Being a classically trained actor from Oxford may not seem the obvious route to playing celebrated civil rights leader and owner of his very own day, Martin Luther King Jr. But the plaudits showered on David Oyelowo (pronounced ‘oh-yell-oh-whoa’) for his role in Oscar-nominated Selma – a performance criminally ignored by judges at the major awards – show it’s no impediment.
Oyelowo is best known for the remarkable feat of surviving three seasons of Spooks, as well as acclaimed supporting roles in the likes of Lincoln, The Butler and Lee Daniels’ sleaze-fest The Paperboy, but after brilliantly wrapping his tongue around King’s distinct speech patterns as the good doctor leads a non-violent march from the town of Selma, Alabama, in 1965, the 38-year-old looks set for the next level of acting prestige. Politely refusing to wrap that same tongue around a mountain of very tasty-looking pastries beside us, he makes his case for the Englishman abroad.
As a Brit, did you feel that you didn’t have a right to play MLK?
You can feel when there’s a furrow in someone’s brow because a foreigner, so to speak, is playing such a beloved person, but two things feed into that. Firstly, if Meryl Streep can play Margaret Thatcher, then I can play Dr King. That’s a nice cultural exchange, I think. And secondly, being from elsewhere definitely served me well. I didn’t come at this thinking, “Oh, I know who he is, I know what he sounds like” – I had to go and build that from the ground up.
Would an American have done it differently?
My argument is that, even if you were American, you couldn’t just turn up and [play him]. Lee Daniels cast me when he was attached as director and he told me that I came in without all that baggage that a lot of other people had. You can’t sustain a movie for two hours with an impersonation.
What preparation did you do?
My primary concern was ‘Who was this man beyond what we’ve seen and what we know?’ I spent a lot of time with [politician and activist] Andrew Young, who knew Dr King intimately. And then finding those moments that were just steepedin humanity. He was a deeply kind man, he was a prankster, he was a flawed man – there were many things about him that were surprising.
Dr King was a prankster?
Oh yeah. Something that he loved was that he would do your eulogy for you, to you. And he would just make fun of you, in your eulogy. There was an instance where he was in a hotel room with [fellow civil rights leader] Ralph Abernathy, who had a weakness for pigs’ feet and loved to eat, and Abernathy sat on the bed and broke it. And Dr King just never let that go. It was just like a thing, “You broke the bed!” In the film, there’s a moment where I say to Abernathy, “Aren’t you supposed to be on a diet?”, just to tip the hat to that.
Did the character stay with you?
Sometimes as an actor you enjoy being in that head space and you develop an affinity for a character. And maybe sometimes, for some actors, you don’t particularly like yourself, so going back to yourself may be a bit of a challenge. I like myself, but I stayed in character pretty much for the two or three months [of filming], which was very weird for my family. My wife felt like she was having an affair. I remember one day we were moving house during shooting Selma and she called me to talk about curtains and she just went, “I can’t talk curtains with Dr King – we’re going to have to talk about this after you’ve finished the film.”
What are your feelings about the Spooks film?
I can’t wait to see it. Bharat Nalluri, who directed it, cast me in Spooks and I loved doing that show. It really was the job on which I learned about screen acting. I love that Peter Firth is in it – he’s a real favourite of mine. I’m curious to see where they go with the movie.
What would your ideal week off work be like?
I have four kids – three boys and a girl – and it’s hard with what I do, whether it’s inhabiting a character or publicising a film. We live in LA and I’ve been on a press tour for a while now and I miss them desperately. And we have an enormous couch that we watch movies on which is my favourite place in the world. Just snuggling with them, I could do that for a week straight.
What sort of things do you watch with them?
[Laughs] The Lego Movie – 35 times! By and large, they have no interest in the kind of films I make. I now do an animated series called Star Wars Rebels and that gets me way more brownie points in my house than playing Dr King. The fact that I have an action figure – they’ve died and gone to heaven.
Is there a little part of you that’s also really pleased you’ve got a Star Wars action figure?
Oh, my goodness – not a little part of me, a ginormous part of me. What a thing, to have Star Wars action figures and to play Dr King at the same time. Talk about juxtapositions.
What sort of connection did you have to Star Wars when you were younger?
Very little. My entry was a very privileged one to the Star Wars universe. I did this film Red Tails, that George Lucas produced, and so we spent a lot of time with George. He would have Star Wars toys and lightsabers sent to the house and we would go to the Skywalker Ranch and see the real Yoda, who’s in an attic somewhere. So my kids had the tour of Star Wars by the guy himself.
Selma is at cinemas nationwide from 6 February