Few figures of the twentieth century loom as large as that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And so thirty-eight-year-old English actor David Oyelowo accepted the biggest challenge of his career when he signed on to play the pioneering civil rights leader in director Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed Selma; centered on Dr. King’s historic march from the eponymous Alabama city to the state’s capitol in Montgomery — a march that led to the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Though Oyelowo’s work was sadly overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (in a year in which, inexplicably, no other persons of color were nominated in the acting categories), Selma itself was nominated for Best Picture, and Best Song (for Common and John Legend’s “Glory”), and many free screenings of the film have been held throughout the country for school children via a grassroots campaign.
I chatted with Oyelowo — who also lent his talents to last year’s Interstellar and A Most Violent Year, as well as TV’s Star Wars Rebels (as Agent Kallus) — on the red carpet of this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival (where he received the Virtuoso Award), and he discussed Selma along with his latest role, in director Elliott Lester’s indie character study Nightingale — in which he plays Peter Snowden, “a man obsessively in love with an old army friend.”
NERDIST: In exploring his life, what surprised you the most about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?
DAVID OYELOWO: The fact that he was really riddled with guilt at the fact that people died during this campaign in particular. People were hurt physically and emotionally. And even though he felt it was necessitous to do these campaigns which were clearly dangerous, it was still something that wore heavy upon him; and it’s something I felt in the shooting of the film actually.
N: Has this awards season felt especially refreshing after performing a role with so much weight attached to it?
DO: All this stuff is fun regardless, whether it’s for a film like Selma or a film that’s of less import, if you like. Films are really tough to get made, and so when they do and people like them and there’s a reason to celebrate them you really grab it. Because you could go through your career and do a bunch of movies that no one ever sees. So it’s always fun to celebrate them.
N: Of your upcoming projects, which are you most excited about?
DO: Literally here [at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival], we just showed a film that I did called Nightingale. Brad Pitt’s company [Plan B] has come on board to kind of get it out into the world. So that’s one I’m really excited about. I’m the only actor in the film, so it’s an unusual film from that point of view. But yeah, I’m really excited about that.
N: Thank you so much.
DO: Thank you.
Selma‘s legacy continues at this year’s Academy Awards, broadcast live on ABC tonight at 7 EST/4 PST. Before watching, don’t forget to check out our own list of winners — of the 5th Annual Nerdist Movie Awards!