Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with actor, David Oyelowo. The talented actor joins us to discuss his latest film, “A United Kingdom”. The film costars Rosamund Pike and is inspired by the true story of the interracial marriage of an African prince to a white British clerk who became his queen.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. David Oyelowo in just a moment.
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Tavis: I am pleased to welcome David Oyelowo to this program. The talented actor not only stars in, but also produces his latest project. It’s called “A United Kingdom”.
It is directed by my friend, Amma Asante, and it’s based on the true story of the interracial marriage of an African prince to a white British clerk who became his queen and the uproar and exile they faced in an apartheid era world. Before we start our conversation with David, a clip first from “A United Kingdom”.
Tavis: When, David, did you first learn of this story?
David Oyelowo: About seven years ago now, a producer I was working with handed me a book called “Colour Bar” and he had the rights to that book. And it was literally the image of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams on the cover of that book that just so arrested me.
You know, as a very proud person of African descent, I just felt I should have known this story. Why did I not know about these people? I want to know more. I read the book and that’s where my obsession with telling the story began.
Tavis: What about the story caused you to be obsessed with it?
Oyelowo: Well, again, as I say, as a person of African descent, I know the pride, the self-possession, the dignity with which, you know, I’ve seen my father walk, my uncles, my cousins, a lot of Africans, and I very rarely see that on film.
Seretse Khama is exemplary in terms of that, a leader who loved his people, a well-educated man who was worthy of the right to lead and had that taken away from him because of who he fell in love with. So there were many things about the story that just made me feel like now is the time where I have just enough notoriety to help that kind of story get told.
Tavis: We should ask you to explain that just a bit because the audience saw his uncle being the person speaking to him, but you were the prince.
Tavis: So you might want to explain how the uncle ended up being the guy in charge.
Oyelowo: Yeah. Well, Seretse’s parents died when he was very young, so his uncle effectively kept the throne warm, as it were, while Seretse was away becoming of age to rule.
And understandably, you know, turning up with a white wife who supposedly is now going to be queen of the people of Bechuanaland, you can understand that he’s going to get a little salty about that [laugh] and that’s what you see happening there in that scene.
Tavis: Yeah. When you read a piece like this, let me preface it by saying that — and you know this better than I do as an actor — the pieces that most resonate with us are the stories where we can tap into, where we can revel in the humanity of the character.
How did you go about approaching bringing this character to life from the standpoint of us seeing his humanity, not the race part, but his humanity? Does that make sense?
Oyelowo: It makes a lot of sense and is absolutely what I gravitated toward. I mean, you know, as a man who’s been married for 18 years myself, as a big lover of love myself, that is what drew me to this story.
And I think the best of us as human beings is the ability to love especially when that love is demonstrated and defined by sacrifice. That’s what these two people had and that’s what they did. They loved each other and they sacrificed for the sake of that love, and that is a transcendent thing to see.
I think it’s very rarely seen in movies. We see lust a lot in movies, but actual love is something that is rarer to see. Like I say, that’s what these two people had and it was exemplified by what they did.
Tavis: What do you make of the fact that there are these films, certainly of late, that have these interracial story lines and you had no idea seven years ago when you saw all this that loving was going to be out around the time that this film comes out?
But “Loving” did remarkably well. Ruth Negga, nominated now for an Academy Award. Here comes this film which I know is going to do remarkably well with a great story. Give me your sense of how these types of story lines fit into the Hollywood of 2017.
Oyelowo: It’s a very good question and, you know, you’d say, okay, maybe there’s something in the air. I think it’s coincidence. I really do. Because these kind of stories, there’s very real resistance still to seeing them be told. There’s very real resistance and fear around the depiction of an interracial relationship.
Tavis: You had trouble getting it made?
Tavis: Because you’re a producer on this as well.
Oyelowo: Yeah, I am.
Tavis: You had trouble getting it made?
Oyelowo: Yeah. Well, any time you have a Black protagonist at the center of a movie, there is a certain amount of trepidation. You know, are people going to go, “Is there an audience for this? It’s not what we normally get to see.” So anything, you know, prejudice is borne out of a fear of the unknown. So films like this have to overcome prejudice, which we don’t see much of this.
When was “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”? 50 years ago. I don’t know [laugh]. It literally was 50 years ago this year. There are people still who find interracial relationships problematic. So if you’re a financier, if you’re a studio, the notion is, “I’m not sure people want to see that.”
Tavis: Is that more a problem for domestic box office, international box office, or both?
Oyelowo: It’s about gatekeepers. I don’t think it’s a problem for the audience actually.
Tavis: Fair enough.
Oyelowo: I think it’s about the people who run our industry, whether here or internationally, and them keeping an eye on their bottom line and, therefore, constantly wanting to go back to the well of what works time and time again. So anytime you do something a little bit different, you’re running a risk.
But what is art if it’s not the desire and the necessity to show me something I haven’t seen before or maybe I haven’t seen from this angle? I can’t think of the last time where you’ve seen a character like Seretse Khama at the center of his own narrative.
If it wasn’t Amma Asante directing, I can almost guarantee the film would be either from Ruth’s point of view or a white male character’s point of view, a journalist who happens to be covering the marriage of Seretse and Ruth, you know [laugh]. But, no, we’re going to go to the heart of the story where the drama actually is with no apology. You know, that sometimes is a bit scary for people.
Tavis: I’m a big fan of Amma and so honored and delighted to know that she was helping to helm this thing. You’re a producer on the project, as I said earlier, so how did that come to be?
Oyelowo: I had worked with Amma 18 or 19 years ago. One of my first jobs out of drama school was a show she had written called “Brothers and Sisters” and I had become friendly with her. You know, I went off and did my thing. She went off and did her thing. You know, seeing how brilliantly she directed “Belle”…
Tavis: Powerful film, yeah.
Oyelowo: Very, very powerful film. Again, a kind of narrative that we very rarely get to see. I know that that was a real struggle for her to get that film made. But what I was so impressed by in that film is the balancing act she managed with the love and the politics and how the politics never overwhelmed the love, and that’s what you need for “A United Kingdom”.
But also, you know, I am a big advocate for female directors. I just don’t understand why not enough of them are getting to have their voice heard through film. You know, everything about her as a potential director for this spoke to me. Thankfully, when I made the call, she said yes.
Tavis: Speaking of female directors, your friend, Ava DuVernay, from “Selma”, nominated for a documentary, Academy Award…
Oyelowo: Brilliant documentary, “13th”.
Tavis: “13th”, yeah, yeah. Speaking of which, so when we had this OscarSoWhite year just one year ago, you were outspoken and I was glad that you were. I really appreciated — I can tell you this now face to face — really appreciated so much what you had to say.
Oyelowo: Thank you.
Tavis: Because it is so difficult for people and you understand this. That’s why I know it was a risk on your part to say what you said so publicly. Because it’s one thing for me to say this. I’m not looking for a job from a director or from an agent or some casting director.
But it’s so difficult oftentimes for people in the industry who may feel the way you feel to be outspoken about that, so thank you for having the courage to say that last year. What do you make of what we have seen this year with the nominations for the Academy Awards?
Oyelowo: I’m encouraged, but I would appeal to anyone and everyone not to get complacent because I think infrastructurally the changes that need to happen in order for this not to be an anomalous year haven’t taken place yet. When I say that “A United Kingdom” was a struggle to get made, the reasons why it was a struggle to get made remain.
You know, the captains of industry all are of a certain demographic and we are all — unfortunately, it’s just human nature — we are all subject to our own bias of what we want to see on the basis of who we are. And unless you have enough of a variety of people who are captains of industry, the pipeline is still going to be of a certain type.
And until there’s very real change in terms of the decision-makers, you know, years like this year are going to be, I think, anomalous. The thing I’m really encouraged by, I just love that Octavia Spencer has been nominated for playing a NASA scientist. That’s different, that’s different. That’s what we don’t normally get to see.
There is a narrative around the kind of things we tend to get celebrated for. You know, you can entertain, you can be a sports star, a musician, or you can be in a state of servitude, a slave or a domestic servant. A NASA scientist is Black and female. That’s great. Not to denigrate or belittle anyone else, but…
Tavis: I take your point, yeah.
Oyelowo: But that’s progress. A film like “Hidden Figures” being made and doing as well as it has, because on paper, three African American protagonists, that story, those faces, that’s exactly the lie we’ve been fed for so long. Oh, who’s going to watch it? Who’s going to be in it? And the audience is talking to us and we refuse to listen to them at our own peril.
Tavis: Why do you think, to your point, David, about refusing to hear them to our own peril, why is it that no matter how often — and I say often. I know it is infrequent because it’s infrequent that we get projects like these — but when it does happen and the audience speaks so loudly and so forcefully and so boldly, it seems to me that it would then be heard.
And yet, because it doesn’t get replicated, apparently they didn’t hear it or it went in one ear and out the other. So how do you have a successful film like “Hidden Figures” and Hollywood not hear that so that we can see more of that in the years to come?
Oyelowo: Prejudice and bias doesn’t make any sense. You know, it’s not rooted in common sense. It’s rooted in fear and you’re either operating in fear or faith. I don’t think there’s any middle ground. You know, the filmmakers, the people who really push these narratives towards getting made, have to operate in faith.
It’s faith in the fact that I would get to play Dr. King eventually that meant I stuck with that project for seven years. It’s faith in this narrative, “A United Kingdom”, that meant that we got it done in six years. Faith, I do think, is a more powerful force than fear. So, you know, I’m optimistic for the future, but there’s a very ugly marriage between commerce and the creative.
You know, to have what we do and especially as specific voices like Amma’s, like Ava’s, to have those voices, have their platform, requires not just faith, but support and advocacy. And if you don’t have people who it’s incumbent upon them to platform those voices, they’re just going to turn the other way and do what they know to be true.
So I’m just very — I feel very blessed and very privileged to be someone who has just enough notoriety, just enough faith, to push for these stories to be told and that there are filmmakers like Ava and Amma who can meet up with that faith and produce such great work.
Tavis: So into what is your faith rooted? Or put another way, how do you sustain your hope?
Oyelowo: Well, I’m a Christian and, you know, my life is very much built on the rock that is Jesus Christ. I mean, when I talk about love being sacrifice, that to me is where that flows from. I mean, no force before, now or in the future is going to come close to what I believe Jesus did on the cross.
So for me personally, that’s my example. That’s where it flows from. That’s where I listen. So what you said earlier about stepping out and speaking my truth is borne out of the fact that what is for me will be for me. Who I believe in remains true and you can’t fly in the face of that.
You know, I first read the script for “Selma” in 2007 and God told me I would play that role on the 24th of July, 2007. The director who was attached to that point said, “No. You are not Dr. King” and rejected me, but God had spoken to me.
So that’s partly why, you know, I was able to stick with it and it went from a situation I couldn’t have foreseen of being rejected by the first director to helping select the director who actually made it. When you’ve had that happen in your life, it encourages you to speak your truth, to being your truth, because you know what is for you will be for you.
Tavis: How does your faith, David, or other factors impact the choices that you make. Sydney Poitier has famously said — since you mentioned “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” 50 years ago — famously said that it’s particularly for African American actors that it’s the stuff you don’t do early in your career that determines how you’ll be minted or not in this town. I think he’s absolutely right about that.
And yet one of the things I celebrate about your work is not that it’s you’re a brilliant thespian, but the choices that you have made. One can hear now the thoughtful nature of the process you go through to get to these decisions. Tell me more about the way you go about making these choices and why your resume looks as stellar as it does.
Oyelowo: Thank you for that. Yeah, there are a few filters through which the choices I make have to go through. I mean, like I say, my faith is one. I’m a father of four and I want to be able to have the choices I make be synonymous with what I teach my children. You know, they tend to, I hope, be meaningful about something.
I’m very happy to be in films that are purely entertainment, but I won’t knowingly do anything that I deem to be damaging to society, damaging to a young mind, that glamorizes the darker side of life. I do think that the cultural impact of movies is undeniable. But then there’s, you know, I have this rule of the three Ps, the part, the project and the people.
You know, the part has to be something I feel I would be fed by. The project, does it say something? And then very importantly to me, the people. Who’s involved? Who do I have the opportunity to learn from on this project? Because being an actor, you never arrive. There’s no destination.
There is only the learning because, at the end of the day, you’re portraying arguably the most complex thing on earth, the human being. You can be a student of humanity forever and not truly arrive at a conclusion. So I look to work with people who are better than me in order to consistently improve.
Tavis: In fairness, you’re not just playing human beings, although indeed you have. You’re playing some iconic human beings. In this country, Martin King, across the globe. And you don’t seem to be intimidated by playing these larger than life real life figures.
Oyelowo: No, because at the end of the day, they are just human beings. You know, Dr. King never thought of himself as an icon. Quite the opposite. And that to me is what is so fascinating about him and about playing him. If you go into playing Dr. King or Seretse Khama and, in your mind, you think I’m playing an icon, you will fail.
Because at the end of the day, what the audience is looking for is how is he like me? What is it about his choices? What is it about his journey that I can tether myself to and stick with for a two-hour narrative?
So everything I tried to do with playing Dr. King or in playing Seretse Khama is what’s the humanity behind the iconography? What’s the humanity behind this sort of larger than life scenario that these people find themselves in? That’s what warrants a movie.
Otherwise, make a documentary. If you’re going to vaunt the iconography, that’s what documentaries can do. I think people go to the movies to see themselves and my job is to show you the you in Dr. King or in Seretse Khama.
Tavis: So how much deeper into the producing thing are you going to get? I mean, again, this is a project you didn’t just want to act in. You wanted to produce, and I’m glad you did because you got it done. How much more of that are we likely to see in the coming years?
Oyelowo: A lot more because I’m a believer in if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. I refuse to be someone who’s just going to complain about the representation of Black people or the lack of representation of female directors or the misconstrued representation of Africa in movies. You know, if I have a platform to change that, I’m going to take it and I’m doing to do the best I can with it.
And that means producing. That means being in the driving seat of what gets made. You know, thankfully, I have great relationships. Filmmakers I’ve worked with who want to work with me again and, you know, movies I’ve done have made money. So, you know, that’s a part of it.
Tavis: That helps [laugh].
Oyelowo: It does, it does. So, yeah, also, look, as an actor, you’re going to blow hot sometimes, you’re going to blow cold sometimes, but I love storytelling. So at a point where people are less interested in seeing me onscreen, I’ll be behind the scenes still trying to get stuff made.
Tavis: Speaking of loving to tell stories, what do you hope, think, believe the story lines are that folk will be talking about once they see “A United Kingdom”?
Oyelowo: I really hope that people come away recognizing and relating to the power of love. You know, that can sound a little corny, but it is a force that is undeniable. And with these two people, it cut through prejudice, it cut through nations, it cut through tribes, it cut through their own families and their resistance to them, and it made Botswana a better nation.
I’ve been there and they don’t recognize race in the same way that just over the border in South Africa, as we know, it’s so much about race. That just goes to show the power of love, the power of changing the perception around who should be together and who shouldn’t.
Tavis: The son of this relationship is the current president of Botswana.
Oyelowo: He is, yes.
Tavis: Has he seen the film?
Oyelowo: He has.
Tavis: And what did you hear?
Oyelowo: Well, you know, I had an incredible experience. Thankfully, it’s all good.
Tavis: Yeah, okay.
Oyelowo: But we were shooting the film and we were in the middle of it doing a scene. I was behind the monitor and Rosamund was shooting a scene with Terry Pheto who plays Naledi, so it’s his sister in the film. And we hear this thud-thud-thud, and it’s a helicopter landing on our set. I was like, “What’s going on?”
Before we know it, the president steps out of his helicopter, comes and sits down next to me behind the monitor, and he has a certain bearing. He’s the president, after all [laugh]. He watches Rosamund do this scene and I just watch him melt. And suddenly Rosamund comes behind the monitor.
We both stand there and greet him and he just says, “I never thought I’d see my parents again.” He just literally before our eyes became like this eight-year-old boy. Thankfully, he loves the film and loves that he gets to see his parents again, but also the love that they shared very truthfully depicted.
You know, people who know them. Susan Williams, who wrote the book, did fastidious work in terms of the research, so what you see in the film is very close to what happened.
Tavis: This is why I love Hollywood at its best. At its best, I love this business and I love the work of David Oyelowo. He’s a powerful actor, now a big-time producer as well. David, congratulations on the film. I think it’s going to do remarkably well. I know people will be talking about it once they see it, and you’re right. It is about the power of love and I’m honored to have had you on the program.
Oyelowo: Thank you. Real pleasure.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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