David Oyelowo returns to the big screen this week as part of the fantastic ensemble cast of Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
This will be the second collaboration between Oyelowo and director Daniels, as he joins an all-star cast that includes Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams and Alan Rickman.
We caught up with the British actor to chat about the movie, the research he did into this period in history and what lies ahead.
- The Butler is released this week, so can you tell me a bit about it?
The Butler follows Cecil Gaines - played by Forest Whitaker - who has left the South of America and gone up to Washington. Here he becomes a butler to… the movie is based on the true story of Eugene Allen and he was butler to eight Presidents; in our film you will see six of those Presidents.
As far am I concerned, this film is very much a juxtaposition of him as a bit of a wallflower in the White House, while his son - who I play - is a civil rights activist and is far more front-footed in hit attitude to racism in America in the twentieth century.
- You take on the role of Louis Gaines in the film so what was it about the character and the script that initially drew you to the film?
It is a part of American history that is incredibly poignant and very much brings into context the America that is now in existence. Mainly it was that I hadn’t really seen an African American family portrayed in this way; they were very much the centre of their own story, and yet the backdrop of the story is epic and sweeping.
As an actor, you have actors like Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and a spew of incredible actors, and that is something that you are going to go anywhere to be a part of.
- This movie is set during a real period of racial unrest in the U.S. so what kind of research did you do into this time as you prepared for this role?
My character goes all the way from the fifties through to 2008 where President Obama is elected; that is quite a sweep of history and in those five decades, so much has changed politically in America.
I had to very carefully go through each decade and look at not only what was going on politically, but then the impact of what was going on politically had on African Americans and people like my character who is very entrenched in the Civil Rights movement.
What I love about both my research and the role that I play in the film, is that you get to see how civil rights changed over that time. It did start out as quite innocent and idealistic, as you had these kids who were engaging in sit-ins and none violent protests.
However, as they got more frustrated, some of them became more radical and more politicised; that is another aspect that you do see in the film.
- You have mentioned already that The Butler is set over a series of decades and we do see your character age throughout the film. So how did you find the challenge of playing the character at very different times in his life? I read that you were very clear with Lee Daniels that you wanted to play him all the way through.
Yeah I was, I was. I think that there was a thought at some point a younger actor should play the younger version before I took over; that had to be the case for Forest for instance as he is much younger at the beginning of the film. My character goes from the age of seventeen to sixty eight.
I had been afforded that kind of privilege when I did Henry VI at the Royal Shakespeare Company as my character went from being a teenage into his sixties. The thing that I love about doing these types of roles is that so much is conveyed through the emotion and through what is going on with you spiritually and mentally and that translates into the body and into your attitude; I think that is what ageing is.
I think that you can be aided by a bit of make-up here and there, but it is more crucial to map the emotional journey. Therefore, it was a bit of an experiment and I think that it paid off.
- The relationship between Louis and his father Cecil is one of the most powerful in the film as they are characters with two completely different points of view. Can you talk a little about working with Forest Whitaker to develop that relationship?
One of the things that I really enjoyed in terms of developing this relationship with Forest is that regardless of all of the politics at the end of the day, any father and son on earth knows what it is like to be at odds with each other.
You get to a point - especially when you are going into your teenage years - where you start to see the world differently to the generation above you. It could be about what football team you support, which career you are choosing, which girlfriend you want to have; there is always friction there when there is a generational divide.
What we had to really focus in on is not only do you have that intrinsic syndrome between a father and a son, but you also have a time in American history where it was very polarised. Forest’s character had come from the Deep South, and he had seen the darkest side of racism in America.
Having moved to Washington, my character’s upbringing has not been his as I have not been privy to lynchings and so on; he has a different set of values in terms of what he deems to be right and wrong. That clashing of the generations is something that we focused very intently on.
- I have mentioned Lee Daniels already, how did you find working with him? And what kind of director is he?
The Butler is the second time that I have worked with Lee as I did his previous film The Paperboy. I just love working with him. If you look and any and all of his films, he attracts incredible actors because you can’t go through the Lee Daniels’ directorial experience without becoming a better actor.
He is challenges you in the pursuit of truth. He also get to know you as a person and very quickly identifies your tricks as an actor and does everything he can to pull you away from them; he truly believes that anything tricksy is a departure from the truth. That is the word that I would use to describe Lee Daniels he is a truth seeker.
- The Butler has already topped the U.S. box office, but how have you been finding the response to the film? It does seem to be striking a chord with audiences.
It really is. I have had so many personal experiences of people’s very visceral reaction to the film. The common reaction that I have found from people young and old is that - unfortunately - is a huge eye-opener for people as to what actually went on.
These events only happened fifty years ago - still very much in living memory - and yet there are so many people who have no idea about the Sit-In Movement, or what went on in Birmingham with the hosing down of young people.
This stuff all exists in documentaries and books, but for some reason people have turned their backs on the very history that enabled the freedom that so many American take for granted.
I have found that people have just been incredibly grateful that in two hours you get a sweep of history that contextualises modern America and race relations within America.
- Away from The Butler, you have a whole host of projects in the pipeline including biopic Nina and Nightingale, so can you tell me a little bit about those projects?
Nina is a film I did with Zoe Saldana; she takes on the role of singer Nina Simone. The film very much focuses on Nina and her manager Clifton Henderson and their relationship. It is a very unconventional love story, in a sense, as my character falls in love with her music, while she falls in love with him. It is basically about navigating that very tricky situation.
Nightingale is a film that I did earlier in the year here in Los Angeles. The film is a one-hander, and so it is me in a house unravelling mentally on my own for ninety minutes.
- While you are having plenty of success in front of the camera we saw you direct a short film back in 2009, how much is being in the director's chair something that you would like to explore further?
It is something that I am going to do a lot more of going forward. I just love the medium of film - I am actually on set at the moment in North Carolina on a film called Captive; I am also serving as producer - whether it is producing, writing, directing or acting, one of the things that a career has Hollywood has afforded me is to have more of a say in the content that I am involved with. There are a few films that I am very keen to direct in the next few years.
- I was going to ask you about Captive - you are on set at the moment as you say - so how is that going?
It is going very well; it is going very well indeed. It is a phenomenal cast and a really really great and redemptive story. It is a very dark story as well.
My character Brian Nicholas was on trial for rape and in a fit of rage broke out of the courthouse and killed four people before taking a lady hostage for seven hours. In that time she manages to talk him down using a book called The Purpose Driven Light.
This lady is a recovering meth addict and she had been using the book to help herself. It is very much a story of healing: particularly for that lady, but in very unexpected and dark circumstances.
- Finally, what is next for you as we head into 2014?
Early next year I am going to be playing Martin Luther King in a film called Selma; that will be for Pathe and Plan B. Therefore, as soon as I have finished this I will be tucking my head into research to try and do MLK justice.
The Butler is released 15th November