ABOVE: DAVID OYELOWO AT THE 26TH ANNUAL PALM SPRINGS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL. PHOTO COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES.
David Oyelowo is not an overnight sensation. The 38-year-old Brit has been acting professionally since he graduated from LAMDA in 1998. He’s put in time on the stage (most notably with the Royal Shakespeare Company) and on television (such as in the BBC spy series MI:5); in indie films (Complicit, Middle of Nowhere), big-budget blockbusters (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Jack Reacher), and Oscar films (The Help, Lincoln, The Butler). You can forgive a few people, however, for thinking that Oyelowo is a startling new discovery. As Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, the actor’s second film with writer-director Ava DuVernay, he gives his most significant performance to date. He finds the uncertainty in an icon, and rather than tarnishing Dr. King’s memory, it makes him all the more heroic and human.
On Friday night, Selma opened the Palm Springs Film Festival in California. The next evening, Brad Pitt presented Oyelowo with the Festival’s Breakthrough Performance Award. Before Oyelowo took the stage, Pitt taught the audience how to pronounce his friend’s Nigerian last name through song.
Here, Oyelowo answers some of our founder Andy Warhol’s favorite questions for our Q & Andy feature.
ANDY WARHOL: How were you discovered?
DAVID OYELOWO: I was discovered because of a subway strike. I was at a youth theater and I was very shy. I was only in this youth theater because I really liked this girl who invited me to go along. The two guys who were being groomed to play the lead in this play were stuck on the subway, so the director asked me to just read in. I read in, having watched what they’d done for months and I guess in my head thinking, “Oh, I would do it differently.” I read it the way I would do it and the director looked at me—everything in the room stopped. I thought I’d obviously just done the worst reading of a scene ever. The next week I was cast as the lead. The play was called The Disposables and it was actually at the Royal National Theatre. So that’s how it happened: a tube strike.
WARHOL: What was your first job?
OYELOWO: My first job was a newspaper round; I delivered newspapers in my parents’ neighborhood. I was a very proud paperboy and come rain or shine I was out there doing my round. My newspaper was the Islington Gazette.
WARHOL: Have you ever been to the White House?
OYELOWO: I have. I did a film called Red Tails and we had a screening of it for the President. It was very surreal. It was myself, George Lucas, and the rest of the cast from the film.
WARHOL: What do you think about American kids?
OYELOWO: I have four kids of my own; I have two British kids and two American kids, so I’m an expert on this. I think that a danger and a perpetual truism with American kids—especially if you live in Los Angeles—is that entitlement is a real danger. But as long as they have good, strong parents that’s something you can overcome.
WARHOL: When do you get nervous?
OYELOWO: I get nervous watching my kids do stuff that doesn’t make me nervous—when I see my kids doing a play, or playing a big game, or walking on a very tall wall, which is something I did all the time when I was a kid, but if I see my kids doing that, it makes me very nervous.
WARHOL: What are you reading right now?
OYELOWO: My wife just gave me a book for Christmas, which I haven’t opened yet, Love or Die [by Alexander Strauch]. I’m about to break into that.
WARHOL: How did you end up in Hollywood?
OYELOWO: I had a very nice career in the U.K., but heroes of mine are Daniel Day Lewis, Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, and when I looked at the zenith of what they do, it came out of Hollywood. So my wife and I took the risk in 2007 of leaving the U.K., coming here, and hoping that I could scale those heights.
WARHOL: What do you think about love?
OYELOWO: Love is sacrifice. Boiled down, it is the ability of us as people to give without getting back.
WARHOL: Who was the nicest person you worked with? What did they do that was so nice?
OYELOWO: Judi Dench is the nicest person I’ve worked with. And the reason I find her so nice is that she’s one of the humblest people I know and she taught me by telling me that, in her view, true acting is reacting. I’ve never forgotten that.
WARHOL: Is there anything you regret not doing?
OYELOWO: I’m probably a bit old to play Romeo now.