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David Oyelowo was everywhere last year, and that was no accident. Sure, he had no way of knowing that the tiny indie Middle of Nowhere, in which he plays the sensitive bus driver romantic interest of our lead heroine, would come to theaters just weeks after Jack Reacher and a month after Lincoln, in which he plays a black soldier brave enough to speak up to the President in the first scene. And, as he told me in our conversation last week, he had no idea that his voice would be the first thing anyone heard in the trailer for Lincoln, which arrived when there was massive speculation about what Daniel Day-Lewis's performance would sound like.
But the fact that Oyelowo has worked with a string of acclaimed directors and in a series of successful films, and has played a seemingly different character in every single one of them? That's no mistake at all. The 37-year-old veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company in London, who made headlines a decade ago when he played Henry VI, has made his way through Hollywood carefully and slowly, taking on roles in films big (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Jack Reacher, the upcoming Interstellar) and small (Middle of Nowhere, The Paperboy) that each reveal something new about him. In Lee Daniels' The Butler, in theaters this Friday, Oyelowo steps back into the past to play Louis Gaines, a college student who becomes involved with the Freedom Riders and eventually the Black Panthers as the Civil Rights movement builds in the 1960s. That leads to a series of clashes with his father Cecil (played by Forest Whitaker), the titular butler who works closely with the all-powerful Presidents inside the White House.
Oyelowo plays Louis from age 17 until his late 60s, a remarkable transformation made all the more incredible by how little makeup it took. I asked Oyelowo about that process, as well as the ways that director Lee Daniels' challenges him, how he found out he was such a big part of that Lincoln trailer, and a little about his upcoming work with Christopher Nolan on Interstellar-- and no, he hasn't read the script for that yet, so don't bother asking. Check out our interview below, and see Oyelowo and the rest of the all-star cast in The Butler this weekend.
I’m curious about how freakishly young you play at the beginning of this movie. I think you’re like 16 or something like that?
Were you wearing makeup? How’d you pull that off?
No, one of the biggest challenges about doing this film was Lee insisted on no makeup, until we were older. I’ve worked with him twice now and he’s all about authenticity, you know. Before each take, he’s right up in your face, checking that you didn’t put any makeup on or anything, because he wants the camera to catch every bead of sweat. So, that was actually a challenge. I was like, “Lee, you’ve got to help me out here.” I was going from so, I think, yeah, it’s 17 through to 68. So, I literally had to do crazy things like, you know, make sure I got 10 hours of sleep before the days I was playing young, drink lots of water, you know, just silly things that I almost had to experiment to find out if they actually worked. And then when I sort of get a bit older, literally, I would eat a lot of salty foods…
So you would puff up?
Yeah, and then drink lots of water. So apparently, this is what I found out, the water clings to the salt and you sort of puff out and literally you can see it overnight, and that helps. So, yeah, it was crazy things like that I had to do over the three months.
And then you go do another movie with makeup and you’re like, oh, this is so much easier.
Yeah, you know. I don’t have to eat salty food and you know, go to bed really early and all that good stuff, but you know what? I had played Henry VI at the Royal Shakespeare Company about 10 years ago.
Famously, a far as I can tell.
Yeah, yeah, it went incredibly well. And similarly I had to play from a very young to I think again from my teenage years through to maybe late 50s, maybe early 60s, and again, we were working with a director who wasn’t keen on makeup.
Even on stage, where you can get away with so much more.
Exactly, but that was kind of the point, because we didn’t want that to be distracting. And so much of aging is an attitude really, whether it’s confidence, whether it’s what’s happening physically with the body, the eyes, you know, with the emotions. When Lee first cast me as this, I said, you know what, I actually, and I didn’t mean it this way, I said, “Let’s do as little makeup as possible, I want to see if this is achievable, because I’ve done this once before in the theater. Let’s see if it works on film.”
So, it was almost a challenge to yourself.
Yeah, but Lee always has to push everything the the nth degree, so I said less makeup and he’s like, “No makeup.” I was like, no, that’s not what I meant.
Well, with The Paperboy, you say he had similar natural techniques, but the tone of that movie is really different. It’s really big and your character goes through this crazy transformation at the end. Lee pushes you in one way on that, so when you transfer to something like this, is he pushing you in a different way?
He is, I mean, the thing with Lee is that not only is he pushing you in relation to the character you’re saying, but the more he gets to know you as an actor, he literally demands of you more than he has seen of you.
So, the better he knows you, the harder he pushes you?
Yeah, which I think is why I really, really enjoy working with him, because I’m always a better actor beyond the experience, because I always discover new things about myself. The Paperboy we really pushed it on the envelope in terms of a character who was duplicitous, someone who just wasn’t all that he seemed. Whereas with this, you know, the film largely centers around this family and it’s far more vulnerable, far more open in terms of feelings. There’s an openness and an honestly that isn’t in The Paperboy. The Paperboy is diametrically opposed, I would say.
Not about open emotions.
Exactly, it’s all about hidden emotion and a hidden inner life. So, with this, you know, he was really pushing me towards what it is to be, you know, can we show a boy becoming a man before our eyes? Can we show the birth of the civil rights movement through one person? It was in the same way that Forest beautifully embodies some of the pain, some of the subservience, that had been imposed upon black people through history, my character was taking on the fire that was burning within black people back then, to challenge this country for freedom and you know, I had to sort of embody that in an embryonic form and then for it to sort of gain in momentum through to its fruition through the course of the film.
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