David Oyelowo on the Role That Made Him a Method Actor

29 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Nightingale’ tested David Oyelowo’s commitment as an actor.

There was a time when David Oyelowo saw method acting as a bit on the pretentious side. Inevitability has a crucial role in lots of good dramatic works, and every good use of it gives lie to the idea that it’s definitionally incompetent to create anything “predictable.” From the opening minutes of , a new film airing on HBO Friday night starring David Oyelowo (Selma), there is only thick dread about what is going to happen to Peter Snowden, the only character on screen for the nearly 90-minute running time.“Titanic” may be one of the most technically ambitious and expensive movies ever made, but “Nightingale,” a film that will be shown Friday on HBO, seems even harder to pull off because it is so astoundingly simple. But still, it maintains a certain dramatic momentum, powered by Oyelowo’s performance, Frederick Mensch’s script, and Elliott Lester’s claustrophobic, off-kilter direction. Premiering at the Los Angeles Film Festival, this intentionally claustrophobic look at one man’s surrender to insanity made its way to Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, and thence to HBO.

As he addresses unseen followers of his video log, he focuses more and more on his obsession with an old Army buddy and begins to ponder committing an unthinkable act. But when he landed the role of Peter Snowden in Nightingale, an unnerving one-man drama which premieres May 29 at 9 p.m. on HBO, he realized he simply hadn’t yet played a character that demanded that kind of immersion. Brad Pitt is among the executive producers of this 90-minute film, as is Oyelowo himself. (HBO Canada) The new episode T-38 Talon illustrates why the T-38 jet trainer is the ultimate test for any pilot wanting to join the world’s elite club of fighter jet pilots. He’s in distress for reasons that will quickly become clear, speaking into a camera for an imagined online audience it’s easy to imagine may not actually be waiting to see him. The program takes viewers behind the scenes with three NATO airmen who are trying to become part of that prestigious membership by pushing the T-38 to the aircraft’s formidable limits. (Discovery) How would supposedly casual observers react to a questionable situation or apparent crisis as it developed before their eyes?

With standout roles in films including “Lincoln” and “Lee Daniels’ ‘The Butler,'” Oyelowo has established an impressive acting career that reached a milestone with “Selma” and his acclaimed portrayal of King as the humble but determined leader who became a national figure in the quest for racial equality. While the whole film could easily turn into a pedestrian affair involving a man monologuing into the lens for an hour and a half, the script is more inventive in figuring out ways to move the story forward and explain the path that brought Peter to this point without bringing anyone else into the frame: he talks to himself, talks on the phone, dictates letters in his head.

The show tends to get plentiful coverage on other programs produced by ABC News, especially in the cases of segments with themes that play off of current headline-related concerns. (ABC) George Clooney and company put a modern sheen on the original Rat Pack gathering in director Steven Soderbergh’s (Traffic), flashy 2001 update. Clooney plays Danny Ocean, a just-paroled thief who wastes no time organizing a Las Vegas heist — which happens to target his ex-wife’s (Julia Roberts), casino-owning beau (Andy Garcia). When she opposes his insistence to invite a beloved war colleague over for dinner, he snaps and commits a horrific act that has already taken place when the film opens. The Gettysburg speech resonated even more with the British-born Oyelowo, who plays a soldier who recites part of the address to President Lincoln in 2012’s Lincoln.

Nightingale is a major departure from the role that garnered Oyelowo accolades earlier this year, when he played Martin Luther King, Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. Though a bit similar in theme and construct, “Nightingale” is no “‘night, Mother.” We meet Peter as he speaks to his laptop, making a video in which he explains why he has just killed his mother.

Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac and Carl Reiner play other members of the robbery team. (Slice) Though his intentions always are good, Jamie (Will Estes), sometimes experiences unfortunate fallout, as is the case in a repeat episode from last fall, Loose Lips. Though things at first glance seem normal, it becomes evident from his behavior — talking to himself and to an unknown audience via computer, that something is terribly wrong. He also appeared in 2013’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which looks at White House occupants through much of the 20th Century. “You have a black man as the leader of this nation.

On “Selma,” the British-born actor had the luxury of working with a sizable budget, a veteran ensemble and thousands of extras. “Nightingale” was much more stressful. Peter here is the same way: even as he seems first troubled and then something more profound than troubled, Peter retains an individual personality, both defiant and eager, and sometimes even funny. Oyelowo moved away from his house, isolated himself from family and friends, changed his diet, lived in effect as a hermit and basically stayed in character as Snowden for the duration of the shoot. “Essentially I’m always looking for ways to scare and challenge myself,” Oyelowo says during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “I look for things that take me outside my comfort zone, and all of that would be taking place in this piece.” His commitment to exploring Snowden’s troubled psyche was so enveloping that even director Elliott Lester says he barely saw the real Oyelowo during the filming at a rented home in Tarzana. “I don’t know David Oyelowo, the actor, on a movie set, but I do know Peter Snowden,” Lester says. “We did one read-through at the house, and I said goodbye to David.

David Oyelowo: It was complete surprise that someone had been as brave and inventive as the script demonstrated. [It’s] one guy in a house, who starts out by doing something unthinkable, and we are asking the audience to stay with him for nearly 90 minutes. The next day he came on the set wearing a boxing robe with his head covered, and there was Peter Snowden.” Oyelowo admits that the process was a bit of an ordeal: “I didn’t come out of character — I effectively didn’t shake him. Frederick Mensch, the screenwriter, was breaking a lot of rules, but in a way that still felt compelling, showing a character the likes of which I personally hadn’t read and even seen. He talks — into the camera on his computer, on the telephone and even across an empty room — but it’s not clear who is listening, if anyone. “Nightingale” unfolds without divulging the line between reality and delusion, turning Peter’s monologues into a scavenger hunt dotted with clues to his true story.

A one-man movie is an extremely difficult conceit to sustain. “Nightingale” is obviously bravura television, a showcase geared more toward critical acclaim and acting awards than ratings. Scenes, whether in films or on television or in plays — and there is something theatrical in the feel of Nightingale — often involve multiple people not for authenticity, but in order to provide characters with friction and reaction so that they can be fleshed out. I had done films like The Last King of Scotland and Lincoln, in which both Forest Whitaker and Daniel Day Lewis, respectively, had employed that technique, and I think everyone will agree the results are undeniable. As Peter attempts to begin his new and “liberated” life, which includes a more open relationship with his friend from the Army, the first thing he begins to do is redecorate, beginning with an iPhone. In The Butler, we look at 80 years of American history, from the early 1900s to President Obama’s ascendancy,” he says. “Literally, my filmography has that 150-year chapter from the Civil War to today embedded within it.” Still, a potential future leader’s thoughts also resonate with the actor, who plays an American war veteran whose life is crumbling in the one-character Nightingale. “I was sent a beautiful (video) clip from a 10-year-old girl talking about the effect Selma had on her and the fact she didn’t know about these events,” he says. “It’s made her not only want to know more about them but to make the world a better place.

There’s an honesty in the home environment, too: the production design and art direction are working in effective tandem with the direction and cinematography to create the sense of an ordinary working-class home on a couple of ordinary days — a sense of place that often proves strangely elusive on film. Inspired, in fact, by a 2003 matricide in his native Palatine, Ill., screenwriter Frederick Mensch leverages in fiction the inevitable question: What could lead to such a crime? Roman Polanski’s 1965 classic, “Repulsion,” focuses on the distorted fantasies of a sexually repressed young woman played by Catherine Deneuve, but there are other characters in the film, notably the intrusive men who set off her homicidal fugues.

Convenient tropes — Peter was in the Army, though it is unclear whether he saw any action; Peter’s mother was controlling and possibly homophobic, though it is unclear whether his friend was ever, indeed, his lover — are crisscrossed in the rather cynical assumption that these things somehow prime a person for murder. Tom Hanks goes a little bonkers while alone on a deserted island in “Cast Away,” but the film brackets his seclusion with scenes from before and after. But the careful layering of the experiences and emotions that influence Peter’s choices, along with expert massaging of the tension that exists from the start, make Nightingale a sad but satisfying film.

In “Buried,” Ryan Reynolds is a hostage held in an underground coffin in Iraq, but the audience is privy to both ends of his cellphone conversations with his captors, his family and State Department officials. “The Man Who Sleeps,” a 1974 French film that had only one character, a young man trapped in a trance of alienation, ruffles the monotony with Paris street scenes, customers in cafes and an unseen female narrator who addresses the hero in the second person. “All Is Lost,” which starred Robert Redford as a man sailing solo across the Indian Ocean, comes the closest to “Nightingale,” but that 2013 movie at least had the drama of a sinking ship in a storm. In employing it both in Nightingale and then eventually with Selma, which we ended up shooting after Nightingale—and I don’t think I would have employed it [in Selma] if I hadn’t experienced its benefits doing Nightingale—the idea is to put yourself to the side enough whereby you are in the habitual mental, emotional and spiritual state of the character, so that when the cameras roll you are closer to the truth.

That’s the main reason I couldn’t shake it as an opportunity.” When Oyelowo came to audition, Lester and the actor had a clear connection. “David was very honest and sincere. When his friend does not return his phone calls, Peter blames the man’s wife, harassing her with such ferocity that it seems impossible that she never calls the police. There is a far glimpse of a neighbor through a window, and at one point a man hollers at Peter through the door, but that’s about it, and even those signs of an outside world could be illusory.

With his sub-managerial job at a local store, his sexual issues and his internal war between feelings of inadequacy and self-aggrandizement, Peter is pitched as an Everyman in extremis. As long as he was taking the risks, as long as he was pushing the edges, I could give him the freedom to shine.” Oyelowo is very proud of “Nightingale,” though it’s also a bit difficult for him to watch: “I don’t recognize anything of myself in it.

He expresses yearnings and fantasies that are so real to him and so ardently described that it’s hard not to wish at least some of it true. “Nightingale,” a deep dive into delusion, is itself a dream-come-true. Plan B, the production company headed by Brad Pitt, became involved with the project after Pitt watched it at Oyelowo’s urging, and signed on as a producer. (Plan B was also a producer of “Selma.”) Friday’s HBO debut will give audiences their first chance to see the actor since he was bypassed earlier for a lead actor Oscar nomination for “Selma.” Oyelowo at the time was vocal about what he felt was a lack of awards recognition for the film, issuing some sharp criticisms of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that questioned its attitudes about movies dealing with race.

The likelihood of a first-time screenwriter making it to HBO are slim, and “Nightingale” is the first screenplay from the Black List website to be produced by any film company. You can’t afford for there to be gaps in your pool of knowledge when it comes to a character, otherwise what ends up onscreen is generalized and unspecific. Whether the audience knows where he went to high school or not, it’s something you have to have a notion of because it all works itself into the truthfulness of a portrayal.

Once I locked in on that, I was able to pinpoint that there were about seven different versions of Peter, and that enabled me to be more specific in a given situation.

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