David Oyelowo's Absolute Norm

We talk with the actor about Five Nights in Maine, about diversity in Hollywood and about the importance of working with women directors.

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David Oyelowo's Absolute Norm

So what does one of his generation’s most exciting talents do after his breakthrough role in the most important film of 2014, playing the greatest American of the 20th Century (and standing as everyone’s favorite example of an actor getting robbed of a Oscar)? If you’re David Oyelowo, you dive deep into subtler, interesting projects without much regard for their commercial prospects. At next month’s Toronto International Film Fest, he’s starring in two such fascinating films—Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom and Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe.

In the meantime, he stars starting this weekend in Maris Curran’s quietly beautiful Five Nights in Maine, a film he also produced. Paste spoke with him recently about the script, about diversity and about similarities between Curran and Ava Duvernay.

Paste Magazine: As you know, I adored Five Nights in Maine. I shared with you the opinion that Maris Curran is going to be a really important voice in film going forward. And I love the story about you getting the script from her—can you tell it again?
David Oyelowo: Yeah! It was at the Sundance Film Festival for the first film I did with Ava Duvernay, Middle of Nowhere. And I was in the lobby of the theater afterwards, and this beautiful lady approached me with a script clutched lovingly in her hands and said she had written it with me in mind. That’s always going to get my attention (laughs).

I went back to my hotel room that night thinking I would read the first ten pages, and I couldn’t put it down. Partly because I thought the writing was so good. But also because I was terrified by the prospect of playing this character, because it goes to some very difficult emotional places. For me as an actor, that’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking to be scared. I’m looking for characters where I don’t instantaneously see roads to how I will play the role. I want to challenge myself constantly, dare myself. This did that for me, primarily because I’m a very happily married man, and I couldn’t think of anything worse than a world where my wife was no longer in it. So Maris and I [had] a dialogue in which it became clear that, as you say, not only has she written a great script, but she has a very clear vision, and was someone whose cinematic voice really excited me and I feel will go on throughout the world. That’s what led me to sign on not only as an actor, but as a producer.

Paste: I completely identify with what you’re saying about your fear, because my wife and family mean so much to me as well, and the dark side of that is the fear of losing it. Especially with someone like me who’s completely capable of screwing all that up in a heartbeat. (Both laugh.)

Jeff Nichols told me that he had some of the same things on his mind when he wrote Take Shelter. He and Missy had just had their child, and he was thinking of how catastrophic it would be to lose his family. And out of that grew that larger fable about catastrophe. It’s a powerful motivator.
Oyelowo: Yes. A powerful motivator, hopefully, to hold on to what you have. I know that doing Five Nights in Maine definitely made me hug my wife that bit tighter every time I saw her. To be walking through those emotions and feeling the buffeting of them. Thankfully in my own real life, I still have my wife by my side, and I have to say this made me appreciate that much more what I have.

Paste: In many movies, a tragic thing happens and a character deals with grief for a portion of the film. But in Five Nights you had to live in it virtually the whole time.
Oyelowo: Yes, and that’s what scared me most about the script. I thought, “Wow, this is a big ask.” When you do enough movies, you can immediately get a sense what shooting the movie is going to require of you. And as you say, a lot of the film is him navigating the terrain left by the loss of his wife, and him having to really engage. It’s quite a complicated gauntlet of emotions that are not only insular, but also outward in relation to his interactions with his mother-in-law [played by Dianne Wiest], who he shares absolutely nothing in common with, apart from the loss of this woman. It would be one thing if that relationship was warm and fuzzy and full of hugs and consolation. But it is definitely not that. So not only is the bereavement there, but there’s also this very difficult relationship being played out. For me as an actor, as soon as I commit myself to something I know it’s going to cost me. Because I try to completely give myself over to it. Every day you go in and pursue the truth, and the truth is a tough thing when it’s about bereavement.

Paste: Maris is a really nurturing person, and I’m sure the set was a very supportive, familial atmosphere. Was that helpful to you? Or was it actually distracting, given that your character is feeling such isolation?
Oyelowo: No, it was absolutely necessary. The truth of the matter is that, in film or in theater, the more difficult the relationships you have to play, the more nurturing and loving you want the set to be. What that enables you to do is to dig deeper, because you know that you are protected. You know that no one is going to take advantage of the vulnerable state you’re in. You know that, having gone to these dark places, you’re not going to be left hanging. It’s very difficult to go into those places when you have a dysfunctional set, people are being mean to each other, where it’s slapshod in the way that you’re being dealt with emotionally. When you’re playing characters like Diane’s and mine who are being really mean to each other, the first thing you want to do when they call “cut” is give each other a hug. Because you know that the next time you go for it, you can go even deeper. You know that you’re ultimately coming from a place of serving the story and serving each other.

Paste: I love how the film lets the topic of race remain implicit. In 2016, anything with a multi-racial cast: The viewer is going to bring something to that. But Five Nights kind of lets those possible tensions hang there.
Oyelowo: Absolutely. That’s 100% intentional. We wanted the film to reflect the world we live in. Just you and I having a conversation on the phone isn’t about race—it’s just two people having a conversation. That’s pretty much the bulk of my life on earth, dealing with human beings. Not dealing with white people and Asian people and so forth. Of course, race intersects our lives in very real ways at times, but it is not every time a black person and a white person have a conversation, or have a disagreement, or fall in love. And I think the way that sometimes cinema, and the culture, and the news frame race is to make it the overriding issue. But that’s not our job when we’re telling stories, I don’t think. I think our job is to reflect the world as we see it. Especially when it comes to a drama. Which is why it’s also such a bizarre thing that so few women are being given the chance to direct movies. That also should be a reflection of the world we live in. 51% of all the people in this country are women. We wanted to make a film about grief, which is a universal emotion—everyone’s going to feel it at some point, if you live long enough. And we wanted to do it in a way that everyone could empathize with and see themselves reflected. And to have race not be the overriding theme is partway of telling that truth.

Paste: It’s funny you bring up women directors, because Ava Duvernay, who you worked with on Selma, and Maris are two very different women.
Oyelowo: Yes.
Paste: Did you find any similarities between them as women directors, or was it more that they were great in the same ways men directors are great?
Oyelowo: No, they are different, which is why we need them telling stories. I’m not sure that a man would write Five Nights in Maine, and I’m not sure a man would direct it in the way that she has. I’m not sure a man would direct Selma the way she did. I don’t think a man would have directed A United Kingdom the way Amma Asante did, and I know for a fact a man wouldn’t have directed Queen of Katwe at all, let alone the way that Mira Nair did.

Men and women are different. That’s what is wonderful about the fact that we are co-inhabitors of this thing called Earth, and all part of the human race, and all have our different ways of expressing our emotions, and different ways of seeing the world. That’s partly to do with our gender makeup. We are different. Undeniably. And so to have a story about love, a story about politics, a story about anything and everything, told by a man and woman is going to be different. And the similarities I have found working with Maris and Ava is that there’s no shying away from emotionality. There’s no shying away from getting knee deep into what’s going on with a character. There’s no shying away from making female characters more complex, which is something we deeply need. In Selma, a lot of the female characters, during that long gestation period were introduced by Ava. A lot of the complexity was introduced by Ava. And to have a woman over 65 in as deep a complex and as rich a role in Five Nights in Maine as the one played by Dianne Wiest, I’m sure it has to do with the fact that it was written by a woman. So that’s what I’ve been a beneficiary of, being afforded these pieces of work where I can really explore my emotions as a man, as opposed to it being more about the look of the film, or the intellect, or the political side. I’ve been afforded [the chance to] really dig deep emotionally. And I think that’s one of the many things that woman very specifically bring to film.

Paste: And the difference creates such a nice frisson there. I always say, I love Spike Lee’s black characters, but I really really love seeing what he does with white characters. I want to see what he sees from the outside. And it’s the same with women’s writing—I especially love seeing how they write men. To me, that’s when we really learn from each other, when we can talk not only about ourselves, but about what we see in the other.
Oyelowo: I couldn’t agree more. And it’s not to say that one is better than the other; it’s just that we’re richer for having the diversity. And that’s what I think we’ve got to keep on fighting for until it’s the absolute norm.