David Oyelowo first made a name for himself on the small screen, playing one of the main characters in British series Spooks. But since finishing the series he’s gained global recognition for supporting roles in films such as Lincoln and The Butler and lead roles in Selma (a Martin Luther King biopic) and this year’s thriller Captive. He’s acted on the stage, most notably during his season with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and also has experience in directing and producing. Amongst other accolades David now has an Emmy nomination, two Golden Globe nominations and a Critics Choice Television Award under his belt, and he made a splash at the 2015 Oscars by wearing a bold red designer suit that saw him voted number one on Esquire’s ‘Best Dressed Men at the Oscars’ list. But is that what’s really making him stand out in Hollywood? LICC went to find out…
You’ve taken on a wide variety of roles so far in your career – what’s important to you when choosing projects to be involved in?
Well I really resonate with the parable of the talents – I think that God has given me a gift (acting and producing) and he wants to me to bring it back with a return, not bury it. So it’s always a question of where can I go, who can I build relationships with, what projects can I take on that will allow me to make the most of those gifts and be who God wants me to be? And I think the boundaries are fairly open on what that can look like – so it’s not prescriptive, like there’s a set of holy activities or a particular type of film that God wants me to work on. I think I could work on pretty much any film or show and work on it in a way that glorifies God. That said, I do turn down some movies because sometimes they glamorise violence or the darker side of sex or criminality, and I’m just not keen on that. I mean, I don’t shy away from the darkness and anyone who has read the Bible knows that God does not shy away from the darkness either. The Bible, in some ways, is an 18-rated book when you look at the content of it. But the Bible is undeniably a book of light – it doesn’t hold up darkness as the path to follow but it shows darkness and shows how light overwhelms it. And so that’s the balance I look for in projects I think.
So do you prefer to get involved with movies that are explicitly Christian?
For me it’s more that the goal is to be wise about what has the most potential for pointing people towards God not away from God, but that doesn’t always happen in the most conventional or obvious ways. Sometimes a really unexpected film can open up huge questions about life and faith for people. And often an explicitly ‘religious’ film does the opposite and really shuts people down, as they feel preached at. Also, honestly, the standard is often a bit rubbish – sorry to say it, but it’s true! The acting usually isn’t great, the storylines feel kind of forced and weak, the production values aren’t particularly high. Ultimately, to me, if you make a film where the primary objective is to have a message, and its main purpose is about proselytising or preaching to the audience, then it’s fundamentally bad story-telling. The best story-telling is when your mind is opened and your thoughts are provoked, when you’re shown a world that is unfamiliar and intriguing or something new about yourself is revealed to you. But the whole ‘faith-based movies’ movement in the US [where Oyelowo currently lives] is so fascinating, as it’s almost become something of a badge of honour to watch these films and to showcase your faith in this way, and any bad press is seen as persecution or the evils of the world trying to oppress religion. But honestly I think it’s just people reacting normally to bad films! I mean not all of them, but lots of them. But personally as a Christian I’m not interested in preaching to the choir. I just want to tell good stories and if they have a faith element as an intrinsic, organic part of the story or characters then that’s brilliant.
Is that what’s going on in your latest film, Captive?
Absolutely. At least I hope so. I mean the story is based on real life and focuses on two people: Ashley Smith, a waitress and single mother struggling with drug addiction, and escaped murderer Brian Nichols, who held Ashley hostage in her own apartment after breaking out of jail. The movie covers the time they spend together and the crazy thing is that Ashley chose to talk to this killer about her journey out of addiction – inspired by Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life. It’s slightly surreal really. But it’s completely true. And I think it works because the film isn’t all about that in a preachy way, it just shows all the events that unfold. So there’s violence and murder, there’s the reality of her addiction and his drug-taking, it genuinely has that ‘thriller’ element. But really the story is about two broken people forming an unlikely connection and themes of grace and redemption are lingering around the edges of that, but it’s not like he miraculously converts at the end. It’s just a very authentic telling of a story. For me it’s just not about making ‘a faith-based film’ – it’s about making a good film!
That’s quite a radical attitude for a Christian in the film industry, especially in the US – what has the Christian response to Captive been like so far?
Well, lots of the really conservative American press have been negative… ok maybe not completely negative, but at least a bit confused by the film. They’re like ‘But what happened? Does he find Jesus? What’s he doing now?’ They want things more cut-and dried, they need resolution so it’s a clear package with a message. But life is incomplete and we don’t always know the answers. Brian Nichols is still in prison, serving multiple life sentences for what he did, and I honestly don’t know what’s going on in his mind and heart. But God does. And our focus has been on telling the real story, not the neat packaged one we might like to tell. And that’s what people – those not part of that faith community – have been responding to. You know it’s funny, we’re so keen to make everything about faith, explicitly, but God’s already on it – I mean the whole of the human experience is tied to God since humanity itself is made in his image. Everything good is a reflection of God and everything bad is a twisting of something from God – there’s nothing we can do, say, or create that doesn’t have some tie to God, so that’s a pretty amazing place to start from.
What does that mean for evangelism? Are we relieved of any responsibility to explicitly tell people about faith?
No, it doesn’t excuse us or take away our responsibility – we have to speak up, we have to share faith, the Bible is clear about that. But I think it takes some of the unnecessary pressure off our shoulders, as we rest assured that the outcome sits with God and not us. We’re simply responsible for authentically sharing our faith; God is responsible for what that person then does with that and what happens.
Lots of people (both inside and outside the church) have quite negative reactions when they hear the word ‘evangelism’ – what’s your approach to it?
I can see that, and I think it’s because we’ve got this weird association with evangelism being about someone ‘perfect’ (or pretending to be) telling people what to do and how to live. But actually I think the beautiful thing about sharing faith is when we are on the same level and on the same journey as people, and as equals we can listen to them and in turn speak into their lives. I think it’s in our mutual struggle, in our shared brokenness, that God can be found. We all have brokenness in us, we all have things that we’re captive to, we all need Christ’s redemption. The Bible says, ‘Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.’ Everyone can relate to the desire and need for a second chance, everyone. We’ve all done things that we wish we could have a do-over for and the amazing truth we have to share with people is that there is grace for that. There is hope for that. Hope – it’s one thing to think of the word cerebrally, it’s another thing to have it as a genuine beating heart. Hope is something that drives you through life when life is difficult. We all face tough situations and times we can’t see our way out of. But no one is beyond redemption. Who wouldn’t want to share that news?
Thanks for that great reminder – any other final thoughts or words of encouragement for other #messengersofthegospel?
Just the same thing I always try to pull myself back to, which is love. As a church we can often lace Christianity with our own agendas and use God as a tool to serve our purposes. But it’s got to be about God’s agenda and ultimately I believe that’s love. Not in some soppy-romantic-comedy sort of way – real, fierce, tangible love isn’t soppy and weak it’s actually full of challenge and strength and vitality because real love always wants the best for the other even when they can’t see what that is. So I guess I’d say we need to always be making sure that our agenda lines up with God’s, not the other way around. Which means that love, loving God and loving our neighbour, has to be our focus.