David Oyelowo’s Advice to Aspiring Actors: ‘Start on the Stage”

May 8, 2018

Gringo actor David Oyelowo recently opened himself up to online fans posting to Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” forum. In doing so, he shared a number of interesting tales about his journey as an actor which lead to his prominent roles in films like Selma, A United Kingdom, and The Butler.

Taking him up on his offer, the Internet audience asked the British-Nigerian star about his experience playing the title role in New York Theater Workshop’s production of Othello alongside Daniel Craig not so long ago.

Oyelowo responded, “I hadn’t done a play for ten years and I was desperate to go back to the stage because I do truly believe that is where you learn the most about acting, and no playwright demands more of you as an actor than Shakespeare. So that experience for me was an amazing one, especially since we did it in a small off-Broadway theater where it was a very intense audience.”

Born in England to Nigerian parents, Oyelowo attended boarding school in Nigeria during his youth and returned to London as a teen. One of his teachers noticed how much he shined on stage and encouraged him to pursue acting. Oyelowo went on to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art for three years. Not long afterward, he started his stage career with the Royal Shakespeare Company where he received critical acclaim for his performance as King Henry VI.

“For me, there is no greater training for an actor than classical theater because it is the hardest language to master and it is the most challenging material to act out. The feeling you get from doing Shakespeare of a Greek tragedy is one of invincibility. So my advice to any aspiring actor is to start on the stage.”

Oyelowo described a time when he auditioned for a 1997 Spielberg movie but got turned down for the role. “I auditioned for ‘Amistad’ when I was still at drama school. But Steven Spielberg wrote me a very nice letter that he liked my acting that was incredibly encouraging.”

In 2012, Oyelowo played a supporting role in the independent feature Middle of Nowhere which went on to be a Sundance award-winning film. And his career momentum continued fast from there with roles in Lincoln and The Butler. In 2014, he formed his own independent production company, Yoruba Saxon Productions, which co-produced films that he could star in including what would go on to be his award-winning performance as Peter Snowden in HBO’s Nightingale.

But it was Oyelowo’s portrayal as civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma for which he is most known, receiving a Golden Globe nomination for best actor. When asked how he prepared for the iconic role, Oyelowo said, “I did a lot of reading. A lot of watching. Documentaries, films, anything I could get my hands on. But the most helpful thing was talking to people who had actually met him, worked with him, who he was friends with. They were the greatest source of being able to play him as a human being rather than just a civil rights leader.”

When asked what exactly he looks for when reading scripts, Oyelowo answered, “The way I know that I’m reading a character that I would want to play is that I start picturing myself on the set portraying that character.”

Oyelowo has an eloquent manner and indeed is omoba, or prince, of the kingdom of Awe, Nigeria. But acting has a way of putting people in some humorous situations. Oyelowo recalled a funny story of being on set for Rise of the Planet of the Apes:

“I enjoyed watching my screen death, but I was confused by acting my screen death because when we shot it, they put me in a half of a helicopter and kept a camera on a crane that would very speedily retract from me while I was falling, which sounds a lot simpler than it actually is. Never have I felt more stupid than screaming my head off in a stationary helicopter. But bizarrely, it’s one of my son’s favorite scenes that I’ve ever done which is very upsetting considering I die.”