know, my dad was the kind of person who didn't want handouts. So, you know, even though his brothers were all very affluent, he - we got there and then he's like, you know, no, I'm going to do it on my own. So we lived a relatively frugal existence while we all went to very posh schools. But, you know, then went home from my time at boarding school to a tiny, little two-bedroom apartment 'cause all their money was being spent on our education.

GROSS: Did the family have anything resembling a kingdom?

OYELOWO: Yes. My grandfather was the king of a part of Oyo State called Awe, but my grandfather was the first of the tribal kings to become a Christian. And so that caused quite a ruckus in the kingdom, so to speak. And one of my uncles was assassinated. My grandmother also was for this choice, and then my dad's life was threatened as well. So we kind of had to move out of the kingdom, so to speak. And then, you know, a few years ago, my dad said so what do you think? Do you want to go back and be king? I was like what?

(LAUGHTER)

OYELOWO: You just told me your life was threatened over this thing. Hell no, I don't want to go back and be king. So yes, there is a kingdom languishing somewhere in Oyo State as we speak.

GROSS: My guest is David Oyelowo, the star of the film "Selma." He stars in the new HBO movie "Nightingale," which debuts tomorrow night. After we take a short break, he'll describe what it was like to return to England from Nigeria and have black British schoolmates call him a coconut - dark on the outside, white on the inside. And he'll tell us about the hardest line he ever had to say in a movie. It's not the kind of line you'd expect. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with actor David Oyelowo. He played Martin Luther King in "Selma," a civil rights activist in "The Butler" and one of the Tuskegee Airmen in "Red Tails." He stars in the one-character drama "Nightingale," which premieres on HBO tomorrow night. Oyelowo was born in England to Nigerian parents. The family moved to Nigeria when he was 6 and returned to England when he was about 13. In England, he faced racism and was a member of a minority group. In Nigeria, he had an elevated status because his father was actually descended from a royal family.

I want to get back to your experiences in Nigeria for a moment and just on a practical level how it felt to have this position, some kind of royal lineage, that was connected to birth and not connected to skill or talent or, you know, voting or anything like that. You know, 'cause as an outsider, I can easily imagine that as something that you would be critical of as being, you know, inequitable and creating, you know, a rigidity of class structure. But suddenly you're, like, you're a part of it, and you're in a privileged part of it.

OYELOWO: Well, the effect that knowing that I was from a royal family had on me - I mean, it had no real monetary or positional benefits actually because it was kind of something that was in my family's past, and our name is a residue of it and proof of it, as is the case with a lot of African royal families. There's actually no real financial remuneration. It's more born out of a tradition. But what it gave me, that is undeniably something I hugely value, is a sense of self that has enabled me as I've gone into my life in the West to carry myself in a way that flies in the face of the world in which I live in. You know, there are a lot of challenges I undeniably have faced as a black person both in the U.K. and in the U.S. that contrived to make me feel lesser than what I am. And I can absolutely see that in the African-American experience in this country. If you feel like the beginning of your history is rooted in slavery, that really, I think, messes with your sense of self, your self-esteem and your self-worth. But to know that you came from a lineage of kings, to know that you came from a place whereby every opportunity afforded within that society is yours for the taking, it makes you get out of your bed a very different way than if you feel like today is yet another fight. And so that is something I carry with me that I know has been of huge benefit as a result of, you know, my family and where I'm from.

GROSS: So again, like, you were born in England, then moved to Nigeria, where your family was from, when you were around 6, spent several years there, then moved back to England. And you've said that when you move back to England from Nigeria that your black peers in school called you a coconut, which is the equivalent of an Oreo in America - black on the outside, white on the inside. It's a pretty major insult. And it strikes me as so odd that you'd be called that 'cause you had just come from Africa, where your parents are from, and what is blacker than African, right? I mean, we call - you know, black people in America are referred to as African-American because there's a sense of pride from having African roots. And so to be insulted for ways of behaving that stem in part from being born of African parents just strikes me as so odd. But let's hear what you have to say about that (laughter).

OYELOWO: Yeah. I mean, look, it's born out of - again, it's linked to what I said before. If your notion of what it is to be black has been tarnished by what the culture in which you live in projects onto you, then you have a cankered sense of what that means. In the UK, the reason I was being called a coconut is because to be black in the inner-city school that I was going to was to be abusive to the teachers, to be getting as many girls pregnant as you possibly can, to be, you know, in trouble with the law. These were all things that were badges of honor where I grew up in north London. And so to be a kid who wore his uniform correctly, who was respectful to his teachers, who put his head down and did his work, you know, somehow I was trying to be something other than what I am supposed to be. And you're right, it really confused me because here I am literally having just come back from the so-called motherland, and I had other people who looked like me saying that I was trying to not be what it is to be black. But that's because they had taken on a false notion of what that should mean and what that does mean. But it was also a notion that was being projected onto them by the society in which they live. You know, criminality is somehow linked to being black. Teenage pregnancy is linked to being black. You know, things that are negative are linked to being black, and they were taking it on. And I absolutely refused to do that because I knew it not to be true. And that's what I basic - well, that's why I would refer to it as a minority mentality. It's a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of being the thing that the larger society says you are. And, you know, to a certain degree, you have a bit of that in American culture as well, unfortunately.

GROSS: What were some of the consequences, if there were any, that you faced for sticking to who you were as opposed to trying to be what other people in your school projected you ought to be?

OYELOWO: Well, I got bullied. You know, I would go home and, you know, take my blazer off and there was - you know, I'd been spat at, and I'd see dry spit that was clearly on my back all day. And, you know, I remember one time, I was beaten up in the toilets by a guy who literally - you know, a black guy - who literally cornered me in the toilets and said, you think you're better than me, don't you, and then punched me in the face. And then I had to have a few days off school 'cause my jaw swell up and all this kind of stuff. But, you know, a few years later, I was driving in the same area, and I saw that very same guy being chased down the street by the police. You know, and it's this unfortunate, self-fulfilling prophecy of that syndrome. I mean, there was a very clear attempt to make me come away from what I knew to be true for me, which is that achievement and getting ahead in life is absolutely rooted in hard work. And, you know, if I were less strong-willed, if I had parents who were less supportive, maybe I would've taken on those lies. But thankfully, for me, I didn't.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Oyelowo. And he starred as Martin Luther King in "Selma." He stars in a one-man movie that will be shown on HBO on Friday, May 29. It's called "Nightingale." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is David Oyelowo, who became famous in the Unites States for playing Martin Luther King in the movie "Selma." But you're already famous in England for, among other things, being the first black person to play a King in a Shakespearean play, and this was with the Royal Shakespeare Company, so it's the kind of ultimate - the ultimate stage for Shakespeare. So which kings did you play?

OYELOWO: I played Henry VI. And it was Henry IV then in parts one, two and three. They are three plays that basically shot the Hundred Years' War, the war of the roses.

GROSS: Was it considered controversial to cast you?

OYELOWO: It was, and in all honesty when I was cast, I had no idea that I was the first black person to be afforded that opportunity of the ROC. And to be honest, I kind of tried to ignore it, but it wouldn't go away. It was constantly in the press. It was - you know, there was one point at which I was rehearsing and I spent all of my lunch breaks fielding questions from the press. And, you know, we just kind of needed - at some point we had to shut it down because the director didn't cast me to elicit that kind of reaction. I don't think he was even aware. But, you know, thankfully that the plays were incredibly well received and that whole thing went away and was sort of replaced by how well the plays were realized.

GROSS: What was the argument against you getting the role?

OYELOWO: Well, I remember reading an article in The Telegraph newspaper, which is a big newspaper in the UK, and an Oxford professor had said something like, we open ourselves to ridicule when we allow black people to play English kings who clearly were not of African descent or something like that. And, you know - which to my mind is a pretty nonsensical thing to say when, you know, I don't know a single Egyptian who's played Cleopatra. You know, and up until not that long ago, you know, why actors were playing Othello in Shakespeare plays in the UK. So, you know, it sort of didn't hold any water really. But like I say, the play has very quickly dulled all those voices.

GROSS: You didn't plan to be an actor when you were a teenager until you kind of lucked into a rehearsal. You saw the rehearsal, you liked what you saw, you ended up being asked to audition for a role, and you actually got the part filling in, I think, for somebody who was unable to show up for whatever reason. So were you surprised that you had this talent that you weren't totally unaware of?

OYELOWO: Yeah, I was, in all honesty. I mean, you know, I wasn't one of those kids who grew up watching movies thinking that's what I want to do when I grow up. I didn't really particularly know I had an aptitude for it. It wasn't 'til opportunities like the one you just mentioned that I - the thing about what I do for a living is that you don't know you're good until someone tells you you're good. There's just no way of measuring that by yourself. And so I would do a play or a monologue or whatever, and people would really react. And so I guess I just started thinking, OK, well, I guess people seem to like - I don't really know what I'm doing. You know, I had no training, I had done very little of it. But it got to a critical mass in that I ended up taking drama in high school, but I was still very much set on going to be a lawyer, which is what my dad wanted me to do, and I didn't really know what I wanted to do. But then I had this teacher who had taught me at high school who said I really - I wouldn't say this to everyone, but I really feel you could make a profession of this. And she's the one who helped me to apply to drama schools. And then I ended up getting a scholarship to go to the London Academy.

GROSS: So after getting some good roles in England and television movies, Royal Shakespeare Company, in 2007 you moved to the United States. Why did you want to come to L.A.?

OYELOWO: Because the actors that I truly admired, the actors who I deemed to be at the zenith, the height of what I do for a living, were doing work in Hollywood. You know, Daniel Day-Lewis was working in Hollywood, as was Sean Penn, as was Denzel Washington, as had Sidney Poitier. And so therefore, I just felt like where I was wasn't going to get me to what I aspired to. And so it was very much motivated by that.

GROSS: It's funny you should mention Sydney Poitier because in "The Butler," your character, who's a civil rights activist who gets disillusioned with nonviolence and becomes a more militant Black Panther, he's arguing with his parents but Sidney Poitier. You know, your mother played by Oprah Winfrey is a big fan, and you're saying, no, he's really - he's just acting like white people will want black people to behave.

OYELOWO: That's the hardest line I've ever had to say in a movie...

GROSS: Is that right?

OYELOWO: ...Ever. Oh my goodness, I stewed over that so much because, you know, he literally is my hero. You know, but the rationale, and I spoke to Lee, Lee Daniels, our director, about it a lot. And his rationale was it was an attitude and an opinion held by a lot of black people at that time - is that, I mean, for some reason there was this notion that Sidney Poitier was an Uncle Tom or whatever. But, I think, to be perfectly honest, I think it's a little bit of what I experienced with the coconut thing, is that, you know, to be black means a certain way of being, a certain way of speaking, a certain way of behaving. And then to be white means something else. And if you are not all the way black, than you must be edging towards being white in some way. And so, you know, I - but like I say, that was a tough day of shooting for me.

GROSS: So we actually have a scene in which you say that line about Sidney Poitier. So why don't we...

OYELOWO: Oh no.

GROSS: We actually have that picked out, so let me just set it up.

OYELOWO: Oh dear.

GROSS: So you've been through every phase of the Civil Rights Movement. You play the son of a butler who's worked at the White House serving eight presidents. And he's, you know, a pretty conservative man. And you've protested in Freedom Riders, you've protested at lunch counters, you know, protesting for integration. You've marched with Martin Luther King. Now you're a Black Panther and this is your first time home visiting your parents in seven years. You've brought your girlfriend with you. She has this huge afro. You're wearing the kind of beret that the Black Panthers wore. Your father's so upset when you're describing why you've become a Panther. And your mother, played by Oprah Winfrey, tries to change the subject. Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BUTLER")

OPRAH WINFREY: (As Gloria Gaines) Me and your daddy saw a wonderful movie the other night. Reminded me so much of you.

OYELOWO: (As Louis Gaines) Oh yeah?

WINFREY: (As Gloria Gaines) What was the name of that movie, honey?

FOREST WHITAKER: (As Cecil Gaines) "In The Heat Of The Night."

WINFREY: (As Gloria Gaines) "In The Heat Of The Night," with Sidney Poitier. Lord, Sidney Poitier, I love Sidney Poitier.

OYELOWO: (As Louis Gaines) Sidney Poitier is a white man's fantasy of what he wants us to be.

WHITAKER: (As Cecil Gaines) But his movies have him fight for equal rights.

OYELOWO: (As Louis Gaines) Only in a way that's acceptable to the white status quo.

WHITAKER: (As Cecil Gaines) Ah.

OYELOWO: (As Louis Gaines) Brother can't act.

WHITAKER: (As Cecil Gaines) What you talking about? He just won the Academy Award. He's breaking down barriers for all of us.

OYELOWO: (As Louis Gaines) About being white, not acting white. Sidney Poitier is nothing but a rich Uncle Tom.

WHITAKER: (As Cecil Gaines) Look at you. You're all puffed up, with your hat on your head, coming in here saying whatever you want, girlfriend belching at the table.

WHITAKER: (As Cecil Gaines) You don't even feel you got to go to school even though I gave you the money. You need to go. Yep, Louis, I need you to get out of my house.

OYELOWO: (As Louis Gaines) What?

WHITAKER: (As Cecil Gaines) Get the hell of my house. Get on out.

WINFREY: (As Gloria Gaines) No, no, no. Cecil, no. No.

WHITAKER: (As Cecil Gaines) I can't take this no more.

WINFREY: (As Gloria Gaines) We ain't seen this boy. We ain't seen this boy in seven years. Now everybody just sit down.

OYELOWO: (As Louis Gaines) I'm sorry, Mr. Butler. I didn't mean to make fun of your hero.

WINFREY: (As Gloria Gaines) Everything you are and everything you have is 'cause of that butler. Now you take that trifling, low-class bitch and get out of this house.

GROSS: OK, a scene from "The Butler," with my guest Davis Oyelowo as the son who's joined the Black Panthers, Forest Whitaker as his father, who's the White House butler, Oprah Winfrey as the mother. So did it make you uncomfortable to hear that argument about Sidney Poitier?

OYELOWO: Very.

(LAUGHTER)

OYELOWO: Very. The worst - the worst is when I say that Sidney Poitier can't act. I mean, oh my Lord. What's he talking about? But anyway, but like I say - look, the truth for him was that. And the great thing about playing Louis in that film was to watch his development from effectively a boy, to an old man. I mean, that was - it's the kind of opportunity I was afforded when I played Henry VI, almost never happens in movies. And, you know, that was a point is development. I'm almost certain that as we saw that character progress through the film, it wasn't an opinion he kept on holding about the great Sidney Poitier.

GROSS: My guest is actor David Oyelowo. He stars in HBO movie "Nightingale," which debuts tomorrow night. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is British actor David Oyelowo. He played Martin Luther King in the film "Selma" and stars in the HBO movie "Nightingale" which debuts tomorrow night. So you've done pretty well in America with your acting career, but was it hard at first before you established yourself? 'Cause you had two things, you know, that could've held you back; one of them was just being black. There's fewer black roles than white roles in America and there isn't that much colorblind casting particularly for leading roles. And number two is you're making movies in America but you have a British accent. We've all learned how convincing you are with various kinds of American accents, but you hadn't proven that yet when you got here. So what was it like for you? What kind of roles were you offered?

OYELOWO: It was very difficult to begin with, if I'm honest. And, you know, my wife and I made the choice to sell up in the U.K. We wanted to take away any kind of safety net because we knew that tough times would come, and we didn't want to feel tempted to get back on the boat and leave before we'd given it a really good go. But what we couldn't have anticipated is after moving here in 2007, that there be an economic crash and a writers strike. That would mean that no one...

GROSS: (Laughter) Excuse me for laughing.

OYELOWO: ...That would mean that no one - I know, no, I can laugh now. It wasn't funny at the time but, you know - and that basically meant that no one was working. So, you know, that was a very tough period but, you know, I'm a big believer in tenacity and, you know, sticking it out and, you know, certain opportunities came along that built on other opportunities. And, you know, it's a cliche but it's true but good work begets good work. And I took smaller roles but tried to be as good as I can be each and every one of them and it sort of built from there.

GROSS: Did you turn down roles that you didn't want to do?

OYELOWO: Always, you know, I would much, much rather, you know, work in a supermarket than take any role that I didn't believe in. I've never ever taken a role for money purposes or for some bizarre notion of what may be the kind of career move that would open things up for me. If I don't believe in it, I can't do it because I won't be good in it if I don't believe in it. So that's...

GROSS: Is there an example of a kind of role that you've turned down? I realize you might not want to mention by name a specific film or a specific role but...

OYELOWO: Well, you know, roles that basically feed into a kind of stereotype of what it is to be black. Don't send me your script if you want me to play the black best friend; I just won't do that.

GROSS: What if it's a really interesting best friend?

OYELOWO: But then it's not the black best friend. Then there will be other ways to describe that character. But you can feel when it's literally an afterthought; you can feel when it's like, oh, quick, let's get some color in here, you know. That I won't do because it's disrespectful and I - you know, for me, I'm either part of the solution or I'm part of the problem. So I won't do that; I won't do roles that I deem to be stereotypical or caricatures of what it is to be black or even just to be a human being. I won't do that - I hate horror; I don't like horror films. I don't really personally see the value in them. And, you know, also anything that basically is overtly celebrating darkness and to be perfectly honest, sanctioning it; that's something I can't personally do. I feel you cannot see the light without darkness but for me, a prerequisite I have for myself is that light must eventually win out. And that's just what I choose to put out into the world; I believe in it. I know that films affect and shape culture, and I want to put stuff in the world that I feel is edifying as opposed to stuff that is detrimental.

GROSS: Do you think a lot about your children's cultural identity? Your parents are Nigerian, your wife is white, your children are being raised in England and the U.S. 'cause they were, I think, all born in England or at least a couple of them were. So are there issues you're wrestling with about their identity, making sure that they're secure in their identity?

OYELOWO: Absolutely, I mean, you know, two of my kids were born in the U.K. and two of them have been born in America. They came up with the phrase the other day they are African-Ameripeans - is what they call themselves.

GROSS: (Laughter) I like that.

OYELOWO: (Laughter) So, you know, when you have four African-Ameripeans that's...

GROSS: (Laughter) Right.

OYELOWO: You've got a bit of a challenge on your hands in terms of keeping them culturally whole. But, you know, I'm doing a film in Africa at the moment. We were in Uganda up until about three days ago and, you know, my kids and my wife were with me for a month of that shoot. And taking them out of school and being in Uganda for a month is part of their education, part of building their identity as citizens of the world, which is what they are, you know? They are part Scottish, they are part English, they are part Nigerian, they are growing up as Americans. And they are all of those things and I don't want to shortchange any of those. I don't want to diminish any of those because that is who they are. My cultural identity is very much rooted in being both Nigerian and British, and all of that has gone into who I am as an actor, as a husband, as a friend, as a father, as a person of faith, all of those things; I am an absolute product of that, and I wouldn't change it. And, you know, for my wife and I, our job is to A, make them feel loved; make their self-worth be as high as it can possibly be whilst not denying any of the richness of their cultural upbringing.

GROSS: David Oyelowo, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

OYELOWO: Thank you. It's been my delight.

GROSS: David Oyelowo stars in the HBO movie "Nightingale," which debuts tomorrow night.

If you want to catch up on interviews you missed, including Marc Maron interviewing me and my interviews with Rob Burnett, David Letterman's longtime executive producer, and Dr. Henry Marsh, a neurosurgeon who wrote a new memoir about brain surgery and the mysteries of the brain, check out our podcast. And we have an extra on today's podcast with a David Oyelowo story we didn't have time for on the broadcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.