There are a lot of reasons why actor David Oyelowo should be happy these days.
He’s currently starring opposite Daniel Craig in an acclaimed production of “Othello” in New York that is as hot a ticket as “Hamilton.” The star of “Selma” (in which he played Martin Luther King Jr.), Oyelowo has three films due out next year, playing opposite Charlize Theron and Rosamund Pike, among others.
Earlier this year he was in another film based on a true story, titled “Queen of Katwe.” The Disney film was directed by Mira Nair and told the story of a young girl from a slum in Uganda who became an international chess champion. Oyelowo played her mentor.
But for all of the progress he’s made in his career, the British Nigerian actor knows that show business is still deeply segregated, not only by race but by gender.
Half of Oyelowo's last 10 movies were directed by women, including his upcoming film “A United Kingdom,” which had Amma Asante calling the shots. And by producing films himself and making sure that he works with a diverse array of talent in front of and behind the camera, Oyelowo is trying to help change Hollywood’s math.
When John Horn met recently with the actor in New York, Oyelowo stared by explaining the conditions he outlined with “Othello” director Sam Gold before signing on to do his first play in 10 years.
On his conditions for participating in "Othello":
When I first talked to Sam Gold about doing the play, I said I [wasn't] really in a rush to do "Othello" because it feels a little obvious of the Shakespeare characters to play. But if we're going to do this, let's do the version that speaks to now and punishes the audience for coming to the theater — in a good way. You're not just coming for a nice night in the theater — we're going to go somewhere.
On his and director Sam Gold's ideas for staging the play:
I don't think any play is warranted being put on if it doesn't speak to the time it's in. When Sam and I started talking, we talked about O.J. Simpson, we talked about President Obama, we talked about African-American sports stars. When you watch American football or you watch basketball, [you wonder], Who owns those teams? Who are cheering them along? Would those people have those players around for dinner? Would those managers and owners have those players marry their daughters? I don't know the answer to that, but I have a bit of a hunch.
On being careful about the roles he chooses:
As a black actor working in movies today, I don't have the luxury that my white counterparts have where I can just do anything and everything and it doesn't have a political resonance. For me, playing the black best friend says something. For me, being the actor in a sci-fi movie who dies first means something. Playing a slave means something. It's perpetuating a narrative that has been woven and spun for, in my opinion, too long and has been celebrated too long. What I mean by that is that, if those roles are the ones for which we by and large get celebrated when it comes to accolades, it's also saying something about what is valued in terms of our representation. So I have made a conscious choice not to play those roles and I am on a crusade — to be perfectly frank. And I'm waiting for the day when that narrative is going to change, where black heroes get celebrated.
On what made "Queen of Katwe" a truthful portrayal of Africa:
[Disney VP of Production Tendo Nagenda] approached Mira Nair, a female director of color who has lived in Uganda for several years. So we were now going to make this film from within as opposed to from without. That's a nuanced difference to African stories that have been told in the past. They tend to have an outsider perspective, which again perpetuates stereotypes and caricatures that are not necessarily rooted in truth. We, because it's a female director, the protagonist is a 10-year-old girl, as opposed to my character, who is the coach. Normally, it will be the male coach who goes in and whips these kids into shape. And that's largely because a lot of the executives that make this are male and they want to see a perpetuation of the patriarchal, we're-going-to-save-the-world narrative.
On the sociopolitical impact of fiction and non-fiction:
I am very aware of, and feel very passionate about, the effect that movies can have on our culture. The thing that we're all battling with in my industry when it comes to films that are worthy of the theater is, Why should I go see it and why should I go see it now? A fact-based story just gives a little more oomph of like, Whoa, that really happened? And it's topical? We gotta go see that. If it's fictional, it's "La La Land." And that's fantastic. We all need "La La Land" right now, but you're looking at a different way to get [audiences] in the theater. It's something that we're all trying to figure out right now.
On the function of art in a polarized nation:
There's a tension as an artist right now and there's always a tension between, How do I get to a mass audience and how do I say something meaningful? I think that the period we're about to go into in light of the recent election is going to be phenomenal for art. Storytelling is a great way to hold governments to account and to keep people awake and aware of what is wrong and what could be right about the society we live in. Studios are gravitating more and more to films that are not about much — films that are about escapism. And, look, I get it. We need it. We need to go in to a dark room for two hours and forget all the bad things that are going on. But what we can't afford to do is numb ourselves into a place of apathy and ignorance, and ignore and not hold our leaders to account for what they are talking about doing and for what they might go on to do. For me, as an artist, there's a balance to be struck. I like being an entertainer, I like people coming away and feeling good about themselves when they've seen films. But I'm not going to stop when it comes to films that are made by people who are underrepresented and are about people who are underrepresented and shows them in a complex, three-dimensional way — that shows we are more alike than we are different.