In Chicago recently to promote “Selma” (opening at AMC River East and Showplace ICON on Thursday, going wide Jan. 9), David Oyelowo talked about what it took for him to get in character to portray Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the film about that famous chapter in the American civil rights struggle — especially the drive for voting rights equality for African-Americans in the South.
“I spent more hours studying tapes, films and all kinds of recordings of Dr. King than my wife and kids would care to think of,” the actor said with a laugh. “I had to stay in character — at least vocally — so much so my wife thought she was having an affair!”
Yet for the actor, who naturally speaks with a distinct, clipped British accent, there was much more to it.
“Dr. King’s voice and mannerisms very, very specific. I challenge you to find anyone who sounded back then — or sounds today — quite like him actually. People say, ‘As a British actor, was that a tough thing to do?’ But even if I was American, I would have had a tall order to find the voice and the demeanor of a guy who was from Atlanta but was highly influenced by his time in Boston, and was the son of a Southern Baptist preacher — but sort of reacted to that in a different way because he didn’t want to have quite the declamatory style of his father.
“But he was also an intellect and had a penchant for big words. All of these things had to go into [creating the character]. And myself and my dialect coach Elizabeth Himmelstein really had to sort of find that voice. We sort of got to that point whereby I could just forget it when we were shooting it, and just intrinsically be there in the role and in the moment.”
Another inspiration convinced Oyelowo he could tackle the part: “Just to see how Daniel Day-Lewis inhabited [Abraham] Lincoln [in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”] so greatly encouraged me as an artist. It made me feel I could do the same thing with Dr. King.”
As the nation was reeling from the deathly incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, I had to ask the actor’s thoughts on how Dr. King would react to these 2014 events, had he lived.
“I think what we depict in ‘Selma’ is a very specific strategy that was about this very specific situation in Selma which, of course, also affected other states in the South at that time,” Oyelowo said. “It was all about people being denied their right to vote. I think that what Dr. King would have continued to do, if he were with us today, was to have evolved, strategy-wise. What worked in Selma — having racists acting out on camera their overt racism that shocked a nation — would not have worked today in New York, for example. Back then, those scenes from Selma were so shocking to many people in other parts of the country, who had never witnessed that kind of brutality, in that way, before.
“What I mean is, you had Eric Garner caught on camera being murdered, and the man who did it isn’t being indicted. So, now we have to figure out what’s the next thing. What do we do to address this issue, today, because now there are systems in place that mean what happened in Ferguson and New York can happen without repercussions. So, I think, Dr. King would be about forward movement and trying to figure out how to overcome what’s happening today.
“Selma” director Ava DuVernay agreed. “I truly believe he’d be front and center, calling for new strategies, calling for creativity in how to approach some of the issues we’re dealing with today regarding the police and the community.”
While there were many, many challenging days shooting the movie, Oyelowo said one day in particular will remain with him always.
“One of the most stark days for us was what we call ‘Speech Day’ — the day when I was give two speeches in the church in Selma. We had all come together and Congressman [John] Lewis [a King aide who is portrayed as a principal character in the film] was in the front row. Imagine that! He, a man who knew Dr. King so intimately, was about to encounter me giving a speech as Dr. King for the first time. Yikes! If that wasn’t scary enough!
“Then, just as Ava was about to call ‘Action,’ all the lights in the church went down. It was because an un-forecast thunderstorm had started. We had to turn off the generator. I, as a Christian myself, was thinking, ‘The devil is up to something! What’s going on?!” This electric storm took place, combined with a sunset that was unbelievable. The sky was pink and purple — there were two rainbows in the sky.
“It was like a sign from Dr. King himself. … Such an amazing, moving, wonderful day.”