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David Oyelowo Breaks New Personal Ground In HBO’s Psychological Mind Trip “Nightingale”

The Selma actor talks about his creative approach to the demanding one-character film and how he’s combating Hollywood’s race issue.

“That’s when I snapped. I’m not ashamed, though–not even sorry. You see, I see now that my whole life has pointed to this moment and I’m so grateful for that. A moment of clarity is the rarest gift we’re given on this planet. I just wish there hadn’t been so much blood.”

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And so begins one man’s aching slip toward a complete breakdown.

Nightingale, directed by Elliot Lester and written by Frederick Mensch, premiered this weekend on HBO. The film follows Peter Snowden (David Oyelowo), a young Army vet who commits an unspeakable act that sets off an explosive descent into his own irreparably fractured mind. Nightingale’s force rests solely with Oyelowo–it’s a one-character, one-location film. His performance is nothing short of stunning.

David Oyelowo

Oyelowo (Selma, Lincoln) is tasked with giving a truthful portrayal of a man who essentially is battling a multiple-personality disorder, and he does so by weaving together broken shards of various personalities with thread so subtle that Snowden appears somewhat whole and rational. You find yourself justifying an egregious crime and stumbling cover-ups right along with Snowden. It’s a demanding part that requires the textured skill of a seasoned actor like Oyelowo. However, there was a chance he would have been refused the part. Not because of acting abilities, but because he’s black.

Hollywood’s history with representing minorities is a dismal one that most recently came to a head during the great #OscarsSoWhite fiasco of the 87th Academy Awards, when critically acclaimed black actors like Oyelowo, who played Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, and Selma director Ava DuVernay, were snubbed. The question of being pigeonholed in race-specific roles is something Oyelowo thinks about but isn’t focused on. What he’s looking for is a challenge–a role that will make him “break into a cold sweat,” that will push him to try new techniques like method acting, that will present to an audience a three-dimensional person, flaws and all, regardless of skin color. And he found all of the above and much more in Nightingale.

Oyelowo spoke with Fast Company about digging for truth and connecting with a heinous character like Snowden, why he left his family for the part, what a film exec said that could’ve scuttled his chance to star in Nightingale, and how he’s pushing for diversity in film as both an actor and producer.

What made you want to sign on for a movie like Nightingale?

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I was absolutely blown away by what I was reading. It felt so fresh, so original, so unique, so brave. And that is, by no means, the norm as an actor reading scripts that are flowing through Hollywood. Not only that, but the character. No matter who you are, no matter what stage you are at in your career, you almost never find a character that, literally, makes you break out into a cold sweat at the prospect of daring to go near it. That’s what I felt when I read it, and being an actor who truly believes that terrifying situations are the ones you want to put yourself in in order to grow. It was a project that I couldn’t but try and get involved with.

What about playing Peter Snowden made you break into a cold sweat?

Firstly, it’s how exposing it is to be the only person on the screen for that period of time. As an actor, generally, you are surrounded by other actors. You have multiple locations. You probably have a car chase–you have all these other elements that, if for whatever reason your performance isn’t quite working, they can cut to something or someone else or edit around what isn’t working about your performance. To a certain degree, no matter how good you are, there are other elements that come along and make a performance better. But with this, it’s very apparent that no matter what happens, the film lives or dies by virtue of what you do with that character. That’s a very rare situation for an actor and certainly when it comes to film. You know going into this that it’s going to be exposing, but that’s something that even though it gave me pause, I truly believe that if you’re going to fail, fail forward. That was the impetus for me jumping in, regardless.

How was preparing for a one-character film different than preparing to work with castmates?

Initially, it was basically, who is this guy and why does he do what he does? The film starts with him doing something unthinkable and then he goes on to display behavior that absolutely points to someone who is mentally unstable. And I didn’t want to just play someone who is generally a bit of a weird guy, so I spent some time with a psychiatrist to try and unpick and delve into why Peter Snowden is the way he is.

He read the script and thought this is evocative of dissociative identity disorder, whereby someone who experienced trauma has splintered themselves off into various incarnations in order to be able to deal with any given situation. Once I lighted upon that, it became evident to me that this guy was becoming whoever he needed to be to survive specific situations: going to work, which was a traumatic thing for him because he’s essentially agoraphobic. His obsession with this particular guy who he wants over for dinner brought out a certain version of himself that had to absolutely justify the horrible thing he has had done in order to get to this goal. The version of him that was able to lie to his sister. There were all these different parts of him that came into effect at any given moment, often that were in contrast to other sides of him. My preparation was very much finding out what those specific sides of him were and making sure that this mental state he was in felt specific and not generalized.

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This movie clearly presented you with a unique challenge. What was the most difficult part of pulling it off?

The most difficult thing was trying to make sure I wasn’t doing what we’ve seen in films before where you have very stark, different sides of that person’s personality. One of the things the psychiatrist told me is that he will be in a session with someone who suffers from this disorder and they will be 10 minutes in to saying something before he realizes, ‘Oh my goodness, they’ve just switched to a different personality and I didn’t even realize it.’ And that’s why people can have this syndrome in life, be walking around and we know something’s a bit off but they’re not getting the right care of health because it’s subtle. That was something I really wanted to be a part of this.

In many ways it’s easier to go into a different voice or different physicality and a different temperament; that can feel like an indulgent exercise. What I wanted to do was challenge the audience to be drawn into this man’s mind, and it’s only with time that you’re realizing this man is so far gone. And not only are you realizing it, he’s realizing it because it’s starting to erode in him to the point where by the end he’s having to confront the truth of who he is and what he’s done. I think that’s far more compelling than just showing the audience that you can play lots of characters within the same guy.

It’s such a stripped-down movie. One character, one location. How did you inject life into this skeletal set-up?

You’ve just got to tell the truth. I made a choice that I haven’t done before as an actor which is to stay in character the whole time. And the reason I did that is because, again, I felt like it would be too easy to judge this character, even as the person playing him. But if you inhabit him all the time and you are somehow, through living with him for so long, able to justify his choices moment to moment, I think that’s what engenders empathy. That’s why you watch it and go, ‘I understand why he made that choice.’ I don’t feel like I’m anything like Peter Snowden but in that moment, I can understand why he’s saying what he’s saying. Or I at least feel sympathy for the state he’s found himself in.

One of the toughest things, especially when you’re playing someone who’s done something reprehensible, is to not judge them. No one who has done these things is judging themselves. Even if they feel bad about it, they’re trying to survive their way through it. That tension is also what’s hopefully compelling for the audience. One of the things I’ve always felt is if you were to happen to turn on this movie at any given moment, you would believe what that man is saying. And if I achieve that, then I think we’re close to telling the truth. Depending on who you are and how you interact with him, he’s in your face trying to tell you his truth. But cumulatively, you recognize something is off with this guy.

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Wait, so you stayed in character the whole time? What was that like?

The shoot was three weeks. So I basically moved out of my home. I have a lovely wife and four kids and I felt Peter Snowden isn’t someone I wanted to subject them to. So I moved into a friend’s apartment who wasn’t staying there at the time. And I also wanted to experience the isolation that Peter feels because my life is very much the opposite. I wanted that to be a part of the truth I was telling as well.

You’ve done very race-specific roles such as those in Selma and Lincoln. How much does race play into what films you choose to be a part of?

You have to think about that as an actor, generally. There are some people who are perfectly content being, I guess, what you would call a movie star, where they’re basically playing the same character but in different movies. That’s absolutely the opposite of what I personally want to do. I think most actors are looking for the opportunity to tell several different stories, inhabiting several different roles.

For me, there’s something singular, compelling, and deeply interesting about playing Dr. Martin Luther King. That story is rooted in race, but it’s also rooted in his humanity. I wouldn’t personally want to play the version of Dr. King that is just a living, walking representation of his color. What I felt Selma did was humanize a person who a lot of people may just relegate to the color of his skin, but that’s not the entirety of who he was.

So any character I play, whether it’s a race-specific role or nonrace-specific role, as long as they are a three-dimensional human being, whereby just one element of who they are is not the be-all and end-all of why they’re in the movie, then I’m interested in playing it. I have no aversion to playing specifically black characters. And, of course, there’s a lot of merit to playing roles that are specifically black because, to be perfectly frank, more often than not, the best and biggest roles are going to white male actors because predominantly we have white male directors, producers, and people who have green-light ability. I equate that to women as well. Female directors and actresses are not as far reaching in terms of the level of interest for the audience, which is an abject and complete lie.

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How have you personally seen black actors being passed over for roles?

I remember at Cannes when Nightingale director] Elliot Lester was trying to get this film off the ground and a producer or maybe the distributor said to him, “I hear you’re thinking of casting David Oyelowo in this role. I think it would limit the chances of this film finding an audience.” Thankfully, Elliott didn’t listen to that advice. But there are a lot of people out there who have the ability to green-light movies and stopping films like Nightingale and Selma from being made because of their own very tiny world view as to what is important and who should be leading movies. It’s a lie and I want to be part of proving that lie to be so.

So what does success as an actor look like for you?

Success to me as an actor is to keep on pushing the envelope for myself, which, hopefully, also means the audience. My ultimate goal is to very much put a dent in what we just discussed, which is the representation, especially of black people, in film. I feel like it’s been such a narrow view we have had of the black experience. It’s so often rooted in films with a racial element or comedies that are very much made purely for a black audience. That doesn’t represent the world I live in. There are so many incredible stories that could and should have black people and women at the heart of them. What I want to do as a producer is help make those projects come to fruition.

Nightingale premiered this weekend on HBO and is now available on HBO Go and HBO Now.

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.

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