INTERVIEW: David Oyelowo on the Challenges of Playing MLK in ‘Selma’

David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in "Selma." (Photo: Selma film)

If things had been left up to David Oyelowo’s father, the British actor would probably be an engineer or surgeon. That’s right, we could’ve missed his much-lauded portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the highly-anticipated film “Selma.”

"I'm from Nigerian parentage, so the idea of the arts and all of that-when I would tell him I wanted to be an actor, my dad, would say, 'Why do you want to be an actor? Why do you want to go out and hang with all of these promiscuous lady boys?'” Oyelowo, imitating his father’s Nigerian accent, told “CBS This Morning” Monday. “But he’s seen all of the press around [“Selma”] and he couldn’t be prouder.”

And Oyelowo’s father isn’t the only one beaming about the film.

Awards season is just getting started and “Selma” is grabbing several nominations, including a Golden Globe Best Actor nod for Oyelowo. “Selma” is the first major motion picture film made about Dr. King and focuses on those three months where the Civil Rights leader was negotiating with President Lyndon B. Johnson for African Americans to gain the right to vote. The march resulted in the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Oprah Winfrey, who appeared with Oyelowo on “CBS This Morning,” is one of the producers, and Ava DuVernay directs it.

“It really warmed my heart that the film’s being well-received. We just want to continue to share it with people,” DuVernay told me last month at Ebony magazine’s “Power 100” gala in Los Angeles.

In addition to Oyelowo, “Selma’s” all-star cast features Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Lorraine Toussaint as Amelia Boynton, Cuba Gooding Jr. as Fred Gray and Oprah as Annie Lee Cooper, a woman who was repeatedly denied the right to vote. We’ll also see musical artists Common, who collaborated with John Legend for the Golden Globe nominated Best Original Song “Glory,”and Ledisi, who plays gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, showcase their acting skills.  The film has a limited release on Christmas Day and will open nationwide on Jan. 9.

Watch: “Selma” trailer

Though Academy Award nominations won’t be announced until Jan. 15, there’s much speculation that Oyelowo will receive a nod.

Last month, during the Ebony magazine’s “Power 100” event, “Entertainment Tonight” host Kevin Frazier knew two things for sure after watching “Selma”: the film is “spectacular” and Oyelowo will be nominated for an Academy Award.

"This man right here is incredible and he will be nominated and all of January and February will be spent following that man right there," Frazier said to me as he pointed to Oyelowo, who was standing nearby. "David is going to get nominated. He knows it and I know it. He's great in the movie. He should be the best actor. It's the best thing this year. He's the man."

Wow! Well, if the Golden Globe nod is any indication (and many think it is), Oyelowo will receive that Oscar nomination.  Playing a historical and influential figure like Dr. King is a dream role for any actor. Heck, Oyelowo once told me that he would have given a limb to play the Civil Rights leader.

"There is a role I would give my right leg for and it is to play Martin Luther King in the film 'Selma,' which I'm about to do. My leg will thankfully get to stay with me so that I can portray him," Oyelowo told me last February during the Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon.

I had the opportunity to talk with Oyelowo, again, at the Ebony “Power 100” gala. This time around Oyelowo–who truly reminds me of a younger Sidney Poitier–told me about the journey to getting “Selma” made, how he prepared for the role and his bestie in the industry.

Watch: Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo discuss “Selma” on “CBS This Morning”

What challenges, if any, did you encounter while portraying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

DAVID OYELOWO: I can categorically say there was nothing easy about it. But it shouldn’t be really if you’re going to play a role like this. To get the film made was tough. I was on the journey to getting it made for seven years. To play a role like that–and like I say, it shouldn’t be easy–it was a layered effort. There was the physical elements of the preparation, the research but also a spiritual side to it because this was a very spiritual man. But even though it wasn’t easy it was incredibly fulfilling and so life-affirming to actually get the thing done.

Could you talk briefly about your seven-year journey to getting this film made?

OYELOWO: I first read the script in 2007 and felt this very visceral calling to do it. I knew I was going to play this role; God told me I would. And unfortunately for me, the director at that time didn’t feel that way. But it lodged in my spirit enough that I started working. I just started researching as much as I could about Dr. King and it took another three years before a director came along and did cast me in the shape of Lee Daniels. And then we still couldn’t get the film off the ground. And he then left the project and I managed to suggest Ava. So that’s what brought us to where we are now.

In February when we spoke at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, you said Ava was one of your closest industry pals. 

OYELOWO: One of my best friends is Ava DuVernay, who is just such a beacon of light to me, a genius writer and director. You know, I run a lot of my decisions by her and she’s helped me make some of the tougher decisions that I’ve had to make as an actor.

 Watch: Oprah Winfrey talking “Selma” on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon”


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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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